Natalia Murray on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Quest for the New Art

Street festival May 1926, Leningrad

At the end of January, Natalia Murray spoke about ‘The Proletarian Art Enigma’ as part of the Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar. She began with the social and historical background of the Russian Revolution of 1917—aimed at establishing a homogenous socialist state and culture to serve purely political needs—and ended with the year 1921. In her lecture, Murray sought to question whether proletarian art was a reality or a contradiction during this interlude.

The French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries set an important precedent for the Bolsheviks. Influenced by the writing of Gustav le Bon, renowned French social psychologist, the Bolsheviks understood the power of the image for manipulating the masses. In his work on the psychology of the crowd, Le Bon believed that sentiment, not rational nature, is key. It follows that images, not words, are more powerful in controlling and manipulating crowds. Note that le Bon has been quoted by Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin and Hitler.

Russian Futurists and Leftist artists were quick to support the Bolshevik Revolution and moved to the forefront of new proletarian art . Murray took us through images of the first expressions of this art: from the Futurists’ sculpture of a fumbling eagle located at Peterhof Station nearby the Summer Palace of the Tsar, which symbolised the collapse of autocracy, to agitational propaganda on trains and trams with slogans in German due to the influence of Karl Marx to street decorations reminiscent of parade floats from the French Revolution to items of porcelain and posters by Natan Altman and Vladimir Lebedev.

Possibly the most well-known surviving artistic work from the period is the dramatically staged “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Recall the heroic toppling of the statues and masses with torched flames clambering over the palace gates. He based his film on the 1920s public re-enactment of the supposed legendary event of the 1917 Revolution. It epitomised Bolshevik mythology and points towards social manipulation, as in fact the Red Guards entered the government buildings to take control without a shot being fired.

Did proletarian art achieve its individuality; did it create a seismic effect on socialist society? Art as propaganda certainly continued beyond 1921 and was successful for agitational purposes. However the Futurist artists were removed as they ultimately failed to engage the workers who preferred more realistic decorations in a conventional style.

Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.

Tim Barringer, ‘Aspiring to the Condition of Music’

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), 1879, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 139.7cm. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

In 1879, infuriated at having been denied full payment for The Peacock Room, the daring interior design scheme he had created for the London townhouse of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, James McNeill Whistler satirised his miserly patron in a remarkable portrait. The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre transforms Leyland, shown wearing one of his beloved frilly shirts (hence ‘frilthy lucre’), into a deranged peacock playing a piano loaded up with money bags. While the piano is included here for satirical effect, mockingLeyland’s pretensions to the role of talented amateur musician, it also points to an important if largely overlooked connection between music and art in late Victorian culture. In a lecture this past October, Tim Barringer drew our attention to this neglected subject, using a series of visual and musical case studies (the latter relayed at impressive volume via the robust speakers in the seminar room) to give a more complete picture of the sensory worlds within which artists and collectors moved.

By the time of the Whistler-Leyland spat, the music room equipped with a grand piano had become a key space within the home of the connoisseur, where music and painting were enjoyed together as a single aesthetic experience. For artists sympathetic to the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, moreover, music could serve as the model for a radical kind of painting in which formal concerns take precedence over social or political ‘content’ (something which throws light on Whistler’s use of musical terms in his titles, such as nocturne, harmony and symphony). Yet, as Barringer went on to argue, works by late Victorian artists often acknowledge the alarmingly powerful effect of music on the emotions. In The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt, a piano is employed as a weapon of seduction by the male philanderer, who fingers the keys in order to spice up the atmosphere in the claustrophobic room where he is entertaining a female companion, probably his mistress. The young woman, though, wears a rapt, distant expression which suggests that her ear has been caught by sounds of a higher order – reformed preaching, perhaps, or the stirring harmonies of an edifying hymn.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9cm. Tate Britain, London.

In discussing the aural dimensions of The Awakening Conscience, Barringer made the interesting remark that certain groups, including women, were believed to be particularly susceptible to the impact of music. One question left unanswered by the talk was whether contemporary scientific accounts of how sound operates on the mind provide additional perspectives on the visual material considered here. Possibly this is an area that will be dealt with in Barringer’s forthcoming book, one that the author admitted he is finding difficult to finish because the research is so fascinating.

Martin Myrone, ‘“Like a great circus tent”: folk art, art history and the museum’

George Smart, The Earth Stopper, early 19th century applied felt on watercolour paper background, 32.5 x 44cm. London art market, 2006.

It can be easy to forget how restricted a view of art production most of us really have. The works sitting pretty in our major museums and galleries are the towering emergent trees in our cultural ecosystem; while often wholly unrepresentative of mainstream forms of creative activity (being, as we say, ‘original’), they nevertheless absorb a disproportionately large share of the available resources: scholarship, exposure in exhibitions and publications, and money. At the other end of the scale – in the murky zone below the forest canopy – are the various popular practices known as ‘folk art’. This term encircles a formidably diverse range of phenomena. It can refer to artefacts which are recognisable as works of art, such as the small felt collage pictures made by George Smart, the tailor from Frant, as a sideline to his business. But it also encompasses context-specific performances (morris-dancing, story-telling) and activities so ephemeral or routine – traditional jam making, for example – that to refer to them as art at all requires a stretch of the imagination for most historians. In his talk on 1st October 2012, curator Martin Myrone explored the museological issues raised by the British folk art tradition, focusing on the question of how this fascinating but deeply problematic body of material might best be offered to the public in an upcoming exhibition at Tate Britain.

Lion figurehead, c.1720, wood and oil paint, 234 x 51 x 58cm. National Maritime Museum.

As the case studies which Myrone presented to us reveal, a key difficulty associated with folk art is its resistance to the various labels (author, date, genre, etc.) which museums rely upon to contextualise and interpret objects for their audiences. One of his most striking examples, the ship’s figureheads preserved in British naval collections, illustrate some of the complexities involved here. These anonymous wooden sculptures cannot really be viewed as instances of a period style because over the centuries they have been repeatedly stripped down and repainted. Nor does their level of craftsmanship allow them to be presented as ‘timeless’ aesthetic objects which can be appreciated by museum visitors without a supporting framework of historical information. Like most folk art, they occupy an uneasy position between high art and the straightforwardly functional.

The ambiguous status of folk art also carries a political charge. As one contributor in the discussion session pointed out, to transplant a work from, say, the Reading Museum of Rural Life into a prominent art museum like the Tate is a significant act of redescription, one which involves certain risks. If the work falls short of the high aesthetic standards with which its new home is associated, it may end up seeming hopelessly clumsy, vulgar or irrelevant; a gesture intended to celebrate folk art may expose it to ridicule. On the other hand, bringing unusual materials into the museum can also help to refresh our ideas of what counts as art.  It will be interesting to see how Myrone and his team choose to manage the challenges of folk art in a few years’ time.