Sports in Soviet Art

As the Winter Olympics take place in Sochi, a new exhibition of Soviet paintings dealing with sports is on display in Moscow. The exhibition, which debuted this winter in London, was organized by the Institute of Russian Realist Art in Moscow. Since it was founded in 2011, the Institute of Russian Realist Art has sought to raise the profile of Russia’s Realist tradition worldwide. Alexey Ananyev, the Russian banking and IT billionaire who founded the museum, set out to revise an art historical record which has, “wrongly forgotten,” Russia’s Realist tradition. With this high profile show, the icy cold-war reception of official Soviet art appears to be thawing. 

Whereas the western narrative of official Soviet art has, since the beginning of the Cold War, focused on political coercion and censorship to the exclusion of any serious consideration of individual works or artists, the critical reception of “Soviet Sport” shows a remarkable open-mindedness to the goals and methods of Soviet artists. Jackie Wullschlager, a reviewer with the Financial Times, described the show as, ” a chance to reassess the only serious European alternative to modernism,” claiming that Socialist Realism would, “inevitably be reassessed as 21st-century scholarship recasts modern art.” This emphasis on the art-historical record, and the notion that the terms of modern art are up for reassessment is itself a shift in the dialogue about Socialist Realism. Wullschlager goes further, however, stating that Socialist Realism, ” drew on modern art in more ways than was acknowledged at the time.”

A consequence of this open reexamination of official Soviet art is the division of the monolithic style into genres, styles, periods, and ultimately an examination of individual artists. Whereas the traditional Avant-Garde vs. Kitsch binary cast Socialist Realism as a mere extension of state authority, a post-modern and post-Soviet viewpoint is able to see the trees for the forest. Wullschlager writes about the high ideals and motivations of artists Alexander Deineka and Viktor Popkov, without denouncing their views as an insincere attempt to tow the party line.

In a review for Russian Art and Culture, Jo Morgan begins by restating the established critique of Socialist Realism as a heavily censored tool of the Soviet State. This perspective does not end the discussion, however, but is used as a starting point to deepen and complicate our understanding of Soviet art. Morgan writes that,  “Despite certain ideological criteria placed upon Soviet artists, […] artists could blend aspects of the avant-garde or Impressionism in their works to produce works of genuine political, social, historical and artistic interest.”

This exhibition, at the outset of the 2014 Russian-British year of culture, has sparked an open, contemporary discussion of the place of Socialist Realism in art history. As the dialogue continues between Western and Russian art historians and critics, the “victor’s history” of 20th century art will undoubtedly continue to be challenged.

Soviet Sport will be at the Institute of Russian Realist Art through May 25th.

Link to exhibition review at the Moscow News

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Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

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