Catalog of the exhibition by Semyon Mikhailovsky, with essays by Elena Voronovich, Natalia Kozyreva, and Christina Kiaer
Free Artists of St. Petersburg, 460 pp., 3,000₽
In Aleksandr Deineka’s painting Textile Workers (1927), three barefoot young women in simple shifts work in a light-filled blue-gray space, the rows of bobbins rendered as floating lozenges along the walls. The girl in the foreground, a skinny teenager, pulls a thread from a bobbin that seems to hang in the air. She faces us, but is unaware of our presence: we have the advantage, as if looking through a two-way mirror. On the right side of the canvas, another woman walks pensively into white nothingness. Deineka, one of the Soviet Union’s most successful artists, said the painting was intended to celebrate the rhythms of the factory, but today it looks more like a glimpse into an alternate universe: the early Soviet project, with its vertiginous hopes for a new world.
At the exhibit “Deineka/Samokhvalov,” on view this winter at St. Petersburg’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall, Textile Workers hung in a dim room, the painting lit so that it seemed to glow from within. The factory workers looked like ghosts from a future that never happened. But as presented at the Manege, the painting also evoked something intensely contemporary: a cell phone screen, luminous with color, solitary, easy to like. The dim lighting wasn’t helpful if you wanted to scrutinize Deineka’s technique, but it made the painting look great on Instagram. Welcome to a new Russian aesthetic: socialist realism curated for social media.
The exhibition, a centerpiece of the eighth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum, was imagined as a soccer match between two major Soviet painters from rival cities: Deineka, who lived in Moscow, and his Leningrad contemporary Aleksandr Samokhvalov, who is far less famous but more than held his own. The pale neoclassical façade of the Manege—which was the tsar’s riding hall and then the garage of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs—was adorned with colored banners announcing the competition: Deineka (number 99, for his birth year of 1899) vs. Samokhvalov (born 1894 and thus number 94), Moscow vs. Leningrad. Arriving at the exhibition, you entered a stand of bleachers from which you could watch clips of Soviet athletes in slow motion, with atmospheric music piped in throughout the gallery. At the end of the show you emerged onto half an AstroTurf soccer field, complete with a Deineka sculpture of soccer players. The elderly female attendants familiar from every Russian museum no longer wore their customary fringed floral scarves and fuzzy sweaters; instead, they were dressed in Deineka or Samokhvalov soccer jerseys and American sneakers. It was gimmicky but cute, and it successfully conveyed the idea that the exhibition wasn’t a dry academic exercise but a popular event. Nearly a century on, socialist realism can finally be fun.
Both Deineka and Samokhvalov were precocious, politically committed, self-made artists: in other words,…
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