Artists in the Soviet Union operated in a strange, wary time after the death of dictator Josef Stalin in 1953. Personal expression was forbidden and they were under nearly constant surveillance by KGB minders. Still, they made art and showed it to friends and followers in sometimes clandestine circumstances.

Despite their perilous relationship to official Soviet culture, the artists — including some of the era’s most famous dissidents — produced striking work that retains its visual and psychological punch.

Some of that art has found a new home at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in south Minneapolis. More than 50 paintings by 20 dissident or unofficial artists are featured in “Artistic Underground in the Late Soviet Era,” a smart, well focused survey on view through Nov. 13.

Understanding just how radical the art was in its day requires a bit of context, especially for Americans to whom self-expression is generally assumed to be a key art goal regardless of subject or style. In the Soviet system by contrast, Western-style individualism was considered decadent, subversive, even dangerous enough to prompt censure, exile or both. Especially under Stalin, art was expected to serve the state, not tout the self.

Critiques of power

At the height of the Cold War in the mid 1950s, young Ilya Kabakov — now one of the country’s most famous dissidents — diagramed what life was like for a Soviet citizen of the time. It was a dog’s life. Specifically the dog in a famous 1902 experiment by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who conditioned the beast to salivate even when it didn’t get food.

Kabakov’s boxed-in, two-dimensional Soviet citizen has a dog’s body and two heads, one canine and one human. Sprouting from a sharp rose-red suit, the human head imagines an ideal life (wife, house, car) while its feral counterpart waits for a shot of food from the machine that controls them both.

By contrast with Kabakov’s mordant view of the citizen/state relationship, Anatoli Zverev comes across as a total free spirit in his expressionistic 1956 “Self Portrait in Texas Hat,” in which his colorful, smeary face peers from under an oversized Stetson. Sometimes homeless but always generous with food, wine and vodka, Zverev made art with whatever came to hand — ketchup, cottage cheese — when he ran out of paint. Then he’d sell his pictures cheaply and throw a party.

“Zverev was highly praised by other artists,” said TMORA curator Masha Zavialova, who grew up in St. Petersburg in the Soviet era. “Now we look at his work and say his talent was overrated, but at the time it wasn’t only his talent but also his personality that had an impact on other artists.”

Russian melancholy

Repression came and went during the Soviet era, loosening for a few years under Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who allowed foreign exhibitions, books, concerts and films from about 1957 to 1962, but then tightening again as leadership changed.

Some painters, eager to carve their own careers, quietly did so while keeping state jobs as book illustrators or even official portraitists. Others devised clever quasi-Communist systems for selling their art. Soviet officials obviously didn’t approve of Oleg Tselkov’s colorful, surrealistic faces (slit eyes, lipless mouths), but he established a modest market by pricing his paintings by the square centimeter. His intense, vibrantly red and green 1967 “Portrait” is still a knockout.

The show’s stylistic and conceptual variety is impressive. There’s a serene authority and meditative distance to Dmitry Krasnopevtsev’s austere still lifes of broken vases, rocky monuments and leafless trees. The forms inevitably read as male/female symbols and invite comparison to the still lifes of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, but with a distinctly Russian melancholy.

Vladimir Nemukhin often collages playing cards (kings, queens, jokers) into his textural abstractions as symbolic allusions to fate, chance, government and so on. Eduard Shteinberg’s ethereal abstractions employ simple geometric shapes (circles, triangles) in muted tones to suggest life’s precarious balance, but it’s his silvery 1966 painting of two fish, with gasping mouths and despairing eyes, that haunts the mind.

Pop modernism

Other artists are more obvious, and dramatic in their social criticism. Dmitri Kantorov’s “Falling Icarus,” 1990, for example, portrays an overreaching Soviet soldier falling from the sky in a blaze of pop art colors and design. And some merely celebrate the joy of painting as Olga Grechina appears to do in her “Morning” diptych of 1988, which sketches a young woman, most likely the artist, wrapped in a gauzy towel in her busy studio.

At their most aggressive, Soviet officials literally bulldozed a 1974 outdoor exhibition in an effort to suppress dissident expression. But then they began to back off in the face of continued resistance, curator Zavialova said.

Artistic repression ended at an officially sanctioned Sotheby’s auction in 1988, the first such venture in the Soviet Union since the 1920s. After that the country’s artists could no longer boast that they were dissidents, nor blame their government for limiting their careers, nor rely on it to boost them. Instead they are, like artists throughout the Western economies, prey to the caprice of the capitalist system.