Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

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[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

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[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

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[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

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[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

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[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

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Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

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[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

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The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

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[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

Building the Communist Dream

“In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.

“The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.

“Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s….”

Read the full review at Spiked, 10 April 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/building-the-communist-dream/19638#.WOtgEs8rLIU

David King: The Commissar Vanishes

“When we think of images of the revolution of October 1917, we often think of the running figures on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd and soldiers lining up to fire on demonstrators outside the Winter Palace. However, although the former is a genuine reportorial photograph, the second was a staged reconstruction. Our most immediate associations and impressions are visual rather than verbal or statistical. Canny propagandists have long known that. Part of the work of totalitarian regimes has been not just the creation of useful lies but the suppression of uncomfortable truths. It is an oft-repeated truism that we so easily overlook the appalling famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) which claimed the lives of between 18 and 45million people because there is not one verified photograph of the effects.

“Beginning in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia – in addition to a military campaign – deployed falsehoods in order to win the civil war. The doctoring of published images was one way of ‘correcting’ history as it was being written (and ceaselessly rewritten). By the time of Stalin’s ascent in the early 1920s, it was already common practice to suppress and alter images. What changed under Stalin was the scale and the necessity of such alterations. One by one, Stalin eliminated old opponents and comrades alike. Being faithful to the party line or being close to Stalin was no protection. Stalin’s paranoia struck down the loyal comrade just as his jealousy struck down the popular comrade. Occasionally the disgraced comrade’s entire family would be liquidated for good measure…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 13 June 2014, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-vanished-and-the-defaced/15161#.Vd-AwPldU5k