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The Politicized Portrait in the Unofficial Culture of the former Soviet Union Part 2


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Komar and Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realism, from the “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” series, tempera and oil on canvas, 1982-83, Norton Dodge Collection

In the painting The Origin of Socialist Realism (1982-83) from "Nostalgic Socialist Realism" series, the artistic duo Komar and Melamid directly engaged to the highly contentions subject of Stalin, and thus, the claims and legacy of his regime. The boldness of their gesture lies not only that this work was produced under conditions of duress and censorship, for the two artists had already defected from the Soviet Union and were working in NYC (since 1978) when they produced the portrait. Rather, it stood as a provocation, launched from a radically different artistic milieu, looking back at myths of power and empire that remained deeply engrained in their native country. The provocation lay in the fact that Stalin's image was by then an object of iconoclasm in the Soviet Union, for since the dictator's post-mortem denunciation, his portraits had been hidden or destroyed in an attempt to replace his tyranny with a more human dimension of the political elite. Directly invoking the legacy of Stalin as he was depicted in portraits like those of Shurpin three decades before, Komar and Melamid combined the artistic strategies of Socialist Realism with a neoclassical formal language, while simultaneously subverting these styles' inherent seriousness and elevation.(1)

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Gustav Klucis, Long Live Stalin’s Generation of Stakhanov Heroes!, photocollage-poster, 1936, Russian State Library, Moscow

Sitting on a canopy, and illuminated by a bright lamp light that further accentuates his prominence, Stalin, donning his emblematic military costume gazes outwards, symbolically into the future, while a muse of Socialist Realism draws the outline of his profile's shadow on a parallel wall.(2) Standing a head above the seated Stalin, the muse gazes in adoration, her right hand gently holding his chin, while his right hand firmly holds on to her naked back, through her billowing, long red hair. The muse is nude, save for a bright blue mantle that drapes around her left hand, hiding the lower half of her body, but leaving her breasts exposed. The palpable erotic tension between the muse and Stalin completely shatters the solemnity of the scene, yielding comedic effects. The exaggerated expression of adoration of the muse, the seriousness of her sitter and the Greco-Roman imperial setting are undercut by the dynamic between the main characters. But the portrait so not all giggles and lampooning.

In addition to pin-pointing to Stalin's pivotal role in directing, as a demiurge, the totalizing aesthetic of Socialist Realism in their ingenious composition, Komar and Melamid also allude to his manipulation of the Real, in an attempt to control both political and artistic traditions. This allegorical portrait also underscores the seminal role played by portraiture itself as a fictional parody, for there never existed a muse of Socialist Realism that bore the attribute of a brush. Furthermore, it foregrounds Stalin's imperial aspirations, through his military dress, the décor, and the neoclassical style, which bring back connotations of the history of empire from ancient Rome to Napoleon. At the same time, the artists satirize all of these legitimations of empire through portraiture, unmasking the artificiality and constructedness of representations of periods of imperial glory, while de-mystifying the canonization of Stalin's image, and challenging the priestly status he sought for his dictatorial rule over the Soviet Union.

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Gennady Goushchin, Farewell, You Free Elements, photo-collage, 1976, Norton Dodge Collection

Artist Gennady Goushichin was also interested in how historical representations of important actors in Soviet history function to shape viewers' perceptions of historical events. Goushchin used portraiture and montage in his pioneering series, "Alternative Museum," which he began in 1970.(3) These works play on uncanny and humorous intersections between extremely influential Russian portraits from the 19th century to the early Soviet period and Soviet magazine cut-outs from the Communist Party controlled magazine Ogonyok. Goushchin's montage strategy in these portraits is pictorialist, in that the characters do not interrupt each other in the composition – they are depicted at roughly the same scale and are similarly lit, thus seamlessly blending together and with the background. This builds a tension in reading the image: on the one hand, the characters are portrayed realistically, as if they had been captured during an actual encounter; on the other, historical knowledge tells the viewer that this encounter could have never taken place, as the characters are extracted from periods which are hundreds of years apart.

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Isaak Brodsky, Lenin in front of Smolny, oil on canvas, c.1925

Exploiting this strategy of uncanny juxtapositions, Gouschin brought together the historical figures of Alexander Pushkin with that of Lenin, combining realistic photographic reproductions of a collaborative painting by Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin, Pushkin's Farewell to the Sea (1877), with that of a famous painting by Isaak Brodsky, Lenin in front of the Volkhovskaya Hydroelectric Station (1927).

Goushchin's photo-collage entitled Farewell, You Free Elements (1976) is a double portrait that alludes to Pushkin's poem "To the Sea" (1824) written after the poet's return from exile in Odessa. It is also a play on the meaning of freedom, invoked by the title but also by Aivazovsky and Repin's composition, which celebrates the wildness and freedom of nature. The placing of Lenin in the composition, on the foreground rock becomes highly incongruous. Brodsky, one of the most celebrated painters in the Bolshevik government, immortalized Lenin in many portraits, even after the latter's death in 1924. Brodsky's realistic portraits of Lenin always invoke symbolic moments, linking the subjectivity of the leader to key episodes in Soviet history: this one in particular references a three quarter, full portrait of Lenin in front of an electricity generating scheme, where he becomes master of nature and chief executor of the plan to electrify the entire country. As such, Goushchin gestures not only to Lenin as a historical figure, but also towards the legend of Lenin, who had acquired the status of almost a god after his untimely passing. While Stalin had been stamped out of the gallery of national heroes for his despotism, Lenin's figure only became more impregnated with larger-than-life attributes. Thus the connotation in the title, as the allegory of freedom in the untamed landscape and in Pushkin's original poem - all are put under question, by hinting at the Lenin's cult of personality which endured throughout the Soviet period.

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Gennady Goushchin, Renaisasnce Portrait, from the “Alternative Museum Series,” photocollage, c. 1989-90, Norton Dodge collection

Goushchin operates a similar strategy in the collage Rennaisance Portait (1988-89), in which he pictorially juxtaposes President Mikhail Gorbachev's iconic portrait taken from photographs with a reproduction of part of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, painted in the early 16th century. Made after Gorbachev's appointment as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, the artist seeks to reconfigure this period of enthusiasm and opening - as also one filled with enigmas and uncertainties. The merging of Gorbachev and the Giaconda, which becomes the leader's new face to the world, troubles the straightforward original portrait of the president. Instead of his firm, solid features, widely recognizable to virtually every Soviet citizen, the artist confronts the viewer with the cut-out of a widely famous portrait of a woman, an embodiment of mystery and fascination.

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Time magazine cover of January 4, 1988 featuring Mikhail Gorbachev as Man of the Year

Indeed, the 1980s constituted a period of many unknowns for Soviet Citizens, Gorbachev, who would serve as the Soviet Communist Party's last General Secretary and as the Soviet government's last leader, from 1985 to 1991, introduced a series of reforms that would improve and upgrade the existing state system. Gorbachev's figure was, by the time Goushchin produced this unconventional portrait, inseparable from the dramatic restructuring of the Soviet Union, known as glasnost' and perestroika. Oftentimes translated as "openness" in the West, glasnost' in fact means revealing or publicly discussing that which had previously been kept under wraps. Through queering Gorbachev's official portrait, Goushchin reflects not only on the transformation of Soviet society that he was witnessing at the time, but also opens an anticipatory window into the uncertainties of future, as political leaders sought to reorganize their world, reform socialism – and attempt to rewrite history.

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Shai-Ziia (Ziiakhan Shaigeldinov), Karl Marx in a Spider’s Web, oil on canvas with barrettes, c. 1987, Norton Dodge collection

Through an unusual portrait of the German philosopher Karl Marx, entitled Karl Marx in a Spider's Web (1987) Kazakhstani-born artist Shai Ziia also points at a sort of re-writing of history. The artist uses as his point of departure the iconic photographic portrait of the man whose philosophy would inspire Lenin's revolution and the reforms which fundamentally altered the country who went from tsarism to soviet republic and then later attempted to become an empire. Shai Ziia covered the surface of a painting in which Marx is depicted according to the official state propaganda with black barrettes – gluing these straight on the canvas and welding them together, in a sort of whimsical gesture, blocking the access of the viewer to the representation through decorations usually reserved for women's hair. This creates a humorous discrepancy between these feminine articles and the solemnity of the figure of Marx, which remains nonetheless visible underneath the web-like structure. The artist demonstrates both his skill at Socialist Realist portraiture, in which he would have been trained at the Academy, executing a realistic portrait of Marx, but at the same time undercuts the artificial nature of the philosopher's mythical persona. Shai Ziia thus points to his break with the tenants of Socialist Realism, and reveals his familiarity with conceptual practices, in which materials of every-day are commonly used in compositions.

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John Mayall, Portrait of Karl Marx, photograph, 1875

By using barrettes as decorating items, the artist may also be underscoring the patriarchal order, which despite to the project of liberation championed by Marx and later adopted by Lenin, was nonetheless maintained and consolidated in the Soviet period. This was clearly visible in the personality cults reserved only for male leaders, while women were cast mainly in supporting roles; though they were encouraged to form unions, these were nonetheless hierarchically placed under the tutelage of the state, whose political figures were almost all men. Finally, Shai Ziia's symbolic gesture of blocking the viewer's gaze from consuming the details of the Marx's portrait, points to the artist's rejection of the philosopher's standing in as a symbolic fountainhead for propaganda, and image perpetuated in the Soviet media throughout the Cold War.

So far I have focused on the production of portraiture by unofficial artists that sought to get away from the restrictions that denied them the right to work as professional artists and criminalized their activities, forcing them to work underground or leave the Soviet Union altogether. The selection of works presented above is haunted by the ubiquitous presence of Soviet leaders which the artists experienced in their daily lives, as photographic reproductions figures were present virtually everywhere in public space. While these artists sought to challenge the clout of authority projected through officials immortalized in paintings, photographs, illustrations, banners, present in books, on television, on the radio and so on, it is clear that they could not all together get away from the traditions and histories they so boldly rejected. The presence of the "fathers" of the Soviet state on their canvases became unavoidable, as an echo of a history that the artists wanted to expose for its false promises, but that nonetheless constituted their reality, in which they lived and worked.

During the more open post-Soviet era, photographer Boris Mikhailov continued his conceptual practice to explore social change, returning to his hometown of Kharkov in Ukraine in 1996. The artist observed the drastic socio-economic changed that occurred, as the country turned away from state-socialism to a new market-driven economic model. Besides witnessing the capitalist culture that was replacing the old socialist one, he also turned his attention to the emergence of the bomzhes or homeless people. Feeling compelled to photograph these people, he immortalized them in dramatic portraits, titling the series "Case History," which were published in an eponymous book in 1999. These protagonists of "Case History" were people who would normally not be considered worthy enough to be recorded for the archives of history, people whom the Ukrainian government couldn't afford to help.

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Boris Mikhailov, from the series  “Case History,” chromogenic color prints, 1997-98

A powerful portrait in Mikhailov's series is that of a man holding his shirt pulled up to show a tattoo of Lenin over his heart, while an unknown hand from behind pinches his nipple. The man is wearing layers of woolen clothing and a simple black hat, as he gazes upward. The composition is striking, dominated by the nude and worn torso of the man, the profile head-portrait of Lenin prominently displayed almost at the center of the image and the sore and beaten hands of the man and the person pinching him. The connotations of this portrait may refer to the man's loyalty and belief in the Soviet system, which has utterly failed him. He lives in a snow-covered park with his companion, metaphorically squeezed as his daily existence is a struggle for subsistence. The photograph captures the disillusionment and disappointment with the failures of socialism, but also point to the frustrations and deprivations of the present, epitomizing the post- Soviet condition. These people are left to straddle between the ideological remains and bankrupted symbols of the Soviet Union, and the disappointment with more recent governments, of the capitalistic culture that equally failed them.

To conclude, I have sought to unravel some of the complex issues surrounding the uses of official portraiture in the art of underground artists working during the Cold War. The strength of the body of critique within this portraiture genre lies in the recognition of the impact Socialist Realist portraiture produced in various media had on the collective imaginary. Through a dialogic process with official art, these artists equally invite audiences to engage in debates on how political elites become embedded in artistic myths that are widely reproduced and disseminated. Furthermore, they ask the viewer to consider how, standing in for the State, political figures that claim to embody the interests of a collective arrive to in fact represent the value judgments of a narrow minority. In the process, these artist show us how seemingly fixed categories of Leader, State and Authority shift over time as they become filtered through the reality of marginalized and repressed communities.


End Notes

(1) See also Valerie Hillings, Komar and Melamid’s dialogue with (art) history, “Art Journal,” 58(4), 1999, pg. 48-61.

(2) This is a direct reference to Pliny the Elder’s account of the origin of painting. In his Natural History (circa 77-79AD), he discusses metallurgy, sculpture, and painting. He tells the story of Butades of Corinth, whose daughter being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey traced his profile as cast upon a wall by lamp-light.

(3) See also “Gennady Goushchin,” in Brandon Taylor, ed., Photo-reclamation: New Art from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, exhibition catalogue (Southhampton: John Hansard Gallery, 1995), pg. 45-53. 

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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