Soviet Avant-Garde Art of ‘20s Reappearing Under Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’

Associated Press Writer

Russia’s avant-garde art of the 1920s, prized in the West but officially ignored in the Soviet Union, is reappearing in state-run galleries. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s “new thinking” has finally reached the nation’s fine arts.

September’s packed exhibit in Moscow of works by Marc Chagall, who left the Soviet Union in 1922, attracted much attention at home and abroad for its display of several paintings that had been squirreled away for decades in museum storerooms or private collections.

A series of less high-profile exhibits is bringing other unknown works back to the public almost 60 years after socialist realism, heroic factory workers and towering industrial triumphs were decreed the basic fare of Soviet fine arts.


Over the past six months, major shows in Moscow and Leningrad have displayed the storeroom treasures of the nation’s two major galleries--Moscow’s Tretyakov and Leningrad’s Russian Museum.

In the capital, there have been three personal exhibits devoted to artists of the ‘20s and their students, while a small show in a former church near the Kremlin contains gems from several private collections.

At one of Moscow’s most prestigious exhibition halls, a larger show entitled “Art and Revolution” features such previously scorned works as Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” and a view of Red Square by Vasily Kandinsky. Also on display are two large wall hangings done by Chagall for a Jewish theater and never before shown in public.

Many works have not been seen in public since the ‘20s and were executed by artists so long ignored that their names are virtually unknown to young Soviet art experts today.

Dmitri Sarabyanov, a professor at Moscow State University and an expert on Russian Art of the ‘20s, attributes the reappearance of the avant-garde to Gorbachev’s perestroika , or reconstruction, finally touching the fine arts.

“We were really lagging behind,” Sarabyanov said in an interview. “In literature, it happened long before; in theater it happened long before; in film it happened long before.” He was referring to the new books, plays and movies that have appeared in Soviet journals, theaters and cinemas over the past two years.

Although the fresh wind blowing through other fields has now rippled into the fine arts, Sarabyanov and others maintain that conservatives still block new developments in a country where authorities suppressed abstract art in the early ‘30s.


“Good artists just haven’t had recognition,” Sarabyanov said. Only a handful of specialists such as himself devoted their lives to preserving the works of the ‘20s. Three generations have grown up without them, and public taste is unprepared for them now, he said.

In a Dec. 2 article in the cultural weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, Sarabyanov criticized the Academy of Fine Arts for what he said was the spoiling of Soviet sculpture, painting and graphics.

The academy, founded in 1947 at a time of rigid Stalinist control over culture, mostly propagates the outmoded style of its founding members and has “lost touch with living young art,” Sarabyanov said.

Difficulties still plague the showing of work from the 1920s. The paintings at “Art and Revolution” were hung in just two days, following a lively dispute about whether the exhibit should take place. As a result, the exhibition was barely publicized in Moscow and attracted fewer viewers than a show of 19th-Century American art at the same state-run gallery.

Yuri Korolev, director of the Tretyakov Gallery, escorted Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, around the exhibit in December, asking her to support more shows in future.

The need for such high-level backing indicates there is still powerful resistance to an abstract style long forgotten here.


The oblivion to which 1920s art was banished is illustrated in a story told by an art historian who asked not to be named. She related that a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, on a tour of Tretyakov storerooms off limits to the public, once was struck by an abstract work he spotted and asked who painted it.

The academician was amazed, she said, to learn that the work was his own, painted in the 1920s in a style he had long disowned.