Art behind the Iron Curtain

Exhibit showcases the works of two who defied Soviet control

In the Soviet Union, visual artists like Leonhard Lapin and Alexander Zhdanov had a choice. They could labor for the state, producing communist propaganda and pabulum while making no waves, in exchange for a studio, supplies and a livable wage. As an alternative, they could strike out as dissidents, be barred from galleries, scrounge for materials and eke out income by surreptitiously selling paintings to foreign diplomats, all while risking the ire of an ever-watchful government.

In the new Russia — the free, modern, democratic one where ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin just celebrated his third presidential inauguration amid squashed protests — artists increasingly face a similar choice: Steer clear of political statements or pay a price.

The parallels between Soviet-era repression and Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule are at the heart of “Lest We Forget: Masters of Soviet Dissent,” a new exhibition of paintings and drawings by Mr. Lapin and the late Mr. Zhdanov at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art gallery in Washington.

“We somehow have the idea that since communism and the Soviet Union fell apart, that, ‘Oh, well, things are corrupt, but there’s nothing all that bad going on over there,’ ” said exhibition co-curator Charles Krause, a former international news correspondent. “In fact, there’s a very tight control of media and the arts in Russia, the sectors of society that might be critical or objective about the lack of basic human rights and rule of law. The appearance of an open society is there, but the reality is something different.”

As dissident artists in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Lapin and Zhdanov eschewed state-approved style and content, instead producing idiosyncratic, oft-political work that dealt with issues such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Soviet domination of the Balkans. Both endured government censorship and oppression, which many observers of Russian society and culture believe are once again on the rise.

"I always complained that everything he painted was very dark, black and white," said Vassa Olson, Alexander Zhdanov's stepdaughter who now lives in Alexandria. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

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“I always complained that everything he painted was very dark, black and ... more >

“Overtly political art is very taboo in Russia,” said Stefan Sullivan,an author who was friends with Zhdanov and has spent considerable time traveling within and writing about Russia. “Under Putin, they’ve been pretty good about economic freedom. But when it comes to any kind of criticism of the government or their key players, you feel the wrath of the law pretty quickly.

“In the 1990s, everything was fair game. Now we’re looking at a reversion to a Cold War mindset.”

Against the machine

In Mr. Lapin’s silk-screen images, the gap between the Soviet Union’s utopian rhetoric and totalitarian reality — between a blissful worker’s paradise and a soul-crushing Cold War purgatory — is instantly apparent, largely because the artist has a knack for turning communist iconography on its ear.

In “Stalinism and Satanism,” Mr. Lapin superimposes a communist red star atop an upside-down Satanic black star, an ironic jab at the political status quo that looks sleek enough to appear on the uniform of the Young Pioneers, the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts. “Molotov + Ribbentrop A” combines portions of a Nazi swastika with parts of the familiar Soviet hammer and sickle, invoking the 1939 nonaggression pact between the USSR and Germany that preceded the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.

A former architect now considered one of Estonia’s most important modern artists, Mr. Lapin uses clean, precise lines in his 1970s “Machine” series of drawings, some of which portray nude female forms bisected by geometric shapes — think the illustrations from a “Joy of Sex” book assimilated by “Star Trek’s” Borg.

Lapin said that this worker’s paradise, it was one big machine, where there’s no freedom and we as individuals don’t count,” Mr. Krause said. “We’re just cogs in the machine, creating missiles and dams and Sputnik, the same machine the communists were so proud of. But at what cost? What people wanted or hoped to achieve with their lives didn’t matter.”

Under Soviet rule, artists were required to join a union and produce works in a state-approved style dubbed Socialist Realism, a dull pastiche of party propaganda and paeans to the workaday struggles of simple, muscular peasants. The typical Socialist Realism film, quipped one author, could be described as “boy meets girl meets tractor.”

Zhdanov was expelled from art school four times and denied entry into the Union of Soviet Artists. Living and working in Moscow, he penned rambling political manifestos and developed his own dark style, participating in a 1974 “Bulldozer” exhibition of nonconformist art — so named after a group of underground artists who defiantly hung their work along an outdoor wooden fence, which Soviet authorities promptly destroyed with bulldozers and water cannons.

In much of Zhdanov’s work, a squat, shadowy figure inhabits foreboding, semi-abstract landscapes that manage to be both sparse and claustrophobic — even the trees look oppressive. The typical figure is either running toward or away from something.

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