Open letter to managerial staff, Royal Academy of Arts, London, re: Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition [UPDATE]

Added on by Miguel Sopena.

In March of this year, I wrote to the Royal Academy of Arts in London with regard to the recent Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition (11/02 – 17/04/2017). I was shocked at the treatment given to the exhibition by the curators, with a running commentary that, rather than exploring the fascinating subject of Russian art around the time of the 1917 revolution, sought to deliver an embarrassingly crude anti-communist and anti-Soviet message totally out of place in such a setting (my original letter can be read on my blog). The use (or rather, the abuse) of an art exhibition in an institution like the Royal Academy to deliver a blatantly partisan political message is like nothing I had seen in London before. In due time I received a reply from one of the exhibition curators, Dr Natalia Murray, which attempted to reduce my criticism to a difference of opinion on Soviet politics. I responded to Dr Murray's letter making my position as clear as I possibly could.

For any readers interested in this controversy, I am reproducing Dr Murray's letter, followed by my reply.

UPDATE [13/08/2017] Today I visited another exhibition devoted to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library. The exhibition presents a wealth of documents, publications, personal accounts and other information detailing the state of Imperial Russia in the decades prior to the 1905 and 1917 insurrections, the onset of the First World War and the Revolution, the post-Revolution civil war which raged across the country until the early 1920s, and the larger shockwaves sent across the world by the events of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union. I wholeheartedly recommend this offering which, like the recent Imagine Moscow exhibition at London's Design Museum, follows the usual standards of presenting information in a comprehensive, enlightening manner and staying clear of sweeping political judgements. It is a relief to see that most first-rate cultural institutions in this country still understand the importance of fundamental curatorial values like non-partisanship. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on until 29 August 2017.


Royal Academy of Arts

3 May 2017

Dear Dr Sopena,

Tim Marlow [RA director of artistic projects] forwarded your letter to me and I am afraid that I find it to be as opinionated as it accuses our exhibition of being. I will try to identify your central argument for criticising the exhibition, apart from the obvious difference of opinion about Soviet politics. Incidentally, although I am Russian and grew up under the Soviet regime, the historical data which we used in our text panels is all from contemporary and more recent, sources, and as you will know, many archives relating to the 1917 Revolutions have recently been opened.

I feel the heart of your argument is that art should always be presented just as art, and not a child of its historical context. I would argue that art is almost always influenced by its context; imagine a crucifixion scene if you knew nothing of its story, let alone a thousand Marys with a baby on her lap. Artistic movements have almost always been the product of some element of social history, often as a reaction to a recent development artists favoured, or indeed rejected... for example, emigration to the US forced by famine.

In the case of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, art and artists were very strongly driven by current (now historical) events. Lenin planned the development of a totally new form of society; almost all former artists were condemned as being, from the bourgeoisie, and indeed many younger, more avant-garde artists were excited by the prospects that the Revolution offered, at least at the outset. But underpinning this was the Bolsheviks' need to use art to gain popular support for Bolshevik plans by addressing and persuading a largely illiterate population. His proletariat was formed of two groups that traditionally disliked each other, urban employed workers and rural, self-employed, deeply religious peasants (hence the hammer and the sickle). He needed to persuade people that they had participated in a mass revolution, while the Bolshevik members represented only 0.25% of the population; his failure in this was reflected in the disastrous civil war and famine. Under the direction of Anatoly Lunacharsky, on the one hand the number of new artistic movements and styles proliferated and on the other it was increasingly dedicated to serving the state.

I would argue strongly that ours is not a one-sided or partisan recording of history — it is a highly objective interpretation of Soviet history (which you obviously prefer not to accept). It needed to avoid the power of propaganda (both inside and outside the Soviet Union) and dwell on historical facts and archival documents.

In support of our work, I can report that most reviewers (actually all the reviews in British and Russian media which I have come across) remarked on the historical accuracy of our exhibition. For example, the biographer of Lenin, Victor Sebestyen wrote in his review (Evening Standard, 10.02.2017): 'What is so clever and imaginative about the exhibition is how the curators have fused revolutionary aesthetics and revolutionary politics to tell the story of Russia's tragic 20th century- how the great hope for a brave new world of social justice and freedom turned into killing fields and Gulag labour camps.' Also: 'There was repression from the start, a civil war that cost at least three million lives, the creation of a secret police that became the KGB - three letters that almost defined communism in practice. Insecurity led to a paranoid fear of being overthrown that all his successors felt for the next 70 years.'

Perhaps Karen Wright writing in the Independent on 13 February 2017, argues most clearly that our plan to show the art of the Revolution in its context succeeded:

The superb exhibition at the Royal Academy, Revolution: Russian Art. 1917-1932, is a fabulous display of extraordinary work never seen in Britain before. [...] What is so clever and imaginative about the exhibition is how the curators have fused revolutionary aesthetics and revolutionary politics to tell the story of Russia's tragic 20th century.'

I can add others:

'This is a thrilling, chilling show, of gripping interest beyond art history as a subtle panorama of life during an epoch little understood outside Russia.'

Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times, 11 February 2017

`Stylishly designed, the show proceeds with verve, and has a lovely flow. It also contains several mesmerising works of art. [...] This is history made resonant and relevant.'

Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph, 6 February 2017

'This is a hugely ambitious show with loans obtained from Russia that you will never have seen and many that you will not see again [...] Leaving an exhibition on the downward swoop of a metaphorical rollercoaster ride, this is the type of ambitious exhibition that pleads for people to become Royal Academy members so that they may come freely again and again.'

Victor Sebestyen, Evening Standard, 10 February 2017

In conclusion, perhaps by using the term "keenly revisionist", Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 19 February 2017, puts his finger on what our correspondent is really reacting to.

'For evidence of how history progresses in thunderous waves, you can do no better than visit the Royal Academy's superb Revolution: Russian Art. 1917-1932. [...] Relentlessly interesting, packed with wows, keenly revisionist, this is exhibition-making of uncommon efficiency.'

I am happy to report that the exhibition is regarded as a major success by the Royal Academy both in Britain and in Russia, it had record attendance figures and your complaint stands alone against thousands of people who found our exhibition most interesting and educational and came to see it at least four times.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Natalia Murray

Curator and Lecturer in the History of Russian Art


21 July 2017

Dear Dr Murray,

Thank you very much for your recent communication regarding the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy.

I was disappointed to see that you either did not understand the argument I made in my original letter, or chose to misrepresent it. It obviously helps your case to present the issue as a difference of opinion about Soviet politics and the Soviet project, and, from a paragraph in your letter which appears to have been cut and pasted from another communication, that is how you presented the issue to other persons as well (I am guessing RA staff). This is, however, not the point here, as I made perfectly clear in my original communication.

I did not write to the RA as a person with specific views on the Soviet Union which had somehow been offended by the Revolution exhibition, and in fact I made clear in my letter that, regardless of my personal views, I am no expert on Soviet history. I wrote as an art lover who visits every major art exhibition in London and was distressed to see a major offering at the RA being used, not to present the contents of the exhibition to an audience in a genuine spirit of enquiry, but for blatant editorialising on political issues. This (to my knowledge) is unprecedented in the London art scene and so outside proper practices it barely requires further comment. It is the sort of practice one would expect, well, in an autocratic regime with no respect for intellectual integrity or plurality of views. You also state in your letter that I believe art should be presented 'just as art, not as a child of its historical context'. Whether this is an intentional misrepresentation on your part or not, it is so far from the spirit of my original letter it, again, barely requires further comment.

My point can be very easily illustrated by any number of thought experiments. Let us imagine the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (which I recently visited) put on an exhibition on, say, American Abstract Expressionism. Let us suppose further that, instead of presenting the art (and its historical context, of course) in a way that is informative, insightful, non-partisan, and indeed centred on the art, the curators chose to use the opportunity to rail against, say, American imperialism in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (using, for example, the argument that heavily promoted American art helped provide ideological cover for aggressive foreign policies). I imagine you and many observers would rightly denounce such use of an art exhibition as a corruption of what such an offering should be. This would, of course, be the case regardless of the accuracy of the data used by the curators or the strength of their convictions on the subject.

The same would apply if a art museum, in, say, one of the surviving socialist countries put on an exhibition on American Pop Art which became a frontal, vicious attack on American capitalism and consumerist culture. Such an exhibition would rightly be dismissed by any neutral observers as an ideological propaganda exercise.

Just to provide another example, let us further suppose that I was given the opportunity to curate an exhibition of art from my home country of Spain from, say, the 1950s and 60s, when the country was a dictatorship ruled by General Francisco Franco. It is a fact that the regime supported the emergence of a school of abstract painting which was both artistically significant and, conveniently for the regime, not overtly political. Regardless of the strength of my convictions, regardless of how firm my grounds may be to criticise General Franco's regime, if I turned such a hypothetical exhibition, not into a thorough exploration of the subject matter, but into a frontal attack on the regime's record, I would be utterly failing in my duties as a curator, and the institution which employed me could rightly be accused of having stepped well off its remit.

Lastly, and to come back closer to home, let us imagine that a curator team was given the chance to curate an exhibition on European art from 1914 to 1918 against the context of the First World War, and let us further suppose that, instead of investigating the art and its context in a way that stays clear of harsh political conclusions, the team chose to launch into a tirade about how the blind militarism of European elites and the greed of European capitalists resulted in the senseless slaughter of millions of men and untold and pointless suffering being imposed on civilian populations across the continent. Regardless of the merits of the political argument (which, in itself, probably makes a lot of sense), that a major British institution would put on such an art exhibition (let me emphasise again, an art exhibition) does not bear thinking about, for obvious reasons.

Any number of additional examples could be thought of but I do not think there is any need.

That this is not at all a difficult argument to grasp is demonstrated by the Imagine Moscow exhibition recently on display at London's Design Museum (a comparison which I drew in my original letter but that you conveniently chose to ignore). This was a model, enormously thought-provoking offering (and, let me assure you, not at all a pro-Soviet one) which presented early Soviet design and architectural proposals (and more) in the context of the utopian Bolshevik conception of society (and in the light of conditions on the ground) whilst making no attempt to feed any predetermined political judgements to the audience.

As I mentioned in my original letter, I contacted the Royal Academy in the hope that it can be made to reflect on the extremely dangerous precedent set by the Revolution exhibition. What can we expect for the future, Dr Murray? That whenever RA staff, a curatorial team, the RA's funding partners, or any interested party with sufficient influence and authority has a political axe to grind about whichever topic an art exhibition will be organised to editorialise about such views and feed them to an audience? Is this what the legendary London art scene, a universal beacon for art lovers (and society in general) in a country which claims to be free and plural, is meant to become? If the Royal Academy is not capable of reflecting about the proper role of an institution of its kind then maybe the RA is indeed no longer the top cultural institution it once was. The Revolution exhibition remains a blemish on the RA's record. As I wrote in my original letter, I sincerely hope such errors of judgement are not repeated in the future.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Miguel Sopena

CC Mr Tim Marlow, Mr Christopher LeBrun [RA President], Mr Charles Saumarez Smith [RA Secretary and Chief Executive], and others

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