Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Local Art Seen: Tweed Spotlights the Art of Russia

Earlier this fall the The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) donated an exhibition of 34 paintings, sculptures, posters and decorative works to the Tweed Museum of Art here on the campus of UMD.  The show is titled Art In Conflict, featuring works from the last decades of the Soviet Union.

The "conflict" is philosophical in the sense that some of the art is state sanctioned realism and other works are non-conformist. The show was curated by Dr. Maria (Masha) Zavialova for the TMORA.  "Arranged as a dialogue of state-sanctioned and oppositional models of artistic production, Art in Conflict invites a creative interpretation of what it was to be an artist living in the Soviet era."

Having been a serious art student in the early 70s, it was especially interesting to see the contrast between what was taking place behind the Iron Curtain and in our own turbulent, but unrestricted, times. The art here was created from the time of the death of Stalin in 1953 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Detail from the "approved" style of painting.
It's interesting to consider how the arts began to flourish post-Stalin. That Khrushchev permitted Solzhenitsyn to publish A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a remarkable testament to the liberalization that was taking place across the board. It's apparent from this show that a sea change was underway.

During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev era (1960s to 1980s), "the unofficial, or nonconformist, art movement was unmatched in its inexhaustible scope of creativity, courage, and variety. Nonconformists claimed the right to explore topics outlawed by the Soviet ideological apparatus." According to the information accompanying the show, "Their chief concern was not purely artistic. Rather, unofficial art responded to, protested against, and commented on the rigid doctrines of official Soviet art."

By way of contrast, "Mafiya" by Alexander Zakharov, 1990
Honoring 25th anniversary of Yari Gagarin's 1961 flight. 1986
Poster by Vladimir Fekliaev
These statements led me to consider the ways in which American artists were "at war" with conventions. What made art good or significant in the U.S.? Andy Warhol's work took its own unflinching look at popular culture and put it right out there: "What is and isn't art?" And "who decides?"

In the Soviet Union official art conformed to realist principles and conveyed its messages that aligned with the proletariat vision. The unofficial underground art explored non-realist modern approaches.

According to the accompanying literature:
Official art was atheist, whereas unofficial art tackled the themes of religion, spirituality, and metaphysics with relish. Most official art was gravely serious, which unofficial art was often not, playfully subverting and mocking ideological clichés.

"The Mail Carrier" by Isaak Shifman.  Painting in the "approved" style.
There was one point in common though: both art movements were politicized. Government sanctioned Soviet art was an instrument at the service of the political apparatus and thus, profoundly, ideological. Nonconformist art stepped forward to oppose artistic non-freedom, and inevitably entered the political arena. Conflict was a deliberate stance: non-official artists of the late Soviet era had to dismantle the insidious visual language of the Soviet establishment to discover their own idiom and voice.

The Soviet art scene had its grey zone: the art that chose not to take sides, but rather pursue purely artistic concerns and timeless subjects. But, in the highly politicized atmosphere of a totalitarian state, wasn’t the choice to be apolitical also a political decision?

Here are several more pieces showing that some interesting work was taking place outside the official propaganda norm.

"Pilgrims" by Aleksandr Gazhur
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"Pilgrims" (Detail)
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"Mikhal Sergeich and Boris Nikolaich" by Dmitri Kantorow, 1991
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"Composition with Cards IIII" by Vladimir Memukhin  (1982)
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Yuri Gagarin one more time.
What kind of art were you making from 1970 to 1990? 
And whose rules were you following as you created your work?

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