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© Courtesy of the Institute of Russian Realist Art

‘Soviet Sport’ reexamines Socialist Realism

by Joy Neumeyer at 10/02/2014 15:38

Though painted in the 1930s - the triumphant dawn of Stalinism - Olga Vaulina's "In a Sports Hall" is less than triumphant. The female athlete seated in the foreground slouches; rather than grinning, she stares pensively off to the side.

"In a Sports Hall" is one of several dozen artworks featured in "Soviet Sport," a surprising new exhibition at the Institute of Russian Realist Art. The show reveals the diverse ways in which Soviet artists portrayed one of the state's favorite subjects: the athlete. With works by acclaimed figures including Alexander Deineka and Viktor Popkov, the exhibition undermines the stereotype that Socialist Realism was nothing more than kitsch.

"People come with certain preconceptions," curator Nadezhda Stepanova said. "But they gradually realize how diverse [this art] is, how full of drama and soul."

"Soviet Sport" debuted last month in London, where it earned positive reviews from the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. The exhibition is the brainchild of billionaire and Promsvyazbank chairman Alexei Ananyev. Ananyev, who founded the Institute of Russian Realist Art in 2011, aims to elevate Soviet Realist painters to what he sees as their rightful place in the history of art.

Georgy Nissky, “A Parachute Jump” (1930s)

© Courtesy of the Institute of Russian Realist Art

Georgy Nissky, “A Parachute Jump” (1930s)

"What's important is the spiritual element," Ananyev said. "There's a personal intake that is present in these paintings."

The exhibition begins, playfully, with Dmitry Vrubel's 1999-2000 painting of a smiling Vladimir Putin in judo garb. What follows is a wide array of painting, sculpture and graphics ranging from the 1920s to perestroika, from both the museum's holdings and private collections.

The announcement of Socialist Realism in the early 1930s was intended to quash the heady experimentation that marked the years after the Revolution. Its tenets were clear: Paintings were to be made for and about workers, portray everyday life, be realistic (no self-indulgent abstractions) and further the goals of the Communist Party. But over the following decades, artists exhibited a wide range of responses to these seemingly strict rules.

There were glorious displays of group athletic prowess and pride, such as Sergei Luchishkin's "Parade at Dinamo Stadium," in which women wave banners as they roar into the stadium on motorcycles. There is a paean to authority: In a monumental oil painting that stretches 4 meters wide, Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov merrily goes cross-country skiing in a forest. The painting was made in 1937, the same year in which Voroshilov's signature appeared on hundreds of death lists. The artist, Isaak Brodsky, created it in a three-week frenzy, panicking over whether Voroshilov should wear a fur hat or a cap (in the end, he chose a felt cap with a red star).

While adhering to official whims, both works also demonstrate real talent. Luchishkin's Dinamo scene, which he spent 40 years perfecting, has a buoyant red, white and blue color scheme and a complex composition that makes the scene feel light and euphoric, rather than heavy-handed. Thanks to a skillful use of perspective, Brodsky's portrait contains a view of skiers in the distance, in the style of the Dutch masters.

Perhaps the finest painter of Soviet sport was Deineka, who was active from the 1920s through the 1960s. Deineka's mosaic of skiers offers an infectious play of color and lines, while his famous drawing "Sportswoman Tying a Ribbon" has a subtle eroticism.

Leonid Soifertis, “Skiers”

© Courtesy of the Institute of Russian Realist Art

Leonid Soifertis, “Skiers”

The generation of artists who came of age during Khrushchev's Thaw had greater flexibility in their depictions, and their works tend to appear looser and more relaxed. Personal leisure replaced group heroism as the dominant theme, as in Vladimir Kutilin's exuberant 1959 homage to waterskiers, "Waverunner." Waterskiing became widely popular in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, with cosmonaut Yury Gagarin founding the National Waterskiing Federation in 1964.

A 1958 linoleum print by Popkov, the emerging talent who idolized Deineka, shows skiers loping through the woods at sunset. The most free-form works of all are a series of charcoal drawings by Leonid Soifertis, whose gentle caricatures of tennis players and skiers show everyday life in the Brezhnev era with humor and warmth.

The exhibition also includes period photographs of iconic Soviet athletes and trainers, such as Lev Borodulin's shot of Anatoly Tarasov coaching the Soviet hockey team at the Olympic finals in 1968. Borodulin's photos are a remarkable combination of emotion, ritual and aesthetics, such as the zigzag of parading bodies in his 1959 shot "The Graphics of Sport." 

At the opening in Moscow, a mixture of journalists and curators responded enthusiastically to the exhibition's reappraisal of a sometimes-maligned style.

"If you cut out the political connotations," artist Tatyana Danilyants said, "you see pure joy."


Until May 25 at the Institute of Russian Realist Art, rusrealart.ru

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