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Documentary captures art of Russian Revolutionary era

The poster for the documentary film, "Revolution: New Art for a New World," at the Music Box Theatre. (Photo: Courtesy of the Music Box)

The Russian Revolution unspooled in a series of fits and starts. But March 8 (on the calendar now used in Russia) marks the 100th anniversary of the great upheaval around Petrograd (then the capital of Russia, now called St. Petersburg), that marked a crucial shift in power.

The history is complex, but for those fascinated by the intersection of art and politics, there could be no finer rendering of the story than that presented in “Revolution: New Art for A New World,” the vivid new documentary by Margy Kinmonth scheduled for a screening at 7:30 p.m. March 8 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport.

The film is astonishingly good at capturing the precarious, ever-shifting position in which artists found themselves during the course of the revolution and all that unfolded in the ensuing four decades, through the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Initially in the vanguard of change, the painters, sculptors, filmmakers, graphic artists, photographers and even choreographers and directors of the period were in every sense as revolutionary as the politicians, devising imagery that radically broke from tradition and propelled the whole notion of change and modernism. But as the revolution began to change they more often than not found themselves being challenged, and were either forced to conform to shifts in political thinking, driven to flee their homeland, or sent to prison, where they were frequently tortured and killed.

As she chronicles the work of such very different but invariably trailblazing artists as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall and many others, Kinmonth looks at the art (much of it hidden away for years in order to prevent its destruction), and other documents, with trips to some of the major museums (the State Hermitage Museum, the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery) and archives in Russia that house them. Even more crucially, she captures the first-hand testimony of the descendants of these artists, along with the observations of curators and contemporary artists.

Anna Kaminskaia talks about the artists of the Russian Revolution in the documentary film, “Revolution: New Art for a New World.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Music Box)
Anna Kaminskaia talks about the artists of the Russian Revolution in the documentary film, “Revolution: New Art for a New World.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Music Box)

Among the “witnesses” is filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (whose work includes “Andrei Rublev,” “The Postman’s White Nights,” “Runaway Train”), grandson of painter Pyotor Konchalovsky. As he observes, the artists of the revolutionary period explored in this film “fought the White Guard, they fought the church, they fought everything trying to, first of all, destroy the old without thinking what they’re going to build instead.” And many of them paid a severe price in the process.

As Kinmonth has noted: “There is a remarkable story to be told about the artists themselves and how their experiences were so intertwined with political events and creation of propaganda. Artists in this tumultuous period of the Russian Revolution created some of the most inventive and brilliant works of art the world has ever known.”

Actors Matthew McFadyen (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Frost/Nixon”), Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager,” “Taboo”) and James Fleet (“Love & Friendship,” “Sense and Sensibility”) lend their talents to voice the artists and politicians who were central to the Russian Revolution.

As another iteration of the Russian empire is seizing the headlines on a daily basis, now could not be a more perfect time to seize the moment and see this film.

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