Portrait of a Revolution – Russia Season at the Sainsbury Centre

Guest blog by Caitlin Kelly

This October marks the centenary of one of the most profound and controversial events of the 20th century: the Russian Revolution, and whilst the autumnal chill of Norwich is merely insignificant compared to the sub-zero climate of Russia, it is rather fitting for the occasion when exploring the Sainsbury Centre’s most recent special exhibition. The Russia Season is composed of two unique exhibits – Royal Fabergé and Radical Russia, the former illustrating the art and opulence of Imperial Russia, and the latter exploring the starkly contrasting and revolutionary abstract and modern art which emerged following the execution of the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and the creation of Lenin’s soviet state.

Royal Fabergé exhibits the traditional art and overwhelming wealth of the Romanov family, encompassing a range of objects from iconic jewelled Fabergé eggs, intricate Easter eggs specially created to be gifted by the Tsar, to a delicate hairpin given to the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, – many of these items have been specially loaned from the Queen’s own Royal Collection. The exhibit is centred around Peter Carl Fabergé, a jeweller from Saint Petersburg, who was a favourite of both the Russian and British Royal families; there is a delicate beauty to be admired in Fabergé’s works, each containing personal touches and attention to detail rarely seen in such expensive objects of his time – Faberge himself is quoted as saying ‘expensive things interest me little, if the value lies merely in the quantity of diamonds or pearls’. This belief is certainly demonstrated in the minimalistic crystal flowers produced by Fabergé’s workshops and first shown in 1900, whose simple beauty still marvels audiences today. What I found most captivating about this exhibit was how it combined the history of both Russia and Norfolk. In 1908, Fabergé himself sent craftsmen to the Sandringham estate (only an hour’s drive from Norwich) to create gorgeous gemstone figurines of the pets, farm animals, and local wildlife of the estate, ranging from an agate pug to an obsidian crow; presenting them as gifts to the Royal Family, these whimsical figurines are available to be admired at the exhibit and were a personal highlight of mine. Also displayed were intimate family photos taken at Sandringham of Tsar Nicholas II’s mother Maria with her sister, George V’s wife Queen Alexandra; it was incredibly poignant to learn how the history of our rural county is intertwined with the Romanovs, in my opinion one of the most alluring and tragic families in modern history. Pictures do not give justice to Fabergé’s masterpieces, I cannot recommend enough the opportunity to admire them in person.

The second half of the exhibit – Radical Russia, was a stark contrast to the very much traditional style of Royal Fabergé. Radical Russia exhibits how the fall of Tsarism revolutionised not only the politics of Russia, but indeed its art, with conventional forms of expression being challenged by a new wave of artists who had begun to embrace both abstract and minimalist art styles. This melting pot of radically modern art forms reflects a society which had been plunged into a brave and harsh new world; my personal favourite piece of this exhibition was Popova’s Spatial Force (1921), a series of geometric shapes on plywood – a world apart from the luxury of Fabergé. Radical Russia also illustrated how politics was very much intertwined with art, displaying various Leninist propaganda from the period. What I considered most striking was the innovative use of art within soviet propaganda, this being best shown through a wall display of simple dining plates decorated with communist illustrations and messages, this scheme was conducted under special instruction from Lenin’s government (ironically these became so expensive that the average family would never be able to afford one!), and a white and red chess set, designed to symbolise the conflict between Lenin’s Red Army and the opposing anti-communist White Army.

A highlight from the Radical Russia exhibition was the feature on soviet architecture. There is an excellent and fascinating display (featuring a scale model) on Tatlin’s tower, a radical design for a monument to commemorate the revolution, whose existence would have both dwarfed and rivalled that of the Eiffel tower; also displayed is a flying machine, also designed by Tatlin to try and revolutionise human travel.

Overall the Russia Season was an enriching and utterly fascinating experience, providing an accessible yet comprehensive and captivating insight into the artistic history of arguably the most mysterious country on Earth. The poignant combination of both local and world history encompassing iconic artwork from internationally renowned artists, make this exhibition all the more engaging and equally thought provoking for a Norfolk audience, I thoroughly recommend this unique and must see exhibition for both Russian history enthusiasts and those new to the subject.

The exhibition runs until 11 February 2018

Tickets are available to book online or are purchasable at the Sainsbury centre.