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Nashville Scene Art of the State

Russian exhibit suggests government control of creativity can only extend so far

By Angela Wibking

APRIL 3, 2000:  Government control of the arts strikes a chill in the hearts of America's creative community. Government patronage in the form of funding, on the other hand, has them signing petitions and calling their congressmen. The truth is, you can't have the second without a degree of the first. If the government is holding the purse strings, someone or some group of individuals appointed by the government will be making determinations about who gets funded and who doesn't.

Keeping the scales of control and patronage in balance is extraordinarily tricky, but growth and creativity in the arts depends on it. To see what happens--and what doesn't happen--when those scales get out of balance, head to the Tennessee State Museum to see an exhibition of paintings produced by Russian artists during 80 years of Communist rule. But be prepared for something of a surprise The nearly 60 works on view simultaneously confirm and refute every horror tale ever told about government control of the arts in the Soviet Union.

That the post-revolution government took control of the Russian art establishment is historical fact. A concise account of just what that meant in the new Soviet Union is contained on the six text panels included in the show. These explanations detail the ideals of "social realism," as the art of the new Russia came to be called; the state-supported training of artists; the government patronage system; the various types of paintings deemed suitable for conveying the state's vision of a Communist utopia; and the decline of social realism in the wake of dtente. Through these text panels, one learns that while the rest of the 20th-century art world headed off into expressionism, cubism, surrealism, and abstraction, Soviet artists were instructed to create art that would promote admiration for the common man and his noble task of building a better world through Communism. Idealization of work and the worker was the only theme, and the purpose of the government was to mold artists into "engineers of the soul," to quote Stalin's own chilling words.

A walk through this exhibition, however, shows such engineering can only go so far. There are grandiose propaganda paintings here, to be sure. But the utopian vision portrayed in the scenes of happy, hearty workers often seems as passionately personal as it does politically correct. True, the styles and subject matter of every work have been cut to fit the government dictate of "realistic in form and socialistic in content," but artistic license is apparent even within those restrictions. The variations may seem slight--experiments with paint application or unusually vivid color choices--but they enliven and individualize almost every work seen here.

The exhibition includes portraits, landscapes, genre paintings (scenes of everyday life), and still lifes--all officially sanctioned types of paintings during the Communist era. Of these, perhaps the portraits adhere most strongly to the traditional. Poses are formal, with the subject, usually a female, seated and serenely composed. The use of light is accomplished and almost always directed on the subject from slightly above and to the side. Interestingly, while most of the subjects are shown at rest, there is usually evidence of some mental or physical activity. Books are included somewhere in the portrait, or an embroidery hoop rests in a subject's lap. In most cases, expressions are either contemplative or serious, but occasionally, as with one portrait of a young girl in her best graduation-day white dress, there is an open smile of delight.

By far the most arresting portrait is Aleksandr Gerasimov's "Portrait of My Wife," in which the traditional mold is somewhat broken by the subject's bemused expression, her backward-tilted head, and the artist's treatment of the background, which borders on the abstract. Portraiture, one of the text panels explains, was important in the Soviet Union because it "celebrated the integrity of everyday people." Something in the eyes of Gerasimov's wife says she considers herself about as everyday as a Romanov.

Along with portraits, genre paintings were also considered essential tools for expressing Communist ideals. The scenes of everyday life depicted in these paintings include tomato harvesting, commercial fishing, and logging, as well as such leisure pursuits as ice-skating. Several of these are enormous in scale. "Young Timberman" by A.P. Belykh, for example, towers to a height of at least 10 feet, with its hearty male and female loggers depicted life-sized and then some. "Ice Skaters" by Nina Veselova is on a much smaller scale, though the painter's Norman Rockwell-like approach to her subject matter is especially interesting. It is well worth noting that Veselova appears to be the lone female artist in the show, suggesting that it is as difficult for women artists to thrive in a Communist society as it is for them to thrive in a capitalist one.

Still lifes and landscapes account for the rest of the show. Of these, the still lifes are the most notable, as they exhibit a wider range of styles and more experimental uses of color and brush techniques. Yuri Katts' "Still Life" of a dining table holding remnants of a recent meal, for example, is filled with exquisite details like a rumpled white napkin and a gold-rimmed china cup. The composition, the dark, rich color palette, and the use of light and reflection are all worthy of a Dutch master.

There are dozens of other fascinating works in the show, each offering its own rewards on artistic and ideological levels. Overall, however, there is a stronger sense of the artist at work in these paintings than of the Communist government. After all, a government may succeed for a time in telling an artist what and how to paint, but it can never dictate what the viewer will actually see in a work of art. That's the part of the creative process Stalin failed to comprehend--and something that no one has ever been able to control.

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