Wars have inspired many artists throughout the centuries to come up with art glorifying the victors or lamenting losses, or thinking of the ways wars make people stop being human. We talked about it here, in the War Art post.
Surprisingly, repressions against a country’s own people have largely failed to produce anything that would be similarly impressive. I can understand why. First, killing or imprisoning your own people for entertaining ideas the boss doesn’t approve of is a relatively new concept. Second, artists who have enough strength of spirit to come up with such art are usually repressed first. Unless, of course, they join the other side, but even that does not guarantee their safety.
Repression art done by the descendants of the repressed often turns out to be a trite repetition of the kind of war art that talks about the plight of the defeated, with truly unique insights very difficult to come by.
This a memorial to Stalin’s repressions in Moscow, that uses a statue of Stalin, a wall made of stones shaped as heads, and a small pyramid of the same head stones.
How is this, conceptually, different from Vereschagin’s Apotheosis of Death, made more than a hundred years before it? Especially if we add some etchings made during the reign of terror in France?
The French reign of terror produced mainly illustrations of executions, and the Death of Marat which is only interesting as a confirmation that an artist (David), however classic, can be a butcher. Arts do not make all people better.
So, here comes Russia again, with one of the most powerful contemplation of repressions to be made by an artist who was – on the outside – supporting Bolsheviks. He captured the horror of repressions in two seemingly innocuous paintings.
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin named the first one “the Anxiety of 1919” for the authorities to think that he was depicting the time when counter-revolutionary gangs threatened supporters of the Revolution. But the clock on the wall shows 9:34, the real time when it is taking place and a clear reference to 1934, when he painted it.
The man looks out the window, and Petrov-Vodkin’s contemporaries would know why: the sound of a car engine in the night. A black car in the night was picking up dissidents, or enemies of the state. Once arrested, people were gone, and their families would often disappear too. There are no severed heads, but the bloody horror of the woman in the red skirt who fears for her husband, and her children is contagious.
Three years later Petrov-Vodkin came up with a merry celebration of moving into a new flat:
What can be ominous about it? Well, the pictures on the walls. The pictures belonged to the family that lived in this flat before the new arrivals. There’s a pre-Revolution chair in the left corner on which someone from the previous family used to sit. It stands empty now. The horror in this painting is in the knowledge that a whole family was “removed” from life and no one knows where and how. This was the kind of horror people had to live with daily.
It is difficult to keep scaring people with a guillotine or a pyramid of sculls, if possible at all. Such overused images get worn out with time. Conveying the ordinariness of everyday evil is the key. Everyday’s fear, lies, betrayals… Petrov-Vodkin could do it with Stalin’s censors breathing down his neck.
In the 1990s, when Russia came out of its socialist stupor and victims of political repressions were massively rehabilitated, each and every city would put up a monument to that dreadful epoch. As it often happens with hastily erected monuments, most of them are artistic failures. I wouldn’t want to illustrate my point by a gallery of semi-Christian crosses, roughly cut stones, barbed wire, and cell windows. Believe me, there is a multitude of them.
There is one monument, though, that is worth looking at. It was commissioned to Ernst Neizvestny, a dissident artist of the 1960s and 70s, who now lives in the US, in the late 1990s. Its name is the Mask of Grief.
There is a wind bell which irregular chimes provide the broken rhythm of the lives extinguished by the GULAG. The sculpture can be entered through the staircase leading to the left nostril. On the inside, it even has a replica solitary cell:
Its cold concrete sends across the awareness and pain of unstoppable, fatalistic brutality and oppression, which was a part of life for millions of people. I think it is a convincing argument for the scale of repressions, but it is not about the individual horror of it all.
It also doesn’t really address the issues faced by repressions’ survivors and next generations. I am surprised that for many years I couldn’t find an artwork that would address the consequences of Stalin’s repressions. Perhaps, no one believed that this kind of Russian history could repeat itself. Well, Russia is almost there now, again.
Surprisingly, I ultimately found an artwork like this, by Botagoz Tolesheva, an artist from Kazakhstan (a USSR republic that suffered just as much as the rest of the country at the time). It is a Kazakh carpet, with torn threads representing lives stamped out by repressions. The carpet has a huge hole because of it. The hole that can never be mended looms at the observers, making them think of not just how many lives were taken, but how much was cut out of their own present, and future.
Another artwork from the same exhibition, by Asel Kadyrkhanova, aptly named The Machine, shows a typewriter from the 1930s with red threads linking it to the typewritten verdicts on the wall.
I have not seen a better representation of a smoothly running repression machine producing everyday evil and death. For me, it is even more scary than the Mask of Grief by Neizvestny.
Today, most of art inspired by repressions is a mixture of protest and provocation, be it the Pussy Riot performance or Pavlensky’s nailing his scrotum to the Red Square.
Somehow, even with the massive media buzz they create, none of it infuses the observer with horror in the face of the returning reign of “limited terror”.
I am curious what comes next, even though I’d prefer not to witness it coming.