Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Scientific Baroque - for Everyone. Constructing and Conveying an Art Epoch during the Stalinist Period in the Soviet Union and in Soviet Estonia

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Scientific Baroque - for Everyone. Constructing and Conveying an Art Epoch during the Stalinist Period in the Soviet Union and in Soviet Estonia

Article excerpt

Thomas da Costa Kaufmann once remarked that the Princeton University library alone contains over 5000 books with the word 'Baroque' in their titles.1 On reading just a few of the writings on the Baroque, it appears that from the end of the eighteenth century onwards - when the problematic nature of the style first began to torment men of letters - the works of art and architecture of the era have been described in vastly dissimilar ways, with the result that the texts on the subject can give the impression that their various authors were writing about entirely different works and eras. It is precisely such obvious differences in the treatment of the Baroque (or of any other period, of course) that make the corpus of work in the discipline so challenging as an object of study. Regrettably, one must admit that, despite the long-abiding strength of historiography since the historiographic turn in art history occurred, research into the historiography of the Baroque is still only in its infancy. Accordingly, and among other topics, the art history of the immediate post-war period - i.e. of the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union - including the treatment of the Baroque style during that period, is now buried under a rather thick layer of dust.2 In Estonia, one of the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, research into socialist-era art history has only recently begun to arouse interest among scholars.3

The current article attempts to examine interpretations of the Baroque made by the leading art historians working in the central institutions of art history in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period, as well as texts penned by art historians in Estonia. This body of professional texts cannot, of course, be tackled as a hermetic linguistic corpus. Such an approach is even less likely to bear fruit in the context of a totalitarian regime than with the backdrop of any other social system. In the Stalinist Soviet Union, the entire purpose, not just of art or art history, but of all institutions in that society was to serve in the effort to realise the aims proclaimed by the ruling power: i.e. to assist in the creation a new communist world order. For the regime, the whole of human existence was therefore regarded as a field of action in which the goal of changing society was to be pursued; a society that currently remained imperfect and tormented by the relics of capitalism.4 The communist party took on the role of supervising the process of achieving these changes on a scientific basis, elaborating the steps along the road through central research institutions under the party's control in all specialized fields of research. Research results were then conveyed to the people via institutions especially established for the purpose, supplemented of course by the state media. These mediators of the results of academic activity constitute the other object of interest of the current paper.

Aiming to trace out the mechanisms involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge on art history to a broader audience, this paper addresses the following questions: how did Marxist-Leninist art history in the Soviet Union after the 1939-1945 war regard the Baroque style, and what was the core emphasis of the discourse on the Baroque during that time? Who were the main authors and what sorts of arguments did they use? How was the Marxist-Leninist approach to the topic established in Soviet Estonia and how were the resulting treatments expressed? Did any shift occur in the image of the Baroque through the dissemination of academic knowledge to the wider public? The main arguments of the current article include, firstly, that the conceptual gist of the 'Stalinist Baroque' discourse was in fact characterised specifically as the doctrine of realism; secondly, that the image and meaning of the Baroque as mediated via academic and popular media was described and discussed in a largely similar way by all the various media channels through which the topic was presented. …

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