Soviet Grand Designs
Surprising exhibition of art created under suppression
This article is from 2012.
John Barkes, an art dealer and collector based in London, has been buying works by Soviet artists since his 1992 visit to St Petersburg. He has since met more than 400 contemporary artists in the interest of buying their paintings and has assembled around 50 works for this exhibition which has been to Australia, New York and London.
The works on display are not at all what you would expect from artists working under the Soviet regime. They were salaried by the state and had to comply with propagandist and ideological notions; Stalin's injunction, 'Paint things as they ought to be rather than as they are' is sufficient evidence to damn the entire movement. However, artists are artists and they expressed their creativity in the solitude of their own studios. It was impossible to sell art privately or transport it abroad, and so these works were left to collect dust in the artists’ homes. It is these private paintings and sketches that are mostly presented in the exhibition: depictions of ordinary families; views of St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside; working and leisure scenes from everyday life.
The exhibition is striking because it is so diverse, and consists of paintings in very different styles, from realism to abstraction. It shows that behind that Iron Curtain, art still existed and developed independently, despite the pressure of the controlling regime. What is more, it shows that normal human life with its eternal processes, was still happening outside of the politics.
From the title of this exhibition you would expect an array of propagandist works similar in style and message. Surprisingly, however, the work communicates a very different idea. It shows that despite all the transient things such as politics and wars, there are certain universal things common to everyone, no matter what country or era you are from.
Scotland-Russia Institute, 668 3635, until 22 Sep, free.