At a Museum Near You: Soviet History in Painting and Photos

The Museum of Russian ArtStudents in GW’s Russian history courses probably are aware, but others might not realize that Minneapolis is home to a museum dedicated to the art of Russia and the Soviet Union, aptly named The Museum of Russia Art (TMORA).

One of its current exhibits focuses on life in the Soviet Union during the Cold War era: “From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s-1980s.” A Star Tribune reviewer praised the collected works as “…provocative in every way. Visually, it is a tour de force of realist art…. Without being didactic, ‘Thaw’ is an intellectually informed and accessible narrative on Soviet history.”

Focused on industry (mostly, the workers and their lives in the face of collectivization and modernization, but also factories, railroads, and other industrial landscapes), these paintings came after the death of Stalin somewhat eased the late dictator’s restrictions on anything but “Socialist Realist” art. Says the museum introduction:

In Soviet museums and galleries, politically loaded depictions of idealized socialist heroes were exhibited side-by-side with candid portraits of laborers taken from ordinary life. Staying within the boundaries of officially allowed themes (of which socialist labor was  primary), many Soviet artists claimed the right to develop these themes as they saw fit.  These developments were evidence of a newly granted freedom to express diverse opinions that emerged after Khrushchev’s attempt at liberalization in the late 1950s – early 1960s, known as The Thaw.

As the exhibition’s curator, Masha Zavialova, stressed to the Star Tribune, the paintings center on “one defining aspect of the Soviet system:

the abolition of private property and private life. Workers’ energies were devoted to the success of huge industrial projects. Sex was unwanted and suppressed, a diversion that would drain the workers’ energy and focus. But this slowly began to change under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. A “renegotiation of citizenship” began through the visual and literary arts and other creative expressions.

“Artists began to exist in a more private space,” explains Zavialova. “Stylistically it is still Russian realism, but painting is more creative. Artists began pushing the state back.” The exhibition continues, then, into the 1970s and 1980s, as the Soviet economy grew increasingly decrepit and the Soviet state collapsed.

“From Thaw to Meltdown” is scheduled to run through August 12. Starting in mid-May, it will overlap with another exhibition on similar themes as seen in the last decades of the Soviet Union: “Photography from the USSR: Soviet Life, Russian Reality.” That exhibition (which goes beyond industrial workplaces to show Soviet day care centers, schools, and stores) will continue through September 16.

See the TMORA website for hours, prices, and directions.


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