Will Canadians rave or roar over this new show of modern art — Soviet style?
A RARE PEEK AT RUSSIAN ART
Will Canadians rave or roar over this new show of modern art — Soviet style?
WHEN HIS EXCELLENCY Amasasp Aroutunian, ambassador from the USSR to Canada, first arrived here a little over a year ago he remarked to reporters, "If Westerners don't like Soviet art it is because they don't know it."
They have had little chance. Since World War II contemporary Russian painting has been exhibited only four times on this side of the Iron Curtain—in 1956 at Venice, in 1958 at the Brussels World Fair, and in 1959 at the Royal Academy in London and at the Coliseum in New York. Forty or fifty contemporary paintings have been shown on each occasion. For the rest, the Western world’s knowledge of Russian art since the 1917 revolution has been confined to scattered reports of tourists and observers in the USSR and to the meagre published accounts of art historians.
For a few weeks this spring, though, some Canadians will have a chance to judge Russian art for themselves. The nine paintings on these pages are representative of a special exhibition of contemporary Soviet paintings loaned by the USSR to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for its centennial-year celebrations. The Montreal museum is showing the collection this month. The National Gallery in Ottawa and the Toronto Art Gallery are hoping to hang the paintings later. It is the first time since the war that Soviet paintings have been loaned to a private institution on this continent.
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Few people in Canada — including the heads of the galleries mentioned and the USSR embassy staff in Ottawa — knew much about what was coming except that there would be seventy contemporary Soviet paintings and ten pre-revolutionary paintings. They were picked by the presidium of the Academy of Arts in Moscow from state museums and galleries throughout the USSR. The only advance clues to the actual selection were color reproductions secured from Moscow for Maclean’s with the help of Dr. Aroutunian.
Even this small sample provoked curiosity and cautious comment from Canadian specialists. "It’s not the sort of factographic realism we in the West are likely to be expecting,” remarked Charles Comfort, newly appointed director of the National Gallery.
“There’s actually very little propaganda in them,” mused Martin Baldwin, head of the Toronto Art Gallery. Alan Jarvis, now editor of Canadian Art, said flatly, “Disappointing.” Toronto artist Jack Nichols said, “It’s all very — well—readable.”
And the gallery heads expect just as much curiosity — and considerably more unbridled comment — from the public. “I think the show will be very, very well attended,” says Comfort. Evan Turner, director of the Montreal museum, is preparing for
at least fifteen thousand viewers. Aroutunian is still more optimistic: pointing out that two million attended last year's exhibit at the Coliseum in New York, he has predicted an attendance of one hundred thousand in Montreal alone.
If he’s right, the show will have exceeded the Montreal museum officials’ wildest dreams of a real coup to celebrate their centennial year.
It is not, however, precisely the coup they had in mind at the start. What their centennial committee, headed by Montreal businessman Murray Chipman, really wanted was the part of the Soviet exhibit at Brussels that had featured the USSR’s superb collection of French impressionists and post-impressionists. The loan of the French collection—plus some Soviet art of course— would, they suggested hopefully to the Soviet ambassador, be a fitting gesture to the second largest French city in the world.
When at Aroutunian's suggestion. Chipman went to Moscow last November to negotiate directly with the Ministry of Culture, he was told that the French paintings were needed for a special exhibition in Moscow this spring. It may be worth noting that revolutions can cause problems of disputed ownership. When the USSR let its Picasso collection out of its hands, for one Paris fair, its former owners got a court injunction and claimed the paintings. (They were withdrawn from the show within two hours and hustled to the Soviet embassy.)
Chipman finally settled for ten pre-
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revolutionary Russian paintings—plus the notably generous selection of contemporary Russian art.
The Canadian gallery chiefs aren’t worried about the safety of the touring collection. Theft? “Where could a thief dispose of them?” asks Turner. Vandalism? “I don’t anticipate anything of the kind,” says Comfort, though Baldwin, of the Toronto Art Gallery, adds cautiously, “Of course you've always got to provide against the occasional damn fool.” Anticommunist demonstrations? Turner points out, “After all, just because the museum presents this exhibit it doesn’t mean we endorse the ideas, any more than if we show Murillo's Immaculate Conception does it mean we endorse that dogma.”
The dogma of Soviet art is, in the words of G. Nedoshivin, deputy director of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, "Truth, high ideals, and closeness to the people who are building communist society.” The style is called social realism. From what Western observers have been able to conclude, the subject matter ranges from events in post-revolutionary history to huge, worthy canvases of collective labor, where even the oxen seem
to smile with joy. Western art critics have also commented on the vigorous strain of portraiture, particularly of national heroes. Montreal’s Turner adds another note: "Their paintings all seem to deal either with youth or with old age — no middle age.” Toionto artist Eric Aldwinckle, who toured Soviet galleries as guest of the USSR government five years ago, comments, “Their sense of color terrific.” He also recalls the size of many of the canvases: "Their preliminary
sketches alone are as big as many of our gallery -paintings.”
Though there apparently are private collectors among the professional classes in Russia, painters are supported by wide system of state and public orders and assignments, and their art is meant not for apartment walls but for museums and institutions — for the people.
The reports of Jack Chen, a Chinese artist who studied and worked in Moscow for years, suggest that Canadians may find at least a few familiar art-gallery items missing from the Soviet show. He wrote: “Soviet artists have less interest in those themes that are the usual stock-in-trade of the average Western
artist . . . the intimate and personal incidents and accidents of usually humdrum bourgeois life, such as the studio interior, fleeting and usually frivolous sexual moods and the recording of the more or less accidental patterns that go to make up contemporary still life.” Murray Chipman. who combines an appreciation of fine art with a monumental weakness for puns, noted the dearth of nudes in Soviet galleries. He asked Ministry of Culture officials, “What has happened to the Russian bare?”
For the first decade after the revolution, Moscow raged with debates about how best to express the new era in art. When the smoke of debate cleared, Lenin had had the last word: “Art belongs to the people; its roots should penetrate deeply into the very thick of the masses of the people. It should be comprehensible to these masses and loved by them.”
Abstractionisms were rejected as not comprehensible to the masses—just as in Hamilton, Ont., recently, a civic committee rejected $60,000 worth of paintings and sculpture selected by an art jury for the new city hall because "people don’t understand that sort of thing.”
“I think a lot of people are going tc be surprised at how close this Soviet art is to the Canadian taste,” Evan Turner said recently, ic
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