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Disrupting Propaganda: The Legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution in Nonconformist Art from the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli

originally published: 11/16/2017

Disrupting Propaganda: The Legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution in Nonconformist Art from the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) --  The promises of drastic change and a better life for the masses have fueled revolutions throughout history. But history also has demonstrated too often that not only are those ideals hastily abandoned, an even more repressive system replaces the previous one. The year 2017 marks the centennial of one such revolution: when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized control of the Russian government that autumn, following months of unrest after the abdication of Czar Nicholas earlier in the year, to form the Soviet Union. To reflect upon the consequences that have influenced the tone of global politics ever since, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers presents Commemorating the Russian Revolution, 1917/2017 with nearly 90 photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed media works.

While the exhibition includes a selection of works created during the 1920s, it focuses on the unique perspective of artists active in the nonconformist movement from the late 1950s through 1991. They examined the eventual political, social, and cultural aftermath of the Revolution beyond the expected propaganda. Most of the work is drawn from the Zimmerli’s renowned Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, which has preserved work by individuals and collectives who defied the restrictions imposed on the arts by the Communist government during the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition serves as an example of the perpetual clashes between artists and those who hold political power, as well as a reminder of the creative potential of the human spirit, even under restrictive conditions. The exhibition is on view through February 18, 2018.

“This political revolution coincided with a revolution in the arts, as artists developed groundbreaking approaches to visual form during the 1910s and 1920s,” Julia Tulovsky, Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, observes. “For this reason, the two revolutions are often linked. However, the Bolshevik Revolution did not trigger those pioneering changes in art—the artists already had begun their bold experiments long before. In addition, the romantic understanding of the Revolution quickly faded into memory and the free spirit of artistic experimentation proved to be unacceptable for the political agenda.”

Like many Russian citizens, the artists who developed the radical, sometimes utopian, ideas of the avant-garde movement at the beginning of the 20th century regarded the fall of the Russian Empire as the beginning of a new era that promised prosperity and a balanced social structure across society. In the years immediately following the Revolution, many artists did feel an unprecedented creative freedom and even embraced official rhetoric with enthusiasm. They documented the annual commemorative events that, in the early years, were unpretentious and organic. Nikolai Petrov’s photographs of May 1st Red Square Parade, Moscowfrom 1926 captures the relatively informal rally observing International Worker’s Day, or May Day. The images show marchers in their regular clothes, carrying banners and walking in no particular formation. And there is little distinction between participants and observers.

But the illusion of a progressive society quickly dissipated. The gatherings that had been somewhat casual transformed into lavish performances by the 1930s, despite the continuously bleak economic conditions. The celebrations reinforced the regime’s authority and incorporated an idealized image of the new Soviet citizen: strong, athletic, and forward-looking. Thousands of physically fit participants – wearing identical uniforms and following choreographed formations – became easily discernible from the onlookers. Such artists as Alexander Rodchenko, Arkady Shaikhet, and Ivan Shagin documented an array of these elaborate parades on Red Square in Moscow. A series of photographs by Georgi Zelma that includes Athletes in the Red Square Parade (1931), Sportsmen on Parade, Red Square (1936), and Red Square Parade Moscow Champions(1938) emphasizes the heroic collective spirit, asserting the Soviet worker-athlete as superhuman.

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Beyond the parades, the Revolution’s promise of a brilliant future for all citizens was reversed. Repressive policies eliminated any sprouts of dissent (ultimately, more than 30 million lives were lost to execution and inhumane labor camp conditions). The political agenda extended to the arts, mandating Socialist Realism as the only sanctioned style of art intended to validate the success of the Bolsheviks. Acceptable imagery was limited to symbols of the Revolution, glorification of its leaders, and (primarily staged) images of a prosperous Soviet life. But after World War II, artists across the republics of the Soviet Union became increasingly disillusioned. By the late 1950s, they formed the nonconformist movement. Also commonly referred to as unofficial or dissident artists, they refused to ignore the system’s flaws, often appropriating official topics and applying contradictory connotations to mock the iconography. Though the artists primarily shared work among inner circles of friends and colleagues, not publicly promoting or exhibiting their work, they still risked severe consequences: many lost their official jobs or were exiled; others even faced imprisonment.

A number of artists exposed the cruel conditions of the prison system, recollections from personal experience. Boris Sveshnikov served as a night watchman in a carpentry workshop during his years in Gulag labor camps. He used the opportunity to produce the drawings that make up the series Labor Camp Vetlosian (1949-50, 1952), depicting prisoners clustered together in looming, blank spaces. Leonid Lamm initially held an official job in Moscow, illustrating around 400 books on topics deemed acceptable by the government. But when he also became active in nonconformist art circles, the authorities took notice. Five of Lamm’s watercolors capture the claustrophobic cells and yards of Butyrka Prison, which he created while serving a sentence in the mid-1970s. Photographs by Anatoly Kotlerov document the desolate remains of crumbling structures, overgrown grass, and strewn furniture at a Stalinist labor camp. Though the site is unidentified, it could have been any of the 53 camps in the brutal Gulag system. 

The nonconformist movement continued to gain momentum. Some artists returned to the topic of annual celebrations, but with the purpose of exposing their phony and repetitive nature. In Boris Mikhailov’s photographs from Red Series in the 1960s and 1970s, the participants’ blank facial expressions suggest a lack of enthusiasm as they march. In his series Reds Are Coming (photographed in 1972 and 1974, printed 1991), Ivan Petrovich also reveals that annual celebratory customs, entrenched in ritual half a century after the Revolution, devolved into extravagant, predictable, and obligatory spectacles.

Other artists incorporated subtle – and obvious – symbols to remind viewers that their daily lives were subject to government surveillance. Leonhard Lapin’s stark, untitled painting from the 1970s references to the ubiquity of Stalin’s Great Terror: the year 1937 (the 20th anniversary of the Revolution and height of political purges) is imprinted on the back of a human figure. A red star appears on the back of its head, resembling a target and suggesting the ongoing physical, as well at ideological, threat to citizens, both historical and contemporary. Erik Bulatov’s large scale painting Krasikov Street (1977) depicts a group of people walking to work. As they head in the direction of a towering billboard that depicts Lenin briskly walking, the figure appears as if he is about to step off the two-dimensional surface and directly into the pedestrians’ path to meet them.

As the Soviet Union rapidly declined through its final decade of the 1980s, artists increasingly emphasized the failure of the Revolution and the Communist regime, often creating iconic subjects that are simultaneously humorous and incisively critical of authority. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who fled from the Soviet Union to New York in 1978, collaborated for more than 30 years. Like a number of their other paintings, Stalin in Front of the Mirror (1982), from their series Nostalgic Socialist Realism, mimics the academic character of official Soviet art while possessing an element of parody. Stalin sits with his hands folded in prayer, but his “altar” is a mirror. Even while engaged in implied self-worship, he remains capable of “always watching” the masses through his reflection. Leonid Sokov, who, in 1980, also immigrated to New York, embraced a broad range of cultural contexts: both high and low, intertwining Socialist Realism and Western modernism. His 1989 conceptual portrait Around the Russian Idea – Solzhenitsyn represents the famous writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose Nobel Prize-winning book The Gulag Archipelago was largely based on his own experience in Stalin’s labor camps. Exiled from the Soviet Union for more than two decades, he returned after its collapse and positioned himself as a new spiritual mentor. Sokov presents Solzhenitsyn as a prophet in this icon-like piece, substituting a traditional gold background with lead and the halo with bearskin, which also frames the work. This transformation of traditional iconography reflects Russia’s tragic destiny in the 20th century.

The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers is the largest and most comprehensive collection of unofficial Soviet art in the world. The collection includes over 20,000 works by more than 1,000 artists from Russia and the Soviet Republics. The collection was assembled by American economist Norton Dodge during his many business trips to the Soviet Union in the 1960s through the early 1970s, and through relationships with artists who later moved to the United States. The Zimmerli provides opportunities to study and exhibit these artworks, which otherwise might have been lost to time and circumstance, as well as position the Dodge Collection in the global dialogue about art, especially its relevance in the development of conceptual art in the 1970s and 1980s.

Commemorating the Russian Revolution, 1917/2017, on view October 14, 2017 to February 18, 2018, is organized by Julia Tulovsky, Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art.

The exhibition is made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund and the Dodge Charitable Trust – Nancy Ruyle Dodge, Trustee.

The museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street (at George Street) on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

IMAGE: Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Stalin in Front of the Mirror, 1982

Tempera and oil on canvas

35 13/16 x 24 in. (91 x 61 cm)

Purchased with funds donated by Norton Dodge and Nancy Dodge

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