Friday, October 5, 2012

Ukrainian Socialist Realism Art Exhibit

The turnout on the opening day of the“Ukrainian Socialist Realism” exhibit of paintings at The Ukrainian Institute hit an all-time high for its programs, said Olena Sidlovych, the Institute’s General Manager. More than 300 nattily-dressed, fashionable, and arty types -- including Ukrainians, Russians and Americans -- attended the exhibit on the evening of Sept 14. They spent their time convivially viewing and commenting on this unprecedented display of Soviet era paintings -- while  drinking wine and partaking of an array of dainty pastries -- at the Institute, which is housed in the historic Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion at 2 East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The decision to sponsor this exhibit was not an easy one, reflected Terence Filewych, who serves as legal counsel for the Institute. It was the result of much heated debate among the Institute’s board members about how this Soviet-era art coincided with the Institute’s mission to promote Ukrainian culture -- a culture that was much damaged by the very government policy that produced the paintings on display here. After all, it was Stalin who declared “Socialist Realism” the official art form of Soviet-occupied Ukraine, and required artists to follow this mandate or risk death. A typical result of that policy was the clichéd uninspired soul-less “happy peasant” and “heroic factory worker” art, which existed solely to glorify the building of the Soviet state.

And indeed a lot of what viewers saw here was predictable propaganda. Yet, when taken out of their historic context and put on display in a gallery space abroad for the perusal of curious and detached observers as items of historic interest, these commissioned paintings seemed to lose their original impact as works of indoctrination. "In America, we can talk about it more objectively and more dispassionately,” commented General Manager Sidlovych, referring to the art form of Socialist Realism. And indeed, in this apolitical context, some paintings seemed almost to work against their obvious didactic intent. A painting of a formidable solidly built “heroine” of the revolution, much decorated with medals, became an almost laughable caricature. A grand-scale painting of Soviet leaders (a winner of the Stalin Prize) called to mind those outsized looming portraits of Lenin (that replaced religious icons) and those larger-than-life statues that were toppled over after the overthrow of the Soviet regime. A landscape of a factory that was peopled by industrial workers became inadvertently subversive, its gloomy colors hinting at naturalism and exploitation of labor rather than implying a march toward a bright Communist future.

Here and there, however, some paintings did command more than passing attention from the crowd for their traces of lyricism -- in an expressive look in a portrait of an artist; in the thoughtful gaze of a girl in a gallery, in a still life with a rustic ethic motif . A portrait of an elderly woman in profile, wearing a billowy skirt and framed in an art-deco like border of grapes, stood out and was much commented on as an example of modernism – while its background incongruously depicted female workers toiling in the fields in the approved Soviet style.

Such an obvious political overlay made many of these works seem jarringly uneven in composition when  simply viewed as works of  art. A portrait of a young school girl was marked by the requisite reminder of the regime: the symbolic Soviet red badge on her pinafore. A scene of an attractive woman waiting alone at a train station had an ominous foreground – pointed out to this viewer by one of the gallery-goers -- that included a tattered red ribbon and a dark shadow of what could  be interpreted as a symbol of protest -- a raised fist.

"This phenomenon explains precisely why contemporary art rather than realism is now so popular in Ukraine," commented another gallery-goer.

It was somewhat disconcerting for those of us who understood the obvious political context of these paintings to actually see them in a gallery that typically exhibited works of solely aesthetic merit, as they served as reminders of an amoral autocratic regime that visited inordinate pain upon our families. It was also troubling to realize that the artists whose works were displayed here worked within that regime, while so many of that generation who refused to sacrifice their principles perished.

Nonetheless, these Soviet-era paintings -- whose style was discredited after the collapse of the Soviet state -- are now clearly sought-after as examples of a once-dominant art form. Collected and assembled by Jurii Maniichuk for the purpose of study by future generations, they undoubtedly will remain of historic and aesthetic import and interest, serving to document the era when Ukraine was a Soviet state. A selection of these paintings – from The Jurii Meniichuk and Rose Brady Collection -- will remain on view on the fourth floor of the Ukrainian Institute until 2018.

1 comment:

  1. Olya,
    You are one of the finest art historians I've read (and married). Unpacking the cultural consequences of the rigidity of Socialist Realism, you make these paintings reveal their essence as you hold them up to the light of today. Wow. It was just really good.
    mickey morgan