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Friday, September 23, 2011

Communist Art

When we read the newspapers, hardly a day goes by in which we don't see a story about the sorry state of affairs in Russia. We read about hyperinflation, exorbitant interest rates, capital flight, economic collapse, black markets, crime syndicates, graft and corruption at the highest levels of society.  Interesting too, is what we don't read about. We don't read much about art. Of course art tends to thrive best in a stable economic environment and not at all when times are tough. Curiously though, Russian art has tended to be a minor topic of conversation in the motherland and elsewhere for generations. Not since the earliest days of the revolution when Chagall, Malevich, and Kandinsky thrived amidst the revolutionary excitement in Moscow, has there been much in the way of innovation or creative spirit in Russian art. Was Communism somehow anti-art?

Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl,1937,
Vera Mukhina (now reconstructed in Moscow)
Actually, no, but the question is much more complex than that. First of all, after the fall of the czarist regime and during the various "great leaps forward," any private market their might have been for art evaporated. That left only government commissions. And while these, initially at least, left quite a great deal of artistic latitude in which the artist might create, as time past, government commissions more and more became government control of the arts. Those in the politburo wanted to see the state get as much "bang for the ruble" so to speak, as possible. Abstraction had long been too esoteric to serve any communal good, and as time progress, even symbolist efforts such as Chagall's had to give way to the literal, realistic, banal, and propagandist common denominator. Vera Mukhina's massive stone monument Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl erected first at the 1937 Soviet pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition, is typical of this style.

Defense of Petrograd, 1928, Axexander Dejineka
While Picasso was exhibiting his equally propagandist, but emotionally explosive antiwar masterpiece, Guernica in the Spanish pavilion, it was as if the Germans and Russians were in a race to see who could impress the world most with their blandness. The Germans won the competition.  Their pavilion featured a pinnacle complete with a Nazi bronze eagle topping out at 187 feet in height while Mukhina's monument towered a mere 106 feet tall. The Russians even had a name for this bulky bravisimo.  They called it Socialist Realism (sometimes Heroic Realism). In short it was "art that was revolutionary in form, socialist in content." Themes included the rustic idyll of rural life, the personal fulfillment of manual labor, the glory of the Red Army, and the deification of Lenin.  Artists included Alexander Gerasimov and his Lenin on the Podium" of 1929; Alexander Dejneka's Defense of Petrograd, 1928; and M. B. Grekov's Portrait of Stalin, (1935). If you've never heard of any of them, it's quite likely you are not now, nor have you ever been a member of the Communist Party.

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