In the long history of modernism, painting and architecture only very rarely came together. But the moment when they most visibly did, a little under a century ago, sparked an explosion of visual language that still looks revolutionary today. That collision occurred in Russia after 1917 and the result was constructivism, the restless, relentless, radical offspring of modernism, agitprop and revolution. Quite how viscerally modern it still seems is clear from a visit to the genteel faux-Renaissance courtyard of London’s Royal Academy, in the middle of which sits a model of Tatlin’s Tower, communism’s mooted, spiralling Tower of Babel, a 400m-high propaganda machine and conference centre that would have towered above Moscow.
The red-painted tower is the perfect trail for an exhibition of utopian visions and painful realities. Like communism itself, the purity of the vision belies today’s physical reality. The paintings and sketches, the black, red and grey geometric forms floating on white fields, are still mesmerising – an abstract, ethereal architectural ideal. One highlight is the beautiful flattened post-cubist space of Solomon Nikritin’s “The Connection of Painting to Architecture” (1919-21), which eloquently justifies the exhibition’s claim that, for a time at least in Soviet Russia, politics, art and architecture fused to create a still unsurpassed moment of architectural invention. But part of the fascination here is the juxtaposition of these pure compositions with contemporary images of the architecture they inspired.
Exquisite, fragile drawings by Vladimir Tatlin, Ivan Kliun, Alexandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and less familiar names sit beside a series of superb photos by Richard Pare that reveal the decaying ruins of the era’s surviving architectural monuments. Factories, bakeries, housing co-operatives and workers’ clubs are documented in merciless detail, the paint on their walls flaking, their plaster spalling, their rendering crumbling, with huge ducts driven through clean lines with DIY bodge-job ingenuity. These are buildings that were envisaged as harbingers of a new world of efficiency, hygiene and technocratic achievement, but were inhabited by generations of workers whose lives never fulfilled that promise and who never had the means to maintain them.
Where the art and the architecture come together most perfectly, though, is in the extraordinary inventiveness of revolutionary agitprop. The designs for the incredible contraptions intended to proselytise the proletarian revolution look as startlingly innovative today as they ever did. The red rims of Gustav Klutsis’s jutting speaker horns, for example, appear on the picture plane like suprematist motifs, sitting atop a simple construction of struts and cables; the same designer’s elaborate, almost Dadaist design for a combination platform, kiosk and speaker system looks like a mechanical version of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, its frames and podium collapsing and folding like a surreal concertina. These designs reveal the insecurity of the revolution – it being seen as critical to spread the message to hesitant workers – and represent the purest expressions of constructivism, uncompromised as they are by construction and use.
Those buildings that were realised were shoddily thrown together by a regime short of money and materials and a depleted workforce exhausted by war and hunger, its skills still those of the 19th century – at best. It was a stage-set modernity. The only building that achieved any semblance of permanence or the crispness of the drawings was the one with which the show closes, Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square by Alexei Shchusev. A late constructivist pyramid, it remains the movement’s darkest, most enigmatic building, bridging the transition from revolutionary utopianism to heavy-handed Stalinist classicism.
This is a superb show, full of unfamiliar things, from Soviet archive photos of constructivist masterpieces (the bureaucracy of full employment visible in their meticulous index card settings) to the wonderful drawings on cheap parcel paper, things that reveal the texture of shortages and the urgency of the artistic moment. There are huge gaps – no Malevich, no Chernikov – but it doesn’t matter, there’s plenty here to stimulate and inspire, even if we know it all ended badly (particularly for the architecture itself which languishes in such a universally sorry state).
The day before I visited the exhibition I’d hung around the curious tent cities by St Paul’s and in Finsbury Square, with their proliferation of handwritten, misspelt cardboard signs and droopy banners. The aesthetics of anti-capitalist demonstration, of outrage agitprop, need to be relearned, it seems. This show is the perfect place to do it.
Until January 22 www.royalacademy.org.uk