What is a revolution? The simplest answer would be a forceful change of a political regime. Every revolution in history represents a violent political shift. Even if a revolution ultimately fails, it is sure to leave a legacy that shakes the world long after all cannon fire is silenced, and all rebels are gone. As a significant event that alters the lives of millions, a revolution cannot help but become a part of art. The Russian Revolution is no exception.
An event that shattered the world and took the Russian Empire out of World War I, burying the state under rubble, the Russian Revolution also inspired revolutionary art. The Bolsheviks plucked a collapsing country from the wreckage of war and changed the fate of the once-great empire, turning it into the Soviet Union – another state destined to become a great power on the world arena. Artists could not avoid the fever of the revolution, and thus documented lives lost and ideals found.
The Russian Revolution and Its Humble Beginnings
The Great October Revolution began with a revolt. When Russia caught fire, few were aware of the repercussions. The intrigue and political fighting that followed did nothing to alleviate the economic collapse that threatened the country and worsened the already difficult lives of the workers and peasants in the state fighting a bloody war. Among multiple political factions, one party rose above the others to answer the popular demands, promising to end the war, give rights to peasants and workers, and ultimately reform the country. The Bolsheviks not only tossed out these bold claims but also had the necessary leadership to do so, thanks to Vladimir Lenin, a figure as controversial as he was influential.
The Bolsheviks dominated the Communist Party after their split with the Mensheviks in 1903. These two factions could not agree on several issues, including party membership and organizational plans. Under only Bolshevik rule, the Communist Party was not the most numerous or powerful in 1917. However, what they lacked in number, they compensated in determination and planning. Above all else, the Communists represented all that was new, radical, and fresh for the people. They were indeed eager to build a new world on the ruins of the Russian Empire. And, of course, a new kind of state required a new kind of revolutionary art.
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Vladimir Lenin’s view of art was as simple as it was revolutionary. “Art belongs to the people,” – he wrote and repeated on multiple occasions. Revolutionary art had to appeal to a large public instead of a select few aristocrats. Subsequently, this new art had to document and retell the events that shook the state.
During the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed, many artists heeded Lenin’s teachings – often unintentionally and always with a touch of their own flair. Some of the most iconic paintings featuring the Russian Revolution address both the events and their historical significance.
A bloody mess, a hopeful step from reactionary to revolutionary art, the beginnings of Socialist Realism and dictatorship, a sacred event or a myth – the Russian Revolution was all that and more, turning into a polarizing experience for many. The following pictures tell the story of this great turmoil as seen by different artists that did their best to capture the controversial and undeniable, earth-shattering change that was the Great October Revolution of 1917.
1. The Uprising, by Kliment Redko, 1924-25
The sacralization of an event or a person is a prominent theme in religious art. In an atheist state, however, spiritual approaches take a different turn, as shown in Redko’s The Uprising. Kliment Redko completed the work a year after the death of Lenin in 1926. The Russian Revolution had passed, the Bolsheviks had won, and the Soviet Union had already risen from the ashes.
In his painting, Redko combines geometric forms with portraits of revolutionary leaders. Lenin, much like Jesus Christ, remains in the center. To his right stand his “apostles” – Trotsky, Krupskaya, Stalin, and so forth. Similar to a medieval Orthodox icon, the size of the figure does not depend on its location in the composition but its significance. The format of the painting reminds the viewer of Orthodox religious art – the background is monochromatic and has a skewed perspective. It is not surprising that the picture resembles an icon more than any other artwork produced in an officially secular state. It is a neo-icon that represents not reality but a sacred image – something to admire and strive for.
As the leader of the revolution, Lenin is the most prominent figure of the painting. Like halos over the heads of saints, light sparks surround his associates who emerge from the darkness. Lenin as a man propelled to the cusp of power becomes an eternal symbol of the Russian Revolution. This attempt at creating new mythologies for people to recognize discerns Redko’s work from many others. Few have used the tradition of Orthodox sacral painting to serve as a different kind of ideology, and fewer have succeeded in creating something as unique and mysterious as The Uprising.
2. The Petrograd Madonna, by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1922
If Redko turned to the familiar Orthodox tradition of depicting saints, another famed Soviet painter, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, addressed the art of the Italian Renaissance in his work titled Petrograd in 1918. While the image of Madonna is recognizable due to the pose of the woman holding her child, the combination of blue, white, and red surrounding her, the agitated crowd behind her, and the imposing architecture all tell a different story.
Unlike many Renaissance masters who dressed ancient saints and kings in contemporary robes, Petrov-Vodkin does something completely different in his work. Instead, the artist chose to turn a regular woman into the Virgin Mary, complete with the sculpted folds of her cloak, creating a strange clash of the mundane and the sacred.
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin believed that the Russian Revolution could bring spiritual renewal upon the dilapidated world of the Russian Empire. As a member of a free philosophical society, he painted this piece of revolutionary art as an image of hope and renewal in the elevated figure of a woman. The painting soon became iconic, earning the nickname of ‘the Petrograd Madonna.’
Sadly, Petrov-Vodkin’s life was not as hopeful as his revolutionary art. The artist himself saw many of his colleagues crushed under the wheels of the new regime. He then died from tuberculosis in 1939 and thus narrowly escaped the impending horrors of World War II.
3. Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, by El Lissitzky, 1920
El Lissitzky’s lithographic Soviet propaganda poster influenced generations of avant-garde artists both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The poster features a large red wedge that breaks a white circle and decimates all adjacent geometric figures, symbolizing the Bolsheviks’ victory over the White Movement – led by those who opposed the Soviet Union – during the subsequent Civil War. As an ardent adept of Constructivism, Lissitzky was fascinated by the simple power of geometry and the messages it could deliver. Not shying away from propagandist art, both he and Malevich believed that only a new revolutionary art could push a backward state into the future.
Someone as extravagant and quirky as El Lissitzky could never be interested in old, sacred traditions, making him the perfect artist for the Soviet era. Instead, he embraced Constructivist principles that allowed for a careful technical analysis of the world and mass production of art.
During his lifetime, Lissitzky adhered to Lenin’s teaching and brought his art to the masses. He was even a Russian Cultural Ambassador to Weimar Germany in 1922, where he worked with and influenced the greatest artists of his generation. Lissitzky’s imprint is evident in such movements as Bauhaus and De Stijl. In the Soviet Union, he created posters and art to inspire and motivate the Soviet public, aiding the war effort, especially when World War II ravaged the country.
4. The Defense Of Petrograd, by Alexandr Deyneka, 1928
As a beloved Soviet painter of world-renown, Deyneka combined realism and modernism in his work, ranging from monumental mosaics to sculpture. It was his The Defence of Petrograd; however, that became one of his most recognizable works.
Dismissing glory and renewal, The Defense of Petrograd represents the endless cycle of violence during a revolutionary period. Every revolution collects bloody fees, which is then reflected in the revolution’s art pieces. Alexandr Deyneka’s The Defense of Petrograd addresses precisely this, as his work speaks more of hardships and the cost of change than hope and joyous propaganda. The painting interprets the events of the Civil War of 1919, during which the newly formed Red Army fought against the so-called White troops – opponents of the Soviet regime.
Two lines of volunteers march in opposite directions, intersecting in the middle and never meeting. The first row occupies the lower register of the painting, while the second takes over the upper, revealing the true purpose of the composition: Deyneka shows the return of the wounded and the vigor of the newly recruited in one picture. Returning from the front, the bent and broken men hobble back, only to be replaced by those who are ready to take their place, not knowing what awaits them. A cyclic panel in the style of Soviet Realism, The Defence of Petrograd is a painting that drowns in grey tones and reveals none of the revolutionary triumphs.
5. Lenin On The Tribune, by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1930
Much like Deyneka, Aleksandr Gerasimov was another master of Socialist Realism. Lenin on the Tribune is an almost Impressionist picture that glorifies the leader of the Russian Revolution, reminiscent of Jacques Louis David’s paintings celebrating Napoleon, and Eugene Delacroix’s artworks commemorating the French Revolution. However, this revolutionary artwork is more than an Impressionist-style portrait painted in bright and blurred colors. Lenin on the Tribune is more of a historical painting than a propaganda piece.
Created in 1930, the work saw light when Lenin had already died, and the Russian Revolution had long passed. Gerasimov was not the most typical propagator of Socialist Realism; his bright colors and flair for the dramatic often clashed with the more conservative approaches of his peers. However, his stylistic peculiarity did not prevent him from becoming Stalin’s favourite painter.
Every ambitious Soviet painter wanted to paint Lenin, as doing so meant a steady climb up the career ladder. However, such established iconography of the Soviet leader and fear of the wrath of the authorities bred mediocrity. Aleksandr Gerasimov’s paintings, on the other hand, differ in that aspect. He was one of the rare painters who picked the most politically laden tales and spun them around, pleasing the authorities and surprising the spectators simultaneously. However, even Gerasimov did not dare to paint the leader of the Great October Revolution dead and in his coffin.
Bonus Russian Revolution Artwork Depicting The Sacred And The Profane
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin created one of the most controversial paintings of the Russian Revolution, telling the story of the Soviet Union’s rise to power with one image. Lenin in his Coffin is not celebrated for its glorification of the Russian Revolution nor for its unique stylistic approach to depicting its history. Instead, it is one of the rare pictures that dared to question the immortality of the great leader Vladimir Lenin, a cult personality.
With his body preserved and displayed in a mausoleum, Lenin was not supposed to be thought of as dead. Symbolically, the leader and his revolution had to live on so that their impact would still be palpable. This contradiction between myth and reality made Lenin in his Coffin an uncomfortable picture for many within the Soviet Union. As a result, it is rarely displayed and hardly ever mentioned by critics and painters. But Petrov-Vodkin’s work remains, adding more shades to the complicated legacy of the Russian Revolution and its leader.
As the paintings above demonstrate, there are many ways to paint a revolution. Revolutionary art can find itself in a historical painting or an icon, made to be a stern reminder of the horrors of war or a message of hope. Some of the most profound works that address revolutions appear long after the events have passed, and the cries of victory and defeat have faded.
The significance of the Russian Revolution is difficult to underestimate. It sparked a series of events that reshaped the world and had long-lasting implications that rippled across continents. Constructivism and avant-garde art flourished only to be replaced by Socialist Realism, which would eventually become a language of art as much as an ideological weapon. However, the Russian Revolution remains what it is – a polarizing event that instigated many different art forms.