A Horse of a Different Color

Petrov-Vodkin's 'The Bathing of the Red Horse' commands an entire wall
Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

If you had to choose a single image to represent government-sanctioned avant-garde or Socialist Realism during the repressive Soviet regime, it's doubtful that you'd pick Portrait of an Artist's Wife. This painting of a woman has been so defaced by the artist that it looks as if the dolled-up and markedly feminine subject is posing next to a bloody chunk of meat suspended from the ceiling. After an argument with his model wife, the artist, Nokolai I. Fenchin, destroyed the painting by ornamenting it with slapdash multicolored vertical lines, as if he were brutally scribbling his wife into oblivion.

Despite his intentions, the abstract and furious brush strokes in the background and across his wife's bust only render the once-staid image more beautiful and provocative by comparison. The subject's face, with piercing blue eyes and plum lips, is preserved. One can't help but wonder what sort of battle occurred that made the artist want to eradicate everything but her tiny features. Displayed for the first time since its restoration, the piece is just one of 50 paintings by 46 artists featured in "In the Russian Tradition: A Historic Collection of Russian Paintings" at the new Museum of Russian Art.

To be sure, numerous paintings in the exhibit are obvious nods to the idealized life exemplified by socialism. From 1934 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, socialist realism was the only acceptable art form. A rotting carcass (whether accidental or not) invading the canvas doesn't exactly scream "utopian vision." And in fact, despite their original existence as propaganda art, most of the exhibit's common-life and landscape images showcase incredible artistry and a wide range of influences, from neoclassicism to the Severe Style of the Khrushchev era.

Soviet Canned Food, for example, is simply that: A display of the fruits of socialism pickled and preserved in giant mason jars. While these propagandist images of good fortune are telling artifacts of an era entangled in oppressive ideology, they're not nearly as compelling as some of the pieces that are intentionally subversive or visually arresting. Aleksandr Deineka's Girl Sitting on Chair, for example, is impressive because the image is so unreal. Created in 1924, the graphic-inspired painting features a woman who appears so oddly formed it's downright eerie: Her left arm looks like it was amputated at the shoulder, her jaw is tapered, and the bones in her face and sandaled feet are so jutted and shadowed she seems almost simian. Every image is delicately outlined in white, from the caning of the chair to the woman's black hair to her back. The background is white, stark, and cold, and it's one of a few paintings that seem to be ironically winking at, if not trying to erase, the concept of faultlessness and purity.

Much to the chagrin of Stalinists, many of the exhibit's painters share an obsession with French impressionism almost a century after its origin. The snow in Semon Aronovich Rotniski's 1964 impressionistic painting of an alleyway, A Holiday in Kholui, is so perfectly lit it's almost blinding. And though it depicts a bitter, cold day, the piece is surprisingly warm.

By contrast, the rich colors in Petrov-Vodkin's famous 1912 The Bathing of the Red Horse, a painting that offers an ominous foreshadowing of the Soviet future (the red horse stares at the viewer, rising above the world), are surreal or even Chagallesque. The 62- by 72-inch painting is one of the first things you'll see when entering the newly transformed Spanish-revival Mayflower Church. It's an iconic image of what the Russian avant-garde could've become had it not been rejected for its realistic and transformative imagery.

Still, even after the years of turmoil, some things managed to survive, like a reverence for traditional art forms. When compared with modern art at the time, the everyday images appear almost comfortably nostalgic rather than overcontrolled or suppressed. Here, even accidents seem to reflect the collective desire for perfection.

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