Soviets to See Suppressed Russian Art

Times Art Critic

Radical Russian art suppressed in the Stalinist era and kept hidden from the Soviet public for more than half a century will once again be shown to the Russian people.

This fall the State Russian Museum at Leningrad will unveil an encyclopedic exhibition of some 500 works of avant-garde art of the ‘20s and ‘30s made by nearly 160 artists including such legendary figures as Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky.

After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks officially celebrated pioneering abstract art as symbolizing that revolution, but in 1934 the aesthetic was toppled in favor of propagandistic Socialist Realism, an illustrative style the bureaucracy thought would be easily understood, even by illiterate peasants.


Native modernist masterpieces were consigned to the storerooms of institutions like the State Russian Museum, the leading repository of native art in the Soviet Union.

Normally visitors to the museum are treated primarily to 19th-Century narrative painting and other officially approved art. Generations of Soviet artists have grown up without firsthand knowledge of their own modernist heritage, allowing the nation to produce only an illicit and impoverished trickle of works of contemporary art.

Americans will be able to get a further notion of the Leningrad exhibition in a book/catalogue being published as a cooperative venture between New York’s Harry N. Abrams Inc. and Sovietski Khudozhnik, the Soviet publishing house for art.

Abrams has published other books on Russian art but considers the present venture an unusually open example of free interaction between the designers and editors of the two book houses.

The exhibition will allow Russians to see significant indigenous art that has been far more influential in the West than in its homeland. Slated for October, the showing is clearly one of several reflections of a Soviet glasnost approaching the status of a cultural fad.

New York art dealers have gained access to contemporary Soviet artists to show in New York with an eye to cashing in on a trend linked to unpredictable political conditions. Sotheby’s auction house is holding a sale of Soviet modern and contemporary art July 7 in Moscow.

A serious renewal of interest in this art has grown in the West in recent years, sparked by such breakthrough showings as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1980 “The Avant-Garde in Russia” and “Paris-Moscow” at Paris’ Pompidou Center in 1979. In July some of the art from the Leningrad avant-garde collection will be shown at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.

Russian art historian Vladimir Viktorovich, who heads the Soviet publishing house, said: “Today the drama of the (avant-garde) period can be seen as an inalterable fact to be neither excused nor vilified but understood. We must recognize that the ‘20s and ‘30s are an integral part of a larger whole.”

Even such a cautious endorsement of a great epoch of modernist art scorned in its own land represents a slow historic thaw in the Soviet attitude toward modernism. Last year its citizens were treated to their first look at the art of the Russian expatriate Marc Chagall. It is all a far cry from the days when Moscow artists tried to show their unofficial art in a vacant lot and found the exhibition bulldozed by the authorities.

A local expert on the Russian avant-garde who requested anonymity expressed excitement at the prospect of the Leningrad showing but has some reservations because of the large number of artists.

“One hundred sixty is a lot, so there will probably be revelations about artists we don’t even know in the West,” this expert said. “Malevich, for example, had dozens of students, so we could discover high-quality works in a second generation and find that some works we have attributed to big names are actually by different artists.

“Also much of the most advanced abstract art we know was made in the teens. By the ‘20s and ‘30s, some of the pioneers weren’t even making abstract art anymore. I expect the show to be strong in the ‘20s and then perhaps trail off into Socialist Realism in the ‘30s.”