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The Arts

The Beginning of the Soviet Period in the Arts
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Sergei Malyutin (1859-1937), a prominent master of the older generation, had been a renowned portrait artist long before the Revolution. The portrait of Dmitry Furmanov, a Bolshevik writer and Commissar in Chapayev’s Division, was painted in 1922, and was the first portrait he did of the new Soviet intelligentsia. In this expressive characterization we see Furmanov as the simple, modest and clear-minded man he was, endowed with a powerful intellect and a strong will.

Malyutin was one of the founders of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia established in 1922, whose members made it their aim to truthfully depict contemporary reality in their paintings; portraying the life of soldiers, workers, peasants, revolutionaries and heroes of labor.

The painting “Meeting of a Village Cell” (1924) by Yefim Cheptsov (1875-1950) was one of the highest accomplishments achieved by a member of the Association in the period after the Civil War and when the rehabilitation of the economy was launched. Cheptsov drew from impressions of what he had seen in his native village, and reproduced in the portrait the likenesses of his friends and acquaintances. The setting was typical for the time, and just as natural were the gestures, the facial expressions, the poses of the sitting men, and the very atmosphere of the meeting. The imagery expressively embodies the ideas of the Revolution, equally inspiring for the artist himself and the friends he portrayed.

Like in any large association of artists, different tendencies appeared within the framework of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. While a considerable part of the members preferred a circumstantial description, nevertheless the trend for more generalized imagery became the prevalent one in the late 1920’s.

G. Ryazhsky "Rabfakovka (Vuzovka)" 1927

Georgy Ryazhsky (1895-1952) looked for new and typical traits of character in his models, inspired by the seething activity of the new Soviet community, and in the portrait “A Woman Delegate” (1927) embodied these traits in the image of the energetic young woman, calmly confident of her strength. The colors, offsetting the figure against the background and lending to the image the solidity of a statue, enhances the impression.

The historical-revolutionary picture painted by Boris Ioganson (1893-1973) and called “The Interrogation of the Communists” (1933) summed up the goals of the Association of Artists for a social typification, and they readily developed certain elements of characterization which they discovered in Ioganson’s handling of the Civil War theme. The picture is based on sharp contrasts in composition, color, and light, producing a tensely dramatic image.

The larger of the other art associations in the 1920’s were the Society of Easel Painters, the Four Arts and the Society of Moscow Painters. In all of these associations the method and style of socialist realism became gradually crystallized.

Like the members of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, the Society of Easel Painters maintained the importance of painted pictures against the existing views that artists should wholly switch over to designing objects of labor and living.

The members of the Society of Easel Painters strove for trenchant characterization, laconism, and eloquence of their idiom in their interpretation of such themes as man in the world of machinery, physical culture, sports, and modern city life.

In the painting “Aniska” (1926) the chairman of the Society David Sterenberg (1881- 1948) refrains from narrative; his is the art of few but eloquent words. The figure of the village girl is clearly and softly outlined, and the sweetness of her face is rendered in pure, light colors. The poetry of the image is all the more poignant because of the blank and grimly cold, geometrical surfaces which surround her and which are painted with uniform bleakness. A single detail of her life stands out; a piece of bread on the cleanscrubbed kitchen table. The bread acquires a special meaning, associated with the girl’s solitary loneliness. The hardships of life in the 1920’s are shown laconically and simply, in all their grim truth.

The desire to express the atmosphere of the times was typical for Soviet artists. The privations and austerity of life did not blind them to the people’s thirst for knowledge and the richness of their spiritual world. This theme was lyrically embodied in “University Students” by Konstantin Istomin (1887-1942), a member of the Four Arts group. The painting was finished in 1933, although it was planned and begun years earlier. The composition is balanced with admirable precision. The silvery light of the fair winter day pours in through the window and transforms the poor furnishings of the room. The gently inclined figures of the girl students are outlined with a musical fluidity, harmonizing with their dreamy, faintly wistful mood.

K. Petrov-Vodkin "Smert' komissara" 1928

Kusma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) also belonged to the Four Arts group. He welcomed the Revolution as an artist already in his prime and responded to the new Soviet reality in his own inimitable manner. He painted portraits of people prominent in Soviet art and culture, and in still lifes in which he exhibited his amazing ability to animate the world of inanimate objects. In his picture “1918 in Petrograd” he created a disturbing and splendid image of a “Petrograd Madonna” while in his sketch, “Death of a Commissar”, which actually is a finished piece of art, we see an episode in the Civil War elevated by the artist to the loftiness of a symbol. With the sternness, purity and significance of the heroic image he affirms the magnificence of defending the cause of the Revolution with one’s life. In order to convey the enormous scale of the battle, Petrov-Vodkin resorts to highlighting and enlarging that which carries the utmost meaning in the picture by using several angles of vision, showing the earth from high above, as it were, to lend the episode a planetary import.

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