Northern Artists

First Snow
“First Snow” – Rem Ermolin 1963

An exhibition of Soviet Realism at the Central House of Artists in Moscow ended yesterday. The show focused on depictions of the culture and landscape of northern Russia from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Last month, Russia Today talked to the exhibition’s organizers, who encountered surprising difficulties assembling the work:

“Some of the rare or even previously unknown canvases were found in odd places, including the dusty closets of the artists’ friends and acquaintances.”

We often see socialist realism used as an example of how low art can sink under a totalitarian regime. Though much of soviet art was smothered under the weight of strict artists unions, there are significant exceptions to this image of a state-run movement.

These artists worked at a time when voices of dissent in other mediums were able to break through the soviet bureaucracy. Russian authors were as strictly controlled as any other artists of the time, and yet it was in the early 1960’s that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was able to publish ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Mikhail Bulgakov’s revolutionary novel The Master and Margarita first ventured from the drawer of his desk in 1967, twenty-six years after its completion and his death.

The example of The Master and Margarita, in particular, gives hope to the cause of lost and forgotten art. An excerpt from the introduction to the novel by Richard Pevear can help us gauge the impact its release had, long after its execution:

“The monthly magazine Moskva […] carried the first part of The Master and Margarita in its November 1966 issue. The 150,000 copies sold out within hours. In the weeks that followed, group readings were held, people meeting each other would quote and compare favourite passages, there was talk of little else. Certain sentences from the novel immediately became proverbial. ”

This delayed publication was particularly significant as the adventurous, satirical novel was unlike anything the author had published during his lifetime. Bulgakov’s most well know work before 1966 was likely The White Guard, known to be a favorite of Stalin’s.

What other masterpieces are lurking in attics and basements across Russia, ready to show themselves to the world? How many ‘propagandists’ are waiting to be vindicated in history by work unseen during their lifetimes?

All great work is not hidden, however. Only recently has this work become accessible outside of Russia; the names of the greatest artists of this period are still unknown to the west. Great work in this style a thing of the past, either. The realist school in Russia is still active – carried on by artists free from the restrictions of Communist rule.

Featured artists in the exhibition include Yuntunen Jeikkievich, Stanislav Torlopov, Pyotr Mironov and Rem Ermolin.

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Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

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