- At Home among StrangersU.S. Artists, the Soviet Union, and the Myth of Rockwell Kent during the Cold War
When exploring the representation of U.S. visual art in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the first occurrence that comes to mind is the much-lauded art section at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow (ANEM). The United States Information Agency (USIA) organized this display of 49 American paintings from the twentieth-century—including abstractions by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko—to showcase "freedom of choice and expression in America. … the most important thing … which the Soviet citizen is denied."1 Contemporary and experimental American modernism would contrast canonic and conservative Socialist Realism, so the Soviet people would have to acknowledge the radical differences between the democratic and totalitarian systems.2
However, the U.S. government was not the only power that used American visual art for cultural warfare during the Cold War. Perhaps paradoxically in light of the energetic U.S. cultural policy of advancing American art abroad and the anti-American sentiments typical of Soviet propaganda, the Soviet government itself took the initiative in organizing exhibitions of a U.S. artist in the USSR during the Cold War. The 1957–1958 traveling exhibition of Rockwell Kent and many consequent shows, which were hosted by museums across the Soviet Union and attended by millions of people, indicate that U.S. art was selectively used by Soviet cultural policy officials, who did so by [End Page 175] circumventing U.S. government agencies involved in cultural warfare, such as the USIA.3
By examining the Soviet promotion of Kent in the USSR, this article sheds new light on the Soviet approach to representing U.S. art during the Cold War.4 The article opens with a discussion of the historical contexts relevant to Kent's engagement with the USSR. By demonstrating how the transfer from late Stalinism to the "Khrushchev Thaw" in the mid-1950s made Kent's first exhibition feasible in the Soviet Union, the article further explores the unique role Soviet government and Communist Party institutions played in organizing Kent's shows. Second, the article examines how Kent's commitment to socialism and adherence to figurative art both made him a target for anti-Communist forces in the United States and prompted him to cooperate with the Soviet Union. Third, the article considers how Soviet ideology and the Cold War agenda shaped the representation of Kent, as well as the reception of his art in the USSR. Drawing on materials from U.S. and Russian archives concerning Kent's engagement with the USSR, the article adds to the existing scholarship on Kent and provides a comprehensive analysis of the complex aesthetic and political factors that made him a superstar in the Soviet Union.5 The article focuses on aspects of the Soviet regime's promotion of Kent that have not yet been thoroughly analyzed and presents Kent's [End Page 176] Soviet career as a Soviet project in which Kent himself had only limited agency. The article demonstrates that Kent occupied a specific symbolic position in Soviet culture. Soviet propaganda reconceptualized Kent's history to establish the "Myth of Rockwell Kent," a constructed public image that played a significant role in Soviet internal and external policies because it contributed to legitimizing Soviet ideology and anti-American propaganda.6 An analysis of the myth offers insights into the mechanics of knowledge production during the Cold War.
Kent's Exhibitions and the Thaw
On 17 February 1953, Kent, on behalf of the chair of the International Workers Order (IWO), a pro-Communist organization in the United States, visited the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC.7 While elaborating on the developing anti-Soviet sentiment in the United States, Kent complained that IWO, which was disbanded the next year, was losing its popularity among the public.8 Kent also inquired about an opportunity to exhibit his oeuvre in the USSR.9 He even brought photographic reproductions of his works, which were forwarded to the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, or VOKS—the Soviet body responsible for major international cultural contacts.10 [End Page...