New Jersey Stage
New Jersey Stage on social media

BIG NEWS! Here's the 50th Issue of NJ Stage Magazine -- Click here

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.

The article continues after this ad


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

Rider University Art Gallery presents Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian
(LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ) -- The Rider University Art Gallery will present an exhibit of works by Mel Leipzig, titled Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian Wednesday September 26 through Friday, October 26.  Leipzig, born in Brooklyn in 1935, resides in Trenton, NJ.
Monroe Township Presents Artrageous
(MONROE TOWNSHIP, NJ) -- The Monroe Township High School Performing Arts Center presents Artrageous on Sunday, November 11th at 4:00pm. Artrageous is a unique interactive arts performance that incorporates many different art forms on the same stage. The audience experiences live speed painting art, music, dance, and life-sized puppetry.  
"Trumpets, Weird and Wonderful" opens at the Morris Museum October 7
(MORRISTOWN, NJ) -- The Morris Museum in partnership with the National Music Museum (Vermillion, South Dakota) presents the exhibit Trumpets, Weird and Wonderful: Treasures from the National Music Museum — 44 fascinating instruments from five continents, on view at the Morris Museum from October 7 to March 17, 2019. Dating from the late 17th to the late 20th centuries, the instruments are on loan from the National Music Museum’s Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection of Brass Instruments, and most of them have never been on public exhibit.
JCTC's Connection Series Explores How We Do & Don’t Connect in Today’s World
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- Technology connects people all over the world, yet why do we so often seem disconnected to our communities, families and each other? Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC) launches its 2018/2019 season with Connection, a series of visual arts, theater, dance and readings that explores the truly modern conflict of pervasive isolation in an era of hyper-communication.
GlassRoots Honors The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey & Laureen Meehan at Annual Gala
​(NEWARK, NJ) -- GlassRoots announced that its annual Gala and Auction, this year entitled Glowing + Growing will be held on October 18, 2018, and will celebrate the nonprofit's 17 years of impact by paying tribute to the deep connections among organizations invested in arts education by honoring Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and Lauren Meehan of the Newark Arts Education Roundtable.

Basking Ridge Resident Returns to Matheny to Help Assist in Strategic Planning for 'This Amazing Place'
When Ellen Lambert was director of development at the Matheny School and Hospital in Peapack, NJ, from 1993 to 1995, one of her major achievements was the formation of a fundraising plan for what would eventually become the Robert Schonhorn Arts Center. The concept of Matheny's Arts Access Program  -- which enables people with disabilities to create art, assisted by professional artist-facilitators  -- was emerging in '93, and the arts center was eventually built in 2000.
City Without Walls and Aljira To Shine At Newark Arts Festival
Two long-running art spaces, City Without Walls (“cWOW”) and Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art (“Aljira”), will house pop-up exhibits during the Newark Arts Festival, October 4-7, 2018.  Though both spaces are now in a period of transition, through the support of Newark Arts, they will activate with fresh exhibits during Newark’s citywide annual festival of the arts. 
The Healing Power of Art
Entering the office to see a neurologist can be a terrifying experience.  I know because I’ve had to do it for years.  Thankfully, when I see my doctor I am surrounded by his photographs on the walls. It’s more than a hobby for Dr. Noah Gilson, it’s a lifelong passion.
What Is The Artist’s Role In Gentrification?
About a year ago, I attended a local community meeting here in Newark for citizens concerned about the changing face of the city. You see, Brick City, after 50 years of neglect, economic disenfranchisement, and disproportionate criticism fueled by racism, xenophobia and class discrimination, is going through a revitalization. Or a “renaissance” if you’re the poetic type.
Fossils And Boomers At Morris Museum
You won’t find many places where Billy Joel and Erin Brokovich rub shoulders with ancient shark teeth and fossilized raindrops. But such is life — for at least the next few weeks — at the Morris Museum in Morristown, where you can take two very different trips through American history in two separate exhibits.

Event calendar
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018


Cafe Tacvba with special guest Ruen Brothers – Niu Gueis Tour 2018 @ Prudential Hall @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 8:00pm

Seuls en Scene French Theater Festival - "Gonzo Conference" @ Donald G. Drapkin Studio at Lewis Arts complex, Princeton - 8:00pm

Joan Baez @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 8:00pm

Record Club: Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon @ Pollak Theatre @ Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 7:30pm


West End Festival of the Arts- Children's Storytelling @ West End Arts Center, Long Branch - 4:00pm

View all events


For more on our awards, click here

New Jersey Stage © 2018 by Wine Time Media, LLC | PO Box 140, Spring Lake, NJ 07762 (732) 280-7625 |

Images used on this site have been sent to us from publicists, artists, and PR firms.
If there is a problem with the rights to any image, please contact us and we will look into the matter.