Love flourished in the Soviet Union even as the country strove to reinvent itself as a worker's paradise where citizens were expected to adore the Motherland more than the pretty girl or handsome guy running the jackhammer next door.
That is the premise of "Romance in Soviet Art," on view through Sept. 20 at the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis.
Humans being the hormone-infused creatures that they are, the persistence of love and romance is not surprising. What's clever, and so enjoyably instructive, about this exhibition is the way Russian-born curator Masha Zavialova points out the simmering sexual frisson in otherwise conventional Soviet-era paintings and then uses the pictures to explain how the state tried to shape intimate relationships in her former homeland during the era following World War II.
On loan primarily from Twin Cities collectors, the 40 paintings date from 1946 to roughly 1993, when the Soviet Union collapsed in economic turmoil. Their stylistic range — from lush Impressionistic brushwork through posterized Socialist Realism to a gritty manner known as the Severe style — subtly echoes the political upheavals of the time.
Love in a time of desolation
Art was a quasi-official tool of public policy in the Soviet Union, where artists received rigorous technical training and were expected to produce images that furthered state goals and ideals.
At the show's entrance, Fedor V. Antonov's 1946 painting "The Confession" suggests the role young lovers were expected to play in rebuilding their country after an estimated 20 million Russians died — many of starvation — defending their country against Hitler's onslaught.
In Antonov's picture a heroic young soldier with two medals on his uniform confesses his love to his demure sweetheart on a hilltop overlooking a bucolic valley dotted with piles of ripe grain and pretty plumes of lavender smoke wafting from distant factories. At a time when Soviet factories were still shuttered and its fields bare, the painting was a total fantasy intended to inspire rather than to depict reality. Stylistically it is pure Monet, right down to the grain stacks and twilight smoke.
A decade later, Nina L. Veselova reintroduced "private emotional space" in her 1957 painting of "Ice Skaters" lounging in a warming house. As a teenage boy kneels to tie the skates of a pretty girl, other guys watch with derisive expressions, mocking and a bit envious. Painted four years after the death of Stalin, when the USSR was opening a crack to Western influence, the 5-feet-wide picture exudes a folksy charm that to American eyes may recall Norman Rockwell's magazine covers of the time.
Love as an academic exercise
Konstantin Berkovski, a Soviet-trained Minneapolis-based painter, had a totally different take on the "Ice Skaters," however. In a chance conversation at the museum, Berkovski — whose own work is on view through May 31 in a different show at TMORA — said the picture had nothing whatsoever to do with love or romance.
"It's a typical diploma painting," he insisted. A graduation requirement at top Soviet academies, "diploma paintings" are big exercises designed to demonstrate mastery of traditional composition, color and styles. In the "Skaters" picture, note the receding perspective and triangular massing of skaters at the center, the flashes of red enlivening dark and light tones, the Impressionist-style winter landscape visible through the window left and the exquisite Old Master hands of the guy at right.
Keen eyes will spy similar techniques in other TMORA paintings But even when made to formula, the show's paintings also illustrate changing attitudes about love, romance and private life.
By the 1960s, some Soviet painters were employing such techniques in remarkably fresh and free ways. In "The New Apartment," a 1965 painting by Mai V. Dantsig, a young couple sketched in a posterish Socialist Realist style sit alone on the (Soviet red) floor of their big new living space. Their privacy and the apartment's size were huge luxuries at a time when most Russians shared crowded quarters with multigenerational families. Whether the picture was state propaganda or an idealized dream is unclear, but the couple's intimacy fairly sizzles.
There's poignancy also in the fresh rain, lilacs and youthful innocence that Viktor A. Tsvetkov depicts in his luminous 1969 scene of a young man "Fixing the Bicycle Wheel" for a pretty girl.
Darker elements of Soviet life emerge in paintings from the country's later years, when alcoholism was so widespread that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched an unsuccessful national prohibition campaign. In Valerian M. Formozov's crude but haunting 1987 painting "Mama Wake Up," a barefoot girl tries to awaken her mother, who has passed out, along with other relatives, amid a welter of empty vodka bottles in a summer cottage.
The last word on Soviet alcoholism goes to Geli M. Korzev, whose "Adam and Eve" of 1988 depicts Adam as an amputee leaning on crutches and Eve as his weary, hardworking wife. Between them a green serpent, as alcoholism is known in Russia, twists round the barren tree of life.