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PARIS — On March 20th, the Grand Palais opened its doors to one of the major exhibitions of the season, Red: Art and Utopia in the Land of Soviets, unraveling the Soviet’s visual culture from, beginning in 1917 with the Bolshevik revolution, through 1953, marked by the death of Stalin.
The debates about what the art of the communist Soviet Union should look like resulted in a wide range of artistic and literary productions by those who either excelled at or rebelled against the prevailing expectations of their time.
The October Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolshevik party of Vladimir Lenin, marks one of the most important events of the 20th century and one the most aesthetically ambitious revolutions of modernity. After the fall of the Romanovs it was at last time to mold Russia, its culture, and its people through a combination of emancipatory politics and a growing tapestry of Russian progressive artistic movements of the time. This transition undeniably was not free from violence and hostility.
Anatoly Lunacharsky, appointed as the people’s commissar of education, urged artists to spread optimism and the merits of the revolution through art. He supported various independent artistic experiments but leaned towards the productions with a social message; therefore figurative art, as well as theater and cinema were popular. The function of art as an instrument of education with content that was understandable to the proletariat was particularly important to Lenin.
The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) eventually became the legitimate bearers of the communist art and was supported by the state. Among these artists many were previously part of The Wanderers. They painted in 19th-century style and attempted to document the momentary events of the revolution and the “new Soviet man,” an archetype of the perfect Soviet citizen. They considered non-revolutionary art counter productive, therefore were opposed to the Russian avant-gardes.
Meanwhile, the leftist avant-gardes, who shared the belief that art must be understood by all, began designing objects and furniture to transform ways of life. Constructivists aimed to strictly “construct” art, which refers to their fascination with machinery and functionalism. They also successfully participated in rethinking the buildings from the pre-revolution era, while constructing new, utopian communal houses and workers’ clubs to accommodate the society in future. Alexander Rodchenko renounced pure art in favor of serving the society. Bolsheviks could count on these artists to support and circulate their doctrine. Although aesthetically similar, in sharp ideological contrast, Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematists created anti-materialist, abstract art that originated from pure feeling.
Other admittedly less experimental groups were also active in the art scene during the 1920s. The Society of Easel Painters with members including Alexander Deineka and Yuri Pimenov kept painting. Viatcheslav Pakulin and Alexander Samokhvalov, who were avant-garde trained, joined the Circle of Artists. These artists’ productions exude positivity, sunshine, youth, strong bodies and industrial advancements. The workers, exalted as heroes, are abundantly present in each frame.
Many artists including Samokhvalov, Deineka, El Lissitzky, Gustav Klutsis and Sergei Eisenstein united in the October group in 1928, actively fighting at the ideological front of the revolution. Soon after, some international communist artists showed interest in this movement, including Diego Rivera who joined the October group during his trip to Russia, the “homeland of socialism”. Such adventures ended when Joseph Stalin became Lenin’s successor in 1929. The crackdown on independent art began in 1932 — during the first wave of Stalinist reforms — in order to create a single artists union which in effect, subdued the whole of artistic production in service of the party.
In 1934, Stalin approved the slogan “Socialist Realism” and deemed it mandatory for all Soviet artistic production. Unlike Social Realism which holds power accountable by representing the common conditions of the proletariat, Socialist Realism illustrates a glorified version of truth where misfortune does not exist, and it utilizes the party’s hegemonic power over representations of reality to sculpt the public’s perception of their lived reality. Total control over cultural production at this time ensured the revolutionary goal of creating the new Soviet man, not through naked state-sponsored education, but rather through invisible mechanisms that populated the Soviet social environment. Socialist Realism allowed the Stalinist ideology to control the supposedly conscious decision-making mind through domination of the subconscious.
Following these rationales, Maxim Gorky, father of the Socialist Realism literary method, considered joyful art contagious. Perseverance and enthusiasm were encouraged through art. The social and technological advancements achieved under communism were depicted in every artwork. The machine-like bodies were ever-present and allowed a level of eroticism in art that was not generally permitted at the time as the state became more puritanical. Obedient to the state, in the 1930s, Socialist Realism’s portrayal of workers was replaced by military men, as the fear of foreign intrusion began to grow. Constructivist architecture was gradually replaced by Stalinist architecture. Returning to Russian classicism, the designers of the “general plan for the reconstruction of Moscow” aimed to recast the city into a socialist “Third Rome.”
Until the death of Stalin in 1953, Socialist Realism grew more monumental and academic than ever. The Wanderers became the ultimate stylistic inspiration for Soviet artists. Facts were entangled with fiction and images of the leaders were increasingly mystified and historicized. During the 1960s, even after the Communist Party’s pressure on the artists was loosened, Socialist Realism remained predominant in Russia, and its lasting influence on Russia art was detectable until the 2000s.
Evidently, the art of that time does not strike the viewer as free or autonomous, but the vast selection of artistic developments that flourished in this period, unswervingly influenced a great number of important movements of 20th century art. The Red exhibition pays overdue respect to Soviet visual culture and demonstrates how far aesthetics can be politicized.
Red. Art and Utopia in the Land of Soviets continues at Grand Palais (3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris, France) through July 1. The exhibition is curated by Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov.