Yesterday was the last day of the Victory Show at Moscow’s Central House of Artist, a monstrous box of concrete and steel that makes you wish the 1970s had never existed, at least architecturally.
On symbolical dates, such as the WWII Victory Day, its bazaar mix of commercial exhibitions of Russian realist painters, fur trade shows, and antique fairs, is ousted by dedicated retrospectives of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Fur trade shows quietly come back when the pomp is over,
The Victory Show was depressing. Not because the WWII or any war as a theme is depressing, but because the quality of art assembled to celebrate it was so low, propagandistic and false.
The best works there, actually, were a few drawings made by real war artists during the war. There was horrible truth in the bored faces of soldiers silently waiting for their train to arrive and take them to the front, and most likely to their deaths; and there was precious life in their unkempt uniforms, pot bellies, and oversized coats. I can’t show it, because it was badly lit, and, of course, no one cared to produce a catalogue, even though I would buy it to get those war-time drawings only.
Most of the exhibition’s hundreds of paintings were showing off athletic Soviet solders with beautifully chiseled faces and burning eyes intent on killing Nazis; desperate women who lost or were about to lose their husbands and sons in the hell pits of war; Germans torturing or killing Russian women and children, or Russian soldiers distributing their bread and porridge to kids in Berlin.
The similarity of these artworks to North Korean war posters was frightening. I could not but wonder if Russia was mentally ready for and welcoming another tyranny. The ubiquity of standard-issue symbolic images of loss, sacrifice and victory was awkward to see. I had a hope that Russian artists could do better than showing eyes full of tears to communicate the horrors of war.
It saddens me that Russian artists seem to be unable to find new ways to express their thinking on war in ways that would be true, sincere, and resonant with modern people. In ways that would make people want peace more than avenging their great-grand fathers who perished 70 years ago.
Yet, there were two works by living artists that I found powerful.
The first one was a lithograph by Albina Akritas, made in 1986, and titled “Coming Home”.
I am sorry for my reflection in the glass.
I love the pause that the soldier takes before coming home. Imagine what thoughts are rushing through his mind. He’s standing there, watching his house, thinking… what? I can list about a dozen questions that I could ask myself in this situation, and that makes me realise the horrors of war stronger than another hundred of paintings showing maimed bodies. I don’t want the horror of this pause in my life, and that goes under the assumption that I stay alive in a war.
And to make one think about the chances of staying alive and be able to celebrate victory, another female artist painted an almost abstract work titled “Watching the skies”.
The artist’s name is Lidia Skargina, and seeing her work in this exhibition was a surprise as I happen to own her large-scale still life. I assumed she only did pretty pictures. I couldn’t be more wrong.
The text in the middle says, rather conversationally, “Not a single bloke made it back to the village of Sheldyakovo from that war”.
There are silhouettes of people watching the skies at the bottom: they give the painting its title. Why are they doing that?
Up, and to the left of the centre, there is a shape indicating a star-topped memorial to the fallen men whose bodies have never returned to the village for a proper burial. In the right side, there is a symbol of belief, a belfry with a broken cross on top, that resembles a candle, to make you remember the loss or pray for them. There are a few more recognisable figures, lest you forget this painting is not an exercise in colour and abstraction, but a monument to very real suffering in a very real war.
Yet, these symbols are subtle, never pushed in your face, often barely discernible.
The main focus is on the colour conflict here.
There are patches of blue sky, patches of peace that the sacrifice of those men, made possible, and which are made all the more precious through their conflict with the burgundy colour of dried blood that fights against mouldy grey shapes.
This is a painting as much about the survivors as about the fallen.
It is a piece that makes you think about that particular war, and wars, in general. Great piece.
But all hopes for revival of non-propaganda art are killed at the exit from the show, by a firing squad of four portraits:
This is Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, but above all them, there’s a portrait of Putin walking up the aisle made of flags and columns that morph into churches to deliver his inauguration speech. All by the same artist, who – together with the show organisers – is making a rather obvious point.
Is it a warm welcome to North Korea? You could hear me optimistically saying “no” a month ago. I try to stay optimistic. It is sad, of course, to see the Personality Cult of the good ol’ Stalin’s days so effortlessly coming back, but (I am telling myself) it can hardly repeat itself in a 21st century information society.
Or can it?
Are the cossacks, who paid for and installed this bust of Putin in their village today, just a bunch of freaks with a fetish for military uniforms or kick-starters of a new trend? Is dressing Putin in Roman Emperor’s clothes bad taste or the first page in a new chapter of Russian history?
On the bright side of it, you can still read my despatches from Moscow. So far, so good.
How do you feel about Russia nowadays? Tell me.