Issue 105:2017 05 18: The Sense of an Ending (J.R.Thomas)

18 May 2017

The Sense of an Ending

A film by Ritash Batra.

reviewed by J.R.Thomas

The Shaw Sheet is not like other media sheets that your eye may occasionally fall on; we like to think through our views of events, consider what things might mean, and generally take our time, so that readers will get a properly balanced and thoughtful view of the world.  And anyway, when it comes to stage and silver screen, the Editor likes to wait until the cheap tickets are on sale.  Which probably means that by the time your critic has sat in the economy seats chewing his ageing biro for sagacious and considered thoughts, the movie or stage piece has moved on to Vue Bolton or to that mysterious video recording unit from which it might emerge in six months, or not.

Which may sadly be the case with this week’s film review.  A Sense of an Ending has been out two weeks and was never likely to pull in endless hordes of punters anyway.  That is in spite of a stellar cast and some crisp camera and sound work, and even with the benefit of the relatively recent publication of Julian Barnes’s book of the same title, which sold strongly in certain London postcodes and in good home county bookshops.  Mr Barnes has the ability to use few words to convey a lot with the welcome result that his books are both powerful, and short.  And thus easy to film, presumably.  Certainly, there seemed to be very few cuts made in the screen adaptation of A Sense of an Ending, which conveys the dilemma and difficulty of managing how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves, through the play of unexpected events over a month or so.

A little plotting first though.  Tony (Jim Broadbent) is an ageing middle class Londoner of mildly liberal tendencies running a small business, an antique camera shop.  As everything and anything in a Barnes novel can be significant, it may well be that the fact that his life centres round ageing instruments that record snapshots of life onto film – but also through a medium which crops and trims – is important.  It may be something, or one of a number of things indeed, which the reader, and viewer, should carefully note for later pondering.  Tony is divorced, from Margaret (Harriet Walter), and has a daughter in her mid 30’s (Michelle Dockery) who has deliberately chosen to become a single parent and is about to give birth.  But Tony, even on his best days a distracted grouch, has something on his mind.  He has been left £500 and a diary by the mother of a girl with whom he had an intense but short teenage affair.  We are about to start plot spoiling so will stop at this point.

No doubt though you are starting to get the idea.  Tony’s past, a perfectly normal past for a bright university graduate and small businessman, is starting to intrude on his present.  He confides in his ex-wife, frequently and at great length.  The ex is more than a bit miffed to find that none of these confidences came out during their marriage.  She is even more miffed by what she starts to find out about her ex-husband.  And if one can be triple miffed, she is so by a yet further, more detailed, and less reputable version that he tells her one evening.  There is some splendid acting by a very well put together cast here, with Broadbent and Walter and Charlotte Rampling as the leads, and very inspired casting of Billy Howle and Freya Mavor as the teenage incarnations of these now aged and agonising Londoners; to capture realistically the youth of a character now forty years or more older is not easy, but it is done convincingly enough here.

A lot of  critics in lesser publications, and indeed in on-line chat rooms and the like, have complained that what is going on in the film, and perhaps more so in the book, right up to and beyond the end, is not clear.  “What,” cry the chatroom inhabitants “is the meaning of the ending?”  And what do all the lingering camera shots portend; what is the significance of the fried eggs that go so wrong, the little wave after that strange sexually charged weekend away?

The clue, one might suggest, is in the title. That is the point of the work.  Barnes is not, we suspect, going to put a little note on some blog to explain what X meant, and how Y should be understood, and how they all lived happily ever after, let alone how best to fry eggs.  That is what his book is seeking to convey; that generally we don’t live happily ever after, nor, thankfully, unhappily ever after.  We just get on with life, polishing it and smoothing it and forgetting the very embarrassing bits, to say nothing of amplifying the bits which show us in the best light. (I met Prince Philip once; you know, he was very funny.  I did, and he was, and the other fifteen or so people clustered sycophantically and silently around him no doubt thought so too.) We adjust history to impress our friends a bit, but also to make it possible to live with ourselves, so we don’t spend our entire old age agonising over past embarrassments and stupidities. Then we forget the adjustments and believe that is how it was.

But sometimes, as for Tony, the truth of the past intrudes into our present, a shark’s fin breaking into the smooth water in which we like to swim along.  Then we have to adjust the published version of what we told everybody; and if the shark rises higher out of the water, we might find that further adjustment becomes necessary.  That is what is happening to poor old Tony, and if it happens to you, pray that you have a Margaret to patiently listen to you amending your amendments.

Even so, sometimes we have hidden some truths so much from ourselves that, actually, we don’t really know what they are until that shark takes a bite.  And if the shark swims off, we may be left still not knowing what we really did, how crass or hurtful we really were.  Time to polish up another ending, or at least, a sense of an ending.  Barnes is saying, that this is how most of us rumble along; we never quite know everything – even about ourselves.  And life goes on, until it stops.  Then our best hope is that we can leave behind a nice version of who we are, and that nothing unpleasant comes out, so awful that nobody will ever come to lay flowers on our graves.

A Sense of an Ending is a small story, a parable for modern times.  It is what might happen, does happen, to me or you or the man on the underground with the sad face.  We never tell all and certainly will never know all, but would we really want to?

“A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, adapted for film by Nick Payne, and directed by Ritash Batra, is currently showing at Curzon and independent cinemas (and possibly at the Vue Bolton). No doubt it will soon be on video if you miss it; or the book is out in paperback.

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Issue 104:2017 05 11 : Adults in the Room(Peter Hanratty)

11 May 2017

Adults in the Room

A book by Yanis Varoufakis

Reviewed by Peter Hanratty, Madagascar British Chamber of Commerce

The book written by Yanis Varoufakis and subtitled “My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment” describes his time as Minister of Finance for Greece, when he was charged with leading debt negotiations with the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF during the first five months of 2015.

It is an important book.  Whether you agree or disagree with his views, Varoufakis has written a “must read” for anyone involved in Brexit trade negotiations and, indeed, anyone who wishes to understand where the imminent Brexit discussions may lead.  The title of the book is a quote from Christine Lagarde (Head of the IMF) apparently asking after a lengthy negotiation session whether there were any “Adults in the room”?

On the negative side – as I perceive it – the book perhaps has two weaknesses.  First its length.  At 550 pages dealing with approximately 160 days, it is truly a blow by blow account, something which inevitably leads to repetition of the same points, valid as they are.  Secondly the book – given its length –  glosses over how Greece found itself technically bankrupt, something which gives colour to the hard line reaction against Varoufakis.  Indeed Varoufakis himself rather enjoyed cultivating a rebellious image of leather jacket, motor bike and communist credentials which,  together with his outspoken approach,  clearly did not endear him to European decision makers.

The negatives however are far outweighed by the extraordinary quality.  Firstly – especially in the opening chapters – it is beautifully written.  The reader is left in little doubt about the exceptional intellect of Varoufakis who manages to explain complex economic issues clearly.

His ongoing thesis is repeated throughout the book – namely that The European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF (Troika) continually enforce on Greece repeated bail outs – with each bail out exerting more stringent conditions and making it impossible for the economy to grow or to attract private investment.  This results inevitably in greater social hardship.  New money coming in is merely used to repay interest and debt from the Troika themselves, who dare not see any debt being forgiven lest other EU countries demand the same treatment.

Valoufakis makes the point that Greece wishes to remain in the EU and is merely asking for common sense with repayments linked to economic growth.  This is refused by the “Eurogroup” of Financial Ministers.

Negotiating with the Troika is almost impossible. They make it clear they are accountable to individual countries but, when Varoufakis seeks to deal with these countries, they refer him to the Troika.  It reminds me of my own time working for a European Bank which had experienced several mergers but where the decision making was left unresolved, resulting in three head offices and two credit committees.  Each credit committee deferred to the other although the same people sat on each, conveniently avoiding difficult decisions.  Varoufakis describes the same culture.

He sees Brussels as a “democracy free zone”.  Indeed when Varoufakis explained that he had just been elected by Greek voters, the powerful German Finance Minister ominously replied that “elections cannot be allowed to change the economic programme of member states.”

The worry for Brexit negotiators is typically characterized by Varoufakis in the Eagles song “Hotel California” – “You can check out any time you like – but you can never leave”.

Since in his view Brexit negotiations with the EU are impossible – he suggests the UK adopt the “Norway Solution”, becoming part of the European Economic Area.  While this is not perfect it could provide an interim solution allowing unimpeded trade with the EU while allowing time to set up trading agreements elsewhere.

A remarkable book.

 

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Issue 103:2017 05 04:The Ferryman (Adam McCormack)

4 May 2017

The Ferryman

The Royal Court

Reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star rating: ***

It is harvest-time in rural Derry, 1981. The Carney family seem role models for all that is good about farming life. They are working hard, and ready to play hard in a traditional end-of-harvest celebratory meal.  However, the man of the house, Quinn (Paddy Considine) has an IRA past, which is about to catch-up with him.  The IRA is benefiting from a wave of public sympathy in response to the deaths of 10 hunger strikers, but this is in danger of being undermined by the finding of the body of Quinn’s brother Seamus, executed some 10 years earlier. Paramilitary leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) needs to get Quinn’s assurance that he will not give details to the press.  Quinn, a father of seven, has to finally face the reality of  Seamus’s death – he had persuaded him to join the IRA – and deal with his widow Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) who, with her son, has been living with the Carney’s since Seamus’s disappearance. From the outset it is clear that Quinn and Caitlin have developed a close relationship, enhanced by the supposed infirmity of Quinn’s wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly).

Jez Butterworth’s latest play has then, at its heart, deep questions of family loyalty as well much to say about the Troubles.  The themes are tackled with great sensitivity and the play manages much humour while being continually gripping.  There are, however, perhaps too many issues to be tackled in one piece. That some of the younger members of the wider family get drawn into the revolutionary republican cause does add, but  a senile grand-mother (who lapses into great insight), a rabidly anti-British aunt and a whimsical uncle, seemingly in denial, leave us close to overload.  On top of all this, there is an English simpleton and a faint-hearted priest.

Director Sam, Mendes manages to help keep an overall balance, but he is not helped by the only interval in a 3 and a quarter hour play coming just one hour in.  There is a lot to digest and the pace might be helped by a reduction of the harvest celebrations, which have a similar effect to the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter.

Nevertheless, the dialogue never fails to crackle and there is genuine suspense.  There are also some standout performances particularly from Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly.  Mendes and Butterworth are not averse to taking risks, and having a babe in arms frequently on stage, as well as a goose and a rabbit, will undoubtedly present the actors with some challenges.

The Ferryman runs at the Royal Court until 20th May, and is the fastest selling production in its history.  It transfers to the West End in June.

 

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Issue 103: 2017 05 04: David Hockney 60 years of work (William Morton)

04 May 2017

David Hockney: 60 Years of Work

Tate Britain, 9 February – 29 May.

Reviewed by William Morton

Christopher Isherwood and Dan Bachardy, copyright David Hockney

Hockney is, of course, one of the most high-profile and respected living artists.  Many of his paintings are instantly recognisable, such as his Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy included in this exhibition which surveys his whole career.  The exhibition is a must for anybody who is interested in his work, but one consequence of his popularity is that it can get crowded (like so many major exhibitions in London), so you may have to work to get a good view of things.

Hockney is a remarkably versatile artist and one of his special talents is his use of bold colours and there are some splendid examples of this on show.  In particular, there are some very successful landscapes of California (such as Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica) and of Yorkshire (such as Going up Garrowby Hill).  The same talent is used to great effect in his Californian pool paintings with their clear homosexual under-current such as Peter getting out of Nick’s Pool and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) in which a fully dressed man gazes at another swimming under water.

Another appealing element of Hockney’s work is his wit.  A fine example is the striking cartoonish Flight into Italy, Swiss Landscape 1962 in which a child-like car is shown rushing along against a background of mountains in outline with the height shown beside each peak.  Again, in the portraits of American collectors, one is left wondering whether he is, not unkindly, taking the mickey a bit.  In the Tate’s A Bigger Splash, what has caused the splash is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition (possibly because many of the pictures are well-known) are the large portraits such as that of Christopher Isherwood and Dan Bachardy, the one of Ossie Clark and his wife and their cat already mentioned, and one of his parents in which his mother stares straight ahead expressionless while his father is hunched over a magazine absorbed in his own world.

Hockney has been quick to use to make use of technology.  He returned to the UK in 2006 and for a while worked on paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds which were combined with others to form large landscapes using computer images to assist him.  In recent years, he has taken to using film and sketching with an IPad.  One room contains four screens each simultaneously showing the same view of a Yorkshire road but as it changes with each season.  Although these films are striking and pleasing to the eye, they perhaps lack the input and impact of the paintings.

Interestingly, it would appear that it is Hockney’s practice to retain the copyright in his works, which hints at a canny Yorkshire side to him.  He is now based in California again, and aged 80 so possibly unlikely to strike out in new directions, but the range and strength of his work in this exhibition shows his reputation is fully justified.

 

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Issue 103:2017 05 04: Sex in the Sea (Neil Dunlop)

04 May 2017

Sex in the Sea

Marah J Hardt

Salty tails and serious purpose

Reviewed by Neil Dunlop

Marah J Hardt

This glimpse under the surface will have you marvelling at the sheer variety of life and hoping that it survives.  Written in a light-hearted style that is suitable for a bedtime read, Marah J Hardt  takes you on an tour that reveals much about the ecology of the seas.   From temporary marriages among Atlantic lobsters to group sex amongst groupers and long distance penetration by barnacles, 500 years of evolution has missed no opportunity.

Nudibranchs do mutual penetration – Klaus Stiefel

You may raise the book to read about sex but, gently, you will become acquainted with its serious side, how knowing about its myriad ways can help to sustain ecological diversity by protecting habitats, and how much of life is fragile under the surface. The overall message  is of progress towards understanding and intelligently managing mankind’s impact on this vast and most varied of habitats. Sex in the Sea is an amusing way to get up to date on a vast and diverse field of research.

Many surprises are in store for you here:  molluscs that choose their sex according to the number of males and females in their colony,  female fish which change sex when their partner is eaten, parthenogenetic sharks and worms whose sex flip flops. This romp is published by St Martin’s Press in New York, 2016, ISBN 978-1-137-27997-2 (hardcover), ISBN 981-1-4668-7922-5 (e-book).

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Issue 102:2017 04 27: Chinglish (Adam McCormack)

27 April 2017

Chinglish

The Park Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star rating: ****

The strap line of: “The first rule of doing business in China…always bring your own translator,” fits well with a play that derives great humour from the discomfort and consequences of mistranslation.  But what makes this play especially compelling is not inadvertent mistakes, but the underlying motives and hidden agendas of each of the protagonists.  To what extent can they use the language barrier, and cultural differences, to further their own aims?

Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman under pressure to generate a significant order for his struggling family business which produces signage.  He is new to this, having been part of the fall-out from the Enron scandal.  China is seen as the big opportunity, but business negotiations present great challenges in terms of culture and communication.  Daniel employs an English teacher, Peter, as his translator, but Peter also has underlying motives, aspiring to business consultancy rather than just teaching and translation.  On the other side of negotiations is a local party official, Cai (Lobo Chan) who is charged with developing a new cultural centre, which will need signage.  While appearing to be receptive (he is indebted to “Teacher Peter”) he has already promised the deal to a relative.  He is also being advised by Xi Yan (Candy Ma), who appears to bring steely resilience to the sales process, but is really monitoring the behavior of Cai, who the party sees as ineffective in his role.  Negotiations are further complicated by Xi Yan’s seduction of Daniel – is this because she is in an unhappy marriage, keen to help Daniel, or are there other motives?

This is the European premiere of a Broadway hit comedy by David Henry Hwang and the pace and craftingof the wordplay make for a highly entertaining production.  Duncan Harte as Teacher Peter gives a stand out performance that few, given the need for fluency in Chinese, could deliver, and Candy Ma is perfect in enrapturing both Daniel and the audience.  The play does hint at the darker side of government control in China, but never seeks to be anything more than a comedy; those seeking the former kind of production are better off watching Chimerica.  This play is much more about seeing the humour to be found in a clash of cultures and in reading between the lines of human behaviour.  It surely merits a West End transfer.

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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: The Treatment (John Watson)

27 April 2017

The Treatment (by Martin Crimp)

Almeida Theatre

Reviewed by John Watson

Stars ****

As always at the Almeida, the direction (by Lyndsay Turner) and the acting were both excellent.  In particular Indira Varma (Jennifer), Ben Onwukwe  (the taxi driver), Mathew Needham (Simon) and Ian Gelder (Clifford) turned in performances which could fairly be described as memorable.  The staging was good too, generally uncluttered with an effective use of darkness between scenes to punctuate the performance.

The play (by Martin Crimp) was first performed in 1993 and is primarily about abuse.  That is not sexual abuse, of the type which Jennifer tries to get Anne (Aisling Loftus) to describe in the first scene, nor physical abuse either, but the abuse implicit in a complex pattern of characters all exploiting each other for their own advantage.  A life story stolen here; a husband stolen there; a nasty physical assault.  Who is abusing who?  It depends on where you look from.  The play worked well at that level, but attempts to link the story to the metropolis of New York itself were less successful.  Certainly there were some good “clown” scenes on the streets and in taxi cabs, but they, and the other allusions to place and perspective, were not really sufficient to add the extra dimension of the “city as a set” promised in the programme.

It made for an entertaining evening but without perhaps the depth that the audience had been led to expect.

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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Queer British Art 1861-1967 (William Morton)

27 April 2017

Queer British Art, 1861-1967

Tate Britain (5 April – 1 October)

Reviewed by William Morton

‘Lady With A Red Hat’ by William Strang (Glasgow Life / Glasgow Museums)

The stated aim of this exhibition is to explore connections between art and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities from the time that the death penalty for sodomy was abolished until the partial decriminalisation of sex between men.  It is perhaps slightly surprising that the same venue is concurrently staging a major exhibition of David Hockney, much of whose work has a homosexual content or context.  Indeed, he is represented in this exhibition by a flamboyant early painting combining a young man in a jock strap with a detailed study of anatomy.

The exhibition starts with late Victorian era ‘suppressed’ pictures of naked boys bathing and girls who look like adolescent boys, moves on to the ill-starred affair of Oscar Wilde and Bosie, and looks at cross-dressing in the theatre and theatrical gays (in a section which I did not find that interesting – it is difficult to get excited about a monogrammed dressing gown of Noel Coward).  The Bloomsbury Group section features a number of strong paintings by Duncan Grant which leave no room for doubt as to his inclination, including a portrait of a policeman (in full uniform) who was part of the gay literary scene.  A striking room contains a collection of female pictures, the well-known austere ‘Lady with a Red Hat’ (aka Vita Sackville West) by William Strang, and Laura Knight’s ‘ Self Portrait’, the intriguing ‘Romance’ by Cecile Walton in which she looks quizzically at her new baby as if asking ‘What have I done?’, and ‘ Rest Time in the Life Class’ by Walton’s friend, Dorothy Johnstone, in which the young model remains the centre of discreet attention.

Later rooms cover artists such as John Craxton and Keith Vaughan and Hockney and Francis Bacon. There is a display of some of the public library books humorously defaced by Joe Orton and Keith Halliwell which led to them being jailed.  One bizarre exhibit is a tin box containing buttons snipped by two cohabiting artists from uniforms as a memento of their sexual encounters with soldiers based near to their house – 200 of them.

All in all, an interesting exhibition worth visiting with a well-judged mix between pictures concerned with the physical side of queer love (largely bottoms) and those of people involved in the gay world such as the portraits of Sackville West and Oscar Wilde and a decorous view of somebody entertaining Walter Sickert to tea.

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Issue 101: 2017 04 20: Love in Idleness Menier Theatre (review)

20 April 2017

Love in Idleness

The Menier Theatre

Stars ****

by Adam McCormack

Not all theatre has to be relevant.  Sometimes a charming and engaging story, which may have something to say about a previous time, can provide perfect entertainment.  With this in mind there is no need to justify Trevor Nunn’s new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1944 play, Love in Idleness (itself a reworking of a play originally called Less Than Kind) other than as a good story well told; that can be more than enough.

Olivia (Eve Best) is in her element.  Vivacious and irresistible, she has escaped a loveless and impoverished marriage (her husband died) and is now the mistress of Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), a wealthy industrialist and cabinet minster.  She delights in her smart London residence and in compelling notable authors to dine with the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This idyllic lifestyle is rudely interrupted by the return of her son, Michael (Edward Bluemell) who has spent the war as an evacuee in Canada.  She insists on remembering him as a small boy, but he considers himself a man (of 17 years and 11 months), with strong views on his mother’s new lifestyle and choice of partner.  He has become a left-wing enthusiast.  He insists that his mother returns to her old lifestyle, although his socialist leanings do not prevent him accepting a job offer prompted by his mother’s lover, and he and Olivia are forced to move to a bedsit.  The story develops further as Sir John’s wife Diana (Helen George) appears, in search of help to pay her gambling debts, as Sir John strives to win back Olivia.

There may be valid questions asked about the triumph of motherly love over all other, and the steps to which a man will go to win the woman he desires, but for the most part this is a period piece.  We do get some insight as to the travails of being a single mother in wartime, and the difficulties of renewing relationships with family members after the long gaps necessitated by the war.  However, where this play really works is as a love story – which the performances of Eve Best and Anthony Head make especially heart-warming.  It also works as a comedy – there are shades of Evelyn Waugh (Sir John is Minister for Tanks), and Edward Bluemell gives a perfect study of adolescent angst.  Helen George is more than capable of playing a china doll-like high maintenance society wife, although the role is less than demanding and gives some concern that she might slip into being typecast.

Overall this is a very entertaining celebration of a tremendous writer on top form, delivered by some exceptional acting talent.

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Issue 100:2017 04 13:Revolution (Lynda Goetz)

13 April 2017

Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932

Royal Academy

reviewed by Lynda Goetz

Fantasy (flying red horse) Petrov-Vodkin

The time span covered by this exhibition in the RA main galleries ends roughly where the exhibition of American art, America after the Fall, currently showing in the Sackler Gallery begins.  However, whereas you have until 4th June to visit the American exhibition, you have only until 8pm on Sunday evening (16th April) to view this one, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

There is a lot in this exhibition worth seeing; there are also possibly a few more paintings that you might consider having on your walls (were they for sale and  were you a millionaire) but perhaps the images you come away with from your time spent in the galleries are the those of the black and white films. There are several these, all illustrating the dynamic enthusiasm, innovation and propaganda which characterised those years after the overthrow of the autocratic Tsarist regime and before the autocratic regime of Stalinism completely crushed the burgeoning creativity.  In 1932 Stalin decreed Socialist Realism to be the only acceptable artistic style for the Soviet Union.

In the intervening years, experimental and inventive work was taking place throughout the arts, even though much of it had to be directed towards encouraging the masses to engage with and support Communism.  Communism, being at the time of the Bolshevik revolution a minority movement, needed propaganda to spread its ideology to the millions of largely rural and illiterate members of the population.  Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda saw artists unfamiliar in the West produce ‘art for everyday life’, such as ceramics and textiles, to convey the Bolshevik Party message.  Alongside this Socialist Realism, avant-garde artists also embraced what they saw initially as the promise of new art for a new world. Chagall and Kandinsky are thus represented with a couple of impressive paintings each, as is Kazimir Malevich with a room of his own, but the overall feeling of the exhibition is of propaganda and the repression which, even by the early 1920s, had taken hold.

Most of us are aware of what the revolution rapidly became and of the betrayal of the workers and peasants by their leaders.  In the first gallery the official portraits of Lenin and Trotsky, by Isaak Brodsky, make them appear almost benign and patriarchal.  The one which shows Stalin looking rather like a cartoon circus ringmaster was (unsurprisingly) never shown to him.  By the time one reaches the Malevich gallery, the faceless peasants (Peasants c.1930) illustrate only too clearly the way those in power viewed the millions subjugated to their whims.  In other galleries are idealized images of industrial workers and healthy, cheerful-looking peasants on collective farms as well as some nostalgic views of the ‘old Russia’ with village celebrations and the onion-shaped church domes of the Orthodox religion outlawed by the Communists.

The Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin gallery was a revelation, at least to me, with his synthesizing of Eastern and Western art, his classic still-lifes, his impressive self-portrait and his memorable image of a young man astride a flying red horse, interestingly entitled Fantasy, which appears on the gallery guide.  Petrov-Vodkin managed, unlike so many others, to retain the support of the regime throughout this period and in 1932 was appointed President of the Leningrad Regional Union of Soviet Artists.  Like Malevich he was given his own room in the Exhibition ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Soviet Republic’ at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad.  That exhibition in November 1932 effectively marked the end for freedom of the arts in the Soviet Union; from then on the Union of Soviet Artists was the sole arbiter of Soviet art.

Before you leave the galleries there is a booth where you can (if you have not had enough by then) watch a parade of black and white photos of those who were executed during the Great Purge of 1936-8.  It is a depressingly long list and includes, among other similar figures, the famous Soviet theatre director Meyervold, featured in an earlier gallery, who had initially enthusiastically embraced the new Soviet theatre, but who was opposed to Stalin’s Socialist Realism.  Chagall and Kandinsky both of whom returned to Russia in 1914, but left in 1922 and 1921 respectively, each for different reasons, were probably extremely relieved to have done so.  If nothing else, and of course there is a great deal else, this exhibition reminds us what Russia was and still is; ‘revolution’ yes, but ‘liberation’ is not a word which springs to mind.

 

This exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly is open until 10pm Friday and Saturday and until 8pm on Sunday. Normal opening hours (10am – 6pm).

 

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