… if there’s a more unappealing blog post title, I haven’t heard it.
We’re back to the second floor of the Russian Museum, in the 20th century section. It featured Alexander Labas, someone I hadn’t heard of before but admired by the end of the show. I thought his work typified the broad arc of Soviet art: bold experimentation in the post-Revolution era, followed by a sharp decline into standardized socialist realism.
Traditional portraiture is appealed to – her calm composition – and then disrupted by the intense red tie she’s got on. Here’s Street Fight from 1929, in which Labas remembers the street battles between revolutionary workers and counter-revolutionaries in the July Days of 1917. I really like this one, as it looks like a memory. Plus the spots of colour suggest the intensity remembered through a haze of time:
Lenin Arrives in Petrograd, 1930, seems transitional:
Lenin’s posing like he does in statues, but he’s not monumental, he’s still a person (albeit the only one with features.) Everyone else is fuzzy, suggesting both memory and their stand-ins as members of a class or occupation.
The Moscow Metro, 1935, is distinctly different:
Labas has abandoned people in struggle for tiny, faceless people enjoying the fruits of Soviet society, which is literally carrying them to heaven. Though metros in St. Petersburg and Moscow do look like that, minus the angelic light. Given that in the intervening five years he was accused of formalism (i.e. privileging form over content), and denied access to the art world for many years, it’s not surprising he played it safe. In the Mayanitskaya Street Area, 1935:
Pretty, bland, indistinct images of a city, with a Zeppelin thrown in to remind viewers they’re in the best of all possible worlds. That Zeppelin returns in the far more impressive Zeppelin Launch (I think) from a couple years later:
Early Soviet art used to glorify workers. Now the workers are tiny ants compared to the might of Soviet machinery. No surprises which machinery of state was in charge at the time. (And felt like it still was, when I took a picture and was told by the nearby guard, “Nyo photos!” I had been able to take pictures in all the other galleries, so I felt a bit miffed, until I looked closer at the ‘no photos’ sign. It had the whole camera crossed out, whereas the other rooms had a picture of a camera and flash with just the latter crossed out. A subtle distinction I missed.) Compare the Zeppelin to Conductress by Alexander Samokhvalov, 1928:
Sure, she’s a happy worker, but she’s godlike. The streaks of lightning that my camera records as white are actually a brilliant green. The machine and labour have elevated her above us earthly mortals.
The USSR did have abstract and formalist schools post-Stalin, but they were never part of the canon and had to stay underground. When mainstream artists started to question the dogma in the 1960s, their work stretched thematic rules but remained representational. Here’s In The Morning by Vyacheslav Zagonek, 1959-1960:
And another whose name I forgot to record, from the same period:
Group Portrait of the Tyazhbummash Workers, 1969, by Folke Niemenen:
Technically gorgeous, and the last two convey a sense of foreboding and human dignity, respectively. But that’s a picture of a peasant man and child, and one of some workers, at a time when the western art world was moving away from representation altogether. Why was non-representational art perceived as so threatening by the Soviet bureaucracy? Even artists’ satire, when it finally came, looked solidly like what it portrayed – Queue by Alexei Sundakov, from 1986:
The irony of a country which produced the most startling abstractions, firmly grounded in revolutionary theory and practice, rejecting them for the most conservative, National Geographic portraiture is, well, very ironic.
Finally, here are a couple I liked, so it’s not all a lecture. First, Death of a Commissar by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1928:
At first glance it’s a standard Hero of the Revolution set-piece, but you can see that the Commissar is pale – in keeping with his profession as revolutionary educator. He’s an activist and intellectual, not a manual worker. Yet he carries a gun and fights with the others. The man who’s holding him as he dies has the ruddy features of a peasant. Even though they’re from different classes, communism has brought them together. Ignoring the subtext about obeying your Party betters, it’s a magnificent portrayal of intellectuals going over to the workers, as well as the kind of sacrifices that entails.
Second, Kazimir Malevich’s teapot from 1923. Because even Suprematists need to drink tea: