Post Camp

The big picture.
May 29 1998 3:30 AM

Post Camp

Soviet art wasn't quite the gulag we thought it was.

Socialist Realist Painting
By Matthew Cullerne Bown
Yale University Press; 506 pages; $75

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

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When you hear the term "Socialist Realism," you probably see in your mind's eye a large, detailed canvas: A sweating laborer, goggles pushed back on his forehead, stands by his red tractor and shakes hands with Stalin, in a white uniform, who smirks under his mustache. Behind them is a chorus line of muscular women in babushkas; behind them, in turn, a rising sun. Or something like that. Nine years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the genre is now referred to primarily in vodka ads, as stock imagery of a comfortably camp sort. It is a grotesque relic of a defused threat, and we can feel good knowing that we have triumphed over its implications.

So what could be the purpose of this massive book? You pick it up expecting counterpropaganda run rampant. But this is no mere coffee table decoration--although it weighs at least 5 pounds and contains 530 reproductions, it is text-laden far beyond the norm. The next thing that makes an impression on leafing through it is the unfamiliarity of the images. Tractors and babushkas and Stalin are accounted for, but very few of the many pictures fit the conventional mold. The paintings chosen as illustrations tend to be darker, less academic, more complicated. The tone is very different from, for example, that of the show of Socialist Realist paintings I saw a few years ago at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, which approached the subject in the usual pop-camp way--nearly every picture looked like a parody, and any of them could have been hung very nicely next to Andy Warhol's Mao. But the paintings in Matthew Cullerne Bown's book, grave and dignified and often eager to claim descent from the likes of Rembrandt, would be affronted by the pairing.

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A s I continued second-guessing my way through my initial encounter with the book, my next thought was that it must surely represent a perverse but fascinating phenomenon: a defense of Socialist Realism from the position of aesthetic conservatism. After all, there exists a tendency these days that is eager to reclaim the likes of Norman Rockwell while consigning to his former cell Clement Greenberg and his exemplars. Since a loss of faith in the Modernist canon often seems to be paired with a disillusionment with communist teleology, wouldn't championing the essential conservatism of all those Zhdanovists make a dandy short circuit? Indeed, the Western artist who most consistently comes to mind when you look at the pictures in Bown's book is Andrew Wyeth. But there are also a considerable number of works illustrated that do not fit the bill, that refer neither to old masters nor to magazine illustration. Again I was guilty of trying to boil Bown's argument down to a formula.

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His argument is not a simplistic one; in fact it is an argument against simplification. Bown proposes that we in the West have ignored, if not actually betrayed, the great body of painting made in this century in the former Soviet republics. We have chosen to represent Socialist Realism in terms of its most moronic and craven examples, and we have instead upheld the banner of the "left" artists, the Futurists and Constructivists, who were marginal at best in their time and place.

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H e does not dismiss the latter, recognizing the originality and strength of Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lisitski, and their colleagues, but he wants us to pay attention to those other artists, many more in number, who do not fall seamlessly into the Modernist continuum but who often had to pay as harsh a price for their independence as their better-known avant-garde counterparts. For nonspecialist readers, the book is a journey into the unknown.

Bown, described in press materials as an independent scholar, has absorbed a vast history largely unreported outside the Soviet republics. It is seldom easy going. Acronyms bristle on the page as he records internecine warfare in various Soviet artists' leagues. The reader's mind throbs as he dissects minute shifts in official thinking and individual temper, and conducts tours of the diverse art scenes in far-flung provincial cities. But there is always a point. It is fascinating, for example, to note the many swings of the official pendulum between the two cardinal sins of "naturalism" (meaning grim subject matter) and "formalism" (denoting any sort of aesthetic deviation). At various times in various cities, war or peace ruled as themes, women were seen as strong or as fragile, colors were to be bright or dun. Small revolutions took place when, say, failure was accepted as a subject or national costume permitted. There was no single Zhdanovist tank that rumbled down the street but a plethora of day-to-day changes, both in official policy and in artists' decisions.

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F or that matter, Socialist Realism was no monolithic invention of the Soviet state. As Bown takes pains to point out, it descended largely intact from the artistic currents of the 19th century and had its roots both in classic Western art and in much older local traditions, including the work of such Russian masters as the 15th century monk Andrei Rublev. And Bown has unearthed a tremendous number of strong paintings, largely from private collections, that defy all our notions of what Soviet art looked like, even at the height of Stalinism. Who would have expected that in 1934, Petr V. Vilyams could have been making such a rarefied, Vuillard-like canvas as Nana, with its profusion of sensuous patterns and textures, a painting that just reeks of sex? Or that in 1932 Georgi I. Rublev, behind the unpromising subject of A Factory Party Meeting, could have been up to something that looks simultaneously back to rural primitivism and forward to Larry Rivers? You get the sense, continually, of various fallen reins picked up, of artists in remote mining towns discovering Courbet, or Whistler, or Léger, or reinventing Impressionism or Expressionism as if they had never heard of those schools--as indeed they might not have.

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If there is a single throbbing star in this show it is Aleksandr A. Deineka, whose extraordinary work really does not look like anyone else's. Building New Factories (1926) and Female Textile Workers (1927) and The Defence of Petrograd (1927) take the conventional subjects their titles indicate and make them new, setting human figures--which are somehow at once photographic and icon-based--in fields of geometric patterns that are nevertheless recognizable as industrial landscapes. Deineka, whose career endured into the 1950s despite intermittent castigation for "aestheticism," represents a missing link, connecting Socialist Realism with the collages of the Constructivists and them with the icons of Rublev. He may be the major revelation here, but his neglect in the West is just one indication of the giant iceberg of unknown art whose existence below the surface Bown spotlights, explains, and places in context.

Luc Sante is a regular contributor to Slate and the author,

most recently, of a memoir, The Factory of Facts.