Margarita Tupitsyn. Shaping Soviet art. (two German exhibitions; various artists; Doucumenta-Halle, Kassel, and Kunsthalle, Cologne) (Report From Germany) Art in America, Sept 1994 v82 n9 p41(4)
When perestroika's liberal policies made Soviet art available to the West in the late '80s, German museums and galleries enthusiastically led the way in organizing major historical and contemporary exhibitions. With the souring economy of the 1990s, which has curtailed the cultural budgets of German cities, one might expect the euphoria to have faded. However, two recent shows suggest that German art professionals are far from being tired of Soviet visual culture. "From Malevich to Kabakov: The Russian Avant-Garde in the 20th Century" and "Agitation for Happiness: Soviet Art of the Stalin Era" were among the most ambitious exhibitions of Soviet art ever organized in Germany. They were particularly significant because together they covered the three major periods of Soviet art. "From Malevich to Kabakov" dealt with the historical avantgarde and contemporary art as they are represented in Peter Ludwig's collection; "Agitation for Happiness" featured, for the first time in the West, the Russian State Museum's holdings of Socialist Realism. And in both cases, the curators sought to interpret and give coherent shape to the still amorphous history of Soviet art.
"From Malevich to Kabakov" was organized for the Kuntshalle in Cologne by Evelyn Weiss, curator of the Ludwig Museum (where all the works in the show are on permanent loan). Peter Ludwig began to collect Soviet avant-garde art in the late 1970s, and in the mid-1980s he decided to add contemporary works to the historical collection. He chose to concentrate solely on the moderate faction of the official Artists' Union, perhaps out of loyalty to the Soviet cultural establishment. Defending his position at the time, Ludwig observed that the West only paid attention to so-called "dissident" artists, and that his goal was to collect the art "displayed in Soviet museums and special exhibitions. Consequently, he did not buy "dissident art" until perestroika, when it could finally be seen publicly in the USSR.
Nevertheless, "From Malevich to Kabakov" ignores Ludwig's vast collection of works by members of the Artists' Union. Instead, it concentrates on what Weiss defines as "the first" or historical avant-garde and "the second" avant-garde, until recently referred to as "alternative" or "unofficial" art. Despite the fact that the two cultural eras are both referred to as "avant-garde," the exhibition draws no stylistic or contextual parallels between them. Instead, the show portrays Soviet art as a culture of ruptures rather than continuities (and the installation emphasizes this reading by physically separating the two sections). For the most part, this position is historically correct because by the time unofficial art began to emerge in the late 1950s, the gap between these two generations was impossible to bridge: the "first avant-garde" had long been completely suppressed and was largely unknown to younger artists. Their initial attempts to reintroduce modernism into Russian culture during the Thaw were nourished not by their own historical past, but by the European and American art shown in Moscow at the time.
Although the exhibition's title suggests that both Malevich and Kabakov are viewed as the major figures of their respective periods, no effort was made to develop this point in the installation. The works in the section on "the first avant-garde" followed the common model of linear surveys of Russian art: it began with pre-Revolutionary Primitivism and Cubo-Futurism and suggested that the roots of the Russian avant-garde are located in Western modernism. Malevich, whose post-Black Square oils like Dynamic Composition (1916) were logically placed in the Suprematism section, was presented as merely one of many artists who contributed to the development of abstraction shortly before and after the Revolution.
Sergei Senkin's and Vasily Ermilov's works represented the moment in the early '20s when practitioners of non-objective art first experienced difficulty in using abstract language in the highly politicized Soviet environment. Ermilov's Experimental Composition (1922) showed how Tatlin's non-objective Constructivism was adapted to serve ideology by other artists; symbolic objects like hammers and sickles began to appear in Constructivist compositions. Similarly, Senkin's Rabis (Union of Art Workers), 1920-21, exemplifies the practice, common at the time, of injecting propagandistic slogans into abstract forms (a trend also evident in the work of El Lissitzky, Malevich, Natan Altman, Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis).
This distancing from non-objective art continued apace and eventually led to a return to figuration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which was also documented in this show. Here we found such diverse manifestations of representational art as Konstantin Vialov's and Piotr Williams's renditions of industrial and rural labor, and Alexander Tyshler's painterly, neo-Surrealist dream images. (Had the post-Suprematist paintings by Malevich and Konstantin Rozhdestvensky been included in this section, the move from abstraction to figuration would have been clearer.)
The Ludwig collection's preference for painting explains the secondary position to which avant-garde photography was relegated in this exhibition, a position that parallels its orphan status in Soviet art studies in general. Although the selection of late '20s and early '30s photographs made up perhaps the most visually complete--and in many respects the most novel--part of the exhibition, it seemed a mere afterthought. The photographs were separated from the historical avant-garde, despite the fact that they were an intrinsic part of its history. For instance, comparison of Boris Ignatovich's aerial shots of Leningrad monuments and industrial sights with his later photographs of swimmers and bathers (both included in the show) effectively illustrates the shift that took place around 1935, as both artists and photographers moved from structurally complex and thematically reductive subjects to more formally conventional and romanticized images.
Like Malevich, Kabakov appears here as a proper name, as a convenient label rather than as the artist responsible for founding the Moscow conceptual tradition. The nature and extend of his influence on a generation of younger artists was not articulated. Many of the contemporary artists included in this exhibition, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Vladimir Yakovlev, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, Oskar Rabin, Mikhail Grobman, Dmitry Prigov, Grisha Bruskin, Eduard Shteinberg and Igor Zakharov-Ross among them, have only a circumstantial
0 relationship to Kabakov or to one another. They were all considered "unofficial artists," but their presence together in this exhibition testified primarily to the distortions created by Soviet cultural structures rather than to any shared ideological or esthetic affinities. Had these artists' careers developed under more normal conditions, most of them would never have ended up on the same exhibition checklist. Furthermore, despite the title, the show did not qualify as a historical survey, since major contemporary names--like Ivan Chuikov, Vladimir Nemukhin, Oleg Vassiliev, Irina Nakhova and Leonid Sokov--were missing. Nor did the contemporary section serve as a history of any particular tendency in post-Stalinist Soviet culture, such as abstract art, figurative expressionism, Conceptual 0 or Sots art (Soviet pop art)--all of which could have been explored.
There are other themes that might have been used to connect the otherwise random selections dubbed "the second avant-garde." There is, for instance, some link between Kabakov and Yullo Sooster's drawings from the 1960s, which were exhibited here. The two artists became friends while working in adjacent studios; Sooster's knowledge of Surrealist traditions (he had access to Western art publications, a rarity at that time) had some impact on the spatial and iconograhic qualities of Kabakov's early experiments in graphics. Also, the conceptual vocabularies of Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov (whose paintings were generously represented in two rooms of the show) are closely connected: they owe much to the children's book illustrations both artists made throughout the 1970s in order to earn a living. It was this practice which most likely led to the combination of drawing and text which has been the primary format of their conceptual investigations.
Komar & Melamid's Stalin and the Muses (1981-82) and Erik Bulatov's Trademark (1986) are both Sots art oils which deconstruct the cliches of Soviet propaganda, and thus constituted the only direct link between unofficial art and Socialist Realism. Together with Kabakov's drawings, paintings and installation work, which are based on scenarios of Soviet communal life, they provide a multilevel interpretation of Soviet reality before perestroika. Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina's "re-creation" of a 1930s show, Fish Exhibition, a multi-part installation of found and artist-made objects and paintings, was a provocative but lonely example of post-Kabakov conceptualism.
Though "From Malevich to Kabakov" made no connections between the first and second avant-gardes, there are ways they could have been compared. The inclusion of Lissitzky's designs for the Soviet Pavilion of the 1928 Pressa exhibition in Cologne as a frontispiece to Weiss's catalogue article offers one example. Had Lissitzky's designs been exhibited (they were among the first Soviet works Ludwig acquired), they would have provided an extraordinary counterpoint to Kabakov's Red Pavilion. (This piece was originally built for the Russian pavilion of the 1993 Venice Biennale, and was installed outside near the entrance to the Kunsthalle, thus serving as an introduction to the entire exhibition.) If Pressa's hymn to the mass media, orchestrated by Lissitzky and a collective of Soviet artists, was exhilarating, Kabakov's Red Pavilion, a slapdash, Soviet-style structure, topped with speakers blaring music and slogans, metaphorically embodies the final exhaustion of the propaganda machine.
With the exception of Isaak Brodsky's and Aristarkh Lentulov's portraits of Stalin, "From Malevich to Kabakov" did not treat the Socialist Realist era at all. This exclusion is not due to Ludwig's antipathy to totalitarian culture. On the contrary, in the 1980s he noted that he "would like to buy examples of Stalinist art, but it is very difficult. You would have to go to artists' families and widows who think their husbands were Raphaels or Michelangelos. But I would like to establish some links between the earlier periods and now." These links were visible in "Agitation for Happiness: Soviet Art of the Stalin Era," organized by Evgeniia Petrova (a curator of the Russian Museum) and Hubertus Gassner, former director of the Documenta Archiv in Kassel, where the show appeared.
At the entrance to "Agitation for Happiness: Soviet Art of the Stalin Era" the viewer was greeted by a replica of Vera Mukhina's famous statue of the worker and the female collective farmer, one of the key icons of Socialist Realism. To indicate the complexity of the transition to Socialist Realism, the first room in the exhibition displayed paintings by Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Shevchenko, some of them produced as late as the mid-30's. It would have been helpful if these late works by the avant-gardists had been accompanied by explanatory wall texts, since the cultural context is important and many viewers might have found it more interesting than the paintings themselves. The paintings in this room indicate that as late as the mid-'30s there was not any coherent iconographic or stylistic policy in Soviet art. Rather, artists were working in a fragmented situation inherited from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Filonov was still making his analytical portraits (curiously, he also painted a more conventional portrait of Stalin) and Malevich was involved in experiments with post-Suprematist figuration. Although the Decree on the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations was issued in 1932, it was not until 1936 that a special committee was authorized to take charge of all visual arts affairs. This meant that may Soviet artists associated with the avant-garde did not abruptly plunge into conformity, and suggests that Socialist Realism was not enforced as a model of representation until later than is usually assumed.
Judging from this exhibition, it was not until about 1937 that Socialist Realism became an effective "ideology of totality,"--i.e., incarnated the state's total control over literally every aspect of life. In that year, the new Soviet constitution was enacted and the unification of the Republics took place; the purges and the Great Terror were unleashed by a government now confident of unlimited power. This "totalizing" ideology was in fact first applied not to art, but to the mass media, which Stalin recognized as a propaganda tool far more effective than painting. Isaak Brodsky's 1937 painting of Stalin posing at a table with piles of newspapers and issues of USSR in Construction suggests the tyrant's pleasure at his total control over the mass media. The principles that Lissitzky developed in such publications as USSR in Construction in the mid-'30s were eventually implemented in painting: i.e., artists created appealing, intelligible images devoid of the alienating, anxiety-producing formalist devices of the avant-garde.
"Agitation for Happiness" made it clear that in the beginning, Socialist Realist ideologues were not overly concerned with imposing any single esthetic on artists, at least not in painting. Walking through the rooms of the exhibition, one encountered a kaleidoscope of style. Victor Vykhtinsky's Yury Kugach's and Boris Ioganson's robust, hard-edged realism was followed by Alexander Samokhvalov's brushy, more painterly portraits of sailors, and then by the dense and vibrant genre canvases of Pyotr Konchalovsky and Boris Ermolaev. Socialist Realism concerned itself more closely with the "what" than the "how" of painting (assuming of course that artists did not exceed the limits of representation digestible by the public). It is the content of Socialist Realism which, contrary to some critics' opinions, prevents one from tracing its roots to the Peredvizhniki (the late 19th-century school of realism) or from linking its goals with those of AKhRR (the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia). The naturalistic documentation of social reality characteristic of these groups is quite distinct from Socialist Realism's quest for mythographic scenarios.
The propagandistic power of Socialist Realism was most successfully illustrated by two immense panneaux, Sports Parade (1939) and Prominent People of the Land of the Soviet (1939), installed in a spacious room of the exhibition hall. Monumental paintings like these represented great feats of labor: they were executed by brigades of artists led by major Socialist Realists such as Vasily Efanov, Yury Pimenov, Alexander Gerasimov and Boris Ioganson. In them, the avant-garde spirit of collective creation, which was inspired by a rejection of the modernist paradigm of authorial individuality, was replaced by the obligation to fulfill a social commission in record time. Though these sorts of paintings celebrated the collective, they were nevertheless accomplished under the strict surveillance of the artist-leader of the brigade. The exhibition effectively conveyed the tension between society as a collective and its supreme leader, Stalin, by placing an oversized bronze sculpture of the dictator in the same room with Prominent People of the Land of the Soviets. In the painting, crowds of anonymous men and women are joined by recognizable writers, poets, artists and public figures, and all exude a vibrant sense of complete happiness and enthusiasm for their common goal--the building of socialism. But Stalin's presence reminded viewers that the inhabitants of Soviet paradise were never free of his control.
The double message of Socialist Realist representation was further emphasized by a documentary film, The Great Terror, which was made expressly for this exhibition. Unlike the paintings, which portray "the great happiness" of the Soviet people, the film's goal was to expose the unbridgeable gap between representation and reality, and to demonstrate that Stalin's reign, even for those who never came in contact with the Gulag, was a time of fear and anxiety.
Curiously, both "Agitation for Happiness" and the recent P.S. 1 exhibition of Socialist Realism, "Stalin's Choice," included the work of contemporary artists associated to different degrees with the Sots art movement. By including Sots art works, whose deconstructive strategies were directed toward many of the art works seen in both exhibitions, these shows in effect raised the question of whether Socialist Realism actually belongs on the walls of 20th-century museums, since it was conceived and intended for communal rather than individual reception. Perhaps Socialist Realist works should be viewed primarily as a source text for postmodernist refraction. Komar & Melamid's I Saw Stalin Once When I Was A Child (1981-82), which captures the tyrant peeking out the back window of his famous ZIS car, convinces us that a portrait of Stalin based on an artist's nostalgic memory is far more intriguing than one painted under the harsh reality of his regime. Perhaps this is the moment when Sots artists should be given due credit for their ability to keep us at a distance from and yet aware of the power once wielded by the icons of totalitarian V culture.
Because they were shown simultaneously, "From Malevich to Kabakov" and "Agitation for Happiness" allowed the public to see a wide variety of Soviet art. The two exhibitions also placed Germany once again in the role of mediating and shaping Soviet cultural history. One explanation of what might otherwise seem an awkward position lies in the fact that were it not for Western money and Western scholars' interest, Soviet art history would scarcely be known. This is due to the prolonged absence in the former Soviet Union of independent, professional museums of modern art, publications, galleries and critics. If such mechanisms existed in adequate numbers they would have taken on the task of examining their native culture. Western curators would thus be spared the confusion they experience when confronted with an undigested mass of raw material from a culture whose signs are difficult for them to read. Exhibitions like "From Malevich to Kabakov" illustrate particularly well that at this point the mechanisms of the former Soviet art world remain dysfunctional and poorly understood abroad, and that for now, Soviet art continues to be a stranger in the West, which seldom delves much deeper than a list of its proper names.
Margarita Tupitsyn specializes in 20th-century Russian art. She is currently preparing an exhibition on Soviet avant-garde photography (1932-41) for the
Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany
V [1.] Margarita Tupitsyn, "The Ludwig Collection: Contemporary Soviet Art," Vanguard, March 1985, p. 22. [2.] Ibid, p. 23. [3.] Mukhina's work was originally designed for the Soviet pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1937, where Guernica was first shown. There, the statue crowned a huge tower opposite Albert Speer's monument to Nazi Germany. A separate room of "Agitation for Happiness," devoted to paintings depicting the Soviet victory over the Germans in World War II, provided a further indication that Stalinist culture is far less taboo than Nazi culture. The German's interest in historicizing Soviet cultural heritage may be partly explained as an attempt to avoid dealing with their own totalitarian past. [4.] In a number of public debates in the mid-'30s the ideologues of Socialist Realism attacked naturalism as intensely as they did formalism. [5.] Prominent People of the Land of the Soviets was originally painted for the Soviet Pavilion of the 1939 New York World's Fair. [6.]According to Hubertus Gassner, one of the curators, this critical distance was absent from the expanded version of the show exhibited at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg; there, the installation sought to re-create the mass media image of the Soviet 1930s by including period furniture and music. [7.] P.S. 1 exhibited Komar & Melamid, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Afrika and Oleg Vassiliev; Documenta Archiv invited Milan Kunc to do an installation and a performance.