Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Good art? Bad art? In the eye of the beholder.

Back in the late 1980s I went along as a faculty chaperone on a one month student tour to Russia.  It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.  We visited five Russian cities: St. Petersberg (still called Leningrad, but petitions were being offered in the streets to change the name back to the original), Pskov, Tallinn, Kiev (where there was very good opera and ballet) and Moscow, which we left via an alternate route due to the first of the bread and vodka riots that eventually led to the fall of Gorbachev.

While we did a lot of things as a group, we also had a fair amount of free time to explore on our own.  I was always on the lookout for Russian opera recordings that were never available in the U.S. and I scored quite a few.  It made the suitcase extremely heavy on the way home but was worth it.  Russia also has some truly fabulous museums, not just the famed Hermitage Palace in St. Petersberg.  My favorite of all was a modest building out of the center of Moscow that was devoted to what was frankly admitted to be bad art from the Stalin era, the most controlled and repressive years for art, music, architecture, literature, etc. in the Soviet Union's history.

I remembered this painting vividly, it was one of the worst and my absolute favorite from the mass of sycophantic work on display.  I went to Google to see if I could possibly find it after describing it to a friend recently.  The red is obsessive (I mean, even the dog) and Stalin seems to have been a talented contortionist to judge from the position of his legs.

This one is interesting, with Stalin getting the blessing of Mother Russia tricked out as the Virgin Mary (and therefore he's a Jesus figure?  Savior of Russia?) in an atheistic regime.  Stalin had ordered hundreds of churches dynamited in Moscow and elsewhere, but here he is the focus of a religiously-themed icon.  And balancing on one foot.

One thing the Soviets understood was the brute power of monumental statuary.  It's all over the country, especially in sites associated with The Great Patriotic War which we here in "the West" call World War II.  Everywhere we went we heard about the War as if it was a recent or even continuing event.  The purpose seemed to be to keep the population reliving their time of greatest suffering and deprivation so that the half empty food markets and frequently almost completely empty consumer goods stores would look good by comparison; one jewelry store had seven empty glass display cases and an eighth case with exactly five gold wedding rings in it.  My trip to the fabled GUM, the big department store in Moscow opposite the Kremlin, revealed that the Soviet idea of marketing a luxury shirt was to have 50,000 copies of a cheap 1950s American men's nylon short-sleeved shirt ordered up in aqua, pale peach and yellow-green. 

 "The Architecture for the Palace of the Soviets (1939)" 

This building was never built but in concept it isn't all that different from the seven massive and identical official buildings Stalin had constructed in a ring around Moscow (one houses the University of Moscow).  Clearly influenced by conjectural reconstructions of Babylonian Ziggurats (particularly some of the more fanciful versions of the Tower of Babel) it appears in the black lacquer painting below behind the star-topped Kremin tower.

The painting celebrates a historic event, a fly-over of the North Pole by the three airmen in the wreath.

Lesson #1 in how to make a beautiful woman look like hell.  The popular actress above is Lyubov Orlova, Stain's favorite movie star, particularly for her performance in the movie Volga, Volga, advertised in the poster shown below.  Great likeness, no?

And we end with this sad little construction, a not-so-Triumphal Arch in the typically massive, the more concrete we pour the better Soviet style.

One thing I will say, is that Stain himself sometimes had enough of the dreck that was being turned out to glorify him, particularly if it was demonstrably inept.  He refused to have that portrait in red anywhere he could see it, and he is known to have left an opera premiere in which the two young lovers sang of their desire to sneak away from the workers' housing in the Collective and watch the moon rise over the Heros of the Soviet People Hydroelectric Dam.  Sometimes even megalomania just can't take it any more.

This is great stuff, and I kind of like the "red portrait."
When I read this post yesterday, I tried and failed to come up with something to say. These things are rather, well, stupefying! I confess I feel the monumental one with the banner beside all the heads is rather ingeniously handled, but Stalin in pale aqua in that chair: where to start. Thanks!
such awful artwork.
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