Before entering the Museum of Russian Art, I tightened my colorful face mask, squeezed hand sanitizer onto my palms and vigorously rubbed them together. Inside, more sanitizer awaited while arrows on the floor pointed the way.
Returning to a museum after more than three months away was an exciting, albeit unnerving experience.
On Monday, TMORA became the first Twin Cities art museum to welcome visitors after the start of the pandemic, swinging open the doors to its Spanish Colonial-Revival building with the new exhibit "Leaders and the Masses: Mega Paintings From Soviet Ukraine."
The show — 37 paintings donated to the museum by the Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady Collection — was all set to open April 3.
"It has been waiting for its audience since that time," said museum president Mark Meister.
After months of "visiting" museums through Google Streetview-type maps, flipping through pristine art gallery websites and cruising Instagram nonstop for eye-catching stuff, it was a relief to be back in an actual museum. There were so few visitors that social distancing was no problem.
The people who did come Monday were greeted with larger-than-life Socialist Realist artworks saved from Ukraine in the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were rescued by Jurii Maniichuk, a Ukrainian-American law professor and consultant who passed away in 2009. He worked as a lawyer in the then-newly independent Ukraine, and felt compelled to bring these works back to the United States.
Painted in the 1950s to '80s, these works are all guided by socialist ideology, leaving little room for "creativity," or anything that did not explicitly uphold ideals such as the leader as embodiment of power or the idealization of the worker. More interesting than the paintings themselves is what they both cover up and convey about the repressive cultural climate in Soviet society.
In contrast to German Expressionism, where the sufferings of war were palpably portrayed, these post-World War II paintings glorify soldier and country. In Valentin Pashchenko's oil on canvas painting "June of 1945" (dated 1976-77), a tall, square-jawed soldier wearing a long brown coat and leather boots stands in the middle of a wheat field. He gazes at a sheaf of golden wheat grasped in his left hand. If it weren't for the label next to this painting, it might be a rugged-man-in-nature magazine ad.
But that's also the point. Rather than depicting bloody battles, the Soviet government encouraged paintings that would promote patriotism, pay tribute to the 20 million-plus Soviet lives lost in World War II and glorify the nation, just as advertisements do a product.
In Yuri Smirnov's "Portrait of A. Grib, Worker at Zaporizhstal Steel Mill" (1979), a factory worker looks down as if in deep thought, gripping a railing as a whirl of orange blazes in the background. In "Bread" by Stanislav Shinkarenko (1977), a smiling baker woman in white button-up smock and hat stands in front of a giant shelf of loaves and a vase full of wheat stalks. There's nothing critical or controversial in these paintings.
Men created most of the art here, but one of the biggest paintings is Olena Kirichenko's 1969 "Housewarming." Women dressed in blouses and skirts or long dresses dance alongside men on a muted yellow wood floor. Strangers look in through the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the party.
While many of the paintings in this exhibition feel static, capturing an image the way a camera would, this one feels alive with the energy of a country that a generation later would shed its Soviet bonds. It's a burst of freedom in a show that otherwise feels like a time capsule of repression.