Russian Painting at Fleischer Museum (1994)

Scottsdale, Arizona



 These paintings, at the Fleischer Museum in Scottsdale, are surprisingly high in quality, generally freely, succulently painted portraits, figures, landscapes, interiors and a few still-lifes. Academic realist training combines with loose impressionist technique related more to Manet's broad brushwork than the daintier, semi-stippled strokes of some impressionist painting.


 Yes, there are propaganda pictures. And there are works more related to superficial illustration than fine art. But not as many as one might expect. There is only one painting of Stalin, a small one at that, and safely dead in his coffin. None of Lenin. Nowhere does he mount a tractor or platform to exhort smiling, muscular farm and steel workers to patriotically meet their production quotas.


 What may be most intriguing of all, is to compare the art produced during this period (1950's and 60's) in the dictatorial Soviet Union versus the democratic United States of America. Under a totalitarian regime, humanistic art develops, while in a democracy, works of emotional pain and outrage (abstract expressionism), and the mechanization of the human spirit (op, pop, minimal, conceptual) are born as major, honored trends (Some few American exceptions include social realists like Ben Shahn, the Soyers, Jack Levine, and the earlier Regionalists in the 1930's and 40's -- Benton, Curry and Wood -- who have their explorations of the land and people in common with the Russians).


 Why did this happen?


  The basic answer may be that artists in a democracy have more freedom to experiment with technical means and express their dissatisfaction with the social malaise and technological dehumanization stifling people in industrial societies everywhere, East or West, while dictatorships force an officially acceptable aesthetic method and party-line optimistic view. Realism was essentially the only option in the Soviet Union. Modernism and abstraction were anathema to the Soviet leadership, as to all 20th Century totalitarian governments. While a dehumanized government creates a dehumanized society, their propaganda does everything to dispel this reality and create an impression of a paradise of the common man depicted in some variant of a representational style.


 Of course, it is supremely ironic that a free, democratic government and way of life produces and supports dehumanized abstraction that depletes the importance of nature and mankind, while a dehumanized dictatorship, which one would assume would support a dehumanized art, actually backs art that retains nature and humanity as significant subject matter.


 But a question remains, "Why do artists in the West feel they have to add to humanity's distress by art as bad as, or worse than, the conditions they are appalled by?"


 While some American artists like Walt Kuhn (his circus performers), for example, are stronger painters than, and as humanistic as, the Russians, many American painters do lack the humanity expressed in Russian art. The Russian artists, in general, despite state propaganda requirements that forced them to forego the design and color strength of modernism, somehow remained more directly connected to themselves and their souls, their countrymen and nature. Meanwhile, the American artists threw away their creative freedom in a mindless stampede to meaningless, nihilistic aesthetic "experiment" and wretched artistic dehumanization. Yes, this certainly is ironic.


 However that may be, the fact is that grinning, cheerful worker-ants are ubiquitous in totalitarian art, their supposed contentment with the regime blatantly stated. But there is not a lot of pseudo-worker-happiness in this exhibition. Countering a few too many older peasant women in babushkas, are serious, probing, very sensitive studies of a woman physician, "The Doctor," 1960, by Oaxana Dmitrievna Sokolvskaya, an "Actress of the Circus," 1951, by Vladimir Ilyich Nekrasov, and "The Mechanic," 1959, by Dmitri Ivanovich Shmelyov, that are exceptional in quality and characterization.


 If the central worker "In the Stalin Factory," 1949, 52 x 68, by Mikhail A. Kostin, smiles and leans back a little too far in satisfaction with his work, it still is a fine painting of the reality of the foundry, its great, dark, beautiful machines -- beautiful the way bulldozers and road-graders are beautiful -- looming over the men like H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" monsters from Mars, or the power of the Soviet State.


 There are more than a few windows in these paintings, including the factory, that seem to offer salvational light and freedom from dark interiors that can be read as metaphors for desired escape from the restriction of Soviet life. "September," 1957, by Konstantin Gavrilovich Dorodhov, is a wonderful, freely brushed, 79 x 51 interior with a foreground pile and harvest sprawl of cabbages and apples or tomatoes, that lead to two women silhouetted against a window at the rear of the painting.


 Nikolai A. Abramov's excellent, impressively strong, 1969, "April in the Motherland of V.J. Lenin," 93 x 77, is a huge, expressively composed, grittily brushed and slashed work that has more to do with art and life and the power of white as a color, than with Lenin. A dark, triangular façade of an old-fashioned Russian house buried in snow, looms large in the foreground behind a screen of six white birch trees that might be seen as prison bars or the timeless, redemptive truth of nature no matter what man may do. Behind the dark house, snow and trees, towers a white, rectangular, International Style apartment building like the supervising presence of "Big Brother".


 The extraordinary "Steel Workers Reading Pravda," 1965, painted with convincing solidity and expressionist fervor by Oleg Leonidovich Lomakin, could be New York longshoremen reading the Daily News.


 Among the best paintings are: "At Home," 1955, an intimate, well composed and painted genre scene with a young couple and baby by Valentina Shebasheva; "Apple Blossoms on the Dnieper River," 1950, by Yuri Vasiljevich Kiyanchenko, a Corot-lovely landscape; "Warm Day (study)" 1955, by Anatole Pavlovich Levitin, a beautiful, light-filled interior with a child sitting in the window; and "Amov Steel," 1957, by Konstantin Alekseevich Shurupov, an industrial scene, admittedly prettied up, but rich in pastel color.


 Apparently most of the works in the show were painted from life or studies painted on site, not from photographs like so many contemporary painters. This is another reason for the reality and humanness of the Russians' work. The paintings as a whole are a tribute to the Russian artists, that they were able to make any kind of significant art under such appalling social conditions. A very highly recommended exhibition.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms