The Ransom of Russian Art

Article excerpt

The Ransom of Russian Art, John McPhee. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994.192 pp. $12.00 paperback.

The story of Norton Dodge is an unlikely and engaging one. As a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, he made numerous trips to the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, ostensibly carrying out research, but his real passion was the "unofficial" art of Russia that he bought and exported to the United States in great quantities. On his visits to all corners of the USSR between 1955 and 1977, Dodge was able to amass an unparalleled collection of dissident art.

As the title states, this is not a story about the art itself, but about its extraction. In truth, it is equally an examination of the life of dissident artists in the Soviet Union. McPhee describes how the dissident artists lived during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years: their status, their work, and their relationships with foreigners. he draws on personal interviews with the artists to get the feel for the society and lifestyle, including the pressures, of the dissident artists who struggled to create and circulate their unofficial art at a time when doing so posed dangers to life and limb. The narrative is a "who's who" of Soviet dissident art, listing almost all of the prominent dissident artists in Russia, most of whom knew Dodge personally. McPhee also includes descriptions of Dodge and his activities that are based on interviews with the artists whose works he collected. In addition, he offers a personal impression of the collector, drawing on his own impressions of Dodge and excerpts of their interviews.

Dodge first traveled to the Soviet Union to do research for a book on the role of women in the Soviet economy. His interest in dissident art quickly became an obsession that would last more than two decades, until Dodge felt that the risks were too great to continue. Although unable to give the artists a public outlet in their own country, he purchased their works at prices that some would call fair, others generous. he gave them publicity in the West, at least in certain circles (public showings were rare, especially at first). Most important, he almost singlehandedly ensured the survival of an entire era of Russian art. …