At first blush, the fact that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once referred to artists as “engineers of the soul” might lead one to believe that he understood and appreciated the transformative power of art.
He did indeed respect artists — not as exemplars of the freedom of creative expression, but as effective agents of propaganda. Hence, from the 1930s, when he consolidated political power as dictator, until his death in 1953, Stalin insisted that artists in the Soviet Union tow the line of socialist realism, focusing on depictions of ordinary people leading happy and healthy lives in the “proletarian paradise” that he had presumably fostered.
As one might expect, despite threats ranging from censorship to imprisonment, many visual artists had a tough time conforming to the party line. At the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolinians have a unique opportunity to sample some of the work of the leading dissident artists working inside and outside the Soviet Union in the decades before its dissolution in 1991.
Cleverly entitled “The Ironic Curtain: Art from the Soviet Underground,” this impressive show crams all the museum’s first-floor galleries with a veritable feast for the eyes and mind.
It contains a host of sometimes witty, sometimes quite disturbing works by artists trying to make sense of and somehow survive the conditions imposed upon them by a repressive government. The show also comes with a wealth of contextual information that illuminates the work of a cadre of artists little known thus far to a larger audience.
One such artist is Oleg Vassiliev, whose work is featured in the final gallery of six devoted to this show. Considered by many to be the leading figure in nonconformist art following Stalin’s death, Vassiliev is noted for his struggle to revive much of the visual vocabulary suppressed during the Stalinist period, particularly in his blending of realism and abstraction. Nonrepresentational art was denounced as elitist during the Soviet era.
In an oil-on-canvas from 1995, for example, Vassiliev depicts in a square within a square a portrait of his friend and children’s book collaborator Erik Bulatov. Both men illustrated children’s books to make ends meet — some of that cover art is featured in the exhibition — but gathered secretly with other like-minded artists to share works and discuss compositional theories that were not officially sanctioned.
The central portrait of Bulatov, whose likeness stares intently back at the viewer, floats atop a fog-shrouded, nighttime image of Mayakovsky Square, named for the early-twentieth century poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose reputation was rehabilitated by the state after his suicide in 1930. The silhouette of the poet’s statue is sharply delineated against a diffused light that permeates the painted background. This particular square in Moscow was the setting in the 1950s and ’60s of often-impromptu poetry readings not officially approved by the authorities.
Thus, Vassiliev has created a work that is both representational and conceptual. It serves as a visual tribute to Bulatov, but it is also a memory piece, an acknowledgment of the times they shared in opposition to the established system — both artists eventually emigrated to the West — and to the larger dissident movement in both visual and literary art.
Lest one think from this prime example that all is dark and dour in this landmark show, the tongue-in-cheek intent of the overall title “Ironic Curtain” signals yet another major theme evident in many of the pieces currently on view. Humor has long been acknowledged as a tool for coping with physical and psychological challenges.
As prime evidence of this contention, right beyond the main entrance to the exhibition is a glass display case housing five very clever styrofoam caricatures of Soviet leaders, all by Tenis Mirzashvili, who was perhaps best known as a costume designer but experimented in many artistic media. I especially relished the miniature Nikita Khrushchev raising his big shoe, a reference to the vociferous, now-legendary response by the Soviet leader during a speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1960.
In the fourth gallery, there are three equally compelling wooden objects fashioned by Leonid Sokov as part of his so-called “Deficit Series,” a reference to the situation faced by many consumers during the lean years of the Soviet economy when lines were long and commodities scarce. To the typical citizen deprived of some of his favorite food items, Sokov’s crudely carved and hand-painted “Salmon with Fork,” “Sandwich with Egg, Fish, and Black Bread,” and “Cup of Coffee” are poor substitutes for the real thing. These are, the artist seems to be saying to the gallery visitor, the best that I can offer you during “the era of stagnation” from 1964 to 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev controlled the Soviet state.
There is so much we can all learn from this exhibition, not only about artists who deserve greater recognition but also about the modern history of a nation they both loved and criticized.
“The Ironic Curtain: Art From The Soviet Underground”
Through Sept. 12. Columbia Museum of Art. 1515 Main St. columbiamuseum.org.