Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2017

Russian Revolution: a Contested Legacy

Filed under: art,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

One of the ironies of post-Communism is that two of the artists making the most radical statements in N.Y. right now are émigrés from China and Russia respectively, the two nations that were at one time the top fixations of the Cold War establishment. While Chinese and Russian émigrés tend to be seen reflexively as new-found admirers of American freedom (especially of free markets), Ai WeiWei and Yevgeniy Fiks are throwbacks to the day when artists were expected to be the visual counterparts of the poets that 19th century radical Percy Bysshe Shelley called the “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

I plan to post about WeiWei’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” later this week but now will report on a show at the International Print Center in New York that features the work of Yevgeniy and another Russian émigré named Anton Ginzburg. Titled “Russian Revolution: a Contested Legacy”, it is the most thoughtful and necessary show you are likely to see during the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, whose legacy was trashed in the NY Times Book Review today by a motley crew of Cold Warriors.

Curated by Masha Chlenova, an art historian at the New School, it reflects the spirit of the Russian revolution in a dual sense. It is a spirit that animates the human being and leads to greater aspirations but is also the spirit in the sense of a ghost whose presence haunts someone like Hamlet or Scrooge.

In the catalog for the show Chlenova sets forth the dialectical method that is severely lacking in the NY Times:

The exhibition Russian Revolution: A Contested Legacy at IPCNY uses a similar strategy. It celebrates the centennial of the Russian revolution by highlighting those genuine objectives that are important to preserve today: namely its pursuit of individual freedoms, such as the emancipation of women; racial equality and the rights of ethnic minorities (especially Jews) as part of a push towards internationalism; and sexual and gay liberation. While the rhetoric of individual freedoms and civil rights in the Soviet Union outlived their actual implementation and thus largely lost credibility by the mid- to late 1930s, it is important to remember the real gains that did take place, even if their lifespan was limited.

To capture the emancipatory spirit of the heady days of the revolution as well as contemporary examinations of how to recapture that spirit, Chlenova has curated works from the early Soviet Union as well as Yevgeniy and Anton Ginzburg’s artistic meditations on the past.

While Stalin was cracking down on the opposition in the late 20s, there are some works on display in the show that demonstrate the living spirit and rebelliousness of its artists who would eventually be pushed aside by the Socialist Realism imposed by the bureaucracy by the mid-1930s. Among them is a poster for a lottery to raise funds for Birobidzhan, the Jewish state that Stalin decreed.

Like much else that was happening until the Stalinist regime imposed a totalitarian straightjacket on society, Birobidzhan was an experiment that both expressed the top-down nature of the regime that decided for the country’s Jews where they would live as well as a genuine pioneering spirit that captured their imagination.

Among Yevgeny’s works on display is one titled “Leniniana” that fully expresses the overall theme of the show. It is based on Aleksandr Gerasimov’s iconic “V.I. Lenin at the Tribune”, a work that while anticipating the sort of adulatory and culturally degraded portraits of Stalin and Mao also captured the burning embers of 1917. For many Russians, 12 years of growing bureaucratization were not sufficient to extinguish the memory of last century’s greatest revolutionary uprising.

Gerasimov

Fiks

Yevgeniy’s portrait of an absent Lenin was part of a series of works painted in 2008 that were united around the theme of Lenin’s place in Russian history. By removing Lenin from a series of paintings such as the one depicted in the show, he challenges us to come to a deeper understanding of what he represented. He describes the aim of the paintings on his website:

This project is a post-Soviet “Leniniana,” a “Leniniana” of denial and repression, which questions Lenin’s place in the Russian historical narrative as well as the place of the legacy of the Russian Revolution in that narrative today in general. This project presents Lenin as a silenced figure of the post-Soviet era. The project suggests that only through return of this figure (as any other repressed historical figure) from the repressed of our collective memory, can the narrative of Russian history regain its wholeness.

As a gay, Jewish man, there is probably nobody more qualified than Yevgeniy to understand the dual character of the former Soviet Union. Like most people with a deeper and unbiased understanding of Soviet history, Yevgeniy knows that the Bolsheviks took radical steps to decriminalize homosexuality in the 1920s while the Soviet state reintroduced repressive laws in the 1930s as part of a general retreat from the revolution’s ambitious social goals.

The troubled past of the Soviet Union’s relationship with society’s underdogs—gays, Jews, and Blacks—have been the enduring themes of his work that I have documented since meeting Yevgeniy in 2012. I invite you to see the record of my interaction with this great artist over the years and even more so to see the show at the International Print Center that continues until December 12th.

A conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks, a Post-Soviet Conceptual Artist: https://louisproyect.org/2012/11/26/a-conversation-with-yevgeniy-fiks-a-post-soviet-conceptual-artist/

A Gift to Birobidzhan: https://louisproyect.org/2014/09/19/a-gift-to-birobidzhan/

The Lenin Museum: https://louisproyect.org/2014/12/17/the-lenin-museum/

 

2 Comments »

  1. I’d have expected a slanted view of the Russian Revolution from the NYTimes. But what its Book Review gave us were three amateurs. After all there are nay-sayers that have substance to them and can be argued with. Not these. Martin Amis discovered Stalin when his novelist’s imagination went dry and he was desperate for a subject. Strobe Talbot is a confused state department hack who has explained Russia to Time Magazine readers. Condeleezza Rice’s Russian expertise is rooted in a Moscow summer-school language class of 1979 and tips from her Czech dissident guru, Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright’s father. But the NYTBR, never much, has got more superficial under Pamela Paul.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 24, 2017 @ 1:39 pm


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