Born in the USSR
|Introduction||View exhibition online|
All of the artists in this book were born in Soviet Ukraine and all received their training in the institutions of the old USSR. In some cases, they studied in Russia itself, at the Repin Academy of Arts in Leningrad. But, since the last War, students have favoured the autonomous State academies of Kyiv, Odessa and elsewhere in the Ukrainian republic itself. Painters of Ukraine, the largest of the European republics, work in a unique idiom, informed by the rich history, favourable geography and mediterranean climate of this fertile region.
The USSR was the first political régime to have a prescriptive doctrine for protagonists of its culture. During the Stalinist period, when most of these painters were working, the nationalist mood was boosted by an aspect of the policy promoted by arts and propaganda Minister, Andrei Zhdanov, who fulfilled Stalin's original decree that Soviet culture should be ‘socialist in content, national in form'. On the face of it, this meant that each of the fifteen of the Soviet Socialist republics could celebrate their unique folkloric traditions in a shared egalitarian socialist heritage.
In practice, this patriotic slogan brought Russia to the fore, making the political centre of the Union into the republic that was more equal than others. It also imposed a draconian ideological code which, over the years, was to prove the hand of death to inspired creation. The duplicity of Zhdanov's message had negative effects on the Soviet population at large. Culturally, it spurred bolder artists into finding new, arcane modes of expression that signified artistic defiance in a coded way.
The outcome was a thinly veiled chauvinism, which, in Ukraine as elsewhere, can be seen in paintings where historic sites are recalled (Kyiv Rus' was the earliest ‘Russian' civilisation) and national heroes are wheeled into the foreground. The nineteenth-century Ukrainian artist and poet, Taras Shevchenko, a democrat who, conveniently, was also a serf, was a case in point. Exiled for membership of the secret Society of Cyril & Methodius, he was later rehabilitated and, in 1860, the year before his death, appointed an Academician. Serfdom, which he had decried in his writings, was abolished the year of his death.
Nationalism was the artists' interpretation of 'narodnost', a strand of the doctrine of Socialist Realism. This unique cultural methodology was first laid down in 1932 by the Union of Writers and later adopted by practitioners of the other art forms. Visual artists welcomed it as an antidote to constructivism, the highly disciplined, cerebral and, frankly, elitist form of abstraction that is now associated with the Bolshevik Revolution. The political imperative for a didactic propaganda art that could be easily understood by the proletariat came from the Kremlin but the initial cry for change had come from artists themselves.
Narodnost implies national awareness and, also, an understanding of the peasant. In other words, it embodied a recognition of workers in the countryside as well as the urban proletariat. Rivalry between the two societies was the legacy of an ideological flaw that went back to the first days of Marxist-Leninist government. As the ‘bread basket of the USSR', Ukraine was a key player in this political power game.
Karl Marx had envisaged a revolution spontaneously evolving among workers themselves in one of the more sophisticated European urban economies, typically England, possibly Germany. He had never envisaged it as a possibility in Imperial Russia which, until the early twentieth century, was primarily an agrarian country with eighty per cent illiteracy among its population. The highly feudal structure of society in the Russian Empire made concerted opposition from the lower orders an impossibility. In the event, Lenin and the leaders of the Bolshevik party, none of whom were workers, were much helped in their crusade to bring a Marxist society to Russia by the deposition of the Tsar in 1916. In the chaos that followed, it was easy for the Bolsheviks to overturn the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky and storm to power in October 1917. The proletariat in whose name they wrested it, far from rising in concert, were scarcely aware that a revolution was taking place, especially in the republics. Ukrainians would be much embroiled in the Civil War that followed.
Following Lenin's death in 1924, the legacy of an unfocused but, thanks to Lenin, largely literate working class population was inherited by Joseph Stalin. Socially, it was necessary to eradicate the possibility of discontent with the totalitarianism that had replaced the rigid hierarchies of an absolute monarchy. This could only be done by presenting the population with a new set of truths, based on universal glorification of the system. This in turn required an ideological culture which idealised contemporary life by viewing it nostalgically from the standpoint of an imaginary utopian future. Works of literature and the visual arts, as a result, were presented in an aura of moral elevation. Subject matter was diverse, but the action of a story or a picture was always shown as a narrative against a background that was represented, often literally, as the high ground. No wonder that the first tenet of Socialist Realism was the theme of 'ideinost' or high-mindedness, which must run through every work of art, reminding viewers of the tenets of communism.
In the same vein was 'partiinost' or party-mindedness: a quasi- religious awareness of the superiority of the Communist cause. Pictures reflecting the spiritual and mildly ascetic ideals of the Party often represented revolution or war, causes embodying ideological struggle. The armed forces are a typical subject; likewise portraits of current Party leaders and, retrospectively, of Lenin, the iconic Founding Father of them all; to be joined, during the Cult of Personality, by Stalin himself.
She might equally be a rounded earth mother doing her bit to assist the male gods that the Soviet system produced alongside its spaceships. Or she might be a grandmother holding the family together in difficult times. [Tytenko, With Grandmother, 2004] It is important to understand that Socialist Realism was a school and not a style. In principle, realistic works could be executed in any style that did not impede clear recognition of content. In practice, the style, originally inspired by the dramatic naturalistic realism of (Ukrainian-born) Ilya Repin was favoured. Socialist Realism continued as the only acceptable form of communist art for almost sixty years, until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. In view of its long duration and since it embraced a variety of themes and narratives, there were clearly stylistic variations over the years. It should not be forgotten that, although all artists received an identical training, painters and sculptors of the various republics were scattered over two continents and divided among nine geographical time zones.
During the stalinist period, paintings and sculptures tended to be monumental in scale and were often executed by so-called brigades or teams of artists, comparable to a factory production line. Typically, since subjects were heroic and tended to involve many figures, the style was classical. In the early days of the communist regime, the new art expressed the idealism that artists and intelligentsia genuinely felt. During the War years, when the Soviet people were facing slaughter for their Leader, ideology and countries, the associated art became romantic. By the end of Stalin's dominion, other styles had been dismissed and even crushed. Especially dangerous was any attempt at ‘formalism'. From the early 1930s, literal content realistically rendered was the only safe option.
However, artists are not politicians and propaganda is not their natural milieu. Most artists are motivated to some degree by the need for commissions. But they require a measure of autonomy in their execution. Sometimes, they need to experiment. In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian and Ukrainian artists were much influenced by the Western European movements centred in Paris. Whether by direct experience, or through visits to the magnificent collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, they had seen the work of Picasso and Braque, Matisse and Gauguin and had been influenced by Cubism, the Nabis and the Fauves. In Russia, the preeminent avant-gardist had been Suprematist Kasimir Malevich, an artist of Ukrainian origin.
A number of Soviet artists continued to be interested in formal experimentation even after the establishment of Socialist Realism. They did so at their peril during the Cold War, when Stalin's henchmen condemned 'Cézannism' as a form of bourgeois deviation. In Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere, museum collections of works by Western artists were removed from exhibition.
When, after Stalin's death, Nikita Khrushchev oversaw the period known as 'The Thaw', which followed his ‘Secret Speech' of 1956, in which he denounced Stalin to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the USSR Communist Party, Soviet artists enjoyed a brief period of officially authorised experimental freedom, inspired by a spate of exhibitions in Moscow from Western Europe and the Soviet republics, starting with Picasso and Léger in the mid-50s and, in 1961, Renato Guttuso.
The régime cracked down again in the early 1960s and, with the accession of Leonid Brezhnev to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party, a long period of increasing stagnation began which was broken only by the accession in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev.
During stagnation, Soviet artists shared with the general population a sense of cynicism and despair over deteriorating economic conditions and corruption in high places. This was frequently expressed in official art of transparent insincerity. Artists were fed up with being unable to paint openly the informal subjects that they were drawn to: portraits of their families and friends, local and garden views, still lifes with their favourite domestic dishes, flowers and local produce associated with their personal lifestyle. [Volodymyr Zhugan Still Life with Ceramic/ Evheniy Volobuyev Still Life with Eggs]
Such themes were regarded by the authorities as too trivial to be exhibited. But most painters made drawings and intimate compositions for themselves. Some artists imbued these very personal themes with pseudo- partiinost' by including their military or professional medals in the picture. Naturally, they also used these private studies to experiment with technique, often distinctly Cézannist
Similarly, they made portrait sketches of ordinary people in characteristic, informal poses but dressed up in military uniform, factory overalls or miners' caps. The resulting images are often very moving, showing impressionable workers straight from school, or young fathers clumsily cradling their new-born infants. They reveal a human element of vulnerability that was never on the agenda for the Soviet supermen of Socialist Realism. [Leonid Kudryavtsev Miner with Baby 1968/ Grigoriy Shyshko Backbone of the Mining Industry 1971/ Leonid Kudryavtzev Soviet Soldier After Battle]
These very immediate, communicative renderings were painted, usually as quick sketches, in richly textured impasto and monochromatic palette in a mode known as ‘the Severe Style', an approach prevalent during the late 1960s and 1970s. Roman Shusterman, an artist who painted strongly and honestly without rhetoric, came into his own at this period with such works as Construction of Smelter No.9, Kryvyi Rih 1974, a pendant to his Shipyard on the Aral Sea executed over ten years earlier.
The coming of Gorbachev's 'glasnost' famously brought a new freedom of expression and, briefly, an end to censorship in the arts. The breathing space that this afforded gave Soviet artists the chance to give voice to their favourite themes with a new freshness. In the late 1980s and 1990s came a burst of impromptu sun-drenched landscapes in a manner now dubbed ‘Russian Impressionism', a style derived from the famous French movement of a hundred years before which, for artists born in USSR symbolised life, liberty and happiness. Now even Cézannism was allowed. [Tetiana Holembievska Still Life with Peonies 1995/ Olena Yakovenko Ballerina in White 2001/ Dancer in Black 2003/ Still Life with Watermelon 2003]
With the fall of Communism in 1991, the last vestiges of Socialism disappeared along with the USSR itself, leaving a gulf that was quickly filled by the work of young artists with access to the newest international trends. Representational works show evidence of foreign travel, a new experience for most Soviets. [Andriy Yalanskiy Chinese Mountain Village 2006]
For artists at home in Ukraine, the sense of a new beginning aroused a joie de vivre expressed in still lifes and outdoor scenes saturated in light and colour. [Panas Tytenko Spring 2001;Still life with Lilies 2001; Girls with Watermelon 2004/ Olena Yakovenko Sunny Summer Table 2001/ Panas Tytenko In Search of Butterflies 2003.] The work of Ukrainian painters in this neo-impressionist mode is imbued with particular brio. The explosion of optimistic works in this genre coincides historically with Ukrainian independence, which was finally extorted from the Kremlin in the last days of the old USSR in 1991.
At this point, older artists were allowed, for the first time, to show works painted during the Soviet period which had never been exhibited before. An important example is Grygoriy Shyshko, whose best works began to be shown only at the end of his life. His major mine series, of monochromatic semi-abstract compositions, painted with poetry and vigour, are unfailingly atmospheric but have only been seen during the last few years, a decade after his death in 1994. Painted during the worst of Stagnation, their message is boldly apolitical.
Socialist realist paintings are now hugely popular both with Westerners and citizens of the former USSR and fetch vast prices in the salerooms. Whether or not the Soviet era is missed today, the works of art produced then have become irreplaceable objects of nostalgia for a time that will never return.
Ann Kodicek, July 2007