Rome: City of Exhibitions – including Soviet Realism
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.
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.