Russian Art and History Exhibition

London F27

One of the key themes in the MPW A-Level History programme is the study of Russia during the turbulent years 1855 to 1964: a time of revolution, war and the emergence of the USSR as a superpower. One of the aims of the department is always to provide an understanding of the period through a visual awareness of the imagery of the period. When one thinks of the Soviet Union, the powerful symbols of the parades in Red Square and the propaganda of the Socialist Realist paintings are called to mind. What it is, perhaps, harder to visualise is the world pre-1917 and this is where we have to give thanks for the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Russia and the Arts 1867-1914: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.

This is an exhibition that reflected, in similar ways to Van Dyck’s paintings of England before the Civil War, an age that was about to be surpassed by something wholly new. The paintings were on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the show focuses on the great writers, artists, actors, composers and patrons of this extremely fertile era in Russian history. This was a time when artists mined the rich traditions of Russian history and folklore to create a Slavophil interpretation of the past. It was an attempt to preserve particular Russian qualities in the face of intense and rapid industrialisation. Between them the writers Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy would explore the tensions between the generations, the world of urbanisation and the sweep of history.

The exhibition also highlights the fact that this was by no means a static world: more formal ideas of art were being replaced by Russian Impressionism and Cubism. This would culminate in 1915 with Malevich’s The Black Square: representative of a world slowly being consumed by the horrors of the First World War. That war would see the end of the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs and its replacement by the hammer and sickle.

Robert Heggie
Head of History