Andrey Kovalev. Empty Space?
The Soviet Pavilion During the Cold War // Russian Artists at the Venice Biennale, 1895-1913. Moscow, Stella Art Foundation. 2013
The Soviet pavilion in Venice closed in 1934 and did not reopen for twenty years. This was despite the fact that Soviet exhibitions had received highly favourable press reviews ever since the first presentation in 1924.1 Mussolini is said to have taken an instant liking to the masterpieces of Socialist Realism. The first painting to delight him was Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Death of a Commissar. Perhaps in the eyes of the Italian Duce, this courageous commissar, performing the ‘final aria of a tragic opera’, expressed the greatness and heroism of defending one’s ‘soil, blood and culture’. However, Mussolini was reportedly most enthusiastic about the work of Alexander Deyneka:2 he is said to have called the Soviet painter ‘a true Roman’ and proposed him as a model to his own fascist artists. In 1935 Deyneka was sent to Italy to gather ideas and inspiration, and duly produced a striking portrayal of the giant sculptures on the newly-built Foro Mussolini in one of his gouache works. Whatever the truth of the matter, Soviet texts liked to quote Mussolini’s lover Margherita Sarfatti, who called Deyneka’s painting The Defence of Petrograd ‘brilliantly conceived in colour and composition.’ Two of Deyneka’s paintings, The Race and Women’s Cross-country, were bought by Mussolini’s Ministry of Education at the Biennale in 1930 and 1934 and now belong to the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. After these successes, the decision of the Soviet authorities to end participation in the Biennale may seem less peculiar: such an obvious manifestation of spiritual affinity between the Soviet and Fascist regimes was laden with impropriety. Large-scale representation But the Soviet Union had another far more telling reason to turn its back on Venice. The Biennale was a competition of the arts, a relic of the imperialist époque of the late 19th Century. Soviet imperialism was no longer satisfied with the mere division of spheres of influence and markets. Stalin’s ambitions were far greater. In 1929 he drove his rival Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union and crushed the followers of Trotsky, who supported the concept of ‘permanent revolution’. But having done so he immediately set about practical implementation of what had been the main objective of his ideological rival – international supremacy.3 The first project incarnating these colossal new ambitions was the Soviet pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.4 It was designed by architect Boris Iofan, whose Palace of the Soviets had just entered the construction phase in Moscow – a megalithic ziggurat crowned with a sculpture of Lenin, which was to rise into the clouds in the capital of the Red Empire. The principle of a giant construction topped with a sculpture was also used at the Paris pavilion, but with a different twist for foreign consumption. The Paris pavilion is superbly dynamic and bears the giant looming figures of the Worker and Collective Farm Girl created by Vera Mukhina.5 In Paris Iofan, who was usually inclined toward neo-classical harmony and symmetry, boldly employed the figurative constructions of Kazimir Malevich”s Architectons. Using the talents of opponents he had destroyed or enslaved was characteristic of the system created by Stalin. The interiors of the pavilions in 1937 in Paris and 1939 at the World Fair in New York were designed by two of Malevich’s students, Konstantin Rozhdestvensky and Nikolay Suetin (they also constructed the suprematist coffin for their teacher after his death in 1935). Alexander Deyneka’s vast painting Stakhanovites stood inside the Paris pavilion at a time when Deyneka and Mukhina were under extreme pressure in the Soviet Union as part of a burgeoning new campaign against ‘bourgeois formalism’, and it is remarkable that they were allowed to leave the country to attend the Exhibition. In the event, the propaganda effect of the Paris pavilion was outstanding. The Soviet pavilion visibly ‘overpowered’ Speer’s German pavilion, which stood opposite it, and did much to increase the numbers of Europeans in sympathy with the ‘world’s first worker and peasant state.’ Take only the best In 1928–1930 Deyneka was a member of the October group – the last association of Soviet constructivist architects – before joining the Russian Association of Proletarian Painters (1931– 1932). While the ideologists of the former claimed that the art of easel painting was dying out in the process of building Socialism, yielding to what they called ‘production art’, the ultra-radical members of the second group went even further. They rejected outright any kind of easel art, regarding it as a symptom of bourgeois individualism and insisted on collective art and the creation of frescos with ideological and propagandistic content in public places. In 1932 the society was broken up for this explicitly Trotskyite notion and many of its members were subjected to repression.6 But their radical demands for a reorganisation of the functions of art were acknowledged and realised in a new form. Deyneka’s Stakhanovites was no easel painting.
The creators of the Soviet pavilion at the World Fair in New York went even further in turning art into a universal tool of propaganda. The pavilion architect was again Boris Iofan, but the interior was dominated by the fresco-canvas Illustrious People of the Land of the Soviets by Vasily Efanov, a painter who was far more ideologically irreproachable than Deyneka in the eyes of the Party. He was not a ‘lone worker’, but the head of a brigade, which completed the work in record time, and this was not a ‘painting’ in the usual sense, but a kind of giant semi-circular diorama. So the slogans of the recently repressed radicals of the Association of Proletarian Painters were implemented in full. The effect of the pavilion was colossal: after it was dismantled the American press was fascinated to know that would be done with ‘Big Joe‘, as it had nicknamed the sculpted worker bearing a star in his hands, who had crowned the megalith in the Bronx.7 It was of course impossible in principle to present such a new style in Venice, where exhibits were expected to meet old-fashioned criteria of individuality. But it is interesting that Clement Greenberg in his classical text ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ (1939), published in the Trotskyite Partisan Review, presents the works of Ilya Repin, a founder of 19th century critical realism and much feted in Venice, as an example of socialist realist kitsch, while failing to even mention the unprecedented gigantomania of the Soviet pavilion in New York, which so thrilled American minds. In any case, the USSR did not stage any more comparable events after New York. The time had come to carve up the world for real. Losing Avant-Garde and Kitsch culminates on an optimistic note: ‘Today we no longer look to socialism for a new culture - as inevitably as one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.’ In the 1950s Greenberg would become a fervent preacher of abstract expressionism – an art to which Soviet artistic bureaucrats were strongly allergic. But some of them would have subscribed to the conclusions of Greenberg’s 1939 article. In the Cold War, where art was mobilised together with guns, tanks and rockets, the United States modified strategies which the Soviets had employed to such great effect in the 1930s, while the Soviet Union fell back on a weaker, defensive position. And the main events of this confrontation took place in happy, relaxed Venice.8 In 1950 Alfred Barr, the director and founder of the Museum of Modern Art, brought Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning to the Biennale. The shrewd operators of the US Department of State and CIA carried out a very sophisticated operation, reining in the country’s ultra-conservatives and McCarthyists, who spat venom at the very mention of those “Leninists, Trotskyites and alcoholics”, in order to present American abstract expressionism as a genuine embodiment of the ideas of the free world.9 Crucially, America was transformed in the eyes of Europeans from a cultural wasteland into a beacon of innovation: initial indignation at this bold step from some quarters on the old continent was soon swept aside. It became apparent that the new propaganda approach was extraordinarily effective, and that many young European painters were ready to follow in the steps of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothco and co. Meanwhile, the post-war Soviet Union had abandoned Stalinist plans of world supremacy expressed by the pavilions of 1937 in Paris and 1939 in New York. The Soviets were struggling to maintain their new vassals in Eastern Europe, and when in 1956 the Soviet Union finally returned to Venice, its defeat in the new culture war was a foregone conclusion. There was nothing left to present: the pictorial propaganda of the heroic achievements of the socialist order drew nothing but sneers from a public, which had been informed of the horrors of the Gulag. The Soviet critics and functionaries who wrote reports from the Biennale could only seethe with fury as Europe became more abstract and even their allies in Western Europe’s communist press expressed impatience with their Moscow patrons.10 Misunderstood art Western observers always failed to grasp the titanic struggles and nuances that underlay the exhibitions, which they saw presented in the Soviet pavilion. What was brought to Venice was all that was best and most progressive in Soviet art, and the policy of double standards (one face for external and another for internal consumption) that emerged in the 1930s was alive and well in the post-war years. The western viewer had no idea that inclusion in the first post-war Soviet pavilion of works by Vera Mukhina and Alexander Deyneka, who had been lambasted in the Soviet Union for their ‘bourgeois formalism’, represented a major breakthrough, nor did he appreciate the the creator of Kolkhoz Holiday, Sergei Gerasimov, represented the progressive side of socialistic realism, in contrast with his namesake, Alexander Gerasimov, who was an ideological monster committed to stifling progress. Nor could the outside observer grasp the importance of inclusion of the work of the fabulous book illustrator Vladimir Favorsky in the Soviet Union’s first post-war outing in Venice. The
international public could make nothing of the rounded, ideologically verified phrases uttered in 1958 by the pavilion Commissioner, Alexei Fedorov-Davydov, and most of the western audience was unaware that the speaker was an encyclopaedically knowledgeable art historian and founding father of the Russian school of art history – author of The Russian Art of Industrial Capitalism (1929), which ranks as one of the most thorough sociological studies of visual art ever made.11 In the 1930s Fedorov-Davydov had been branded in the USSR as a ‘vulgar sociologist. In 1956 he spoke in the birdlike twittering of Soviet officialise, no doubt fully aware of the fatally disjointed effect of such a form of communication and also aware that he struck a curious figure in the eyes of the international community. But those were prices, which he was ready to pay in order to achieve a quite different objective: he knew that successful presentation of an artist at the Biennale created an opportunity for his or her legitimisation at home, among the conservatives in the Soviet government. Indeed, this ‘self-sacrifice’ by Fedorov-Davydov, unnoticed by the western public, gave Favorsky the means to protect himself from attack in the Soviet Union, and thereby to become a cult figure for a new generation of Russian artists – both for non-conformists, such as Ilya Kabakov and Eric Bulatov, who regarded him as their mentor, and for proponents of the so-called ‘austere style’.12 the latter artists - followers of Deyneka and Favorsky who marched beneath the banner of ‘new sincerity’ – suffered harsh castigation from Nikita Khrushchev when he visited the exhibition 30 years of the Moscow Section of the Union of Artists in 1962. But in that same year, in another reversal between the Soviet domestic situation and Venice, three leading representatives of the ‘austere style’ – Gely Korzhev, Viktor Popkov, Tair Salakhov – were exhibited in the Soviet pavilion. The western observer could not make out the innovations in the pavilion or spot the ‘new sincerity’, for which representatives of the ‘austere style’ had campaigned. They only saw ‘the same smiling smelters, the women carpenters with lilies-of-the-valleys pinned on their robust breasts, the mustachioed Uzbeks who could easily have been painted 40 years ago.’13 After 1956 the internal struggles in the Soviet art world become less intense. The ‘liberal’ party gradually prevailed and artists who had been excoriated for formalism and deviation from the general line were transformed into leading heroes in the revamped history of Soviet art. In 1964 Nikita Khrushchev, who made a point of deciding personally which art should be exhibited and which not, was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who neither thumped his shoe at the United Nations nor publicly castigated artists. Under Brezhnev, issues were decided by the omnipotent and anonymous bureaucratic system, and any kind of voluntarism – even in minor matters – was excluded in the organisation of Biennale exhibitions. The so-called pavilion curator was but an executive manager, and every piece of art had to undergo an incredibly complex and multi-tiered selection process before it was approved for display in Venice. To date, no one has tried to research and describe the economic and social functioning of official art in the later Soviet Union. Art was managed by the post-Stalinist bureaucracy without any single agency of censorship. Mikhail Lazarev, the fine art expert who organised the Soviet national art exhibitions (All-Union exhibitions), which provided most of the works sent to the Biennale, has described the selection process as follows: ‘At first, the [All-Union exhibition] would be visited by the secretariat and executives of the Artists Union, then by people from the Ministry of Culture, the Minister of Culture himself and the Central Committee of the Party. But the Central Committee came secretly and they would never say that a certain work had to be removed. That would have been too coarse. Instead they said: “Think about this work”. But everyone knew what “to think” meant.’14 But what Lazarev describes was only the final stage of a truly Kafkaesque process. In order to feature in an All-Union exhibition works had to come through the sieve of several exhibition committees. The key subtlety of the bureaucratic system devised under Brezhnev was that political and aesthetic pre-censorship was left to the artists themselves: the exhibition committees consisted of artists. And even the most ideologically correct artists could be asked to modify their compositions or at least the name of the work.15 Vladimir Goryaninov, the permanent Commissioner of the Soviet pavilion from the start of the 1960s, notes that most of the art pieces sent to the Biennale would be taken from the stores of the Ministry of Culture and the Union of Artists. So the works had to pass through one more filter in the struggle between groups of artists and bureaucrats, with the issue decided this time less by aesthetic values than by financial issues and the interests of corrupt groups.16 In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet pavilion provoked heated debate, in the 1950s and early 1960s it provoked sniggers. By the 1970s it was no longer noticed, and so it remained until the pavilion was closed in response to the Biennale of Dissent in 1977.17
1 For comments in the Italian and international press, see: Igor Golomshtok, Totalitarian Art, Moscow, 1994 (the chapter entitled ‘Meeting in Venice’). See also: Anatoly Lunacharsky, ‘About Russian Painting (regarding the exhibition in Venice)’ // Izvestiya, 1924, October 1; Boris Ternovets, ‘The Italian press and the Soviet Section at the 16th International Exhibition in Venice’ // Iskusstvo, 1928, №3-4; Kseniya Kravchenko, ‘Forced Confessions. Soviet painters at the 18th International Exhibition in Venice. From the Italian press’ // Iskusstvo, 1933, №1-2, pp. 235-242; Ksenya Tikhonova, ‘Soviet artists at the 19th International Exhibition in Venice’ // Iskusstvo, 1935, № 2, pp. 178-182. 2 Andrey Kovalev, ‘Defence of Deyneka: a strong middle-game’ // Deyneka. Graphics, Moscow, 2011; Mikhail Bode, ‘Alessandro di Deneyka, Master of the Rome School’ // artchronika.ru, January 2011; Christina Kiaer, ‘Collective body: the art of Aleksander Deyneka’ // Artforum International, 2012, 51(3), 242-243. 3 Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, Cambridge, 2011, p 214. 4 V. N. Shpakov. History of the World Exhibitions // Moscow, 2008; Kirill Novikov, ‘Affected Instinct (the Soviet Union at the World Exhibitions)’ // Dengi, 2005, № 21(526); Sarah Wilson, ‘The Soviet Pavilion in Paris’ // Matthew C. Brown and Brandon Taylor (ed.), Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One-Party State, 1917-1992, Manchester, 1993; Andrey Kovalev, ‘Boris Iofan, “From Rome to Babylon”’, review of the exhibition An Architect of Power in the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture // artchronika.ru; Andrey Kovalev, ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ // Dekorativnoe iskusstvo, 1990, № 12, pp. 33-34. 5 В. Jungen, Vera Mukhina, ‘Art Between Modernism and Socialist Realism’ // Third Text, 2009, 23(1), 35–43. 6 Regarding this unknown episode in the history of Soviet art see: Ekaterina Degot, Struggle for the Banner: Soviet Art between Trotsky and Stalin, 1926-1936, Moscow, 2008; Andrey Kovalev, ‘Against Formalism - for Martial and Socially Involved Art! About the Exhibition “Struggle for the Banner”’ // OpenSpace.ru, 26 June 2008. 7 Anthony Swift, ‘The Soviet World of Tomorrow at the New York World Fair, 1939’ // The Russian Review, 1998, 57(3), pp. 364–379. 8 N. M. Holland, Worlds on View: Visual Art Exhibitions and State Identity in the Late Cold War (Ph.D.), University of California, San Diego, 2010. 9 See the theses of Frances Stonor Saunders, which provoked violent controversy, ‘Modern Art Was CIA “Weapon”’ // The Independent, 22 October 1995. See also: Y. Richmond, ‘Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: How the West Won’ // American Communist History, 2010, 9(1), pp. 61–75; F. Frascina, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Routledge, 2000. 10 Valentin Dyakonov quotes a document from the archive of the Culture Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: ‘The article “The reality and what is desired’ by the Austrian Communist Party activist, I. Muzhich, came up on 15 November, 1956; its translation was sent to the Department by the Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union, N. Mikhaikov. The article came out on 22 September 1956 in the newspaper of the Austrian Communist Party, Tagebuch. It contained heavy criticism of the painters presented in the Soviet pavilion.’ (Valentin Dyakonov. Moscow Artistic Culture in the 1950s-60s: the Rise of Non-Official Art, dissertation at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, 2009. 11 Alexei Fedorov-Davydov, The Russian Art of Industrial Capitalism. History and Theory of Art, Moscow, 1929. Regarding the sociological school of Soviet art studies see: Andrey Kovalev, From Art History to Modernity. Soviet Art History and Critics of the 1920s in the System of Artistic Consciousness, dissertation, Moscow, Lomonosov Moscow State University, 1990. 12 S. E. Reid, ‘Masters of the Earth: Gender and Destalinisation in Soviet Reformist Painting of the Khrushchev Thaw’ // Gender & History, 1999, 11(2), p. 276; Susan Reid. ‘The 'art of memory': retrospectivism in Soviet painting of the Brezhnev era’ // Matthew C. Brown and Brandon Taylor (ed.), Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One-Party State , 1917-1992. Manchester, 1993; A Bobrikov, ‘The Severe Style: Mobilisation and the Cultural Revolution’ // Khudozhestvenny zhurnal, 2003, №51-52. 13 Tullia Zevi, The New Republic, 19 September 1964: 32-34. This review of the Italian press says that the ‘bourgeois press, cardinals and Communists’ unanimously criticize the pop-art shown in the American pavilion. 14 Gleb Napreenko, ‘The Machine of the All-Union Exhibition. An Interview with Mikhail Lazarev’ // OpenSpace.ru, 1 November 2011. 15 A press-release for an exhibition of work by the Tkachev brothers, who were committed loyalists of the most conservative model of realism, contains an intriguing account of how their work Mothers was
presented at the All-Union exhibition under the title On the Bench: the change of titles was imposed by the exhibition committee, which saw the work as ‘a parody of Soviet mothers’ (Tretyakov Gallery, 2011). How Soviet post-war art operated is fully described in: Valentin Dyakonov, Moscow Artistic Culture of the 1950s-60s. See also: S.E. Reid, De-Stalinization and the Remodernization of Soviet art: The Search for a Contemporary Realism, 1953-1963 (Ph.D.), 1996, University of Pennsylvania; S.E. Reid, ‘Socialist Realism in the Stalinist Terror: The Industry of Socialism Art Exhibition, 1935-41’ // Russian Review, 60(2); Ekaterina Degot, Vladimir Levashkov, ‘Permitted Art’ // Iskusstvo, 1990, № 1. 16 ‘Those who visited the Biennale were cultivated’, discussion between Gleb Napreenko and the Commissioner of the Venice pavilion, Vladimir Goryaninov // Openspace.ru, 5 October 2011, (http:// os.colta.ru/art/projects/30795/details/30796/?expand=yes#expan). 17 M.K. Soomre, ‘Art, Politics and Exhibitions: (Re)writing the History of (Re)presentations’ // Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi, 2012, 21(3/4), pp. 106–121.