Back in the summer sometime, Mama discovered that there was a newish art gallery in town, GRAD, and that it was devoted to the art, design and culture of Russia. So clearly she had to go, and this, inevitably, meant that we had to too.
The exhibition that was on at the time was called ‘work and play behind the Iron Curtain’, and she sold this to us as a display of toys that Papa would have played with as a boy, and a series of dioramas from his young life. I can’t say we were overly enthused about this, but we went along with it because Mama with the gallery goer’s bit between her teeth is hard to get away from. Plus, she said we could take our cameras along and photograph whatever we liked.
The gallery is tucked up behind Oxford Street and as such a bit of a faff to get to from the part of London that is forever work and play in the former Soviet Union. So Mama was a little taken aback to realise that she has been spoiled by the vast national galleries and museums of the capital into overestimating how big GRAD’s exhibition space is and how extensive the displays actually are.
It’s a one room area, people. Quite a largeish room, but nevertheless not somewhere you will be spending the lengthy morning Mama had envisaged. Plus, no full sized mock ups of Soviet communal apartments. Mama was disappointed. Mama blames the very seductive photography on the website. To be fair, they also have an extensive programme of talks and tech support from informative apps and other publications.
Also, the prediction that we would be looking at items from Papa’s past proved only too true. In fact, Mama has a sneaking suspicion that many of the objects had been sourced from Papa and his extended family. Top marks for authenticity, then. Perhaps a little odd to see them lauded as museum pieces though but then Mama has much the same feeling about the cheap plastic footspa in Stevenage Museum.
Nevertheless, we had a good time taking pictures of every. Single. Thing from every. Conceivable. Angle. Until that got really old and we demanded to leave, which took about 10 minutes.
In the meantime, Mama had discovered the reason she was glad we made the trip.
Called ‘ribs’, they are bootleg recordings made out of old X rays of records which were almost (but obviously not quite) impossible to get hold of in the Soviet Union. The story of underground music in the USSR is something that fascinates Mama even more than the rather better known stories of banned writers and their works, so to see these was genuinely moment which thrilled Mama right down to her little black socks.
Anyway. After this we went for a walk. Away from Oxford Street. Mama was happy wandering around the back streets but it wasn’t long before we tired of taking pictures of random doorways, people, dresses, shoes and so on and demanded actual entertainment. We all got a kick out of this pyrexed over wall painting though, which Mama says is by somebody called Banksy. Well, it’s a rat, innit? Animal interest, especially animal interest which Papa is scared of is always worth seeing.
Luckily, before rebellion really set in we stumbled upon an excellent little playground in the bottom right hand corner of Regents’ Park, and thus the day was saved.
Currently GRAD has an exhibition on Bolt, a 1931 ballet by Dmitri Shostakovitch. Mama is wise to GRAD now and we popped in there when we were in the area and had a bit of time to kill.
Bolt is a fascinating sort of ballet. It tells the story of a young Soviet man who gets sacked from his job at a local factory for skiving off, goes to a bar, gets what Mama describes as ‘rat arsed’ and decides to stick a bolt into the machinery in the factory where he works, thus sabotaging it. As you do.
He actually gets caught at the very beginning of the second act and the dastardly plan is foiled. The rest of the ballet is, in fact, the surreal dream of the young Soviet boy who grassed up our anitihero. It’s all about becoming a lifeguard (what else?) and military parades (of course it is).
Mind you, that sort of plot twist is perfectly normal for ballets, Mama says, she who went to see Giselle last year.* This is not what makes the ballet so interesting.
What makes it interesting is that at first glance it is a straight bit of Soviet propaganda, yes, that’s right folks, a propaganda BALLET, but either because they actually meant to poke fun at the genre or because Shostakovitch, the choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, and the costume designer, Tatiana Bruni, got a bit carried away with the enjoyment of plotting the scenes of debauched revelry, including wildly entertaining drunken ballet dancing, and putting wiry ballerinas into unflattering gym slips for the morning exercises at the workplaces set pieces, it comes across as more of a bit of a piss take (says Mama).
Which was not well received. The perils of glorifying industrial processes through the medium of interpretive dance.
The ballet was closed after the first performance, Lupukhov was sacked and Shostakovitch plundered his score to use in other ballets. Bolt itself was not put on again until 74 years later, when the Bolshoi re-imagined it for Shostakovitch’s 100th birthday, a performance Mama tells me she actually saw. You haven’t lived until you have seen the Red Army in scarlet PVC uniforms riding around on scooters, she says, especially when one of the dancers falls off.
They were definitely going all out for the ‘satire’ interpretation.
GRAD’s exhibition focuses mainly on the costumes, although they do have Shostakovitch’s music playing quietly in the background. The walls are full of design sketches and they even have some of the original and remade costumes on display.
The drawings are very familiar in style if you are used to seeing images of Soviet posters. Bright, styalised and slightly geometric. And they do come across as very over the top caricatures of a series of Soviet baddies. You can, perhaps, see why sensitive censors at the beginning of the Stalin era’s headlong plunge into Soviet realism were suspicious.
The centrepiece is the original costume for the US navy. Yes, those are Mickey Mouse hands on a grotesque representation of Uncle Sam.
You can see the Bolt exhibition until, wait for it, February 28th. Better make it quick! Yes, Mama does seem to turn up to shows as they are about to close. It’s because she likes to play chicken with deadlines. Usually she wins, but it isn’t good for blogging reviews.
But then this is no one off review. GRAD clearly has a knack for picking out not particularly obvious, quirky slices of Russia and the Soviet Union’s artistic heritage. Mama, of course, would always be interested in this, but it now also serve as a reminder that Russia may be big, but it has never been monolithic even at its darkest moments. She will certainly be finding excuses to drop in to whatever exhibition they have on next… and the one after that, and she suggests that if you share her tastes and are in the area, you do the same.
*Giselle, the lead character, dies at the end of the first act and the rest of the ballet is about dancing lady ghosts. Mama, Granny and Babushka were taken aback. They had not seen that coming at all.
Address: 3-4a Little Portland Street London W1W 7JB.
Opening: Tuesday – Friday 11am – 7pm. Saturday 11am – 5pm.
Admission: exhibitions are free.
By tube:Oxford Circus (Victoria, Central and Bakerloo lines): 3-4 mins walk or Great Portland Street (Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines): 10 mins walk.
By bus: These buses all stop on Oxford Street – 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 23, 25, 53, 73, 88, 94, 98, 113, 137, 139 & 159.
By car: Oh, give over.