Saturday, 18 April 2009

Double nostalgia

Leaving the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern today I felt a double nostalgia.

First, it struck me how quickly now the inter-war period seems to be slipping into history. When I first started becoming aware of events like the Russian Revolution and its aftermath they were still very much in living memory. My Taid would sometime refer to kulaks which, just like the mass unemployed and Chicago gangsters, populated the era that provided the reference points for his world-view. The Russian Revolution, its language and obsessions, are becoming as remote to us as the Wars of Religion (but then I guess we've been doing some re-treads of the latter in recent years).

The fall of the Berlin Wall seems an even greater disjunction than it did at the time. It marks the end of the belief that there could be any sustainable difference between capitalism and modernity. Now the disaffected are attracted to ideologies which stand in opposition to the very substance of the modern world: technology, industry, cosmopolitanism, change. The only thing left to oppose is everything.

The second aspect of my nostalgia was triggered by the strips of silver birch that huddle around the old power station. Threading our way through these groves, one could almost imagine we were in the sylvan squares of old Moscow. It's been years since I visited Russia and I felt a brief desire to visit again. But I decided it was more a feeling of nostalgia for a Russia of the mind than the corrupt, brutal real one.

Rodchenko and Popova were leaders of the last artistic movement - Constructivism - to have Russians in its vanguard. As with Russian art in any form, whilst it is clearly part of our tradition (that is, the West's), it is so at one remove. It's as if the language has fundamentally the same words but 

[just been interrupted by Leigh Halfpenny's try for Cardiff against Gloucester - talk about art]

they are expressed through different grammatical structures. This is one of the valuable things about Russian art as a genus: the ever-present tension between the familiar and the strange to be found in all art is made more potent by the reflection of this tension in its cultural context.

And how we've missed it! Since Pasternak and Solzhenistsyn no Russian artist has entered the mainstream of Western culture. This may because we've been lazy and provincial and not sought out the new Russian artists and writers. However, I suspect it's more because the well has run dry. Or more properly the spring that fed the well has been decisively stopped up by the Soviet experience.

The exhibition itself was excellent as it gave you a feeling for the Constructivist movement over time and across different media, from painting and sculpture to graphic design and film. Some interesting insights: Lenin (stocky and handsome) spoke with his whole body, sticking his arse out to reinforce a point; Rodchenko and Mayakovsky had an advertising agency during the NEP;  the final room is a reconstruction of a sparsely modern and elegant workers' club (but where, nevertheless, I could almost smell that distinctive Russian mix of cabbage, pickled garlic and vodka).


Jimmy said...

Tate Modern - it is full of athestic decadent bollocks. Burn it down; it is a temple of despair.

gaw said...

Fair comment. The permanent collection is pretty laughable. However the odd show is worth going to.

Not sure how well all that brick would burn though. Given it was a power station it probably incorporates anti-fire design features too. In any event the main redeeming feature of TM is the building and location so it would be a shame to lose one of those.

Anonymous said...

give me tate britain anyday. oooooooooooooh turner