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
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.