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On Propaganda and Bias: An open-letter to the Royal Academy


Mr Christopher LeBrun, President
Mr Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary and Chief Executive
Mr Tim Marlow, Director of Artistic Programmes
Royal Academy of Arts, London

28 March 2017

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to you to express my disappointment at the curatorial handling of the exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 currently on display at the RA.

Whilst I am not an art historian or an expert in Russian art of the period, it is well known (and apparent just looking at the pieces on display at the RA) that the years covered by the exhibition represent a decisive and hugely fruitful moment in the development of Russian and European Modernism in which artists who came from a figurative tradition coexisted with avant-garde currents like the Russian Futurists or, later, the Constructivists, along with visionary figures like Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky and others (whom you reference in the exhibition), besides, of course, developments in photography, theatre, dance, music and cinema.

For this reason, I was incredibly excited to visit the RA exhibition, anticipating a serious, insightful and engaging discussion on these artists and artistic currents, their antecedents, influences, formative years and evolution, their ideas on art and the goals of their practice, how they communicated with and influenced each other, their legacy, and, of course, the influence the October Revolution and the onset of the Soviet period had on the Russian artistic landscape. This is, I believe, in line with the sort of analysis visitors to a major art show naturally expect to find.

I was extremely disappointed to see that the RA exhibition contains very little substantial information about these artist and groups, other than the sketchiest biographical details. Instead, the curatorial commentary consists of a relentless, fiercely partisan, anti-communist and anti-Soviet tirade of an overtly political nature which continues room after room and caption after caption, leaving space for little else.

Whilst this sort of narrative angle and choice of language may be OK for an opinion column in the Daily Mail I believe it is completely out of place in a major art exhibition, which should be, first and foremost, about the art. I believe this to be the case regardless of one’s opinions on communism, the Soviet Union, or any other political topic. Details of the political and societal context are often provided in exhibitions, to the extent that they are important to understand the art (as they obviously are in this case), but the usual (and proper) choice is to keep such information concise, to the point, and non-partisan.

If indeed the choice of the curators is to focus strongly in the interaction between art, politics and ideology, then the least that can be expected is for those aspects to be investigated in a genuinely open minded and curious, nuanced, and enlightened (and thus enlightening) fashion. There are plenty of places and opportunities, I am sure, to publish an anti-communist screed. An exhibition about Russian Art at the Royal Academy should not be one of them.

It shows contempt for the audience and, to the extent that it excludes (as it did in this case) serious, sensitive, and nuanced discussion of the art presented, it shows contempt for the art as well, rather than appreciation. It is disappointing, and, as a precedent, frightening. It represents a lowering of curatorial standards which does not befit a flagship institution like the Royal Academy. It represents a big missed opportunity as well, as it may be many years before such a concentration of artworks from that key period in the history of Russian Modernism is once more on display in the UK.

I might draw a comparison with the exhibition Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution currently on display at London’s Design Museum, which, whilst covering much of the same ground in terms of Soviet ideology and the Soviet project (and whilst not shying away from potentially controversial political issues), treats these topics with balance, literacy, insight, and genuine intellectual curiosity (rather than rushing to deliver any sort of superficial verdict), resulting in a compelling and extremely informative offering.

I was left bewildered and disappointed by my visit to the RA and I can only hope that such curatorial choices are not repeated and that future exhibitions treat art and artists with the respect and seriousness they deserve.

Yours Sincerely,
Josep Renau


8 Comments

  1. Every bit of civil society within establishment reach is being pressed into the propaganda effort designed to soften up the sleepwalking public for a new Cold War with Russia and, almost inevitably, another shooting war with a country that values its sovereignty and independence over becoming yet another colony of the US led, NATO enforced empire.

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  2. Alan says

    One only has to look at the development trusts trustees to understand why.

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  3. Simon Roberts says

    I live in France but was in London last week, unfortunately I didn’t have time to go and won’t be back in time to see it.

    I’m assuming you mean that the descriptions of the work introduce presentism/anachronisms rather than talk about the ideas, concepts and zeitgeist of the time? If so, that does go against the whole idea of art history.

    It still looks like an amazing collection though and I’m gutted I won’t see it.

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  4. Anna Zimmerman says

    Thanks for publishing this – I was intending to visit the show, not sure if I will bother now. Having said that, it is probably better to attend and then follow this fine example in protesting.

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    • Stephen says

      I recommend it … but do your own research. The commentary is not only biased but ignorant – you will look in vain for sensible explanation of any of the exhibits or for any understanding of their artistic, let alone their political context. Many of the comments are startlingly inaccurate and even the translations are unreliable.

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  5. bevin says

    “.. the curatorial commentary consists of a relentless, fiercely partisan, anti-communist and anti-Soviet tirade of an overtly political nature which continues room after room and caption after caption, leaving space for little else…”
    What a comment this is on the nature of the current British intellectual: idiotic, conformist, uncritical and, above all else, paranoid about patronage. The treatment of the Russian Revolution was considerably more balanced in the depths of the real Cold War when Britain was actually engaged in military campaigns against forces sponsored by the USSR.
    But then the British intellectual was typically too proud to beg and contemptuous of trimmers in politics. At least we have the consolation, that those who lower themselves to propaganda for capitalism will never be heard of again and that the catalogues and captions will evaporate into obscurity and infamy the day after the last critical viewer has sneered at their cheap misrepresentation and the exhibition itself has faded unto infamy.
    A pity, really, these people had a rare opportunity to present themselves with dignity and integrity-instead we see, with eyes that futurists schooled, the rot within them, the weevils in their heads.

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  6. summitflyer says

    Thank Josep Renau for pointing out so concisely the place for art displays and the place for displays of politics.
    Somehow , I am not surprised with such behavior from the Royal Academy , given the rhetoric towards Russia in MSM in the UK and the entire Western world . Whoever is responsible for this totally improper presentation should be promptly fired.

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