Russia’s art history repainted

Posted: September 18, 2007 in History of Literature, Russian Art

A wealthy Russian art market is driving the rewriting of the country’s creative heritage to be one of conservative bad taste.

Russian modern art was destroyed twice. In the 1920s the creative energy that Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and other titans of the avant-garde lent the 1917 revolution was wiped out by the creed of “socialist realism”. Lenin had never been very impressed by the avant-garde’s idealistic attempts to contribute to making a new world and Stalin actively suppressed anything that went against his demand for accessible, down-to-earth propaganda. The radical abstract styles invented in Russia – constructivism and suprematism – were removed from Soviet culture and remembered only by western artists and museums. Then came the fall of the USSR – and Russian modern art’s second death.

Now this art is tainted by its revolutionary associations even though it was persecuted by Stalin. Is the avowedly Communist art of Malevich worthy of national pride? You can understand the ambivalence that is all too apparent in Russian museums. On the plus side, the Hermitage in St Petersburg purchased a version of Malevich’s Black Square. Yet on visits to St Petersburg and Moscow I have found only poor or closed displays of 20th-century avant-garde art in museums that in theory specialise in it. Instead they flaunt the pre-1917 work of painters like Repin and Roerich. The impression is unavoidable that no one is too eager to look at Bolshevik black on black.

This great confusion over what art Russia should take pride in bears strange fruit. A Sothebys sale next week of the Rostropovich collection of Russian art includes Boris Grigoriev’s realistic 1917-18 painting Faces of Russia. This so-so work is being promoted as “the most important Russian painting since the 1917 revolution” – a ridiculous assertion. It’s like saying Stanley Spencer is the most significant British 20th-century artist, or that Norman Rockwell is a greater American painter than Jackson Pollock. In other words, it’s an example of conservative bad taste. I don’t think Sotheby’s believes anything of the kind – what it is doing, I suspect, is to address a wealthy Russian market that is more likely to buy this kind of figurative art than get excited about suprematism with its communist rhetoric. But it hardly needs saying Soviet avant-garde artists created far more important paintings, films and photographs. In inflating this minor work the art market is pandering to, and helping to create, a sad confusion about Russia’s cultural heritage. [source: The Guardian Art]

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