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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Boris Vladimirski

The glorification of the Russian peasant class.
Over the past several months, maybe even years now, I've discussed at some length the importance and exceptional qualities or Russian art. One major reason for this is that I've come to feel that such art has been very much slighted by American writers and critics (and perhaps other westerners too) in our not recognizing the high quality of such work, not to mention its sheer quantity. Nearly all such art had it's genesis at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg (and to a lesser degree, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture). This neglect was in large part due to the Cold War mentality in which all Russians were "the enemy" and to a great extent, all things Russian were considered shoddy and second-rate. Unfortunately this mindset unjustly included all Russian art as well. In short, the Soviet era gave all things Russian a bad name insofar as the non-Communist world was concerned. No distinction was made between that art from before the Bolshevik Revolution and that which came after 1917. But art is art. During every era there has always been "good" art and "bad" art, in Russia and everywhere else in the world. Simply because we in the west despise a particular political/economic system from Russian history is not justification for dismissing out of hand some eighty years of Russian art as not worth discussing, appreciating, and criticizing. That's like dismissing the first eighty years of American art simply because the U.S. Constitution permitted slavery.

Young Pioneers in a Foundry, Boris Vladimirski
Boris Vladimirski
Although I've written about quite a number of Russian artists, as best as I can recall, I've covered only two artists from the Communist era, Alexandr Gerasimov, and Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka. Let me now add a third artist to this meager group--Boris Vladimirski. Born in 1878, Boris came out of Kiev in the Ukraine where he first trained at the Kiev Art College starting at age ten. Following that, he was off to the Munich Academy of Arts and the Anton A┼żbe School in Munich for the next four years. He exhibited his first painting in 1906. Whether Vladimirski actively embraced the Bolshevik movement in Russia, as it grew out of the national debacle of World War I, or if he became a Communist as a matter of convenience (indeed, survival) in the years that followed, is uncertain.

Lenin on an Airfield, ca. 1930. Boris Vladimirski
In any case, Vladimirski became an official Soviet artist, probably sometime during the 1920s as evidenced by his Lenin on an Airfield (above) from around 1930. His work was well received and widely exhibited. His paintings were aimed at exemplifying the work ethic of the Soviet people (top) and were displayed in many homes, factories, and government buildings. And, as with any good Communist artist, he also did portraits of prominent public officials--most notably Lenin and later Stalin.
Lenin in Red Dawn, 1930, Boris Vladimirski
It's easy to dismiss all such art as nothing more than Communist propaganda, which it most certainly was. But that goes too far. Art, at least until the era of Modern Art, has always had to serve a purpose to justify its existence. And, from elevating Egyptian Pharaohs to the realm of deities, to its exploitation for religious purposes, propaganda has long been one its most important functions. Even today, from instructions as to how to obtain Obamacare to the near deification of presidential candidates, art continues to be subservient to various forms and degrees of propaganda. Thus propaganda is a fact of life, either good or bad depending upon its source and its reception. The artist can hardly be blamed for trying to survive the political turmoil of his homeland. However, he or she might be due criticism for how well they accomplish this purpose, and here Vladimirski is due his share, as seen in his nearly sickening Roses for Stalin (below) dating from 1949, shortly before the artist's death a year later.

Roses for Stalin, 1949, Boris Vladimirski
On several different levels, the painting stinks. At its most basic level, simple propaganda, it's so grossly over the top as to be ineffectual. As hero-worship, its so syrupy sweet as to gag a maggot. In that Stalin died just four years later and politically fell from grace in the early 1960s, even to Russian eyes, the symbolic purity of the white military uniform worn by such a murderous dictator must seem horrifying. Then there's the innocent, adoring faces of the young pre-teen boys and girls which, in fact, Stalin seems unaccountably to be ignoring as he gazes off into the distance as if contemplating his own greatness. And lastly, with all that political and psychological baggage weighing it down, it's hard to even grant it the virtue of being a pretty picture. Yet it's undoubtedly Vladimirski's most famous work.

Black Ravens, ca. 1930s, Boris Vladimirski
Vladimirski's most controversial work, the real portrait of Stalin, can be seen in his Black Ravens (left) dating from the 1930s. On the surface the painting is deceptively mundane, depicting three black sedans making their way over a snow covered road. However, the painting shows an-other side of Vladimirski. Black Ravens were the cars used by the NKVD (KGB) to arrest, or "disappear," civilians, often in the wee hours of the morning. They were notorious in creating the atmosphere of fear and distrust so prevalent in the 1930s and 40s. It is regarded as a piece that trans-cends the values of Socialist Realism. It is still unknown how this work managed to pass Soviet censorship.

Untitled, undated, Boris Vladimirski. Despite the bouquets
of Communist flags in the background, this genre scene
does not seem overtly propagandist, but notice that
among the boys' toys are guns.


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