To set the scene, I’m wandering the vast rooms of the Tretyakov gallery of 20th century Russian art. Actually, not so much wandering as going from painting to painting and methodically snapping pictures.
Female Acrobat, Pyotr Vilyams, 1927. The ideal Soviet woman was not to be trifled with:
The surprisingly coquettish Girl with a t-square ruler, Nikolai Zagrekov, 1929. But Soviet calendar girls are neither odalisks nor porn stars but professionals:
Portrait of a Petty Bourgeois, Nikolai Denisovsky, 1928. Love, love, love this – he captures his small self-importance perfectly:
The Balloon Flies Away, Sergei Luchishkin, 1926. This reminds me of La Ballon Rouge, the 1956ish short French film about the red balloon that adopts a young boy and eventually leads a revolt of the balloons. Or are my references getting too obscure?
The New Moscow, Yuri Pimenov, 1937. This was what the old Bolshevik Party was liquidated for. It’s not quite as simple as industrial progress: notice that the driver is a woman, and she’s driving alone. All that primitive mass accumulation, and wiping out political opposition, was to foster a world of material equality. And it did, for a middle class of professionals and party workers:
By the time I get to High Stalinism I’m exhausted, so I don’t mind too much when the gallery attendant tells me I need to buy a permit to take photos. But I got a couple in.
Portrait of Iosif Stalin, Georgy Rublyov, 1935. I’m surprised he allowed this to be made. He looks like Satan:
Portrait of Maxim Gorky, Pavel Korin, 1932. This one is notable for how sad Gorky looks, apparently a surreptitious comment on the Revolution that’s been lost:
The Stalinists were brutally straight-forward: there’s one that’s two storeys high, of a group of officers clustered around another officer telling them a story. He’s the centre of attention, but his back is partially towards us, and in the centre of the audience is Uncle Joe, the only one without any decorations on his uniform – he’s obviously above things like petty rank. So, although the painting is ostensibly about this officer telling a war story, it’s actually about who’s listening – and one person in particular. Clever, and not hard to get.
I believe this is Worker and Collective Farm Girl, Vera Someone-or-other, 1937. The original was for the Paris World fair. You might recognize it from the beginning of nearly every Soviet movie. Sorry for the focus, the gallery attendant had stepped out of the room and I didn’t have much time:
Portrait of the Kukryniks Artists, Pavel Korin, 1957-58. Still monumental and hyper-real, but celebrating professionals rather than Stalin:
I’m impressed – to the extent I can still concentrate – by the range of abstract art on display from the 1950s onwards. It wasn’t true, as I concluded after the Russian Museum, that abstraction passed the USSR by: they have plenty of shapes and squiggles, landscapes done in sickly greens and greys, and blocks of colour.
Transformation No. 25, Vladimir Andreyenkov, 1963:
The hyper-real cosmonauts from 1980 (Band of Space-Faring Brothers, I think) are either a throwback to the 1930s or kitsch. There’s even a postmodernist section – which in art, I get – but by this point we need to sit down.
I must go to ze lobby:
A lovely local Lenin by Oktoberskaya metro station, with some monumental Soviet blocks of flats in the background:
We go back to Arbat street, one of the most famous streets in Moscow apparently and a five minute walk from our apartment. It’s pedestrianized and full of tourists, buskers and souvenir shops. It’s not exactly ‘authentic Russia’ but it’s pleasant – thanks to globalization you know where you are regardless of the language. There’s one of the Seven Sisters looming the end of it, and it’s decidedly uninviting – even lit up it looks like an art deco castle of Mordor. Sorry for the fuzziness, this was the best of 8:
Here are the souvenirs I made it out of Moscow with. The Marx pin is authentic, the rest are post-Soviet kitsch. I’m happy to have my own little Worker and Collective Farm Girl action figure: