Russian Cultural Center Exhibits "Varieties of Nonconformism"
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 22:43
Image courtesy of Amherst College
Oskar Rabin’s “Spring in Priluki” depicts a snowy springtime scene, but what sticks out the most to viewers is the milk stamp covering the painting’s vase in the bottom left.

The Russian Cultural Center, housed in a corner of Webster Hall, recently held an exhibition of early Soviet nonconformist art. Put together by Alla Rosenfeld, Ph.D., curator of Russian and European art at the college’s Mead Art Museum, and made possible by the generous support of the David Pennock ’60 Russian Culture Fund and Julia A. Whitney Fund for Russian Art, the exhibit showcased several counterarguments against the pervasive stereotype of the Soviet Union as a successful destroyer of individuality.

Titled “Varieties of Nonconformism,” the exhibit illuminates the works of Soviet artists who rejected standards encouraged by the revolutionary government and searched for new means of self-expression. Pinned to the walls was proof of not just persevering, but prospering individuality.

The party line on artistic expression, often summarized as Socialist Realism, encouraged state-sponsored artists to celebrate proletarian dignity and spur on the revolutionary spirit in forms accessible to the working class. Complementarily, Soviet authorities regularly disparaged and censored works containing negative commentaries on Soviet government and society, religious or erotic imagery and ‘excessive’ commitment to formal ingenuity over revolutionary and proletarian subject matter. Artists whose works were shown in this exhibit defied these commands in creative ways.

Oskar Rabin’s “Spring in Priluki” literally stands out. Just another oil painting with traditional tricks of shadow to imply the illusion of distance from the front, “Spring in Priluki” also contains pieces of paper that stand erect like hair follicles in the cold wind. Perhaps that wind blows in the winter depicted. Coarse snow coats both the foreboding housing and the leaves of a houseplant seated on the windowsill. Through the window, viewers witness a landscape so estranged from the spring promised by its title. Is this what passes for the season of rebirth? Is this even Priluki? The mastery of the painting confounds such basic questions. Then, even that mastery is challenged when the eye is inevitably drawn to the vase holding the plant. On the vase is a milk stamp, not painted but pasted. Cyan and peach throb against the background of dejected white and blue. The stamp does not even have the decency to curve around the vase; it is simply there, against perspective and propriety. Either of these subversions in isolation would satisfy: one non-conformism or the other, either Cezanne or Warhol. But Rabin denies us the pleasure of easy classification, and with one act of political and artistic resistance, he brazenly houses two.

Now Rabin’s work hangs with comrades, and his oblique riot now collectively rebels against the administration that gave them rise. Its neighbors include Ernst Neizvestny’s “Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich,” a busted bust of Russia’s renowned 20th century composer. More resembling Frankenstein’s monster than any artistic dignitary, Neizvestny’s work figures or disfigures bronze to approximate a man not quite himself. The left side of his face in a fragmented ‘L’ is a sad brown, and the rest gleams gray like stone or iron. The ruins of spectacles somehow hang somber upon his hairless brow, and his eyes ponder some blurry sadness past his crumpled nose and lips. At an exhibition visitor’s distance, the face of Shostakovich whispers an overriding melancholy that overpowers the stylistic hybridity of his music.

A nearby nameless sketch, paneled into quarters, features a strap-bound arm, a falling faceless angel, a goat-headed demon and geometric shapes in a web of Hebrew-seeming words that a passing Israeli professor identified as gibberish. Read from right to left in accordance with Jewish custom, however, the panels may spell a Jewish ritual of prayer, the fall of Lucifer, the rise of Satan and the still-mysterious geometric shapes.

But the interpretation swells when one looks beyond the frame, to the rest of the exhibition, brimming with such elementary yet enigmatic shapes, all communicating nothing while expressing something. Do these shapes symbolize the general project of non-conformism? Is the drawing damning the work as Satanic? Is it damning to be Satanic when an oppressive state acts as God? Is it liberating to briefly imagine oneself as a fearsome enemy of heaven? Or is it heartbreaking to witness the remaining hell? Is this what Shostakovich sees?

To speak further is to spoil the goods. But the great takeaway of this exhibit, now scattered throughout the Mead, is the possibility of narrative. Satanic or sad or neither, at least it can be said that there is the general project of nonconformism to consider. All these artists fought alone, but now, exhibited thus, they form a broken and whole face that can return the gaze of a new generation. That returned gaze, however, is for museum-goers to interpret.