Revolution!

Russian Art 1917-1932

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.

For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals.  However, their eagerness was short lived.

Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.

In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.

One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.

After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.

Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.

Kazimir Malevich

The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.

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Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia

Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour.  A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.

Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.

Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.

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Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above

Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.

At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.

Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.

As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.

To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1931 is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. You have until 17th April 2017 to go and see it.

 

 

Dahl, the Champion of the World

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2016 marked 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – the world’s number one storyteller.

Roald Dahl is one of the most popular children’s authors to have graced the earth in the 20th century. Originally from Norway, Dahl did not start off as an author, enlisting in the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the Second World War, aged only 23. He suffered severe injuries in a crash-landing, ending his fighting career, and beginning a journey as a spy for MI6. Despite these heroic experiences, Dahl’s early years are rarely talked about. A complete career change at the beginning of the 1960s brought Dahl’s name into the limelight.

From 1961 onwards, Roald Dahl produced works of literature virtually nonstop, right up until his death in 1990. His first book James and the Giant Peach, shortly followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have remained his most popular to date. As well as writing 48 books, Dahl put his talent to use in the film industry, penning the screenplays for You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Since then, many of his children’s books have also been converted for the big screen, and, more recently, the stage.

But Dahl’s rise to fame was not only beneficial for himself, it resulted in the success of another famous name…

Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. – Roald Dahl, Matilda

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Recently exhibited at the British Library in honour of Dahl’s 100th birthday, Quentin Blake has become synonymous with the literary great. With a recognisable style, Blake provided illustrations for all Dahl’s children novels. Of the 300 illustrated books he has worked on, 89 of them belong to the esteemed author. So, it is no surprise that a Quentin Blake’s artwork instantly evokes fond memories of books from our childhoods.

Born in 1932, Quentin Blake cannot remember a time when he was not drawing. His illustration career began at age 16 when his drawings were published in an issue of Punch – a British weekly magazine of humour and satire. From here, Blake began to submit illustrations for many magazines, eventually receiving commissions to provide the imagery for a considerable number of authors.

Roald Dahl, as mentioned, was evidently the most famous of the authors Blake collaborated with, and was probably the highlight of his artistic career. Other well known names Blake has been associated with are: Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen and John Yeoman. However, being an illustrator was not the only career Blake had.

For over twenty years, Blake was a teacher – eight of which were spent as the Head of Illustration at the Royal College of Art. Balancing teaching and illustration must have been a challenge, but Blake undoubtedly rose to it, resulting in his success and fame. Since the death of the beloved Dahl – Blake’s biggest source of work – he changed direction yet again, becoming an exhibition curator for museums such as The National Gallery, Musée du Petit Palais, and, of course, the British Library.

Blake’s current exhibition at the British Library is titled The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits, comprising ten never-seen-before portraits of famous characters from Dahl’s most famous stories. Each artwork remains true to form, remaining in the distinctive style that is inextricably linked with the all-time favourite author.

The Roald Dahl Centenary Project asks you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait … I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they are real people – which, of course, to many of us they are. – Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake has won numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including the Whitbread Award and the Kate Greenaway Medal. However Blake’s most prestigious award is his knighthood for ‘services to illustration’ in the New Year’s Honours for 2013 – so, that is SIR Blake to you!

Although we hope he will be around for many more years to come, Quentin Blake has definitely left us a legacy, not just with his illustrations, but his compassionate personality, which has lead to the development and support of many charities. Information about the charities he supports can be found in the following links: House of Illustration, The Campaign for Drawing, The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, The Nightingale Project, Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity, The Book Bus, Farms for City Children and Survival International.

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. – Roald Dahl, The Minpins

Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.

David Hockney: 82 Portraits of People You Probably Haven’t Heard of

This year David Hockney returned to the Royal Academy of Arts with a selection of his latest works, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life (July-October 2016). Throughout his life Hockney has painted a variety of subject matter, however the almost octogenarian is continuously lured back to the genre that has played a major role in his lengthy career: portraiture.

Although born in West Yorkshire, Hockney has spent a vast amount of time in Los Angeles from where he accumulated numerous friends and acquaintances. Critics on viewing the recent exhibition will have noticed that the sitters Hockney has painted, although named, are unknown to the general public. Hockney has painted the many friends of Los Angeles, their friends and their families, thus giving an insight into the types of people Hockney chooses to be associated with. As Hockney does not take commissions, instead inviting individuals to sit for him, he has not painted any celebrities.

Some may feel disappointed at not being able to recognise any of people in the portraits hanging in the gallery, however this gives everyone the opportunity to admire the artwork and painting technique without being distracted by who is being depicted. Whilst Hockney’s portraits are realistic they do not resemble photographs, thus highlighting different personalities, emotions and attitudes surrounding each individual. There is a uniformity in colour (vibrant blue and green acrylic backgrounds) and use of brushstrokes that makes it obvious that each portrait belongs to one body of work.

Studying the paintings closely the brushstrokes may look rushed or imprecise, however Hockney spent two to three days working on each individual canvas. His is a style that is impossible to replicate by anyone else, as only he can create such an immersive effect. Hockney’s work is not merely a painting of the subject in front of him, it is an intense psychological study of both the model and the artist.

Those already familiar with David Hockney will instantly recognise the style of painting – mostly due to the garish colours – and for those who don’t, these 82 portraits (and one still-life) are a great introduction to the renowned artist.

– If you are wondering about the “1 Still-Life” aspect of the exhibition, here is the story behind it: “The still-life was painted when one sitter was unable to keep the appointment; primed to paint, Hockney turned to what was available in the studio – a selection of fruit and vegetables.”

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The H’Art Festival

On the 7th June 2014, as part of The H’Art Festival in the London Borough of Havering, there was a one day only art exhibition in one of the local churches. I was given the opportunity to display some of my design work, particularly work that I had voluntarily provided the church with in the past. As my work was to be exhibited in a section of the show named “Communication” I also lay out examples of work I produced during my time on my Graphic Design degree course. This included the mental health booklet I produced for my final project.

These are photographs taken at the exhibition showing some examples of my work that was displayed:

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