Given the uproar surrounding Vladimir Putin's recent victory in Russia's presidential election, "From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Art of the 1950s-1980s" is a particularly salient exhibition. At its core is the Soviet citizen and how he/she was depicted during the period of monumental change between the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
This Museum of Russian Art show, featuring more than 55 works by 40 artists, is provocative in every way. Visually, it is a tour de force of realist art depicting the Soviet industrial landscape and workforce.
Often vividly hued and rendered with a bold, confident hand, these paintings of power plants, steel factories, smelting furnaces, construction sites and seaports add up to a compelling visual narrative of Soviet life -- just as the French Impressionists documented the late 19th century, but with significant differences in theme, style and motivation. Boris Pavlovich Shagin's mysterious painting of a glass-blowing factory, "Glass Makers," is surprisingly abstract where Vladimir Isaakovich Erlikh's "Krivorozhiski, Blast Furnace 5" is meticulously realistic.
Curator Masha Zavialova makes clear one defining aspect of the Soviet system: the abolition of private property and private life. Workers' energies were devoted to the success of huge industrial projects. Sex was unwanted and suppressed, a diversion that would drain the workers' energy and focus. But this slowly began to change under Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev. A "renegotiation of citizenship" began through the visual and literary arts and other creative expressions.
"Artists began to exist in a more private space," explains Zavialova. "Stylistically it is still Russian realism, but painting is more creative. Artists began pushing the state back."
Vladimir Petrovich Tomilovski's dramatic bird's-eye view of "Construction of the Bratsk Hydro Electric Power Plant," with its minuscule workers looking like ants on a sidewalk, is outdone only by his "Construction of the Bratsk Hydro Electric Plant 1." Here, we are reminded of the workers' insignificance in the face of power -- industrial and political -- an ironic inversion of the philosophy of the 19th-century American Sublime painters, who depicted man's insignificance in the face of an uncontrollable Mother Nature. Visually rich, "Plant 1" is a dynamic recipe of flat, interlocking visual planes of color, and searing light and shadow. It seems almost futuristic, an airless landscape of authority.
By comparison Boris Nikolaevich Pomortsev's "In the Port" has a pulse. Despite its drab grays and brown, it poeticizes daily activities in a harbor.
These industrial landscapes are humanized by portraits of Soviet workers, male and female, alone or in groups, that reflect the loosening of dogma under Khrushchev. Unarguably, it is still socialism at work, but socialism with a more human face. For example, artists could now depict the peasant class, such as in Igor Aleksandrovich Popov's "Sorting the Catch, Galich," where fishermen unload their catch to a dock crowded with people.
Also new was depicting workers as sexualized beings, as in Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kutilin's "Assembler." Here a handsome, muscled worker exposes his six-pack abs to the sun. Clearly this man desires and is desired. Similarly, Yuri Ivanovich Bosko's " A Woman of the Volga" captures a robust, young blonde standing on the deck of a boat, ropes in hand. Head thrown back absorbing the sun, she is dressed in a bright blue and pink striped skirt and pink tank top. Make no mistake, like the "Assembler," she is working but still exudes a palpable sexuality.
Many portraits capture women doing "man's" work. With its high perspective, atypical palette and unconventional composition, "Fishing Women" by Gregori Alekseevich Kalinkin is remarkable. Abruptly cutting off the wading figures at one edge, the painting is photographic in feel and recalls Degas' paintings inspired by snapshots, such as his famous "Carriage at the Races" where the horses, carriage and occupants appear to be driving off the picture plane.
Not to be missed in a side gallery are nine small paintings by Yakov Dorofeevich Romas. Mostly from the 1950s, they are industrial waterfronts but Romas' romantic handling of paint, color and light make him a contender for membership in the 19th-century Hudson River School.
Without being didactic, "Thaw" is an intellectually informed and accessible narrative on Soviet history. There is much to learn and the art continues to teach us. Although Soviet ideology was lessening, "these paintings still have a function," explains Zavialova. "They are machines; they are machines that work."