Is Modern Art Communistic? – Alfred H. Barr Jr

Modern political leaders, even on our side of the Iron Curtain, feel strongly and express themselves eloquently against modern art. President Truman calls it ‘merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people’ and believes ‘the ability to make things look as they are is the first requisite of an artist.’ After looking at an abstract mural at the United Nations building, General Eisenhower remarked: ‘To be modern you don’t have to be nuts.’ Prime Minister Churchill has been quoted as proposing assault, hypothetical but violent, on Picasso. Many others go further. Because they don’t like and don’t understand modern art they call it communistic. They couldn’t be more mistaken.

Whatever a Western leader’s point of view on artistic matters may be, he would not want to impose his taste upon his countrymen or interfere with their creative freedom. The totalitarian dictators of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, on the contrary, did want to: the modern artist’s non-conformity and love of freedom cannot be tolerated within a monolithic tyranny and modern art is useless for the dictators’ propaganda, because while it is still modern, it has little popular appeal. The dictators wanted to impose their artistic convictions. They could. They did and the Russians still do. Let’s look at the record in Russia and Germany.

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… in 1932, the dogma of Socialist Realism was proclaimed by Pravda and the formation of the Union of Soviet Artists was decreed by the Central Committee of the Communist party. The critic Milyutin wrote: ‘Art, the object of which is to serve the masses, cannot be other than realistic. The attention of artists is concentrated on socialist construction . . . our struggles enemies of the people … the heroes of the Soviet land. . . . ‘

Abstraction or stylization of form, idealism or fantasy of subject were anathematized with such terms as formalism, Western decadence, leftist estheticism, petty-bourgeois degeneracy. Even realism that was too honestly factual was damned as naturalism. To practice these vices was to risk denunciation, isolation and starvation. To defend them involved more overt dangers.

One of the most frightening and shameful documents of our time is quoted at length in Kurt London’s ‘Seven Soviet Arts.’ It records the inquisition conducted by a committee of fellow-painters upon the young artist Nikritin after he had submitted his canvas ‘Old and New’ to the Art Commission for the annual exhibition. The picture was not a great work but it was a sincere, thoughtful and loyal effort to paint an allegory of a changing world. Two of Nikritin’s friends, subway workers, posed for the youthful figures and had admired it. They had even made suggestions about the composition. But to Gerassimov, Deineka and the other successful artists on the jury the picture was a ‘defamation,’ ‘derived from the Italian Fascists,’ ‘deeply erotic, pathological,’ ‘individualistic,’ a ‘nightmare,’ a ‘catastrophe,’ a ‘terrible picture.’ The painter Lecht disclosed the jury’s feelings: ‘Comrades, we have here a sample of the works about which Pravda warned us. . . . What we see here is a calumny … a class attack, inimical to Soviet power. The picture must be removed and the appropriate measures taken.’

Nikritin’s reply was courageous, even desperate. He rejected the jury’s attacks and expressed his belief that shortly there would be a demand for paintings ‘actually realistic and contemporary and not photography like those which you assessed yesterday. . . . Those works follow the line of least resistance. I confess what I think – perhaps I am speaking for the last time.’

The Committee did, however, approve another girl-and-boy-worker picture, Ryangina’s ‘Higher and Higher’ of 1934, which shows an artist’s acceptance of Milyutin’s assertion: ‘Life in the USSR is full of purpose, bright hopes, obvious progress, growth of and security for the masses. … All this makes for buoyancy and cheerfulness and brightness in the creative work of Soviet artists.’ By 1934 the objective, unsmiling realism of Katzman’s ‘Lace-makers’ of 1928 would have been accused of naturalism. Ryangina, six years later, was insistently bright and cheerful and so was Deineka (one of Nikritin’s accusers) in his ‘Future Flyers’ of 1937. He had made commendable progress since his ‘formal-istic’ ‘Textile Workers’ of 1927.

The heroism of the Red Army during the Civil Wars and, later, World War U, has been a very popular theme.

During the first twenty years of the USSR, pre-revolutionary triumphs of Russian arms were generally ignored but since the late Thirties Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Suvarov and other imperial victors have often been celebrated by painters as well as in films. The patriotic painter, however, wisely found his favorite subject in the dictator himself. Every year, *n the big exhibitions, Stalin appears in scores of paintings, Lenin in dozens, the two together in half-dozens. Alexander Gerassimov’s twelve-foot-long ‘Stalin and Voroshilov on the Walls of the Kremlin’ of 1938 is characteristic. Three years earlier the painter had served as one of Nikritin’s inquisitors. Favorite painter of the Red Army, Gerassimov is today perhaps the most influential artist in the USSR.

Russian artists who accommodate their art to the dictates of authority are well-paid and greatly honored. Their exhibitions are attended, we hear, by vast crowds and many of their works are bought for museums, factory club rooms, town halls, railroad stations, army barracks and museums.

Museums of historic art are also much visited and paintings of the past studied and admired, particularly such realistic history paintings of the late nineteenth century as Repin’s ‘Cossacks Sending a Jeering Message to the Sultan.’ Colossal, quasi-photographic canvases by Repin and Surikov are held up as models to young painters.

Yet the most famous museum in Moscow is closed. The Museum of Modern Western Art comprises the collections of Morosov and Shchukin, assembled by those two great enthusiasts before 1914. Expropriated in 1919, it remains the greatest collection in the world of French painting of the post impressionist and early twentieth century schools. During the Twenties and Thirties the museum served as bait for foreign tourists. But apparently such formalistic canvases as Cezanne’s still lifes, Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes, and van Gogh’s ‘Walk in Aries,’ not to mention a hundred Matisses and Picassos, seemed too powerfully subversive. The museum is barred, but Pravda continues to rage against the persistence of ‘worshipers of bourgeois decaying art who regard as their spiritual teachers, Picasso and Matisse, cubists and artists of the formalist group.’

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Modern art was to fare no better in Nazi Germany. Though the Nazi revolution of 1933 was anti-Communist and anti-Slav, Goebbels had made a careful study of Soviet techniques; and by 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact suggested that even their ideological differences might not be too irreconcilable. Now, in 1952, the nationalistic arrogance of the Russians and the imperialistic achievements of the USSR might well make Hitler writhe in his grave with envy and chagrin.

Lenin personally disliked modern art, and so does Stalin, but Soviet art policies are based more on a dialectic of power than on personal feeling. Hitler did not merely dislike modern art, he hated it as only a frustrated academic artist could. And he found plenty of company among his brown-shirted battalions and considerable numbers of the general public who were smugly delighted to hear that the new art (which they had never troubled to study or understand) had, in fact, been foisted on them by a conspiracy involving an international cartel of Jewish dealers, corrupt art critics, irresponsible museum officials and artists who were spiritually un-German, bolshevistic, Jewish and degenerate. The fact that none of the dozen foremost German artists were Jews and only two were Communists made no difference. The Big Lie triumphed.

Immediately after the revolution the Nazis took action. The Kampfbund fur deutsche Kultur, which already had its skeleton corps of academic artists well-posted throughout Germany, now formed local committees with power to act. Modern painters and sculptors were everywhere denounced, their exhibitions closed, their works removed from museums, their teaching positions forfeited 10 reactionary successors. Critics and museum officials who had favored their ^ork lost their jobs. A few were retained on evidence of good behavior.

Not only the works of the living ‘degenerate’ artists but also those of the dead were banned. Van Goghs . , . , Gauguins, Ensors, Lautrecs, Munchs were stripped from museum walls and sold abroad. And so were the works of Matisse, Beckmann, Kokoschka, Feininger, Picasso, Klee, Barlach and many others, including Chagall and Kandinsky, who were already exiles from Moscow. Probably the most famous of all German sculptures, Lehmbruck’s ‘Kneeling Woman,’ passed from the National Gallery in Berlin to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Meanwhile Hitler himself was collecting dozens of elaborate and vulgar historical paintings by the nineteenth centurv artist Hans Makart.

… the Nazi academicians painted idealized figures of Luftwaffe and S.A. troopers such as Eber’s ‘The Call to Arms,’ heroic scenes of German wars, old and recent, gemutlich German peasants such as Baumgartner’s canvas, tempting Nordic nudes, Aryan allegories, pretty German landscapes, generals, the Nazi ringleaders, and above all the Fuehrer. [. . .]

Nazi art had a history only one-third as long as has its Soviet counterpart. During their coincident period – that is, 1933 to 1945 – they grew more and more alike in subject-matter, thanks largely to increasing Russian nationalism.

At the Haus der Kunst there was more slick, academic neo- in evidence, at the All-Russian Artists’ Annual more of the huge, incredibly elaborate, historical paintings of, say, Stalin proposing a toast at a party banquet, or Ivan the Terrible entering a conquered Polish town. Nazi architects at least knew clearly what Hitler wanted but ‘Socialist Realism’ has not proved a very clear beacon for Soviet architects no matter how eager they may be to conform to the party line.

It is obvious that those who equate modern art with totalitarianism are ignorant of the facts. To call modern art communistic is bizarre as well as very damaging to modern artists; yet it is an accusation frequently made. Most people are merely expressing a common dislike by means of a common prejudice. But this is a point of view which is encouraged by the more reckless and resentful academic artists and their political mouthpieces in Congress and elsewhere. It was given voice in the recent attack on the Metropolitan Museum by the National Sculpture Society, in the ridiculous but sinister debate in the Los Angeles City Council late in 1951, and in the well-coached speeches of Representative George A. Dondero of Michigan. Those who assert or imply that modern art is a subversive instrument of the Kremlin are guilty of fantastic falsehood.

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