Building the Revolution, Royal Academy, London

Early Soviet art and architecture were synonymous – so why does this show prise them apart?

Construction, Construction Art, Constructivism: it's quite a stretch.

The first sounds utilitarian, all hard hats and mud. The last two suggest wild-haired artists waving their arms and theorising. And yet, in Russia, for the two decades from 1915 to 1935, making art and making buildings were seen as subsets of each other, activities not so much running in parallel as jointly dedicated to building a revolution.

As with any grand construction, it began with a great tearing-down. In 1913, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square, stripping art back to the basics of colour and geometry. It was a supreme position, and Malevich called his movement Suprematism. Pre-revolutionary Moscow was a place of factions, each bitterly fighting its corner. So when Aleksandr Rodchenko began making work in what looked like a Suprematist style, Malevich bitterly dubbed it "Construction Art".

As with Impressionism half a century before, the name stuck. When, in 1921, Rodchenko painted his three Pure Colour pictures in monochrome red, yellow and blue, his partner, Varvara Stepanova, pronounced the death of art. "From here," she said, grimly, "Constructivism will annihilate art in all its forms, ending its separate identity." Art, design and architecture would now be as one, the conjoined triplets of world revolution.

But what would that mean, exactly? A show called Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy answers that question from a Soviet point of view, although Constructivism survived longest outside the USSR. (Stalin suppressed it as elitist after 1932.) Many things had to be constructed in the aftermath of the October Revolution, and each seemed a metaphor for the other. There was the Marxist state; there was the heroic proletariat; and third, more prosaically, there was housing for that proletariat, and other structures – concert halls, radio masts, stadiums, shops, power stations. In this great revolutionary project, art needed to look relevant, of the people. And so Liubov Popova's Spatial Force Construction, also painted in 1921.

Taken literally, Spatial Force Construction looks like scaffolding, or the girders that held up the steel-framed buildings sprouting all over the new Soviet Union. To add to its workmanlike feel, Popova has made her work out of workaday things, the sort of materials you might find on any building site: paint, marble dust and plywood. Its surface is rough and unfinished, not at all like the slick varnishes of the ancien régime. For all that, though, Spatial Force Construction is a profoundly intellectual work, picking up on the deconstructive experiments of Cubism and taking them further, on into the realms of pure abstraction.

And so, as with Gustav Klutsis's Dynamic City, there is a degree of subterfuge going on. Klutsis's lovely painting looks like an architectural drawing or a graphic design – the study for a radial city, maybe, or a logo for Aeroflot. It sets out to look functional, as though, in the right hands, it might be made into something. And some of Klutsis's drawings were exactly that – studies for structures to be built, most famously the so-called "propaganda kiosks" of the early 1920s. The two kiosks that were actually erected were hugely popular in a way that his two-dimensional artworks never were. Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, aka Tatlin's Tower, is the most famous of these art/architecture hybrids, a scaled-up version of its original maquette currently standing, 10 or so metres high, in the Royal Academy's courtyard. Since the finished structure was meant to be 100 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower – it was never built – the effect is somewhat lost. In terms of scale, Anish Kapoor's monument to the 2012 Olympics, a distant nod to Tatlin, probably gives you a better idea.

All this is fascinating, as is the story told from the other side – namely, of architects who began working like artists. On the walls across from images by Klutsis, Popova et al, are photographs of Constructivist buildings – famous ones, such as the Melnikov House in Moscow, and lesser-known buildings such as those of the Checkist housing scheme. Always striking, often beautiful, these are curiously undersold in this show. While the name of the photographer who took the shots of the buildings is on the labels, you have to hunt for the names of the architects who built them: not very useful, really.

Also left out is the name of the man who saved all these Popovas and Klutsises – and a great deal more early Soviet art besides – from destruction: George Costakis, an ex-driver at the Greek embassy in Moscow, who spent the 1940s and 1950s truffling out hidden artworks and hanging them in his tiny flat. That his name doesn't appear next to each work in this show seems faintly thankless.

The main omission, though, is that Building the Revolution treats architecture and art as separate entities, when the point of Constructivism was not to.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees Leonardo at the National Gallery

Art Choice

Place your bets now on who will be this year's winner of the Turner Prize – Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw have work on display at the Baltic Gateshead (till 8 Jan). Tacita Dean has taken on the Tate's Turbine Hall; her 11-minute moving picture installation, FILM, will be lighting up the space until 11 March.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor