Political correctness didn't take root in Russian art until long after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and then it came -- like so much else in the new Soviet state -- by decree. In 1932 Stalin banned all independent artist groups and ordered up Socialist Realism as the art of the people. Henceforth, Soviet ideals would be expressed in an illustrative style designed to ennoble the proletariat.
The 15-year period between the revolution and the diktat, however, was a time of cultural ferment. With many artists and styles jockeying for attention, revolutionary fervor was expressed in myriad "Shades of Red," as the Museum of Russian Art titles a show of paintings from that time.
The 62 pictures are a handsome sample of landscapes, portraits and urban scenes. Beautifully installed, as always at TMORA, the show is a pleasure to view and much enhanced by informative labels about the lives and politics of artists who mostly fall outside the canon of Euro-American art history. Organized by TMORA curator Masha Zavialova, it includes pictures from the collections of the museum and its founder, Ray Johnson, plus other private collectors. It is on view through Sept. 11.
Curiously, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about most of the show's subjects or their treatment. It begins in an Impressionist mode with two images by Sergei V. Gerasimov, a lyrical landscape under an orchid sky and a bright "Family Portrait" reminiscent of Manet in which two women rest in a sun-dappled meadow, their clothing and surroundings sketched with lively daubs of paint.
The revolution's celebration of ethnic types is evident in Nina Y. Simonovich-Efimova's vibrant life-size portrait of a moody girl in national dress, and Amshei M. Nyurenberg's painting of an elderly Jewish man hauling wooden buckets. Nyurenberg, who studied in Paris and later served as the first art critic for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, also nods to Cezanne's multifaceted brushwork in a pair of Crimean landscapes.
The spirit of illustrator Maxfield Parrish seems to hover over the 1928 fantasy "A Young Shepherd" by Vasili N. Kostyanitsyn, whose early training as an icon painter is evident in the golden glow suffusing his candy-box account of a boy in front of a series of picturesque village scenes.
One of the more arresting pictures is Pavel P. Sokolov-Skalya's "Turkish Woman," an exotic beauty in puffy white pantaloons and an elaborate headdress, ogled by two Cossacks whose monstrous heads loom over her shoulder. The suave composition and distortions of the 1927 painting bear a hint of Modigliani's elegant portraits, evidence of the international trends that coursed through Russia then. The versatile artist adopted a looser, more expressive style for "Construction of Moscow Subway," a glorification of industry in which two goddesses in fatigues proudly show off their jackhammer in a brick-lined, skylit cavern.
The working class drew attention from Olga P. Yanovskaya in her 1931 "Blast Furnace, No. 5," a grimly expressive scene of tiny workers dwarfed by a smoke-belching factory. Workers' harsh lives are eloquently memorialized by Alexsandr A. Deineka in "Coal Worker," his monumental 1925 picture of a hollow-eyed man black with soot and bent with exhaustion.
One of the strangest images is "On the Farm," Fedor V. Antonov's vast 1930 vision of a barren landscape plowed, at left, by a tractor with smiling driver and, at right, by peasants walking behind horses. All the farmers look like tin-toy automatons, suggesting deep skepticism about the forced collectivization of farmland that began in 1929. Georgi I. Rublev's 1932 "A Factory Party Meeting" seems even more cynical, its bright, flat colors and elementary-school style deliberately picked to mock the 10 officials who sit, doing nothing, while one worker demonstrates new equipment.
Elsewhere there are lovely paintings of trees in spring bloom, a sensitive portrait of a straw-hatted artist in a sunny park, a nicely articulated nude, a monumental floral still life, a cheerful multi-ethnic party in Samarkand and so on.
Many of these artists studied at the VKhuTeMas school in Moscow, a post-revolutionary establishment that Lenin created in 1920 by merging two art schools. Like the Bauhaus, its famous counterpart in Weimar, Germany, the new school championed iconoclastic ideas. A student later recalled her excitement while working in an unheated classroom under banners saying "Museums are graveyards of art" and "Free yourselves from tradition!" Stalin closed the school in 1930 and forbade the faculty and students to exhibit publicly.
Still, the paintings in "Shades of Red" are conventional by Western standards and don't accurately represent the Russian avant garde of the era. All the subjects are figurative and rendered in naturalistic colors with traditional compositions and carefully modulated surfaces. While they may have offended Stalin, they wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in Paris or Manhattan. In fact, most of the "Red" artists adapted to Stalinist dictates, remained in Russia and pursued successful careers throughout the Soviet era.
The absence of truly adventurous Russian avant-gardists from the 1917-32 period is telling. Among the missing are the romantic dreamer Marc Chagall, the white-on-white theoretician Kasimir Malevich, the geometrician El Lissitzky, the Constructivist painter and photographer Alexander Rodchenko and the abstract architect Vladimir Tatlin. Without their startling compositions, it is difficult to appreciate the full brilliance of Russia's contributions to art history.
Criticizing an exhibition for what it lacks can be something of a cheap shot, but revolutionaries are essential to a show that purports to explain post-revolutionary Russian art. "Red" is lovely as far as it goes, but it's missing too many shades.