Dubbing a painting a “masterpiece” is an audacious move sure to raise expectations if not eyebrows. With the bar set high, the art has to jump far lest viewers feel they’ve been snookered by a marketing gimmick.

So it is a bold move for the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis to tout its current show of 60-some paintings as “Masterpieces of the 20th Century: Russian Realist Tradition.”

Mostly on loan from private collections, the best pictures are ambitious genre scenes celebrating the camaraderie of work (harvesting grain, cutting timber, mining coal, hanging laundry) or the relief of leisure (families at play, milkmaids sharing a joke, plasterers on lunch break). Plus portraits, landscapes, allegories, an occasional still life, and at least one Soviet riff on Van Gogh’s famously tumultuous 1890 painting “Wheatfield With Crows.”

All of them are well-made pictures very much worth a visit. And some are striking enough — in concept, design and execution — to hold their own in any master class. But the show is less about universal “masterpieces” than a celebration of part of its title: “the 20th Century Russian Realist Tradition.” It runs through Sept. 25.

Like other historically bracketed art moments — Barbizon landscapes, Chinese ink paintings, American modernism — Soviet-era paintings were defined by their time. As a museum brochure explains, they “were designed to appeal to the masses,” and were “integrated into the ideological landscape of the period.”

In short, context mattered and politics counted. Official Soviet artists such as these were skillful purveyors of what was essentially a party line, good at conveying positive messages about their nation’s economic health and social cohesion. Propagandists in pigment, they were traditionally trained and retained their government jobs by delivering pictures that satisfied official needs.

Still, within those confines, they may — or may not — have questioned authority. That’s where the narrative undercurrents of this art are most intriguing.

Morale messages

One of the most famous Stalinist-era paintings was “Letter From the Front,” by Aleksandr I. Laktionov, a cinematic scene in which a heroic soldier (multiple medals, bandaged hand, cane) has delivered a letter to a comrade’s family. As a boy reads the missive, his mother and sister watch from the shadows of their crumbling house (rutted threshold, gaping holes in stucco).

Hardship aside, “Letter” is all about friendship, endurance and triumph. Sunlight engulfs the boy and a radiant young woman beside the soldier; even the red ribbons glow in the little girl’s braids. Every detail shouts that the soldier’s sacrifice will be redeemed by the family’s strength and the nation’s gratitude.

Painted in 1948 when the Soviet Union was still devastated by the World War II slaughter of more than 20 million of its people, “Letter” was reproduced in magazines, calendars, postcards and posters. The original is now in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. The 1952 Minneapolis version is one of several copies the artist made for his family, this one purchased from his daughter, who posed for the girl. Perhaps oversentimental by today’s standards, it remains a stirring evocation of its time.

Work ethic

Hard physical work has rarely, if ever, been limned with the passionate intensity that Soviet artists brought to the task. Aleksandr A. Deineka’s 1925 “Coal Worker” brilliantly traps its soot-crusted, hollow-eyed subject in a claustrophobic canvas as tall and narrow as the coal seam he mines.

In Nikolai I. Obrynba’s “Before the Storm” (1957), a dozen brawny Amazons stand knee-deep in golden grain, shoveling furiously to shelter the bountiful harvest. Crusty, pebbled paint evokes the grain; a fugue of bent backs and wind-whipped garments carry the wind and rain in this monumental canvas.

Even pinning laundry to a line is a herculean task in Mai V. Dantsig’s dramatic “A Sunny Day” (1965), in which dozens of sun-lashed, billowing sheets encircle a sturdy laundress with a halo of slashing lilac light.

Other pictures allow for more ambiguous interpretations.

Take the museum’s best-known painting, “Milkmaids” by Nikolai N. Baskakov. More than 7 feet wide, it’s a jolly image of three pretty milkmaids laughing in a barnyard on a sunny day, clearly a picture of workplace harmony. But what are they laughing about? Could it be a ribald joke about a despised politician or buffoonish collective-farm manager? How would Soviet audiences of the time have interpreted what the museum calls the “complex cultural code” of this and other paintings?

Even Alexander M. Gerasimov’s updated Van Gogh seems open to interpretation. A wide landscape of wheat stubble under a cloudy sky, it tames the green road and turbulence of the original. And yet, what to make of the three black birds gabbling idly in the foreground while the flock plunders the field behind them? Are the birds workers, parasites, or starvelings neglected by the overloaded grain wagon departing in the distance?

Mozart minuet

One of the show’s strangest pictures is “Mozart and Salieri,” a 1989 image by Geli M. Korzhev, a giant of Soviet art whose more surreal and moralizing allegories get a whole gallery to themselves. Even without the title, the characters’ identities are telegraphed by costume and drama.

The focus is a boy wearing an 18th-century wig whose man-sized hands are poised in midair above piano keys, as if frozen. In the shadows behind him looms an older man, his face inscrutable but not benign. Puppet and puppet master, perhaps? Or a boy whose mature genius remains unreleased? An envious adult overshadowed by youth? Or an allegory of thwarted creativity in a controlling state?

Like the best of these masterpieces, Korzhev’s is a compelling image whose psychology and style can seem quite strange to Western eyes, especially American ones. Yet those are the qualities that arguably lift the best above the rest.


Twitter: @maryabbe