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Socialist realism at the Russian Museum

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The enormous paintings were commissioned as propaganda by the Soviet regime. / FRANCIS SILVA

  • The display includes works which reflect official propaganda but have a life of their own

  • The new annual exhibition at the museum in the Tabacalera building takes a different look at Soviet art

The party thought there was too much sky and not enough of the leader, so it refused to allow the painting to be put on display to the public and 'Lenin at the tribunal' (1927) by Isaac Brodsky was therefore kept in storage for years. His style met the demands of the political powers: clear, propagandistic and enthusiastic about the Bolshevik ideology, but those in charge of the Soviet publicity machine thought the figure of Lenin should have been bigger.

The history of this small piece is given in the first room of the new annual exhibition at the Russian Museum. It places the focus on art of the Soviet period, from the October Revolution of 1917 to the dawn of 'perestroika' in the 1980s. However, this new exhibition is more light-hearted and one of the most 'rounded' of those seen so far at this museum in the Tabacalera building.

The vice-director of the State Museum of Russian Art of St Petersburg, Evgenia Petrova, who curated the display, placed her cards firmly on the table at the official opening: “In Europe, the art of the Soviet Union is hardly known.... we call this art socialist realism. For several decades it was considered very similar, being dedicated to the leaders, the governments and political ideas, but in reality it was something rather different, because apart from the official art there was an art which was living its own life. We would like to overcome the myth that art was the same in this period, and show people the truth, because everything was much more complicated and much more interesting,” she said.

The 132 works from the parent museum in St Petersburg will be on display in Malaga for the next 12 months. The impressive canvases in the form of publicity hoardings for the Soviet regime, painted by Grigori Shegal, Viktor Vijtinski and Dimitri Nalbandián, play a more than leading role, as they did during that period, but in this exhibition they are placed alongside more subtle and complex creations.

It is a good idea to start by 'discovering' Sofía Dímschits-Tolstaia, an experimental artist in the early 20th century. She complied with the realism demanded by the Soviet regime, but without abandoning her quest for the avant-garde through portraits of the “new woman: restless, shock- workers and managers of kolkhozes”.

Ideological discharge

José María Luna, the director of the municipal agency which manages the Russian Museum, said the “artistic value” of many of these works stems from their “ideological discharge”.

This is also the case further on in the exhibition, after passing the large official paintings and entering the section dedicated to the anonymous workers. Two small paintings by Boris Yermoliaev particularly stand out: 'At the table' (1937-1938) and 'Listening to the news' (1938). These are everyday scenes far from the dominant era, simple, almost childlike, and at the same time with a deep melancholy.

The luminous pictures by Yermoliaev had the same result as the 'black paintings' by Samuil Adlivankin: ostracism. Adlivankin produced the dark scenes of 'Closing the gap' (1930) and 'At the headquarters of the kolkhoz before embarking on the fight to fulfil the production plan' (1931), and his theme is continued in the following section, dedicated to the world of labourers.

Here, there are more contrasts. The idealised scenes of barely-stained workers wearing good shiny leather boots by Vasili Yakolev in his 'Miners write a letter to the creator of the Grand Constitution' (1937) are displayed alongside the 'Shock-worker (Builder of socialism)' (1932) by Aleksei Volter, which looks like something from a fashion catalogue. And on the next wall, scenes of factories at full output, by Aleksandr Kuprín and Vasili Rozhdestvenski, but with no heroism, nor idyllic lifestyles: here there is fire, smoke and faceless workers carrying out interminable tasks.

Movement and eroticism

The following section is dedicated to sport. The main work here is Alexandr Deineka's dynamic 'Midday' (1932) with a choice of colours almost identical to Aleksandr Samojválov's 'Girl with ball' (1933) and 'In the stadium' (1934-35).

And without detracting from what comes before, around the corner is the delicate eroticism of the same artist in 'After the cross-country race' (1934-35), with a female athlete resembling the Venus de Milo, and 'In the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul' (1934) by Alekséi Pajómov.

Women undressing against a blurred background, the serenity of pastel shades, the firm gaze fixed on the spectator, without fear or doubt. A demonstration of silent strength, far from the proclamations of the party.