- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

ARTISTS ON THE LEFT: AMERICAN ARTISTS AND THE COMMUNIST MOVEMENT, 1926-1956.

By Andrew Hemingway

Yale University Press, $Tk, 384 pages, illlus.



ART AND REVOLUTION IN LATIN AMERICA 1910-1990

By David Craven

Yale University Press, Tk, 240 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY CYNTHIA GRENIER

The time of revolution appears well past these days. Time perhaps has come to consider whether revolution ever provoked those great and original bursts of creative activity that would endure, honorably taking their place alongside those artistic works created under sundry past regimes ranging from the monarchical to the republican.

Perhaps the most exciting period in the whole history of Russian art ran roughly during two decades from 1910 to 1930 until the grim reign of Joseph Stalin virtually stifled all independent creativity, forcing a dire cloak of conformity over the entire realm of the arts. By then the Russian artists who had burst so brilliantly on the international scene — such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich — had either escaped to the West or disappeared in Stalinist purges or yielded to strictures of producing Soviet art.

The avant-garde culture that flourished so vigorously in the years immediately prior or following the Revolution of 1917 has justly been claimed as generating one of the great art movements of the last century. The Russian avant-garde achieved breakthroughs in paintings, sculpture, theater, film, photography, literature, design and architecture. In the years just following the 1917 Revolution, reigning political powers raised a cultural avant-garde to a level never since attained by modernism.

For this brief time, the culture of the avant-garde was synonymous with official cultural policy. Never before, and never since, has the avant-garde been so allied with reigning political powers and been in such a strong position to effect its revolutionary concepts.

As David Craven shows in “Art and Revolution in Latin America 1910-1990,” the ambitious program of the Mexican muralists (beginning in 1920 and involving close collaboration of artists and government) was fueled by the example of the Russian avant-garde. But in Russia this union of artistic and political interests only lasted a few years. By the late 1920s, the Soviet regime began to denounce the avant-garde in favor of a more propagandistic aesthetic oriented to the masses, and thus “Socialist Realism” came into being. An entire system that had briefly espoused some of the newest, tradition-breaking, utopian concepts was swept away.

Over the decades, Soviet authorities blocked any efforts by Western museums to mount exhibitions showing any work from that brief brilliant period. In 1971, “Art and Revolution” in a London gallery had one room sealed by Soviet authorities because they objected to the works that were “abstract and decadent.”

Now a few years into the 21st century Yale University’s distinguished press has brought forth two handsomely produced books devoted essentially to art created under left-wing influence. The subtitle of Andrew Hemingway’s “Artists on the Left,” damningly says it all: “American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956.” The full color portrait on the cover is by Alice Neel of Pat Whalen, who is described as a “Communist waterfront organizer.”

The tone of the text as a whole can perhaps be best summed up by Mr. Hemingway’s comments on the portrait. “Neel flags his beliefs through the copy of the ‘Daily Worker,’ with its banner strike headline, but also signifies resolution through the clenched fists, furrowed brow and set visionary look of the eyes. This is one of the few individually credible images of a Communist as such from the period, and it is perhaps significant that the Communist press passed over it in silence, since Whalen looks almost like a saint consumed by the suffering of the world — his fists substituting for hands in prayer and at the same time imitating the Communist salute and the will to struggle.”

The back of the book jacket shows the drawing of a sturdy worker on an I-beam, a rivet-gun in his mighty hands against a backdrop of soulless skyscrapers. The work titled “Construction” is by Henry Sternberg, done in 1932. Mr. Hemingway’s comments on the American Communist artistic scene are best summed up in his epilogue:

“Given that Communists were unable to recognize that exploitative relations continued within Soviet society, they were correspondingly unable to perceive that the version of Marxism that issued from it functioned as an ideology in the most negative sense. This does not mean that no creative Marxist work was done within the orbit of the official Communist movement, but it does mean that it had to be done for the most part after the onset of Stalinism.”

Mr. Hemingway tries valiantly to give some credit to the left: “However, for anyone on the left it is hard not to grant Communists certain fundamental insights into the nature of capitalism, and into, class, racial and sexual oppression, sadly inadequate as their analyses of these phenomena often were.” Which basically does tell you where Mr. Hemingway is coming from as an art critic.

The other book by David Craven, also very attractively presented, rather more wisely limits his view of art and revolution to three specific periods: Mexico (1910-1940), Cuba (1959-1989) and Nicaragua (1979-90). The Mexicans are represented by Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Frieda Kahlo on the whole. The Cuban section leads off with a lengthy quote from Ernest Che Guevara (many artistic representations of whom fill a number of pages) on art:

“Why try to find the only valid prescription for art in the frozen forms of Socialist Realism?” which is followed by a briefer one from Nicaraguan Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal: “The socialist realism of the Russians was merely so much sh-t. Cuba, they said, found its true socialist realism in Pop Art.” Pop Art of course is an American art form that the Cubans happily adapted to their own themes. As for the Nicaraguans: Most of the works reproduced here reflect the style of primitive painters and poster art, as in Cuba, that of Pop Art.

Now one hopes that art historians will hunt down those brilliant masterworks created during that all too brief period of artistic freedom that flourished in revolutionary Russia. Some few have been seen in museums here and even in Moscow and St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Empire, but they do deserve their moment of glory.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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