Last November Manege in St Petersburg presented a new exhibition “Deineka/Samokhvalov”. Yulia Savikovskaya managed to catch a glimpse of the exhibition in its final days this January.
In 2017, to mark the 100thanniversary of October Revolution, the Royal Academy of Art in London ran a very popular exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 that traced how Soviet Art developed from being experimental and avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s to more conservative and mainstream, serving the needs of the established Soviet regime. The exhibition clearly marked the works in the final pavilions as indicating the decline of Soviet art – the works of both Alexander Deineka (1899-1969) and Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) representing muscular youths either engaged in sports or working in manufactures were there. However, one could have quite a different approach, if one doesn’t presume that Soviet painter needed to be avant-garde in order to be good.
Both Samokhvalov and Deineka still feature intensively in main exhibition halls of XX century in Moscow and St Petersburg. Now, rather than inspiring thoughts about totalitatian Soviet regime or the decline of individual character and prevailment of masses, they bring out nostalgia in Russian viewers – the nostalgia for the period of strong, healthy, organized, idealistic, powerful and united people. If the country of beautiful Soviets did not exist, it should have been invented – and two painters do just that, combining honesty and rawness of approach with awareness of working for state commissions. Both represented the USSR abroad with Deineka’s works successfully sold at 1930 and 1934 Venice Biennale and Samokhavlov’s Girl in a Sports Shirt becoming a symbol of Soviet life at International Exhibition in Paris in 1937.
They lived in one historical time, both came from provincial Russia (Kursk and Bezhetsk) to the capitals Leningrad (Samokhvalov) and Moscow (Deineka), were members of the same unions (The Society of Easel Painterns and The Artists’ Circle) and both adhered to social realism. The similarities are multiple, and the exhibition in St Petersburg grew out of the wish to make parallels between their works tangible, expected and surprising at the same time.
The exhibition held at Manege in St Petersburg this year was formatted in a way so as to tap on the burgeoning nostalgia for the era. To feature the period of 1930s-1950s, the whole exhibition hall was designed as one big football arena with seven sectors: Heroes, Children, Body, War, Peace, Work and Sport. It excludes the horrors of Stalin’s regime and focuses on everyday life, where individual happiness became a voluntary contribution to well-being of others, almost like in Platonov’s Foundation Pit. People in the paintings either belong to professions – Samokhvalov’s godlike The Conductress (1928) or his series of Metro builders – or are involved in war imitations (Samokhavlov’s Militarized Komsomol, 1932-1933), actively playing sports (Samokhvalov’s The Girl with the Racket, 1935 or Deineka’s Race, 1932) or sometimes (collectively) enjoying the arts – Samokhvalov’s Appassionata: Builders of Communism (1967) and Deineka’s Mayakovsky’s Verses (1955).
There are also intimate revelations. In the Body section there are several female nudes: erotic Deineka’s On the Balcony (1921), Samokhvalov’s revealing After the Cross (1934-35) with a girl undressing and boldly facing us not unsimilar to Manet’s Olympia and Deineka’s old-fashioned The Life Model (1936) resembling Une Odalisque by Ingres. Further on there are paintings of children – famous Deineka’s Future Pilots (1938), Deineka’s touching illustrations for children’s books and both artists’ designs for theatre projects, as well as some black-and-white graphics. While life style and credos of masses prevail in the exhibition, some paintings unexpectedly show moments of solitude, as in Deineka’s The Collective Farmer Woman on a Bicycle (1935) and reveries, as in Samokhvalov’s Blue Twilight (1960) and his Meeting of Friends (1945), where the figure of a lonely elegant waitress unexpectedly and mysteriously looms over the table. While looking at these, one begins to wonder whether we know all there is to know about the hidden corners and twists of Soviet life, and whether there was still space for intimacy, bohemian encounters, passions, longings, et cetera. But they are exceptions from the rule – the exhibition curators want us to feel general presence and expanse of Soviet life conceived as utopia of masses.
The War and Peace sections somehow look bleaker and less interesting, in a way less authentic than other sections. The famous Deineka’s Defence of Sevastopol (1942) is not displayed, but we can see his surrealistic Downed Pilot (1943), as well as atmospheric and stoic Defence of Petrograd (1928).
Peace section reminds us of iconography of united ethnicities representing all the Republics and abounds in commissioned pannos representing demonstrations and sports parades (Samokhvalov’s Kirov greets the sportsmen parade, 1935). Curators note that painters had their peaks mid-life, and did not reach any further breakthrough, which becomes obvious in these two last sections. Besides, after a while one reaches the point of saturation and the exhibits do get repetitive. However, if you want to travel in time, you wouldn’t find a better way than to visit such consciously immersive and non-critical exhibition. One doesn’t feel the need to get distanced from the era or think about its drawbacks. Quite refreshingly, one is allowed to weave its life into one’s subconsciousness and vague fantasies of the past century. Who knows, may be we all still want to be those beautiful girls and boys playing volleball under the sun in the country of achieved communism? Or to build the metro in one passionate surge of enthusiasm? We come, we queue, we wander in surprise and satisfaction – and that means that there are unclosed Gestalts still floating out there in our post-Soviet age of individualism. The Soviet dream of unity and belonging is still haunting us, as this cleverly curated exhibition powerfully proves.