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Seeing red

Stanford exhibition shows how the Bolshevik Revolution upended Russian art and politics

In his iconic 1830 painting, "Liberty Leading the People," Eugene Delacroix portrays the French Revolution as a call to duty bravely answered by an allegorical, flag-bearing heroine leading a crowd over the barricades.

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" is less sanguine about war. It depicts the destruction of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s through cubist fragments of human and animal carnage.

But what about the October Revolution of 1917 — an event that obliterated a 300-year-old dynasty, brought the Bolsheviks to power and set the stage for Stalin's purges and the geopolitical brinksmanship of Cold War? For a look at how contemporary Russian art reflected this seminal event, one can do worse than Dmitry Moor's 1920 lithograph, "Give me Your Hand Deserter. You are the Destroyer of the Worker-Peasant State Just Like Me, the Capitalist! Now Only You are My Hope."

The poster, part of a collection now on display at Cantor Arts Center and the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibition Pavilion, depicts a man wearing a loose peasant tunic and a wry smile hoisting a giant sack over his left shoulder as he leers back over his right at the bustling industrial streetscape below. One hand supports the sack; another is being firmly grasped by his companion — a round, tuxedoed man with a top hat and a large sack that says "Millions" on it.

The poster at once depicts and represents a revolution. The two traitors — the deserter and the capitalist — have all the markings of villainy. The worker looks back uncertainly as he hoards the loot; the "capitalist" puffs a cigar between his fish lips and wearing rings and chains. At a time of hunger and political upheaval, the message would've been impossible to miss.

Yet the poster also reflects an abrupt shift is aesthetics, with the somber and realistic oil paintings of the masters giving way to the bright, abstract posters of the proletariat. Rather than classical portraits of royals or impressionistic landscapes of Red Square, here we see lithographs and pamphlets depicting workers and peasants, armed with hammers and sickles and aching for a fight.

"The Crown under the Hammer: Russia, Romanovs, Revolution," the joint exhibition by Cantor and Hoover Institute, vividly highlights this transformation while illuminating its deep-rooted causes and wide-reaching effects. The collaboration between the art museum and the research institution feels particularly apt here, given that the artwork on display isn't just a reflection of the new world, it is a call to action and agent of the revolution.

The Cantor gallery juxtaposes the oil and watercolor paintings of the Romanov era with the forceful propaganda prints of the Bolsheviks and, in doing so, brings the contrast between tradition and revolution into particularly stark relief. The Hoover display offers a generous sample of primary samples from its treasure trove of Russian archives, artifacts and Romanov ephemera — including diaries, family photos, news clippings and the tsar's abdication letter. Together, the two exhibits aptly trace the Bolshevik's revolution in both art and politics, while showcasing the power of the former to shape the latter.

For the Bolsheviks, who seized power on Oct. 25, 1917, the goal was nothing short of overturning the world's existing power structures. As the Cantor exhibit notes in its introduction, Bolshevik leaders "recognized that toppling traditional governmental bodies and economic systems would require a wholesale reconstruction of the means by which revolutionary forces communicated their agenda." This meant radically rethinking visual arts and deploying them as weapons against the capitalistic world order.

The contrast between what was and what would be could hardly be more jarring. On one wall of the Cantor gallery, we see paintings of Russian Royals and aristocrats — works that would not feel out of place at the British National Museum or the Hermitage. There is the oil painting Grigory Aleksandrovich Stroganov, whose grandfather helped Peter the Great implement various land reforms in the 17th and 18th centuries and whose family lent its name to a saucy beef dish. With his powdered wig and shirt ruffles, the young Stroganov is the very image of European aristocracy.

Here is the ruddy-cheeked Catherine II (best known as Catherine the Great), an 18th-century empress whose reign is widely considered the high-water mark of the Russian Empire. In in 1790 oil painting by Johann Baptist von Lampi, she is wearing a diamond-studded tiara, a fur cloak, a cobalt sash over a petticoat of blue silk and a determined gaze — the picture of cool detachment.

If cool blue runs like a motif through one side of the gallery, hot red dominates the other. Here we see an army of mechanical red giants, holding flags and marching in lockstep over a fallen crown. On another print, a peasant wearing a red tunic and marching alongside a worker with a hammer and a woman equipped with a red apron and holding a scythe. They are marching past a sea of workers who waive red flags, each representing a different nation where the revolution is taking hold. The lithograph by Nokolai Mikhailovich Kochergin is titled, "Through the Ruins of Capitalism to the Universal Brotherhood of Workers!"

Unlike the classical portraits, with their subtle smiles and enigmatic gazes, the revolutionary posters leave little to the imagination. Their goal wasn't to please the art lover but to instruct the largely illiterate Russian population. Propaganda posters were quickly identified by the Bolshevik leaders as the best vehicle for reaching all social classes.

Thus, between 1918 and 1921, we are told, more than 450 different organizations and institutions created an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 unique poster designs and millions of posters.

At times, the revolutionary imagery spices up a poster's otherwise prosaic message. One print shows a man in a red worker tunic holding a canister filled with rubles with one hand while scattering the bills with the other. The falling rubles land on a board subdivided into horizontal strips, each depicting a vignette of Soviet life: three women sitting in a library, a soldier defending the homeland, a hospital, school children near a freshly paved road.

The title of the piece is "How Property Tax Is Spent." This propaganda poster, it turns out, is perhaps the world's most imaginative budget document.

If the Cantor exhibit highlights the creative forces unleashed by the Bolsheviks, the Hoover one emphasizes what was lost in the process. At the Hoover pavilion, we see black-and-white photos of the royal family and its associates — young Alexei, the tsar's hemophiliac son, resting in bed while his mother embroiders next to him; Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian mystic who managed Alexei's condition and, in doing so, became the palace Svengali during the final throes of the revolution; and photos of the various grand dukes who, on Jan. 18, 1919, were taken to a courtyard in Petrograd, told to strip and shot into a mass grave.

But perhaps the most poignant paintings in the collection are the ones that don't fall neatly into either the royal or the revolutionary camp. On one wall at Cantor, we see a series of gouache-and-watercolor paintings made by Ivan Alekseevich Vladimirov, a battlefield sketch artist whose desolate scenes capture the revolution's real-world consequences: breadlines, empty shelves, vandals destroying a room in a Winter Palace, priests marching somberly through the snow. One 1919 painting is titled, "Hungry Ones in Petrograd Dividing a Dead Horse in the Street." It shows men and women huddling over the carcass in the middle of the street, while a pair of dogs look on. There's not much blue, or red, in this photo. Rather, we see gray slush, drab coats and a desperate hunger. This series of paintings, more than any other in the exhibition, helps explain the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as its ultimate failure.

What: "The Crown under the Hammer: Russia, Romanovs, Revolution"

Where: Cantor Arts Center & Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford

When: Now through March 4, 2018.

What: Marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the exhibit examines the political, social, and cultural upheavals that transformed Russia in the final decades of the Romanov dynasty and the first years of Soviet Communism.

Cost: Free.


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