The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview

18
Stalinist Art:
Tractor Drivers’ Supper

The years before the 1917 Revolution had been a time of brilliant artistic innovation. Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Tatlin, Lissitsky, and Rodchenko were at work, and Russian art was hurtling out of isolation. The Bolshevik seizure of power gave grounds for hope that the long-awaited marriage of the political and artistic avant-gardes would be consummated. Agit-prop trains bearing modernist art set out for the provinces. IIya Ehrenburg recalled that during the May Day celebrations of 1918 ‘Moscow was decorated all over with Futurist and Suprematist paintings. Demented squares battled with rhomboids on the peeling façades of colonnaded Empire villas. Faces with triangles for eyes popped up everywhere’…That year, the first of May coincided with Good Friday. Worshippers thronged outside Iverskaya Chapel. Staring petrified at a cubist picture with a huge fish-eye in it, an old woman wailed: ‘They want us to worship the devil.’ Ehrenburg laughed, ‘but my laughter was not happy’.1

He had reason not to be happy. It soon became clear that Lenin and his colleagues were impatient with the new ‘isms’ and ‘art for art’s sake’. Lenin made his own sentiments famously clear to his German Communist biographer Clara Zetkin:

The beautiful must be preserved, taken as an example, as the point of departure, even
if it is ‘old’… Why worship the new as a god compelling submission merely because it
is ‘new’? Nonsense! Bosh and nonsense! Here much is pure hypocrisy and of course
unconscious deference to the art fashions ruling in the West. We are good revolution-
aries but somehow we feel obliged to prove that we are also ‘up to the mark in modern
culture’. I, however, make bold to declare myself a ‘barbarian’. It is beyond me to
consider the productions of expressionism, futurism, cubism and other ‘isms’ the
highest manifestations of artistic genius. I do not understand them. They give me
no joy.2

-509-

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