American Art in Moscow

Author, critic, and museum director, RICHARD B. K. MCLANATHAN took his A.B. and his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he was a member of the Society of Fellows from 1943 to 1946. He is today director of the Munson-WilliamsProctor Institute in Utica, New York. and last summer, as curator of the art exhibit at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, he had a close opportunity to observe the Russian response to abstract American art.

IF ONE agrees with Alfred North Whitehead that it is a function of art to lend vividness to life, the art display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow last summer provided an admirable demonstration of this function for a large number of Russians. According to their own comments, seeing the American works of art was an exciting, interesting, and often disquieting experience.

Superficially, the conformity of opinion imposed in a Communist state seemed without flaw. The official Soviet propaganda on the art exhibit was familiar enough. It was repeated in the press, we heard it daily dozens of times, and saw it written in the comment book: “Such art cannot be viewed without laughing.” “Such pictures cannot please the Soviet people.”

Official criticism went on to identify this artistic madness as a symptom of the degeneracy of capitalist society, and therefore evidence that the Soviets would not have long to wait before surpassing the United States. Another interpretation often followed, regardless of logic: that whether such art was the work of the insane or a deliberate hoax, its display in Russia was a capitalist plot to undermine Communist culture. This is the Russian counterpart of what too often appears as an official American point of view.

Mr. Khrushchev, as might be expected, proved to be a particularly rugged exponent of the Soviet line. His half-hour surprise visit to the art exhibit two days before the fair closed was apparently prompted by the attention it had attracted in the Soviet, European, and American press, and perhaps also by his desire to see, in preparation for his trip to the United States, the only part of the fair so far unknown to him. Accompanied by Mr. Mikoyan, interpreters, and bodyguards, he arrived in the galleries. When I was presented to him, he shook hands coldly, pointed at a painting nearby, and said, “People who paint like that are crazy, but people who call it art are crazier still!”

Smiling at him in the friendliest fashion, learned over weeks of dealing with Soviet hecklers, I replied, “But Mr. Khrushchev, the wonderful thing about America is that there you are just as free to have that opinion of yours, wrong though it is, as that artist is to paint just exactly as he pleases!”

A look of amazement replaced the frown, then a smile, then grinning broadly he shook hands, pounded my shoulder, and finally embraced me in front of a painting by the late Jackson Pollock. His reaction, no doubt, was an expression of the spirit of peace and friendship; but it was scarcely to be interpreted as indicating his conversion to modern art, as his colorful, unprintable remarks, translated literally by our American interpreter, made clear. Yet that he was puzzled and disturbed by what he saw in the exhibit was shown by his intense, though brief, study of individual pictures and sculptures. Mrs. Edith Halpert, who spent the first three weeks of the fair in Moscow, arranged the art exhibit in admirable fashion, despite great and unforeseeable difficulties, and before leaving for America instituted the policy of closing the galleries to all but artists, museum personnel, teachers, specialists, and advanced students from one to three every afternoon. This turned out to provide an unprecedented opportunity for an exchange of ideas on many subjects. However, during the remaining eight hours that the galleries were open, the crowds were so great that there could be little educational activity on our part, though each person received one of the 400,000 small catalogues, with its excellent introduction, until these ran out shortly before the end. To help solve this problem, two simple explanatory texts were written, translated into Russian, and read onto tapes broadcast at frequent intervals in the two areas where art was displayed. This, as well as answering such questions as the flow of the crowds allowed, was all of the interpretation possible during most of the day.

Despite the brouhaha both in Washington and in Moscow which accompanied the presentation of the art in Sokolniki Park, out of all the works shown, excluding the group of American “old masters” added later, less than a third can be considered as belonging in the abstract to nonobjective category. When the older paintings are included, the fraction diminishes to nearly one eighth. Yet there was very little mention of anything but the modern or abstract or surrealist — all three adjectives being applied without discrimination as equally disparaging. The propaganda consistently directed against a fraction of the American exhibit, combined with the unsettling experience of seeing paintings so strange and unusual in a country where socialist realism is rigidly enforced, blinded most of the Russians to the rest of the exhibit. Particularly at first, when the visitors were largely Party members, we frequently saw them walk past a number of representational works without looking at them and go on to confront an abstraction, repeat the official criticism, and move on. But not always, for just as certain Russians took their first swallow of Pepsi Cola, spat it out with an exaggerated expression of disgust, threw the rest on the ground, walked to the next dispensers and drank a number of cups with great enjoyment, so, after expressing the expected opinion of the art exhibit, many studied the works and asked questions which showed that they were not satisfied by the official interpretations.

Actually, the lack of conformity in opinion was remarkable, and it is here that the comparisons often made between Soviet and American reactions can be so misleading. The Soviet citizen is indoctrinated with the belief that art is vitally important, not only generally but to him personally, and that it can properly have no function other than to serve the state. In the words of a recent Pravda editorial:

Art brings the working people of nationalities closer to each other; it helps in the education of high aesthetic taste; it inspires new labor exploits for the sake of Communism. . . . The realism of our multinational art, its faithfulness to the truth of life, the serving of the cause of peace, the extolling of the loftiest human aspirations — this is what wins the hearts of the ordinary people of all continents.

Like his American counterpart, the Soviet believes that he is as good a judge of art as anyone, no matter what his training or background may be; but, unlike Americans, he is told that it is his duty to look at works of art and to have correct opinions about them. Furthermore, he is under additional pressure: he has embarked upon a program to outproduce and overwhelm us with Soviet technical superiority. For him there is a great urgency to see, study, and assess anything American as a product of the nation which he is informed is now superior to his but which he must surpass.

By contrast, few Americans consider art as propaganda, and no Americans arc under any compulsion to pay attention to it at all. The truth of the matter is that most of us would rather watch television or go bowling than go to an art exhibition, and we are perfectly free to do so. Thus, the Superficial comparison of American and Russian opinions on modern art misses the point entirely. Under totalitarian government, conformity is the rule. Any deviation of opinion is notable, and there was an amazing and significant amount in Sokolniki Park last summer.

TICKETS for the fair were distributed entirely by the Soviet administration, one of the conditions upon which the Russians insisted before we could hold our exhibition; for the first two or three weeks, therefore, the crowds were largely Party members and groups selected from a strictly Party point of view. The tickets were universally sought after. They cost one ruble (roughly ten cents), and patient people waited hours in line for a place in another line at the head of which they might be able to purchase a ticket. After that they had to stand further hours, four abreast in a queue which meandered through the long avenues of Sokolniki Park, waiting to inspect the display which the Soviet government had set up as counterpropaganda before they could see the United States National Exhibition. Despite these obstacles, the Russians came in unexpected numbers, 60,000 and more a day, with 10,000 to 15,000 and occasionally even more of these passing through the art exhibit. No such number could possibly look at works of art; at rush hours people were packed so densely that those in the middle could catch only glimpses of paintings or sculptures.

As was to be expected, there was a considerable difference in the reactions to the exhibition between the majority and the specialists. For every group which went through shaking their heads in derision or wonderment there were individuals who stopped as long as the pressure of the crowd allowed to ask questions, more often basic and reasonable than sarcastic, or to write “Thank you for pleasure” and “I wish American artists all success.” Also, many paintings were singled out for specific criticism. One visitor, representing a small minority, wrote, “I like very much the picture by Pollock. I think it is great art.” A more usual opinion of this painting was expressed by a critic who somewhat belligerently signed herself as “a Soviet schoolgirl who accepts only what is portrayed realistically and true to life”: “I do not understand what kind of composition is in pictures like The Cathedral. This is daubery made by a sixmonths-old child!”

The surrealist painting by Peter Blume entitled The Eternal City attracted much favorable attention, its antitotalitarian message being interpreted as solely anti-Fascist and thus acceptable to Soviet ideology. Most visitors admired it for its meticulous workmanship, and several wrote of the “tremendous impression” it made. Andrew Wyeth’s The Children’s Doctor was admired for its technique, and Eugene Speicher’s Red Moore, Blacksmith, for its subject, a worker.

The dramatic demonstration of freedom of expression provided by the variety of the works of art, which the book exhibit in its quieter way also showed, reached a surprising number of Soviets and served a far more significant purpose than can be measured in terms of the popularity of certain styles of contemporary painting or sculpture.

This idea was emphasized more strongly by the Soviet publicity given to the criticism of Jack Levine’s painting entitled Welcome Home, which shows an unattractive general at a banquet. With its subtle but telling distortions, beautiful brushwork, and expressive coloration, the painting is a protest against the inherent evils of army brass and is thus an assertion of the essentially civilian basis of our society. Though President Eisenhower expressed dislike for the picture, he very wisely and properly refused to censor the exhibit.

When consulted by the press, Mrs. Halpert, a leading proponent of American art, was outspoken in emphasizing that the exhibit had been chosen by a distinguished jury: Lloyd Goodrich, director of the Whitney Museum; Franklin Watkins of the Pennsylvania Academy, a famous portrait painter; Theodore Roszak, an outstanding sculptor; and Professor Henry Hope, chairman of the Art Department of Indiana University. They had selected the exhibit to show, at as high a level of quality as possible, the pattern of American art during recent decades. She went on to make the further point, also admirably stated by Senator Hart, that it was high time artists in America were judged by their art rather than by their political opinions. All this was reported in the Soviet press and on the air with the usual distortion: The President had to censor the art exhibit, and the woman who criticized his taste had met with “a mysterious fate.” It was, therefore, a source of great satisfaction, when a heckler asked to see Welcome Home, to point it out in a prominent place in the gallery. And as for the woman who criticized the President, her mysterious fate was to be sent to Moscow by the United States government to set up the art exhibit. More than one Russian turned away remarking that there must be some truth to American claims of freedom.

THOUGHTFUL consideration was given the exhibit by many of the artists, though few were as outspoken in the comment book as the one who wrote:

It is a pleasure to see the variety of the exhibited pictures. I would like to have exchange exhibitions arranged often. The exhibition has been planned for a broad review; one can here discuss modern art, which is very important for the growth of art. Thank you for the exhibition of America in Moscow.

But in our conversations between one and three o’clock daily, after a brief guided tour to introduce the exhibit and some of the basic ideas and vocabulary of modern art, there was an atmosphere of receptivity and eagerness to learn. Being unable to speak Russian was less of a handicap than I had feared, because many spoke English or some other European language. Also, I used as often as possible English-speaking Russian visitors as interpreters. Though less expert than our Russianspeaking American guides, they were pleased to participate, assisted in explanations, and frequently answered the occasional barbed questions in a way that took for granted the basis of modern art — the individual’s freedom of expression.

The artists were impressed that the works shown, despite their diversity of style, were done by professionals who, having had an academic training or its equivalent, were free to choose various personal directions. It was curious and interesting to them that an artist who painted in a realistic manner could know and admire one whose style was abstract. They felt a comradeship with other artists and with those professionally involved with art like Mrs. Halpert and myself.

Several expressed what might be called the official artist’s point of view. They assumed that the validity of art lies only in its service to the state, but interpreted this theory with an idealism perhaps as strong among Russians as Americans. An art teacher wrote:

It seems to me, and also to other Soviet persons, that art must serve to bring people closer to each other, must help mutual understanding. Realistic art achieves just that. Realistic art is very popular in our country and in other lands of social democracy. Abstract art is intelligible only to the artist himself, and each person interprets it in one’s own way. It reflects individualism and not unity among people, and therefore it cannot be useful.

Many of the Russians agreed, however, that the American exhibition had served admirably to bring people together, and the question of intelligibility was much discussed, with many of the visitors accepting the idea, perhaps because Russians are very music-minded, that communication can take place at various levels and that naïve storytelling is no longer entirely necessary for the visual arts in a literate society. Since the fair provided, in most cases, the first opportunity for seeing original abstract and nonrepresentational works, it was remarkable how quickly some gained sufficient familiarity with such different forms of expression to mention, for example, the “deep impression” left by “the picture of a still very young painter,” The Flight of Plover by Morris Graves.

Though wrong from the official Soviet point of view, individualism had its attractions, because many artists accepted the idea that experimentation is as necessary to artistic as to scientific progress, that its source lies in the individual’s own imagination, and that although it is not necessarily successful, it is essential to development. Many told me that they, too, worked unofficially in an abstract or even nonrepresentational style, but explained such efforts as exercises in color or composition. They were more surprised that such objects were exhibited and appreciated by others than that American artists worked in this way. When I asked why they also found it necessary to experiment, when it could lead to official censure if known, I received a variety of answers:

“You yourself have said it is necessary for the artist.”

“Because Russia, too, must have modern art, and someday she will be ready to accept and appreciate it.”

“Because the artist must find his own style and expression.”

One of the students voluntarily wrote for me what he considered the ideal explanation for Russians of abstract art, which shows how completely the ideas of creative individuality and of freedom of choice were accepted among some of the more thoughtful:

The most unusual paintings for the Russian viewer undoubtedly are the so-called abstract paintings. . . . These pictures seem incomprehensible ... to the unprepared spectator. . . . Nonetheless, abstract pictures in theinselves can be full of content, interesting and beautiful. . . .

Imagine that you are an artist and that you are trying to paint a portrait or a landscape. In the beginning you will achieve only a photographic similarity to nature. But you are unsatisfied with this and want in addition to communicate a certain mood which has possessed you. . . . You paint the portrait or landscape anew. . . . You as an artist put more and more of your own imagination into the painting, more of your feelings and experiences, and unwittingly move farther and farther from a photographic similarity. . . . Now nature is serving you only as a pretext for expressing your experiences and thoughts with the help of colors and forms. . . . The spectator, looking at your picture, immediately perceives the feeling which you are trying to communicate to him and which is not associated with any literal subject . . . only with painting. If you, as the viewer, looking at an abstract painting . . . understand or feel the feelings which moved its author, it means that you have perceived abstract painting. . . .

Works of art must be varied, must satisfy different tastes. Creativity is not the same for everyone, and every good artist has his followers.

THE average Russian is better off today than at any other time in his entire history, and his future is based upon continuing material progress, so that he may soon enjoy the promised rewards of pure Communism. This is more than a Russian dream; it is the new Russian crusade, based upon a massive determination to achieve something better than has ever been known in Russia, with the conviction that it is not only possible but inevitable.

To implement this plan the Soviet government has in recent years selected the brightest youth from all parts of the Soviet Union and educated them to become a special elite of scientists, technicians, and engineers. Each year a greater number are recruited and given every benefit; these are the few to whom all doors of learning are open, including those of the great universities and laboratories, and of the libraries, which are far from being public. These have the freedom necessary to produce creative effort in science and technology, and a most significant discovery for me was their reaction to the art exhibition As a group, they accept the premises of experimental art and are amazingly knowledgeable. Most of them have read a good deal of American literature beyond Dreiser and Jack London, whose names, with those of Rockwell Kent and Paul Robeson, were most frequently mentioned by the Soviets in connection with American creative life. Among these young scientist intellectuals, Western artists in all fields are as well known as the great Russian writers and composers, and Americans such as Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Neill, Gershwin, Shahn, Pollock, and Stuart Davis are considered by them to be among the world’s great and have won respect for the country which produced them. They have heard much of our music, and like many Europeans, they regard jazz as an important contemporary art. They enjoyed discussing the works of artists in all fields, including such subjects as the technique of Hemingway as a writer, the distinctive qualities of various exponents of pure or progressive jazz, or the analysis of the plot of an O’Neill play; and some also experiment with abstract art.

From them and a number of the artists I first learned of what became even clearer after my stay in Poland later: the significance now attributed by many thoughtful people, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to experimental art as increasingly symbolic of the creative expression of the individual. These young Russians told me that the Picasso exhibition in Leningrad had created great controversy, since the artist’s work exemplifies, despite his Communist affiliation, all that Soviet officialdom abhors in art. Yet they know that Picasso has found in the West a freedom for and an appreciation of this sort of expression denied in the Soviet Union. They also told me of the impact resulting from the Poles’ sending as their official representation to a recent allCommunist art exhibition in Moscow a group of abstract works as a gesture of cultural independence, the only kind of opposition possible for them without arousing retaliation by force.

More significant of the attitude and interest of this group than anything I might write are the opinions of a young scientist, the equivalent of an advanced student in one of our leading technical schools. On our first meeting he told me that when he had finally got a ticket to the fair, he met with friends from whom he brought a written list of questions. He carefully noted my answers, and on later visits — I gave him tickets from the number I could purchase from the Soviet administration — some of the questions were carried further He had more general knowledge than most, but his broad interest is typical of this group. Their intensely specialized education leaves little opportunity for other subjects, yet they read widely in American and European publications, which are generally forbidden and found only in the closed sections of libraries.

His first criticism is a measure of the completeness of his information and the seriousness of his interest:

I should begin by saying that I like your exhibition. But I am somewhat puzzled because you do not show all the Eight. ... I think it better for you to show all of them, because they are a beginning for me of modern American art.

He refers to Henri, Luks, Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, Davies, Prendergast, and Lawson, hall of whom were shown in Moscow, whose exhibition as Eight Americans, at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in February, 1908, was a landmark in the development of contemporary art. Some of them were painters of the Ashcan School who returned to the realities of everyday life. The young scientist did not confuse their honest rediscovery, however, with the wishful thinking of Soviet socialist realism.

He knew the work of these artists well enough not to consider all of equal significance, “but they begin to show the variety of modern art in America, which you say is important, and I agree with you”: an unorthodox opinion from a Soviet point of view, which disapproves of all such variety as evidence not of freedom but of license. Furthermore, he frankly stated that he and many others “like abstract, and paint abstract, but unofficially, because official art is only socialist realism.” Since the state is the sole purchaser, the Soviet artist paints according to official instruction; what he calls “unofficial painting” is not only suspect and generally cannot be exhibited, but may be a reason for loss of state patronage and thus of professional status and a livelihood through art.

When asked his favorite American work, the young scientist surprisingly mentioned a picture by Ben Shahn which was not the one included in the exhibition, and he was well acquainted with many of Shahn’s paintings, though few if any have been shown in the Soviet Union:

I think the Miner’s Widow a wonderful picture. . . . Shahn is always more human, but also abstract and expressionistic. His paintings speak to me stronger. He was born in Russia. Is that the reason? I do not know, but he is a great painter.

The young scientist was as direct in stating his own knowledge and belief as in expressing his opinion of average Russian taste, a heretical attitude since, for the Soviets, art is an instrument of the state, and its quality is judged by the correctness of its message and its capacity to be understood by everybody. He felt that “most Russians like the Blume painting because they can see every little thing in it; . . . it shows a lot of work and we all know work is good,” but that they had no idea of its meaning until an explanatory label was put up.

He thought that the value of our exhibition for many Russians lay in the effect that its novelty might have in leading to the questioning of the narrow cultural views of the average Soviet, and perhaps in awakening some awareness to other values and other ideas, but he was not optimistic that there would be any swift change:

The Russian people are not used to this art, but many read and listen, and maybe some of them learn that all art is not realism. . . . They look with their eyes and their mouths open, but not their brains. More are serious now than at first . . . you have told so many how to look, and some of them do, especially with the voice broadcast. With painting it is looking and with sculpture it is feeling, and one must learn to do both.

The young scientist was proud to be a spokesman for his group, whose exceptional freedom, granted only to allow the development of superior competence in a specific subject, had led to broader fields, officially forbidden, and instinctively to evaluations in terms of standards of the free world.

I and my friends like all these artists’ works. . . . We think American artists very individualistic. We think some of them perhaps not as good as some of the French artists, but stronger. We think they are more expressionistic and more free. They do not mind being different from each other. Americans may be too different in this way, but we like the Americans here at the fair. We like American modern art. We like very much your exhibition, and we wish very much to know more about American art, music, and writing, and about the American people.

The exhibit of contemporary art, suspect in Washington and Moscow alike, created an atmosphere in which such frank exchange as this could take place, with mutual understanding the more deeply valued because of the differences overcome in the discovery of common ground. The frequent arrogance and closed-mindedness of many were more than compensated for by the interest and friendliness of those who, like the young scientist, were eager to let Americans know their convictions. Most moving of all, perhaps as much for the unshaken faith which inspired them as for their message and its implications, were the words of an artist who had studied in Europe and had known the works of such Russian pioneer modernists as Malevitch, Kandinsky, and Chagall:

They were Russia’s contribution to the world of art of our day, and when they could no longer live and work in Russia, then Russian art became expatriate.

I do not understand all I see around me here because I am old and much of it is new to me, but I know what it means — that you in America have inherited the leadership, and you represent freedom and the future.