Art in the Soviet Union

As curator of the art at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 , RICHARD B. K. MCLANATHAN had a six months’ opportunity in which to assess the development in painting and sculpture which has taken place in the Soviet Union since the Revolution. Mr.McLanathan is director of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in Utica, New York.


TOWARD the end of the tenth century, the envoys of Vladimir, Great Prince of Kiev, were led by the emperor himself into the cathedral at Byzantium. They heard gravely chanting voices and saw the ritual of the Eastern Church performed by the light of countless candles. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they reported to their master on their return, “for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty.” Their mission not only resulted in the conversion of the pagan Vladimir, descendant of Vikings, to the Christianity of the Eastern Empire but also provided impetus and direction for the whole artistic achievement of Russia down to the present day. Native artists humanized the hieratic Byzantine tradition and created a distinctive style combining natural Slavic qualities, which reappear strongly in modern times: a tendency toward abstraction, a love of rich color, and an expressionism ranging from the lyric to the austere. By the fifteenth century, led by such masters as Rublev and Theophanes, Russian art flowered in a golden age whose icons (Figure 1), among the highest expressions of medieval culture, represent Russia’s greatest

achievement in the visual arts — a fact which has come to be fully realized, even in Russia, only in our own times.

The years of Tatar domination strengthened Eastern ties and deepened the gulf between Russia and the West. It was not until the nineteenth century that the policy of Europeanization, introduced by Peter the Great and continued by his successors, made possible the fertilization of native talent by Western influences and produced the classic Russian literature and music which have become a part of our common heritage. In the visual arts, however, Russia remained a province of Europe, following the current academic modes of classicism and romanticism until the second half of the century. Then the more liberal atmosphere of the earlier years of Alexander II’s reign encouraged a revolt against the triviality of official and fashionable art similar to that led by Courbet and Manet in Paris a few years earlier. In the 1860s, a group of thirteen promising student artists resigned from the Academy in protest against the official theme announced for the gold medal competition, “Odin in Valhalla,” and formed the Fellowship of Wanderers. Following the lead of Gogol and the writers inspired by him, they turned to the realities of everyday Russian life in an attempt to create a national school. Their genre approach became increasingly directed toward exposing social evils. Within a few years, a far more powerful personality, the Cossack Repin, provided a climax to this movement with dramatic canvases of great virtuosity (Figure 11).

Meanwhile, in Russia as in the West, the forces were gathering to produce simultaneous revolutionary movements in the arts. With a tragic life paralleling that of Van Gogh, Vrubel was a leader in the reaction against the academic realism, which, in any lesser hand than Repin’s, had become sterile. He and the group known as Mir Iskusstva (World of Art, a publication edited by Diaghilev and founded to express their ideas) rediscovered the wonders of the Slavic past: ancient architecture whose splendors were the antithesis of the current classic style, colorful costumes, and above all, the antique icons whose powerful but restrained symbolism and elevated emotional expression provided the greatest possible contrast to the realism of the Wanderers.

Following Vrubel’s lead, Benois, Bakst, and Roerich, painters of the World of Art group who designed for the theater, and Diaghilev, art lover and impresario, expressed the new ideas through a combination of music, choreography, and scene and costume design. Their dazzling series of theatrical experiments established the international reputation of Russian ballet and opera.

Others than the World of Art group were also active, both at home and abroad. The merchant princes and great patrons, Mamontov, Tretyakov, and Shchukin, were forming their superb collections, rich in contemporary European art, which became schools for Russian artists. In Munich, Kandinsky (Figure 6), one of the most inventive personalities in the history of modern art, led the way into the first totally nonobjective painting, with his application of musical and associational theory to the expressive qualities of color which he found in ancient Russian art. In Moscow, Malevich (Figure 2) also was soon experimenting in nonrepresentational painting, with a geometry influenced by cubism, in a course parallel to that of the constructivists, Gabo and Pevsner, in sculpture and in architecture.

Even before the Revolution was over, the vchutemas, workshops of art and technology, replaced Moscow’s Imperial Academy, and Kandinsky, Malevich, Pevsner, and the architect and sculptor Tatlin were appointed members of the faculty. The workshop became a center of intense discussion and of artistic experiment among a group, including the leaders of the new generation of artists, who were determined that something creative and symbolic of a happier future should be achieved despite what Gabo described as the “whirlwind of war and civil war, utter physical privation and political strife” which surrounded them. Though neither project was realized, Tatlin’s amazing scheme of a revolving spiral office tower of glass and steel as a monument to the Third International and Gabo’s impressive design, with its daring engineering, for the Palace of the Soviets remain evidences of the imaginative quality of their concepts.

For a short period, this group was closely identified with the Revolution, endeavoring to express its aim of a new order based upon the Bolshevik idea of collective man in a mechanistic society constructed according to the principles of American technology. Sir Herbert Read has observed that “the machine is the universal and coercive symbol of our age,” and the Soviets were determined that man was to become a selfless robot in this pattern, an “apparatus,” according to Marxist theory, “through which history operates.” Mayakovsky’s verses extolling Chicago as “the electro-dynamo-mechanical city, built on a screw and rotating every hour around itself” expressed the spirit of the moment.

But all experimental art emphasizes individualism, and thus is in basic conflict with the collectivist idea. Furthermore, abstract or nonobjectivc art proved to have little appeal for the then illiterate Soviet masses, and because of the profound unrest which pervaded Russian society in the 1920s, the Communist Party, as a part of its program to ensure discipline and strict conformity, officially condemned the modern movement and decreed a restoration of the academic realism of the previous century to reform art into an efficient tool of political policy. Socialist realism, “the art of social command,” was the official, and therefore the only acceptable, style. The artist became a state functionary and an illustrator of an imposed ideology, his work judged primarily by accuracy of political conformity rather than by aesthetic criteria. It was the duty of the State Committee for the Affairs of Art constantly to scrutinize artistic production and to reprimand and correct any deviation.

Gabo, Pevsner, and their associates were expelled from the Central Soviet of Artists and deprived of earning a living through their art. With Chagall, Kandinsky, and many others, they joined numerous members of the World of Art group in exile. Tatlin and Malevich endeavored to compromise, one as an industrial designer and the other as a decorator of pottery, and disappeared into obscurity. Thus a fundamental question of our era, the relation of the artist to society, was answered in the Soviet Union by political decree, and academic realism, which had been developed in great part as a means of exposing social evils under a czarist regime, became the tool of a government, if anything, more absolute. All else was condemned as formalistic, a term which included any artistic styles not based upon the accepted Marxist philosophy of materialism.

THE problem of the creative artist in the Soviet Union has ever since been a serious one, and many talented individuals have been deterred from professional practice in the visual arts, since close political control and constant urging to produce, in the words of a Pravda editorial, “healthy, cheerful, optimistic Soviet art,” embodying “the light and joy of the new world” of Communism, inevitably tended to mediocre results, oversize, monotonous in style, illustrative in approach, and empty of content except for obvious subject matter.

Yet such is the creative power of the Russian people that there remained dedicated artists like Filonov (Figure 3), who suffered abject poverty and official censure in order to continue the native Russian tradition of imaginative expression. The feeling for medium, the craftsmanship, and the insight of the true artist cannot be denied, and a respect for the essential dignity of man, nourished alike by patriotism and a desire to serve society in a more universal sense, can triumph over deadening limitations, as in the striking sculptures of Konenkov (Figure 16). And since portraiture necessarily deals with the individual, the artist’s increased opportunity for personal interpretation can result in such capable work as that of Kapetsa (Figure 8), or even reach the rare achievement of Glazunov (Figure 15).

The graphic artist, working in the smaller and more personal print techniques, is freer to express, in a more direct and poetic fashion, the joy in the natural world and the homely incidents of everyday life which are such a significant part of the Russians’ awareness. Consequently, the average level of Soviet graphic art is higher than those of painting and sculpture.

Imaginative artistic experiment is still being carried on in the Soviet Union, since the tradition which enabled the Russians to contribute so significantly to the art of the past as well as to that of our own day has proved too vigorous to be blocked by official decree. Many artists do abstract works in the privacy of their studios and at the same time carry out routine state commissions in the style of socialist realism. Youthful and often very able nonprofessionals, who are not subject to the discipline of the Artists’ Union, are also active. Most of this unofficial art displays the traditional Slavic qualities of rich and compelling color, powerful and simple design tending to abstraction, and strong emotional expression, which give it a distinctly Russian flavor. It is not supposed to be exhibited or sold and is officially unacceptable, yet much is produced, and many are deeply interested in it, as in all modern art, especially American. Marked successes in those already abstract arts of music and the dance have aroused ambition for equal achievement in the visual arts, and Western influences are again, as in the last century, stimulating Russian imagination.

Change toward greater creative freedom seems possible. Writing in Moscow last August, Ilya Ehrenburg, certainly a leading Soviet critic, who speaks with authority, analyzed at some length the artist’s educational responsibility. Conceding that the basic purpose must be socially constructive, Ehrenburg concluded that the artist becomes the best educator when he is being least consciously and deliberately pedagogical. This and other implications in his article may suggest a new interpretation of social command.

There are also further developments which may point in a similar direction. A sense of pride in a great but only very recently rediscovered past is being expressed in the restoration of ancient buildings, including churches and palaces. There is scientific investigation and careful preservation of works of art, especially icons, which until yesterday were despised as symbols of ignorance and superstition; the names of Andrei Rublev and Theophanes are now mentioned with admiration equal to that felt for Repin and Roerich. Russian love of art, always great, seems increasing, and museums are being rearranged, resulting in increased attendance. Many books and periodicals on art are being published, including works of prerevolutionary and foreign artists, and the canvases of such painters as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse, recently judged heretical, are now exhibited.

Perhaps, similarly, other treasures of modern art, many by Russia’s own leading masters, now hidden away in storage may one day be liberated for all to see. So much that is constructive and creative is being accomplished, despite the greatest obstacles, that there is reason to hope that eventually the Russian artist may again be free to contribute to the world’s culture in a measure worthy of a gifted and imaginative people who are the inheritors of a great tradition.