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suddenly change (and anything seems possible these days) how many of the authors’ judgments will appear false and out-of-date!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 …

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