Archives for posts with tag: women

I managed to avoid most of the history modules during my Russian degree, preferring to read novels and learn about the country through its fiction. I found the Soviet Union aesthetically depressing – drab and dreary run-down buildings, all in grey and red. But the Revolution had always been thrilling to me, the promise of such radical change for the better, the promise of a utopia. I love the art that it produced. I like that when I see an exhibition of Soviet art, there are works by women on the walls, presented as artists in their own right rather than members of an imaginary art movement known as ‘women’s art’, separated from ‘proper art’.

This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution so London has been inundated with Russian exhibitions. I liked the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Now!’ with all its Kandinsky, Goncharova and Malevich, and I loved the Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ for bringing to my attention the Soviet plan to build a building taller than the Empire State, topped with a 100m tall statue of Lenin. I felt something akin to grief when I found out this laughably ridiculous dream never came to fruition.

‘Angels and Airplanes’ by Natalia Goncharova

The British Library’s ‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ has been the most politically interesting of the three. It’s more a museum exhibition than an art show, heavy in historical documentation, including Lenin’s handwritten application for a reading pass at the BL. The variety and quantity of the documents – manifestos, diary entries, propaganda posters, maps, letters, decrees – makes clear the confusion and chaos around the Revolution. My personal myth of the glorious Revolution is shattered and I start to understand quite how frenzied and bloody it was.

The show examines mythologies at length. Stalin made serious errors in his various roles under Lenin’s leadership, but once Stalin’s leadership was underway, all his previous roles were mythologised to show him as a hero. Both the Red and White Armies perpetrated myths that they alone were defenders of the people while their opponents were bloodthirsty murderers. A particularly strong curatorial choice was to have audio recordings of diary extracts of soldiers from both the White and Red armies. Both extracts describe the brutality and violence of the other side, and it is horrible listening. A propaganda poster showed Bolshevik soldiers ransacking a village, including killing the villagers’ goose, reminiscent of a grim scene from Isaac Babel’s short stories ‘Red Army’, a copy of which was also on display.

The artworks in the show, as in revolutionary Russia, were largely restricted to propaganda posters and book illustrations, but a couple of others stood out for me. Two lithographs by Natalia Goncharova encapsulate the dichotomy of the times – her mix of angels and architecture is at once mythological and practical, hopeful and destructive. Another image that stands out is The Burial of the Victims of the Revolution by Edward Barnard Lintott. It’s a journalistic watercolour depicting an icy funeral, red flags providing the only colour against a darkening white and grey landscape. It shows the hardship of the Revolution, fighting for change on the ice.

‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ is a great show, offering a fairer portrayal of the moods and circumstances in Revolutionary Russia than I’m used to. By including items from other countries where people were in support of the Russian Revolution, the British Library shows Russia as part of a global whole. Communism, after all, is pointless unless it’s global. A pleasant respite from the common portrayal of Russia as isolated in its own Marxist madness. The Revolution is shown as hopeful and desperate. One Red Army soldier wrote in his diary: ‘People have only one way to go – towards the light. And the light is Communism.’

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17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.