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Rome: City of Exhibitions – including Soviet Realism

December 30, 2011

There are huge art exhibitions here. In addition to that on the era of Caravaggio there is the biggest exhibition outside Russia ever of the art of socialist realism. Rooms of vast canvasses on Russian art from the early 20s to late 70s. It is powerful, enormously interesting, a great slab of modern history.

There was creativity and pluralism in the 1920s under an artistic commissar called Lunarcharsky, along with the New Economic Policy, but it evaporated in 1928 with the first Five Year Plan and the glorification of proletarians. Ideology laid down a “radiant future” and the metaphors to express it: the body, youth, sunshine, flight. There are some terrifically interesting paintings here, drawn from major Russian institutions. It is the best on offer. The shabbier attempts at propaganda don’t make it; some of the worst art would have been good to see. A lot is interesting in the way Norman Rockwell is interesting. And one focus is to see the paintings reflect changes in “the line” – the people rather than proletariat becoming the heroes after 1936, for example.

Aleksandr Laktionov's 'Captain Judin, Hero of the Soviet Union Visits the Tank Corps-Komsomol' (1938)

I loved “Stalin at the Collective Farmers Congress”: the eager ethically-mixed acolytes looking dotingly at the Vodzh – all crowded on the podium – and the upper half of the painting occupied by a statue of Lenin. There is another big picture of gold miners gathered to write a letter to “the creator of the 1937 constitution”. Just superb. Both from the time of the Great Terror. Both after the collectivization that killed peasants in their millions and rendered millions others vagrants across the land. Stalin “the murderer and peasant slayer” as Osip Mandlestam branded him in the poem that recited to friends but never written down, cost him his life.

The war paintings are magnificent and post-war triumphalism a genre on its own. There is, under commissar Zhadanov no post-war relaxation but in fact a tightening of controls. In the late 50s a “severe style” emerges influenced by Mexican muralists and the English kitchen sink school. Khruhschev in 1962 particularly objected to The Geologists, which is included here, and used it to stage a showdown with the painters. Under Brezhnev the “radiant future” themes are forgotten. A lot of the painting now seems to proclaim we are big, dirty, hopeless but we are owned by the working class and money doesn’t matter.

With time I would visit this exhibition twice. I bought their Italian catalogue. We can only hope someone else picks it up and takes it further afield.

A great day with the morning in Ostia, Rome’s port, looking for the first time at ruins of a city that ranks with Pompeii and Herculaneum.

  1. December 30, 2011 6:47 pm

    Do the taxpayers of NSW pay for your world travels!

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 30, 2011 6:53 pm

      Are you serious?

      • Kev permalink
        December 30, 2011 9:10 pm

        The shock jocks and the Telegraph have been having hysterics the last few days over federal MP travel approvals. I assume that’s where the previous poster’s ill-informed comment came from.

  2. January 1, 2012 12:00 pm

    Serious treatment of socialist realism is long overdue although there has been some exhibitions previously. The US cold war myth making that promoted formalist abstraction as an example of superior US freedom has long been derided in the art world as tawdry propaganda even by those working the style. The most laughable aspect was the unavoidable fact of capitalist realism in the form advertising – but that was always whitewashed from the debate. What has been missing since is a serious history of the various developments within social realism over its fairly long history. My favourite russian artist has always been Tatlin, not just for his constuctivism and monument but also his design work, his flying bicycle and the fact that in his necessary survival tactic when faced with Stalinism was to become a flower painter, but flower paintings of incredibly passive aggressive gloominess.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 1, 2012 8:22 pm

      I agree. This exhibition proves the existence of different currents. And, in any case, at its best the school did say some powerful things about a people not a party.

  3. January 1, 2012 12:05 pm

    Incidentally slightly off topic but I advocate just always deleting dementia trolls like Hilton Brown, they contribute nothing, ever.

  4. ben moretti permalink
    January 19, 2012 12:49 pm

    Great review Bob, thanks.

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