Cold War Art
Art in the Cold War by Christine Lindey, The Herbert Press.
Art Monthly, May 1991, p. 30

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?

By introducing 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.

The shared 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.

Lindey’s 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 of Asia.

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.

Korshev’s Picking 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.

[Michael Schudson 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.” pp. 210-18]

What Soviet 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?

The Bolshevik 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 Trotskyite Rivera.

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.

Lindey’s reading 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.