Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917

Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery, 26 February – 18 April 1971 

Hayward Gallery's exhibition Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917 (1971) was produced in association with the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

The exhibition was first proposed to the Arts Council in 1965 by Camilla Gray, a young art historian who had recently published an authoritative publication on the subject: The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922, (1965).

As the exhibition's release stated, its purpose was to 'show the work of the first Soviet designers in architecture and other allied fields in the years immediately following the October Revolution’, drawing attention to the ‘historic innovations of Soviet artists who ... developed the blueprints of Soviet modern design.’

The selection committee included the Arts Council’s Norbert Lynton, theatre specialist Edward Braun, filmmaker Lutz Becker and designers Michael Brawne and Edward Wrigh, who designed the striking graphics.

Setting out to explore Soviet design in the fields of architecture, industrial design, theatre and typography, the exhibition featured artists including El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Visitors entered the exhibition through a foyer in which popular songs of the Revolutionary period were playing. In the first room of the exhibition, they encountered a three screen film-work compiled by director Lutz Becker from original documentary footage of the Revolution.

As they moved through the lower galleries, they found examples of agit-prop – political education methods used in the first years if the Revolution – and models of stage sets by pioneering designers.

Upper and lower gallery layouts.

On the gallery’s upper floor were models of architectural projects and Soviet town-planning, alongside examples of Soviet painting, sculpture, graphics, textiles and furniture – including textiles by Popova – and a survey of developments in Russian design since the 1930s.

Also in the upper galleries, though not on display during the exhibition, was a reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923), a three-dimensional space containing compositions and reliefs, designed by the artist, architect and typographer for an exhibition at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung.

The Proun Room was the source of tension between the Arts Council and the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Shortly before Art in Revolution opened to the public the Russian government demanded that the Proun Room – reconstructed by the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands for the exhibition – be removed, and threatened to withdraw their loans if the work was included.

As a result, the Proun Room – already in situ – was sealed by the exhibition designers, and the door painted over.

The exhibition included a reconstruction of Tatlin’s famous model for the ‘Monument to the Third International’ (1919-20).

A 40ft version of the tower, built by Christopher Cross, Jeremy Dixon and Christopher Woodward, was erected on the Hayward Gallery sculpture terrace visible from Waterloo Bridge.

As Tatlin intended it, this vast functional structure would have house debating chambers, administrative offices and a broadcasting station.

Art in Revolution was attended by 57,849 visitors. Much of the early press response to the exhibition picked up on the intervention of the Soviet government that lead to the decision to seal Lissitzky’s Proun Room.

The International Herald Tribune, for example, reported that ‘the Soviet Union apparently objected to the works because they were abstract, or ‘decadent’ in the Soviet view ... The issue was understood to have gone all the way to Lord Eccles, minister for culture in the Conservative government.’

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