Saturday, February 8, 2014

Russia, a Painterly Society

"Desert of Forbidden Art,” documentary by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope, 2010

If you were amazed by the beautiful images at the $50 Billion Sochi Winter Olympics opening - giant colorful tableaus floating in a visual theatrical production that went far beyond the Chinese and English openings - it might be ‘in the air.’   The same can’t be said for the Christmas Sweater Patriotism of the Ralph Lauren-dressed U.S. athletes.  Certainly, Ralph Lauren is graphically-challenged. 

Nor was the highly-politicized anti-Putin/anti communist U.S. government line presented by former Clinton Press Secretary George Stephanopoulos as ‘Olympic’ commentary on NBC of any help.  NBC is owned by media oligopolist General Electric.  Stephanopoulos now works for another media oligopoly, Disney’s ABC.  He is also a member of the ruling-class advisory group, the “Council on Foreign Relations.”   The Sochi Olympics have multiple problems, but mouthpiece Stephanopoulos' propaganda is of little use.

In a society that does not have as much television and images beamed into its life constantly, painting is still considered a serious art, not just decoration or an expression of weirdness.  This can also be seen in countries like Cuba or Vietnam, and poorer countries around the globe.  This was especially true in the 1920s and early 30s when Russian avant-garde painting in styles like Constructivism and Suprematism, and painters like Malevich, broke new ground in world art.  Later socialist ‘realism’ became the only allowed style, and these painters disappeared, were sent to mental hospitals or were imprisoned. 

In an extraordinary documentary, “Desert of Forbidden Art,” filmmakers Pope & Georgiev captured the life and achievement of Igor Savitsky, who rescued 40,000 works of avant-garde Soviet/Russian art and stored them in his invisible museum in northern Uzbekistan, in Nukus.  Nukus is the capital of the northern Uzbek province of Karakalpakstan, near the shrunken Aral Sea.  Savitsky traveled to Moscow and Leningrad, secretly collecting the art of side-lined and unknown female and male painters.  His greatest achievement was the discovery of a colony of hidden Russian artists in Uzbekistan who brought together European impressionism, cubism and Fauvism, Uzbek desert culture and Soviet themes to create an absolutely new art.  All this hidden away from the KGB and bureaucratic governments in Moscow, and actually paid for by friendly Communist officials in Karakalpakstan. 

Out-of-favor paintings from artists like Alexander Volkov, Mikhail Kurzin, Ural Tansykbaev and painters of the gulag like female artist Nadezhda Borovaya were all saved and housed in Nukus. 

 The bureaucratic/Stalinist response to art was to control it, much as they outlawed vegetarianism, homosexuality, jazz or anything not under their control – all with the workerist rubric that it was ‘not working class.’  This method, as seen in their treatment of rock and roll music (see review of ‘How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,’ below) actually undermined the workers’ state and alienated many artists from socialism.  It also impoverished the new culture.

The Nukus museum still exists today, managed for many years by a woman whom Savitsky asked to take over when he died after inhaling preservative fumes.  They refuse to sell to private collectors or loan out their pictures to other museums, demanding that visitors come to seem them in their original home.  Today, capitalist art profiteers, Islamic militants and corrupt Uzbek bureaucrats all threaten this collection.  The Minneapolis Museum of Russian Art estimates it would cost $500K to bring a show of Nukus art to the U.S.  (see review of MORA show on ‘Women in Soviet Art,’ below.) Anyone got that much?

Red Frog
February 8, 2014

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