Art Beat // Socialist realism softened

The Museum of Russian Art’s latest exhibit begins in the Khrushchev era

WINDOM — Every visit to The Museum of Russian Art is a history lesson. For its latest exhibition, open your books up to the penultimate chapter of the Soviet Union.

“From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s–1980s” covers the post-Stalin era of the Soviet state, when the Communist Party’s steel grip on citizens’ lives began to loosen, at least somewhat. More than 50 paintings demonstrate how the aesthetic and ideological constraints on the state-approved art style, Socialist Realism, also slackened,
beginning about the time Nikita Khrushchev rose to power in mid-’50s.

Yes, the subjects remain familiar from other visits to The Museum of Russian Art: propagandistic portrayals of buff, suspiciously cheerful laborers and massively scaled state industry. But there’s also an attention paid to the individuals in these paintings that goes beyond the poster-ready images we might expect of Socialist Realism.

There is, for instance, “A Miner,” the 1962 painting by Tamaz Dzhincharadze that depicts its burly, mustachioed subject dirty and exhausted at the end of the day, a towel draped across his forehead as he leans against the rock face. He’s not just some cog in a state-run collective labor machine; he’s a man, stony faced and dead-beat from work.

No cog, either, is the cheerful subject of “A Woman of the Volga,” a young boat worker painted in 1967 by Yuri Bosko. She’s wearing thick gloves to coil some rope, but is otherwise very feminine in a sleeveless pink top and lightweight skirt, her blond hair pulled back in a kerchief.

The idealized Kodachrome sparkle of that painting couldn’t contrast more with another water scene, this one by Igor Popov, one of the “village artists” who recorded the hardscrabble lives of hardy peasants in the northern provinces. “Sorting Through the Catch, Galich,” is grimy and subdued, painted in thick slashes of gray and brown — an un-romanticized look at the cold and wearying lives of fisherman and dockworkers.

That’s one of the lessons of “From Thaw to Meltdown”: It was a time when artists could dare to vary a bit from the unrelenting optimism of Soviet Realism and depict life as it was. If these are the heroes of the communist state, they’ve left their laurels at home.

One of the real showstoppers in this collection doesn’t feature any recognizable faces at all, though. The gigantic scale of Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station dwarfs the construction workers who are still building it in Vlidimir Tomilovski’s painting, started in 1966, one year before the dam opened, but not completed until 1973.

What’s so striking about the work is the way Tomilovski makes nearly abstract the massive concrete slab and the construction equipment perched atop it, turning a typical Socialist Realist glorification of state infrastructure into a study of color and form. Although it appears to be daytime, the sky is inexplicably pitch black above the dam, contrasting starkly with the steel girders Tomilovski has painted bright orange. The view of the dam is straight on, but to the left is a cross-section of the structure showing the plunging penstock that carries upstream water through the dam’s interior.

The partial schematic is a radical pictorial approach, one as unexpected as the unrestrained emotion in this quote from Tomilovski included next to the painting: “I am excited by monumental construction sites, planes rocketing into the sky, cars speeding down the roads, but also by the gentleness of colors and the poetry of life that is present everywhere.”

Go See It

“From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s–1980s” runs through Aug. 12 at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S. 821-9045.