- Windows on the Soviet UnionThe Visual Arts in the Stalin Era
It sometimes seems that hardly a Western visitor to the Soviet Union could complete his or her stay without noting the peculiarity of the visual environment. “What you might otherwise have taken to be a series of photographs wanted by the local police turns out to be a Board of Honour glorifying the most proficient workers in a local enterprise,” Ronald Hingley drily remarked in his 1961 travelogue, Under Soviet Skins. Whether it was the presence of statues and busts from the Soviet pantheon; agitational portraits, banners, and slogans; or the absence of advertising, the peculiarity of the world of eye-culture was universally remarked. All the odder, in the circumstances, was the scarcity, until recent years, of analytical commentaries on the Soviet visual domain or even of detailed surveys. There is no contemporary guide to painting or photography with anything like the range of René Fülop-Miller and Joseph Gregor’s study of the Soviet theater.1 No one published a study called “The Russians and Their Favorite Paintings” (as opposed to books)—although [End Page 837] the material would not be hard to find.2 Certainly, Western interest in the art of the early avant-garde (particularly as created by the Suprematist and Constructivist groups—and with a canon headed by Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitskii, Vladimir Tatlin, and the architect Konstantin Mel′nikov) was already generating a significant body of work by the end of the 1970s.3 But this did not generate a comparable enthusiasm for what was generally known as “official art” of later periods.
The reasons behind this situation lay as much in the art world itself as in the scholarly establishment. Interest among collectors (most famously, George Costakis), dealers (for example, the London gallery owner Annely Juda), and museums, was an important engine for the early interest in the avant-garde—the rise of which was accompanied by surging auction prices and an increasingly energetic cottage industry of fakes.4 The history of this enthusiasm and its spinoffs would merit extended study in its own right. [End Page 838]
In due course, the rediscovery of the avant-garde began to affect the museum culture of the Soviet Union as well. The most famous case was the showing of the Paris–Moscou exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1979, which two years later created a sensation in Moscow, though in what a recent commentator has termed a “painfully different” form from the Paris show.5
By the 1980s, interest in early 20th-century Russian art extended outside the avant-garde, and the term “Silver Age” was being used to place “World of Art” alongside “The Donkey’s Tail” in a pairing that contemporaries might not have appreciated.6 (An alternative was the straightforward chronological periodization, as followed in Russian and Soviet Paintings, 1900–1930, an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution in 1988.)7 [End Page 839]
Common to all these endeavors was the iteration of 1930 as a temporal rubicon, though in fact there might be serious doubts whether that year was really the best choice for a “before and after” boundary in Soviet art. But if Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism (1992) notoriously challenged that divide by arguing for an ideological if not formal similarity between the avant-garde and its “socialist realist” successors, it was more common to accept the existence of a transnational category named “totalitarian art” (as an important, though also controversial, study of 1990 by Igor Golomstock exemplified).8 Both in academia and in the marketplace, interest in the art of the 1930s and later lagged far behind interest in art of the 20th century’s first decades.9 As with socialist realist literature, studies, where not simply archaeological or descriptive, frequently...