‘LENIN started out from a position that Art is the most powerful means of political propaganda for the triumph of the Socialist cause,’ Margy Kinmonth the director of ‘Revolution – New Art for a New World’ told News Line in an exclusive interview with her in west London.
She is introducing her film at the 100 years Anniversary Rally of the Russian Revolution taking place at the Camden Centre from 2pm-8pm on Sunday November 12th. (see 100th Anniversary, left)
She said: ‘As an artist I wanted to express the important role that artists played, what the artists did in the Russian Revolution.
‘With the Russian Revolution there has been no bigger political event in history where artists have played such a role, have been more involved in this world changing event. My interest initiated with the role they played, how the artists were the vanguard of the revolution and later became the victims.
‘I start off from this position because I am an artist. I see the making of a film as an art form. The camera is an incredible tool and how you craft your story for the camera is an incredible process.
‘I wanted to learn about Lenin. He started out from this theory that art was the most powerful means of political propaganda for the socialist cause and he said that quite early on.
‘So I read every single word Lenin had written in order to craft my script for the film. That was the position which Lenin started from, that position on art. He got that idea from the French revolution. From very early after the revolution artists were commissioned to produce sculptures which were put in the centres of every square in Russia.
‘However, they were made of material which had a limited life. None of them have survived today and the only record we have of that relatively short phase is through archive film. There is another important point about that period around 1917: It was a hotbed for creativity across all of the arts. Cinema, black and white film, directors like Eisenstein, considered the father of cinema for all time, musicians, photographers.
‘And with the revolution women got emancipation. Through the revolution young women artists creativity flourished and there was a big movement of women artists. Their work was strong, extreme, bold, and I found it really important. That is why I start the film with women painting the revolutionary banners.
‘The art movement had already got going before the revolution and the women artists played an important role. I have made four films in Russian and many people ask me why I am so interested in Russia?
‘The answer is partly because no one else is looking into these stories, stories of art and culture. Art and culture crosses all borders, it unites us, there is no map of the world that it cannot cross. We have a unity through art and culture and it is incredibly important to unite art and culture and humanity and in that unite humanity.
‘When I went to Russia the people I met who were to do with art were very passionate and very nice people. Female directors of the art galleries had all started by working at the gallery and have learnt all about the collections and then worked their way up to become the galleries’ directors.
‘In Russia they are more connected with their culture, with their history of culture. Everyone has read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It is such a good book I could read it again and again. I was excited by that as a film maker, that connection to culture and as a film maker I found it useful to be an outsider. I hire a film crew when ever I am out in Russia, but all the time I have my own camera and do a lot of the filming myself.
‘Concerning my film Revolution, New Art for a New World, when I went to Russia and visited the museums and galleries. There were racks and racks and racks of paintings that have been kept and rarely seen. People like Malevich have become a global brand, he and his work have become very famous. Famous people like Kandinsky, Chagall, everybody has heard of them. So I decided to hang the story on the back of them and then bring in the artists which nobody had heard of.
‘The reason that so many of these artists were not heard of is that many of them died. One of the artists featured in my film, Gustav Klutsis was shot in 1938, which was one of the biggest waves of executions at the hands of Stalin. Many of Klutsis’ friends, family and supporters continued to send letters and money to him because they thought he was still alive, but imprisoned in the Gulag.
‘The Gulag was not just a prison, it was a system of terror. After he was killed there was no one left to champion his art. Then when the Second World War broke out there was the siege of Leningrad and millions died of hunger. Amongst them were many painters and artists. Their paintings were saved and kept in the Russian museums for safety and they have been there ever since.
‘That is why there is so much work from artists stored in these galleries and museums, much of it unseen. Some of the curators there champion the causes of the artists that have disappeared and there are shows in Russia, but outside of Russia these artists are largely unknown.
‘I was excited about that because I was able to tell stories which nobody had heard. For instance the artist, Gustav Klutsis, who was very political at the beginning because he was a designer for posters during the rise of the Bolsheviks.
‘He was a young Bolshevik and there is a photo of him in a car with Lenin. At the beginning they were very optimistic that socialism was the answer. So with my film, this was a new way of telling a story from a different point of view. One hundred years is a good period of time to look back on and the Russian Revolution has interest all over the world and of course in Russia itself.
‘I managed to open my film in Russia earlier this year at 34 cinemas. That has to be put in context: Russia is quite poor and in terms of the world cinema market it has a tiny part of it, so to open in 34 cinemas was a good response. If you look at how these events relate to today, we are in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This borough has one of the biggest divides if you are thinking about rich and poor.
‘Whenever I am making a film in Russia I am always struck by the enormous divide in Russia between rich and poor before the revolution. The feudal system that was in place before the revolution, you can still go and see the feudal costumes.
‘You are struck by the opulence, the clothes. Nicholas the Second’s wife’s clothes were extravagant. There is great evidence in Russia about why that revolution occurred. Here, in this country I do believe that the problem of housing, the cost of properties, is one of the biggest problems. You have young people that will never afford to get their own place and are faced with unaffordable rents. You have students straddled with £50,000 worth of debts. How is this generation going to get themselves set up?
‘In this area you have entire streets where all the shutters are pulled up because there is nobody living there. There are properties being bought just for speculation. I was just coming out of Tesco’s on the Friday after the Grenfell fire and I could hear this row, you know, lots of voices shouting and it was a spontaneous demonstration. Grenfell Tower is only a few streets away from here.
‘They obviously felt that their voices were not being heard and they just walked to the town hall where their demonstration was dispersed, it was absolutely appalling what happened. There was an artist, Khadija Saye in the Grenfell Tower. She is very famous now. They made a film about her. She was lost in the fire and she was just 24 years old. She had just had her work shown at the Venice Biennale and she had her whole life ahead of her. The Venice Biennale is very prestigious, once you get your work there you have made it, her career was just about to really kick off.
‘There is one story I want to tell you about. One of the artists from Russia came all the way to London for the screening and it is very hard to get a visa from Russia. She has become a very good friend of mine and her art is amazing. She is the granddaughter of Klutsis.
‘Once I had been to the museum archive I tried to track all of the relatives to see if they had any stories. A lot of the relatives are still living in their grandparents’ houses and they are also artists. It was very difficult tracking down the relatives of the artists from the period around the Russian Revolution.
‘One of the artists’ descendants, Nina Suetin, described the work of her father who is the famous ceramics artist and she ended up marrying one of his disciples so it is all very much within this circle of artists.
‘My film is a story of survival because it covers a period of about 15 years. How the artists of the revolution lived, whether they kept on doing their art, or whether they had to change their art to do propaganda work under Stalin.
‘Some of the art was subjugated for propaganda purposes. You take Rodchenko, some of his work was used for propaganda purposes. So there are these parallel stories about who died, who survived and who was crushed and whose art was subjugated.
‘I am making a new film about a refugee, it is a migrant story. It is a story about an incredible man who walked across the Libyan desert, made it across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Calais camp and then walked the length of the Channel Tunnel.
‘He is now a marathon runner. My film is called “Tunnel Man” and I am filming each and ever marathon he runs and telling his story, so this is my next project. He managed to walk through the tunnel, avoid the trains travelling at 100 miles an hour, he was the first and he survived.’