ART OVERSEAS - ART IN THE COLD WAR - REVIEW
Our knowledge of
Western painting during the Cold War is as partial as our ignorance of
post-1930 Soviet art from that era is complete. “odes to artistic
freedom”, Lindey comments “frequently meant stylistic variety, but
so long as this was modernist and preferably abstract.”
Lack of familiarity
with the spread of Soviet visual arts contrasts with out fixation on
Futurist and Constructivists before the Stalin era, as well as with our
appreciation of music and literature composed there since 1917. Which
Soviet-era painter became as well known as Khachaturian or Sholokhov?
Western readers to a range of works that are almost always omitted from
art history in the West, Lindey shows how much popular and official
taste on both dies of the Iron Curtain still has in common.
preferences have been stylistic rather than in choice of subjects.
Trufanov’s Furnace Worker,
1957, might have been painted by any Meldrumite – except that few
Australian proletarians could have afford Sir William Dargie’s fee.
concentrates on the years from 1947 to 1963, that
is, from the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe to the resolution of
the Cuban missile crisis. Contemporary commentators portrayed those
years in terms of international politics. Art historians need to
recognise the simultaneous transformation in material life if they are
to account for the favoured subjects for art. The USA applied mass
production techniques over-consumption while the USSR rebuilt much that
had been destroyed in the war.
Thus, the USA
encouraged leisure and the USSR emphasized work. Mass society in the
West stimulated Rauschenberg to Neo-Dadaism and led Rothko to despair.
The stress in Soviet painting on heroic industrial labour challenged
capitalist ideology which assumes that prices are determined by demand;
Marxists began from value being created by human labour.
Lindey spotlights a
political difference in the representation of women. Vladimir
Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl
(1952) and Sir Gerard Kelly’s Saw
Ohn Nyun became two of the most popular imaes in the West, with
prints of the former selling in excess of half-a-million copies. The
contrast in meaning between these examples of Cashmere Bouquet porn and
Soviet depiction of non-European women in canvases such as Semen
Chuikov’s Daughter of the Soviet Korghizia, (1948) could not be more marked.
No passion fruit,
no victor’s bounty, Chuikov’s girl is confident, resolute and
active. Her high cheek-bones and slanting eyes declare her race rather
than being tamed to conform to Caucasian ideals of beauty. Neither sex
nor servility dominates … seen from below, she dominates her native
landscape. Striding towards the future, books in hand, she seeks the
knowledge that will free her from the oriental “wisdom” that has
kept her maternal ancestors in bondage.
More alarming still
to Western males with seduction or rape on their minds were
Birshstein’s images of Mali women carrying rifles. Lindley observes
that the Tretchikoff painting provided consolation in a USA which had
lost China to the Reds in 1949 and was in danger of misplacing the rest
If US and Soviet
officialdom disagreed about what was appropriate for Africa, they were
united in their conviction that their own societies should be shown as
beyond conflict. Serov’s The Winter Palace Taken (1954) could have been a cigarette
advertisement for Saturday Evening
Post so stable is its world and so academic its brushstrokes.
up the Banner (1957-60) is angled to exude expectations of change,
and brings aesthetic credit to Socialist Realism, a judgment which
Lindey endorses without using that term.
A failing in her
analysis of Soviet art is a failure to distinguish naturalism from
Realism, and then to delineate the several kinds of Realism –
bourgeois, critical, social, Sur- and Socialist.
in Advertising. The Uneasy
Persuasion, (Basic Books, New York, 1984) speaks of advertising as
Capitalist Realism, which is “thoroughly optimistic”, offering to
solve every problem with “a particular product or style of life.”
cultural czar Zhadanov considered in the late 1940s to be Socialist
Realism was mostly bourgeois naturalism in the garb of academic
illusionism. To call on the vocabulary of those times, we can say that
Vera Mukhina’s giant statue, Worker
and Collective Farm Girl (1937) tried to achieve a synthesis without
evoking any contradiction between thesis and antithesis.
In short, Soviet
Socialist Realism was materialist without being dialectical. By 1916,
Lenin had recognised that, in politics, dialectical Idealism was more
revolutionary than mechanistic materialism. The Soviet leadership had
had their revolution. History would stop with them, not with Hegel,
whose dialectics were subversive of state order and factory discipline.
In trying to
explain why Futurism lost out in the Soviet Union after 1932, Lindey has
no more to say than: “The culprit, of course, was Stalin.” That
“of course” is an iron curtain between our ignorance about Soviet
painting and the analysis that Lindey should be making. More attention
needs to be given to the relations between economic modernisation and
aesthetic modernities. The Fascist Mussolini continued to favour
Futurism. How did the Soviet state organise the construction of the
Dnieper dam but reject Constructivism?
Revolution was partly a drive against superstition by Votairean
Rationalists for whom religion was as great a foe as capitalism The
Enlightenment prejudice is why Zhadanov could encourage folk traditions
in music but suppress them as reactionary (religious) in painting.
Even so, Soviet
authorities allowed painters from the national minorities to include
folk techniques and images. Had the same leeway been permitted to the
Russians, Soviet art might have come closer to the achievements of the
Mexican Social Realists – Rivera and Siqueiros. Yet, the Stalinists,
Siqueiros and Kahlo, were more often closer to Surrealism than was the
The task of
providing a balanced account of artistic production is so important that
I have been torn between praise for the clear-headedness with which
Lindey presents her material and distress that her asides, such as those
about Baudelaire and Kierkegaard, appear to come from a college
introduction to Western Civilisation.
of paintings is more subtle than her recounting of social developments.
Her flattening of the connections between art and society did what I had
thought impossible. They left me crying out for semiotics, or Althusser.