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“Hidden Treasures: Russian Painting 1930-1980”
The working-class impressionist paintings from Russia now on view at the Meridian International Center are bad paintings masquerading as good ones. These images, made in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1980 by “official” artists, purport to exemplify a Soviet art that is more value-neutral than the heroic visions usually associated with painting under totalitarianism. The works exemplify the derivative impressionist impulse popular with American artists a generation or two earlier, adopting the bravura brushwork developed in late-19th-century France by such painters as Manet, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, but without those artists’ analytical intent. Like their American counterparts, the Soviet painters represented here jettisoned the critical structures of true impressionism, replacing them with devotion to superficial sentimentality and charm.
There’s no question that the works in “Hidden Treasures: Russian Painting 1930-1980” are attractive. It’s the seductive visual pleasure of impressionism that has made and will probably continue to make it the revenge of the Sunday painter for centuries to come. The paintings at the Meridian Center are large, colorful, and accessible in their subject matter, but unchallenging and completely lacking in intellectual content. After all, few viewers will find anything objectionable in a heap of cabbages, a flock of geese, or a family scene on the Soviet frontier.
The works’ innocuous subject matter is only superficially appealing. Ostensibly reflecting worker contentment in the Soviet Union’s classless society, the genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life and portraits of common people. Most of the pieces at the Meridian Center derive from rural life, but there are a few images of doctors and factory workers, and a smattering of landscapes. Because the painters’ techniques are so similar—there is very little range in style even though these works span decades and were painted in a number of artistic milieus—visitors get the disorienting sense of looking at the same image over and over again. The catalog’s essay claims that these paintings are relatively free of “pink dust”—the tint of communist orthodoxy—but though such orthodoxy is covert, it is clearly an integral part of these artists’ work.
The exhibition is presented in four sections: “Art of the Virgin Lands,” landscape, portraiture, and genre. Yet the cloying sweetness of anecdotal realism, genre’s sentimental 19th-century variant, pervades them all. The Virgin Lands images are the most intriguing; characterized by an evident optimism, they mirror the clichés developed by American painters (and later, filmmakers) portraying the American West. The works refer to the program launched in 1954 to open formerly untilled land in the Republic of Kazakhstan, western Siberia, and the Urals for agricultural development. Artists went along with the thousands of volunteer workers and, during the ’50s, this migration was the predominant motif of official artists. In these images, period references are jumbled—airplanes are visible above horse-drawn wagons, a young couple celebrates an outdoor wedding with a tractor standing nearby. In Kazakhstan’s Virgin Land: Tents on the Frontier (1955-56), by Dmitri Ivanovich Shmelyov, the interior of one tent in a vast tent city contains several genre staples: a profile view of a mother and child, a woman reading a letter, a man reclining on a cot next to a light-reflecting still-life detail. In the distance, again, the ubiquitous tractor. The figures are posed to underscore the official message: New life and civilization are appearing in the Virgin Lands.
The part of “Hidden Treasures” devoted to nature imagery is the most disappointing, perhaps because visitors expect the artists to present something of the range and grandeur of the Soviet empire’s varied terrain. Here again, the genre impulse triumphs and almost all of the works are small—near views of garden corners, porches, a vista closed off by a hill. Here the artists’ flaccid, unstructured brushwork is the most disappointing, as landscape painting typically rewards analytical explorations of painting technique.
It’s in the portraiture section, however, that the show’s pink dust is most noticeable. The individual images of idealized women and Renoir-pretty children, of two women looking at drawings, of an elderly musician, of an elderly woman, and of a group of children in a provincial library display the degraded sentimentality into which impressionism had deteriorated by the turn of the century. In this Panglossian world where everything is for the best, the emotional and psychological range extends only from cute to attractive—it’s rather terrifying to see the human form turned into such a meaningless cipher. It was certainly a necessary strategy for official artists to deny the cruel realities of Soviet life, and no hint of a specific struggle appears in any of these paintings. The only clue that something else might be going on lies in the obsessiveness with which these artists project their sanitized, idealized visions.
The one exception to this visual stupor is Well in the Carpathians (1962) by Vladimir Feodorovich Stozharov. The presence of one functioning pictorial intelligence is sufficient to demonstrate by example what is so painfully absent from the show’s other works. An image of a woman and horses coming and going at a covered well set before a long building that almost entirely fills the painting, the work is constructed of small color strokes that reveal a pictorial logic reminiscent of the folk and religious art sources that inspired the Russian avant-garde’s first generation. It also has the timeless, iconic quality of peasant art, except for the airplane hovering just above a chimney at the top left of the painting. Here is an image that rewards contemplation: Subject matter and execution combine in the eloquence of good painting. The catalog gives no clue to the mysterious anomaly of Stozharov—though it reports that his work was admired by other artists in the ’50s and ’60s, and that it seemed “to point a way out of the artificial Stalinist Arcadia….”
The most startling aspect of “Hidden Treasures” is not its mediocrity but how “American” the paintings look. (I’m not thinking here of contemporary, cutting-edge work, but of 19th- and early-20th-century painting). There’s something Norman Rockwellian about the world depicted in these Russian works—it resembles the synthetic vision of the past that right-wing American politicians use as a nostalgic distraction from the intransigent dilemmas of modern life. The very style of these Russian paintings is fundamentally dishonest—as is any style practiced outside the time and place of its creation and fruition. That dishonesty masks the larger one embedded in the sentimentalized idealization of “common people.” In the end, the numbing effect of this falsity demonstrates both the impossibility of decreeing rules for the creation of good art and the sweet seduction of propaganda.