Soviet art for the everyman goes on display at Emirates Palace
In Tatyana Kopnina’s painting Girls (1960), two youngsters, presumably sisters, lie on a bed looking at a picture book. One is in a red pinafore and pigtails, while the other, older, wears a lavender dress and lies on her stomach. Beyond them, one can see a vase of flowers on a round tabletop. It’s a scene of everyday intimacy – of real life.
It is also part of a remarkable collection of more than 120 works of Soviet art on display in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace. Drawn from the Art Russe collection of the Russian billionaire Andrey Filatov, the exhibition, titled War and Peace, presents examples of the kind of painting and sculpture produced in the USSR from the 1930s onwards.
In the style known as Socialist Realism, these works extolled the beauty and value of life under socialism: scenes of domestic cosiness, workers at the factory, women in kerchiefs harvesting wheat and soldiers returning home from the front.
The effect includes its fair share of the anodyne and twee – but at its best, it communicates real enthusiasm and joy.
“It is the art I grew up with,” says Filatov, “And it is very dear to me.”
He began buying art in earnest about five years ago, and is one of the foremost collectors of Socialist Realism. The paintings and sculpture on show in the capital includes some of the style’s best-known pieces – the artwork that Russian schoolchildren see reproduced in their textbooks.
One can see, for example, the plaster prototype of Vera Mukhina’s public monument, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), in which a factory worker and farmer together hold aloft up a hammer and sickle, eyes fixed on the future.
Produced for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, the full-sized, 24.5-metre stainless steel version was moved to Moscow after the fair, and it has stood outside the Russian Exhibition Centre ever since, absent only for an extended restoration period between 2003 and 2009. The prototype on show at Emirates Palace was handmade by the artist.
A number of versions of Socialist Realist works were often created, and Filatov’s collection is notable not only for its breadth, but also for the fact that he was able to collect such originals.
War and Peace also includes the famous painting Low Marks Again (1948-49), a Norman Rockwell-esque scene in which a schoolboy in a too-big overcoat breaks the news about his poor grades to his mother and siblings.
Elena Filatov, Andrey’s wife, explained that scholars have identified the version on show as the original.
Look closely and you can see that a painting over the boy’s shoulder is blurry and sketchy – in the version on display in Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, painted later, the picture has been fully worked up.
Narratives of modern art tend to tell a story of a shift from realism into abstraction, the style of the avant-garde. But Russian art moved differently from the trajectory in the West.
After breakthroughs in formalism in the 1910s and 20s with Suprematism and Constructivism, by the 1930s abstraction was labelled bourgeois.
The Russian academy moved back towards representational work, art showing “typical characters under typical circumstances” – in the words of Friedrich Engels – often associated with the movement.
The paintings had a strong propagandistic element, glimpsed in the heroic postures adopted by Mukhina’s workers and images of Stalin and Lenin, and in the impression they gave of a happy, comfortable Soviet life, even under the USSR’s impoverished circumstances.
The paintings also served to unite the far-flung confederation. Feoror Sychkov’s 1936-37 work At the Market shows a young Ukrainian girl holding up some apples for a young man to buy – the picture illustrates the shared Soviet promise, from Kiev to Moscow.
Because of this association with the party line, Socialist Realism has long been ignored by the art establishment. It holds a nostalgic fascination, though, for Russians such as Filatov who grew up with the works, and it has recently been re-examined for its merits of popular representation.
The rare opportunity to see such a large collection in the style throws up some surprises. Kopnina’s Girls, for example, shows a bourgeois interior much more reminiscent of 19th-century French painting than Socialist Realism – and across the work, there is more range in brushwork style (and skill) than is commonly assumed.
Indeed, the work of this period isn’t particularly well-known outside of Russia, Filatov says, and this is part of his motivation for showing it abroad.
“It is great to be able to show it in Abu Dhabi,” he says, “which is becoming such a cultural centre, with the opening of the new museums.”
He hopes to use his collection, which also includes contemporary work, as loans and touring exhibitions to help promote Russian art internationally.
“There are so many tourists who will come and be introduced to it,” he says. “You can’t spend all your time on the beach.”
• War and Peace, a collection of Soviet art, is at Emirates Palace until December 10, open from 10am to 10pm each day. Entry is free. For more details, visit www.artrusse.uk
Published: October 12, 2015 04:00 AM