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Art and Apparat

Unofficial Art in the Soviet Union

by Paul Sjeklocha, by Igor Mead
California, 216, 75 plates (30 color) pp., $15.00

It would be difficult to imagine a more promising combination of circumstances for the success of this book: a much discussed yet scarcely known topic (trends in modern Russian painting) explored jointly by an artist (Igor Mead) in a good position to make valuable judgments and a political sociologist (Paul Sjeklocha) well read in Russian history and theory. Moreover the authors accompanied the exhibition of American Graphic Arts touring the Soviet Union, an exhibition which was naturally of the greatest interest to Russian painters, though they were probably even more anxious to show examples of their own work to their American colleagues than to see the Exhibition itself. Like bait on a fishing rod Mead and Sjeklocha were thus able to attract a great many artists, and then to see, to photograph, and to purchase a large number of works which would be completely inaccessible to the usual tourist.

Indeed, reading through their book, one cannot but be aware of how fortunate in some ways, paradoxically, is the position of these little known Russian artists compared to that of their colleagues in Poland and Yugoslavia, who may well enjoy a certain success at international exhibitions but who can scarcely hope to inspire foreigners to write books on their lives and works. The reason is obvious enough: the prevailing political situation encourages foreign writers to seize on the slightest hint of any discord in Soviet society, no matter how apolitical such an event may appear to be in itself. But though this makes for a fascinating book at the present moment, should government policy suddenly change (and anything seems possible these days) how many of the authors’ judgments will appear false and out-of-date! Meanwhile the excitement of discovering a forbidden land is still there to help win international recognition for many artists who might otherwise be ignored, and in this Kafkaesque situation, where painters emerge from mental hospitals to produce fantastic canvasses while still surrounded by mysterious and sinister enemies, an atmosphere is created which is admirably suited to the concept of the unknown genius. Stripped of its political overtones, a survey of modern Russian art would be far duller and more prosaic.

THIS ELEMENT of the thriller has its attractions for the reader, but it has always proved rather disappointing to the critic: one need only recall previous attempts at investigation made by Time Magazine, the London Sunday Times, and Le Monde. Modern Russian painting, in fact, is like a delicate wine that will not travel, or—a better analogy—like that wooden architecture which looks so magical in its Russian setting, but which would seem absurd in the landscapes of Western Europe. The reason for this is natural enough: when these paintings leave their own country they lose at the same time most of their real meaning. Created in reaction against dogmatic canons based on nineteenth-century realism, they have mostly been inspired by French and Russian art of the first years of this century; but when placed beside American or West European art of the 1960s such tendencies seem timid and old-fashioned. This need not imply a lack of talent, but it does mean that anyone searching for “new” art in the Western sense is almost bound to be disappointed.

Though the title, “unofficial art,” does make a real and valid point about the situation of art in the Soviet Union, it is completely wrong to suggest—as is done here—that this phenomenon began after the war and is characteristic of the last two decades: to take just one example—the authors themselves admit that Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, now in his seventies, painted in an entirely idiosyncratic style throughout the Stalinist period. Indeed, their whole definition of “unofficial art” is strange and almost bureaucratic. In their very first sentences they define it as “the art school which does not adhere to the official tenets of socialist realism and whose followers do not belong to the Artists’ Union.” But in fact most young artists of all kinds are anxious to be admitted to the Union, membership of which gives many privileges, and it would be perfectly possible to select a considerable number of Union members who paint in just as “unofficial” a manner as any discussed in this book. Recent reports that a painter has just been dismissed from the Union of Artists for signing a petition on behalf of Ginzburg and the other intellectuals just tried in Moscow point to the continuing illegal activities of the KGB: artistic considerations are here wholly irrelevant. How lucky, for instance, is Ilya Glazunov who was not a member when this book was written and is therefore rewarded with warm praise from the authors. He has now apparently joined the Moscow Union: will he therefore be excluded from the pages of any subsequent edition?

Indeed, a number of distinguished members of the Union are included here under the classification of “borderline artists”—which they themselves could hardly relish. But though the point is made superficially, it is indeed of absolutely crucial significance that all of these are graphic artists, and this fact throws more light on the artistic situation of present day Russia than any examination of the controversial art theories published in the Soviet press. For it raises the all-important question of patronage.

No artist—in East or West—paints for himself alone, and the total independence of Western art is too readily assumed by the authors of his book. Investment, rather than real appreciation, has long been one of the driving forces behind collecting in capitalist societies, and although this is so much a feature of Western civilization that the authors attribute the same motive to Russian patrons, in fact speculation of this kind is not really possible in Russian where the State enjoys a complete monopoly of trade and capital. Few people are in a position to buy modern pictures, and to make up for this relative lack of private patronage the State finances the arts, and therefore wields overwhelming power. Yet the desire of private citizens to own works of art has, of course, never completely died out, and with the recent rise in the standard of living it has considerably increased. Even so, few people can afford more than prints, and it is for this reason that the graphic arts, which respond so much more keenly to the tastes of art lovers than to those of officialdom, have generally been on a much higher level than paintings in oil. But—and this is the essential point—they are not for that reason any less realistic in the true meaning of the word; nor have they received any less endorsement from official critics. To apply the term “borderline” to an artist such as Kaplan, whose intensely Jewish art has never deviated widely from realism in any but the most intransigeant definition of the term, is to misread the true situation.

ALTHOUGH UNOFFICIAL ART is not a phenomenon of the Fifties, it is true that at about that time a completely new factor was introduced into the scene: the patronage of foreigners. The most famous of these is George Costakis, a rather mysterious Greek citizen living in Moscow, who owns a remarkable collection of modern Russian paintings and who has won the respect of artists partly through his capacity to estimate the quality of their pictures in monetary terms—a notion completely alien to the official commissions which usually come their way. The patronage of the foreign colonies in Moscow, and (to a lesser extent) in Leningrad, explains the fact (which so puzzles the authors of this book) that it is in these two cities, and not in the provinces, that the unofficial artists principally flourish. Only in Novosibirsk, with its eminent scientists, or Tbilissi and Erevan, with a wealthy intelligentsia impregnated with “European” culture, would there be much demand for “unofficial” art outside the two major cities.

The simple mechanics of patronage explain many other aspects of art in Russia: thus we need not assume that it is “party control” which is responsible for the painting of so many propaganda pictures—these are merely a means of getting money from state officials, whose tastes are largely conditioned by illustrations in the popular magazines; and in any case, as often as not, the painter’s taste will coincide with that of his patron. Similarly the liberalization of Russian politics has not of itself changed the nature of creative art in the Soviet Union: it has merely made an already existing “unofficial” art more generally accessible. Filonov, for example, continued to paint in his wholly personal manner, which can perhaps be orudely described as a combination of German expressionism and French cubism, throughout the Stalinist period and has, within the last few weeks, been given a posthumous exhibition in the Artists’ Union in Leningrad.

The existence of private art patron-age frequently blurs the distinction between official and unofficial art. The most distinguished of the many talented painters of Armenia, Martiros Sarian was influenced in his youth by the Fauve artists in Paris and has continued throughout his life to paint in a manner that reflects these early experiences. His stylized portraits and strongly colored and simplified landscapes have never followed the official line but he has nonetheless received every kind of official recognition. This is because he has always been able to sell his pictures to his many admirers at high prices. Similarly Igor Grabar, who was a distinguished art historian as well as a painter, and Konchalovsky, who was widely patronized by writers and musicians, never needed to sell their pictures to the State and thus follow an official line. Indeed, both were survivors from the self-consciously “aesthetic” movement of the end of the last century, the World of Art, the leader of which was Alexandre Benois who emigrated to the West and who is well-known all over Europe and America.

In their chapter on the organization of art in the Soviet Union the authors neglect one extremely important and powerful body—the Academy of Fine Arts. This was abolished as reactionary after the Revolution, but was then revived in 1933, at first only as a teaching institution. But in 1947 it was re-organized once more to become the Academy of Fine Arts of the USSR with total authority over all the national Unions. It was intended to be a citadel of Socialist Realism and has steadily opposed any new development in Russian art. But though the Academicians themselves frequently changed their subject matter and style—and sometimes even had to repaint earlier pictures if these happened to include awkward figures such as Beria!—the one thing that remained unaltered was their firm grip on power. On several occasions they have been able to make use of the government in their own interests, even when these interests have actually conflicted with those of the authorities.

Never was this seen more clearly than in 1962 at the time of the famous “Manège affair,” which led to Khrushchev’s extraordinary outburst. The whole occasion, which was widely reported in the West, is described by the authors with great vividness, but they do not fully appreciate the issues that hang in the balance. The Moscow Union of Painters, far from being a body of black reaction, was in fact making active preparations to challenge the all-powerful Academy at the forthcoming Congress of Painters. Indeed the Union was about to propose to the government that this expensive organization, which acted more as an obstacle than as a spur to Soviet art, should be abolished altogether. This was not a threat that the Academy could safely ignore: not only would it mean that its supreme power, which it had somehow managed to retain even after the shattering blow of Stalin’s death, was at stake, but also its overriding share in the large sums spent each year on the arts. Nothing in this book gives any idea of the standard of living enjoyed by the Academicians: to defend this they were prepared to use any methods.

A tool lay at hand in the studio of a Moscow painter called Ilya Beliutin, which was much frequented by dilettantes and by artists working in the applied arts. Abstract designs for materials and carpets were already very popular, and Beliutin’s rather timid experiments could hardly be considered subversive by even the most reactionary standards. However, the Ministry of Culture was in some doubt about their usefulness, and it was on these doubts that the Academicians very ably played. It was suggested that, without the supervision of the Academy, the Moscow Union was in danger of being entirely taken over by the “formalists,” and to give some substance to these fears the group around Beliutin was deliberately provoked into showing their work at the exhibition organized by the Moscow Union. The pictures were hung in the buffet, and a rather reluctant Khrushchev was induced to go and see them—with results that are familiar to everyone. He may have made a fool of himself in the eyes of the world, but the Academy emerged triumphant.

DESPITE THE EXCEPTIONAL opportunities enjoyed by Mead and Sjeklocha they were only able to examine—as they themselves acknowledge—a small fraction of the “unofficial art” now being created in the Soviet Union. They saw nothing for instance by Ernest Neizvestny, whose reputation both inside and outside Russia is already considerable. But even from the limited material that they have been able to bring to light, a few conclusions can be drawn, and the saddest of these is that foreign patronage and interest have not proved altogether beneficial to the artists for whom they feel such engaging warmth. On the one hand it has encouraged Russian artists to make direct imitations of modern Western art as they have been able to see it through the medium of picture postcards and book illustrations; on the other, it has stimulated a rather exaggerated and self-conscious, “Russianness.” The authors, whose analyses and judgments of individual pictures are usually fair and sensible, frequently recognize the imitative character of much that they describe: the importance of Modigliani for the portraits of Jakovlev is obvious enough, to take only one example.

In other cases the direct sources are inevitably less familiar to the American observer: one such instance is that of Kharitonov who leans heavily on Churlanis, the superb Lithuanian painter of the beginning of this century, whose museum in Kaunas is a place of pilgrimage for many Soviet artists; good quality reproductions of his work are to be found in most cultivated households. The disastrous effects of trying to be too Russian for the benefit of foreigners are painfully apparent in the work of Ilya Glazunov, who tries to give a hint of the icon to his idealized portraits of Embassy wives and film stars—indeed, at the moment of writing, a French newspaper reports that he has just arrived in Paris to paint Sophia Loren, Yves Montand, and others. One can only hope that the sincere and simple art of Rabin, a tense expressionist whose work shows some relationship with the best of the early Chagall, will not be turned into meaningless repetition by the international attention he is beginning to receive.

The weakest section of the book lies in its hurried summary of Russian art from Byzantine times until our own day, and though this may have been necessary as a background, it contains many errors of fact: thus the recruiting of artists from the lowest ranks of society was hardly peculiar to Russia; the Academy of Fine Arts was not founded “early in the 18th century during the reign of Peter the Great” (this would have made Russia something of a pioneer in this field), but in 1758 under Elizabeth the First and it only received its constitution under Catherine; it is an absurd exaggeration to single out as “unofficial” the Frenchified artist Orlovsky whose subject matter and execution were perfectly conventional; the father of Alexander Ivanov was not an aristocrat, but of the humblest origin; Repin was not the leader of the Wanderers; the Wanderers did not ignore Western art, indeed most of them traveled abroad and some studied at Düsseldorf so that their painting shows a close affinity with that of many other European countries; nor can their revolt against the old-fashioned classicism of the Academy be thought of as a revolt against foreign influences.

There are also a few mistakes—or at least mistaken inferences—in their discussion of the present situation: party membership is not a necessary condition for membership of the Artists’ Union (indeed the percentage of party members is low when compared to the Writers’ Union); and the deputy director of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad had nothing whatever to do with the choice of pictures for the exhibition described here as the “Hermitage affair.”

But despite these defects it needs to be said that this book provides a uniquely rich source of information about the artistic situation in Russia today, and that the authors genuinely convey the excitement they felt at discovering an unknown land. The warmth of their approach and the sympathy that they obviously feel for the artists whom they met make this an attractive as well as an important book.

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