Socialist realist and nonconformist art collide in Minneapolisby Greta Cunningham, Minnesota Public Radio
A new exhibit at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis presents two distinct interpretations of Soviet life in late 20th century. The exhibit is called "Soviet Dis-Union" and it showcases paintings from artists supported by the Communist Party and works from artists who worked in secret and were independent from the government. The Museum of Russian Art opened about a year ago and is the only museum in the U.S. devoted to Russian art created in the Soviet era.
Minneapolis, Minn. — When we think of Soviet art many of us conjure up heroic images of communist leaders and selfless peasant workers. These types of paintings are part of the Socialist realism movement started by Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin in 1934. Stalin wanted Soviet artists, who were financially supported by the government, to depict leaders and workers helping to raise living standards for all Soviet citizens.
Museum of Russian Art President, Brad Shinkle, says because the Soviet Union was geographically huge the Communist Party used socialist realism art as a tool to communicate a consistent political philosophy.
"Because many of the people in the Soviet Union were of non-Russian ethnicity and spoke different languages and had different historical and religious backgrounds," he says. "And the Communist party and the Soviet government were seeking to bring some standardization to the social motivation and control of their citizens."
The other movement in the exhibit is non-conformist art. The movement began after the death of Stalin in 1953 and continued until the fall of communism in 1991. Non-conformist artists rejected the state prescribed artistic guidelines and depicted the stark living conditions facing ordinary Soviet citizens. They used their work to criticize Communist Party policies. Fearing punishment from the government, artists displayed these works only in private apartments.
Alla Rosenfeld came to the museum to gave a lecture about the exhibit. Rosenfeld grew up in St. Petersburg and is the Director of the Department of Russian Art at Rutgers University. She's written a forward to the companion book for the Minneapolis exhibit. She says it's a rare opportunity for visitors to see socialist realist art and non-conformist art side by side.
"If you look at the figures depicting workers for example, created by socialist realist artists you can see that they represented as very strong-willed individuals and as an image of physically fit man, like a new Soviet person," she says. "If a non-conformist would depict an individual it would very frequently depict a very disturbing image. For example, a handicapped person after the second world war, something like this."
The non-conformists artists often painted impressionistic and abstract art. Communist leaders prohibited these forms of artistic expression because they focused on form over content. Soviet critics of non-conformist art said these forms distorted the pure image of the people engaged in building communism.
Rosenfeld says there were several categories of art which were deemed off-limits for socialist realist artists.
"Any negative commentary on society was not allowed. Religious art was out of the question and it didn't matter whether it was Christian art or Judaism-any kind of religious symbols and depictions of objects of veneration would be prohibited," she says.
"Soviet Dis-Union" is exhibited on all three floors of the Museum of Russian Art. The 1935 building began as a Spanish Colonial Church and was transformed into the museum in 2004. It has an open atrium that allows visitors to look at a painting on one floor and then gaze up and down to catch glimpses of paintings on the other levels.
The lower floor contains many works of art from socialist realist artists. The paintings depict social progress under the communist system and were intended to assure Soviet citizens of their bright future and secure employment.
"There are very good works created by socialist realist artists and not necessarily all of those works are Soviet propaganda. There are some very nice landscapes created by socialist realist artists, still-lifes. There were also so not very good non-conformist works," she says. "So we wanted to show with this exhibition that it was not black and white, that there are very interesting works in both types of Soviet art."
Denise Dion from Roseville recently visited the exhibit, slowly walking through the museum. She's been to Moscow and St. Petersburg and says this exhibit is not what she expected.
"I'm really surprised to see some much of it here. I didn't expect, when I looked at the name of this exhibit, for it to look like this," she says.
Dion said she was expecting something, "more Stalinist".
"More somber and sober. It's very bright and very idealistic which is what they're trying to show, and humorous."
Museum President Brad Shinkle says while art from the two collections has been shown separately in museums around the world--this is the first consolidated exhibition of the two collections. The 50-year period highlighted in the show features artwork that, due to the Cold War, Americans have not had much opportunity to see.
The Soviet Dis-Union: Socialist Realist and Nonconformist Art is on display at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis thru August 19th.
- All Things Considered, 05/22/2006, 6:23 p.m.