Embrace any enterprise that requires the placement of a ten-metre statue of Lenin on the main waterway into the rural city of Assen, in the conservative north-east of Holland.
The main museum in the province – the Drents Museum – has a habit of setting up an eye-catching installation relating to their keynote exhibition in a prominent place in the city: last year, for their exhibition on ancient Chinese sculpture, a giant dragon was placed in the main square. This season’s exhibition, entitled ‘the Soviet Myth’ (which runs from 17-11-2012 till 09-06-2013), presents the genre of socialist realism through paintings and sculptures approved by various Soviet regimes. On their way home from the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, the curators seem to have swung by Nieuweschans in Groningen, where they found the statue, smuggled from East Germany shortly after the fall of the Wall, and asked to borrow it. When the local branch of the right-wing extremist ‘Freedom Party’ (PVV) heard about the museum’s plans, they waged a public campaign claiming it to be ‘glorification of a mass murderer’. The museum, by this point, had bagged an offer from the army – who needed practice in transporting large objects – to deliver the statue and set it up on the Kolk, where it makes quite an impression.
This opening story made me all the more determined to see the exhibition. Knowing the Drents Museum to set up quality exhibitions, I was full of high hopes for the defiant bravery of the chosen theme and accompanying publicity stunt.
And the selection of paintings and sculptures was excellent: aesthetically and topically diverse. They were grouped according to the significant political and cultural themes of agriculture and industry, family and the position of women, sports, and the personality cults around Lenin and Stalin. So far so representative.
But the information provided alongside the art works had me seething right away. In the museum’s anxiety to prove that the works on display were propaganda pieces first and foremost, very little distinction was made between the different phases of Soviet leadership. Lenin and Stalin were lumped together as two sides of the same coin, and few other leaders, let alone their influence, were mentioned. Flanking one another, two enormous canvases were displayed – one portraying Lenin at the Second Congress of the Soviet of Workers, the other depicting an homage to the ‘great leader’ Stalin. Both paintings were done in a similar style to earlier European publicity paintings, such as those featuring the royal family at the Great Exhibition of 1851: the key figure is centrally placed surrounded by admiring crowds, in a large, opulent setting. In most of these painting the perspective ensures the spectator looks up to the main figure. Indeed, Stalin is placed at the top of a flight of steps, with the crowds at the bottom. Lenin, however, advances down the aisle between the two crowds, with two figures following. He is walking with a slouch, inelegantly, his papers loose under his arm, his appearance tousled but determined, like those of the people around him. And he is walking straight at the spectator, at eye-level. The information provided stated he was presented as a messianic figure, but did not explain what made him one.
To support their perpetual claim that the artists were struggling against an oppressive government, the museum seemed to feel obliged to make excuses for any painting that showed scenes of freedom and joy. Thus, a painting of naked cavalry soldiers bathing with their horses in a river was immediately pointed out as eroticised or, as they added between brackets, homo-eroticised. The suggestion was of a decadence of which the writer disapproved. Later on in the exhibition, however, were three canvases painted by Deineka on a visit to the United States, one of which featured a lady dressing in a dark room for a night out. This, they claimed, was to show Soviet disapproval of the decadent frivolity of American night-life. So who was decadent, and was this a bad thing or not? You can’t have it both ways.
What made me most angry, however, was the interpretation of the Soviet artists’ treatment of women. It seemed the museum could only cope with images of women they could safely identify as eroticised. Both the information sheets provided for the exhibition, and the art historian who presented the introductory talk to the exhibition, kept insisting that women were ‘forced’ to join in the workforce, the implication being that this happened against their will. No mention was made of the liberating effects of communal kitchens, laundries, crèches etc. which freed Soviet women from the domestic sphere long before western women. Of course, most of this happened immediately after the revolution, and women lost many of their new-won freedoms under Stalin; but somehow women’s emancipation was presented as necessarily a bad thing in early twentieth-century Russia. The other matter that did not cease to occasion wonder was the build of the women in the paintings: they were rosy, muscular, equipped for the hard work they were enjoying in their portraits. Surely, the information sheets and the speaker argued, it was odd that propaganda art should choose to depict fat women, whilst the fashion in the West was for a slim build? The answer, they decided, was to be found in the famines artificially created by Stalin: portraying thin women would indicate that the blossoming Soviet state could not feed its people. Again, this served as an excuse regardless of whether these famines were happening or Stalin was in power at the time the picture was painted or not.
In the summary denouncement of the propagandistic falsehood of the art presented, no room was allowed for the role of the art works as images of an ideal, in which – imagine! – the artists themselves may even have believed. Work could not be enjoyed because it was enforced. Sports were only depicted because they allowed for surreptitious erotica. Fat women required the excuse of covering up for a famine. As far as I was concerned, the Soviet propaganda pictures portrayed the most beautiful women I have ever seen in a museum: strong, healthy, enjoying their work. I worry about a society which cannot appreciate these qualities without immediately denouncing them as fanciful and repressive propaganda, as if a woman’s natural state was to be thin and passive, and any attempt to make her deviate from this ideal immediately constituted repression.