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30 Августа 2014

Propaganda and More. The Wall Street Journal

The term "Soviet Realism" conjures up images of workers and farmers nobly engaged in their labors—inflated to mythical status—and depicted in a kind of debased academic style. Produced at a time when Soviet authorities scrutinized art for its content and its execution, demanding ideologically worthy subjects as well as expressive methods that would be easily understood by the masses, works of this kind were offered in direct contrast to the "decadent, bourgeois" styles that flourished in the West, those that embraced abstract forms and individual expression—both anathema to Soviet aesthetics. Much of it is more properly understood as propaganda than as fine art.

Realism became mandated through Stalin's "culture czar," Andrei Zhdanov, at a 1934 meeting of the First Congress of Soviet Writers. (Attempts at forestalling "errant" creativity extended to literature and music as well as to the plastic arts—since complexity and dissonance, regardless of the medium, were seen as disloyal assaults on the unruffled perfection of Communist society—with dire consequences for the likes of Boris Pasternak and Dmitri Shostakovich.) It was a period in 20th-century history that might seem best forgotten.

But my recent visit to the Institute of Russian Realist Art revealed a tradition with surprising range and complexity, encompassing not only photographlike portraiture and landscapes, but many artistic approaches: images projected through a dreamy, Impressionist filter; renderings that startle with their bright, radiant colors; and paintings with poignant symbolic messages. The IRRA collection of some 500 works—a good number created after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991—occupies three floors in a 48,000-square-foot former 19th-century cotton-printing factory in the city's Zamoskvorechye district. The Institute, established in December 2011 by the Russian banking billionaire Alexei Ananyev, was founded in part, he says, to remind young people of their heritage.

There are common themes here, though with disparate perspectives. But the museum does little in the way it has arranged the works to frame these connections (and disconnections) within a cultural, aesthetic or historical narrative. The experience of walking these galleries is like embarking on a treasure hunt without a proper set of clues, leaving the visitor wondering: "Where am I going?"

Yet there are gems aplenty. On the first floor, examples of Russian Impressionism include Mikhail Abakumov's "Christmas" (1990-91), with its glittery star-filled night sky and roughly drawn church, and Kim Britov's "Near Mstyora. Golden Autumn" (1999), its incandescent orange trees set against a blue sky, bringing to mind Van Gogh's sinuously alive flora.

On the same floor, the industrial side of Russian culture is celebrated in a number of works, including "Sunny Day at Baikonur" (1986) by Alexander Petrov and Yelena Korennova, which depicts the launching site from which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin traveled into space; and Valery Kokurin's "Building of a Compressor Plant" (1983), a cartoonish drawing with saturated colors of a construction site featuring orange cranes and a background of rolling blue and purple mountains. The mechanized world is also projected, with a more pointed political message, in Mr. Petrov's "Traffic Lights" (early 1990s), in which large, overbearing red, yellow and green lights are adorned with green arrows pointing right and left. Wires loom overhead and dozens of men stand below, but only the tops of their hats are showing. What does it mean? According to author Diane Neumaier in her book "Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art," one cold winter night the artist was in the middle of an intersection and spotted a broken traffic light flashing in all directions at once. He decided the contradictory signals were a good representation of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, in which, says Ms. Neumaier, "everything was permitted, but nothing was possible."

The spirit of Norman Rockwell seems to hover over many of the paintings, and this is especially true of Alexey Belykh's "Dedicated to the Comrades-in-Arms. Self-portrait at the Painting 'A Farewell to Arms. May 9, 1945. Germany'" (1994-1999). Here, a group portrait is framed with a depiction of the painter sitting beside the canvas—like Rockwell's self-portrait in which he is seen painting a canvas while checking his own features in a mirror.

The most intriguing artist on the Institute's second floor is Gely Korzhev, whose portrayals of the horrors of war (another common theme in the collection) are grim reminders of the great losses suffered by the Soviet people in World War II. His canvases include "Hostages of War" (1998-2005), a remarkable wide-angle view of myriad figures—from distraught families, the wounded, and youngsters being shepherded by an old man to, front and center, a schoolgirl in her white outfit and red neckerchief holding a leather bag, as if calmly awaiting the school bus—all standing on barren ground and flanked by menacing soldiers; and "The Victory of Those Alive and Dead (In Memory of the Fallen)" (2001), showing a skeleton in a soldier's uniform thrusting a rifle in the air.

Mr. Korzhev's contributions also include "A Dump" (2007), in which red flags, a hammer and sickle, a boot, beer bottles and an opened can of food all share space with a discarded bust of Lenin; and an impressive collection (in its own special nook) of biblical paintings.

Two artists on the third floor caught my attention. Viktor Tsyplakov's "Nude" (1985) points up the differences between the Soviet and European approaches to the female form. Here, the figure is a study in light and shadow, of the way a weighty body's layers fold in a reclining position—entirely devoid of the deep sensuality we see in Renoir, say, or Modigliani.

Finally, Yury Pimenov's "The Creation of the World" (1973) seems a witty expression of the ontological view of Communism—that it is an inevitable outcome of societal evolution. In this work, Adam and Eve are bathing in a lake, while a huge truck sits on the bank behind them. What a vision—that the seed of the industrial world was present even in the Garden of Eden!

Mr. Isacoff's most recent book is "A Natural History of the Piano" (Knopf/Vintage).

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