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

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War

Frances Stonor Saunders’s book The Cultural Cold War (2000) has just been released in Russian. This work is the only major expose of the CIA’s use of artists, writers and critics as tools in the cultural front of the Cold War. The dialogue about art in the Soviet Union is inseparable from discussions about propaganda, government censorship, government support and political content. The dialogue about art in the west during the 20th century often ignores these larger political issues, focusing on formal concerns and individual artists rather than larger cultural and political struggles. The dichotomy of Western artistic and intellectual freedom vs. Soviet artistic and intellectual repression, however, was at least partially constructed through the covert operations of the United States government. Many of the artists who are hailed as beacons of western artistic freedom were in fact plucked from total obscurity with CIA funding. Galleries and partons were instructed on which artists to buy and for how much, and so, under the guise of a free market process, the avant garde worked as a propaganda arm on the cultural front of the Cold War.

Here’s an excerpt from the Amazon description of the book that names names:

” This “impressively detailed” (Kirkus Reviews) book draws together newly declassified documents and exclusive interviews to expose the CIA’s astonishing campaign wherein some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom became instruments of the American government. Those involved included George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Gloria Steinem. The result is “a tale of intrigue and betrayal, with scene after scene as thrilling as any in a John Le Carré novel” (The Chronicle of Higher Education).”

Boris Groys on Conceptualism, Postmodernism and the Future

Boris Groys*

The Day (День) recently published an interview with art historian/ theorist/ professor/ philosopher Boris Groys. Groys   is one of the key voices in the academic debate over Soviet art. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia that summarizes his position:

“Western thinkers such as Clement Greenberg had criticized socialist art, especially socialist realism, for being mass art and made it an aesthetic taboo. Groys re-evaluated socialist art production, challenging the norms of aesthetics by pushing a thesis based on Walter Benjamin in the very interpretation of politics, claiming that modernism had survived in the “total artwork” […] of Stalinism.”

Greenberg and other early advocates for Abstract Expressionism cast Socialist Realism as the ultimate anti-modern tendency. Groys was one of the first to begin complicating our understanding of Soviet art. As Groys so clearly recognizes, the deconstruction of Western art vs. Soviet art is an inevitable consequence of the end of the Cold War:

“Putin’s Russia, just as today’s America and France, and the entire world, is in state of transition from the ‘cold war,’ where everything is clear and definite, to something new. […] Now everything is so unstable. A typical transitional situation.”

* image courtesy of Wikipedia

Art of Two Germanys

An exhibition going on now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art compares, contrasts, and confuses art made in east and west Germany during the cold war. An article by the New York Times calls the show, a “sympathetic view of postwar art on both sides of the Wall,” and explains that, ” West German art, so the standard account goes, flourished after the war thanks to free expression. Stars like Joseph Beuys, George Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter had arrived on the world stage by the 1970s and established a new era of German cultural prestige abroad, while East German art languished under Communism, churning out only Socialist Realism.

The show makes clear that the truth was actually more complicated, as it usually is, East German art having been more varied, not always politically compliant, closer at times to what was happening in West Germany than the West German art establishment either acknowledged or bothered to notice.”

The show will run through April 19.