Friday, October 9, 2009

Ukrainian artist Nikolai Getman spent nearly eight years in a Soviet prison camp after dutifully serving his country during World War II. He was arrested in 1945 for an anti-government “crime” when an informer reported that one of his friends had drawn a caricature of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Getman didn’t put away his memories after his release; instead, he spent the next four decades secretly recording his experiences in oils on canvas.

More educational than artistic in value, his 50 paintings are on display at the conservative Heritage Foundation to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their scenes of forced labor, starvation and torture are significant in being among the few visual images to relate the horrors of the Soviet penal system known as the Gulag.

In contrast to the Nazis, who documented concentration-camp brutality through films and photographs, the Soviets did not produce or preserve such abundant visual records of their inhumanity. They kept secret the atrocities inflicted upon the millions of people who were exiled to remote prisons in Russia’s arctic region.

Inmates in the Gulag — a network of hundreds of separate camps — were reduced to slavery. They were forced to mine gold, diamonds and other precious metals beneath the tundra and build bridges, railroads, highways and canals in severe weather and working conditions.

Russians remain reluctant to face the terrible history of this oppressive penal system, which was set up in 1918 and lasted almost as long as the Soviet Union.

Most Americans are familiar with the Gulag from the stories penned by the late Russian exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Like those writings, Getman’s paintings are partly autobiographical and partly polemical in portraying the human suffering inside the camps.

Starting the exhibit is a morose portrait of the artist at age 28 standing in front of the port where he boarded a ship to reach one of the most notorious camps in northeastern Siberia. Another painting provides an overview of the walled detention compound with a portrait of Stalin greeting prisoners as they march through the front gates.

Subsequent canvases unflinchingly show the food rationing, execution roundups and tagging of corpses within the prison. In one, a naked prisoner bound to a tree like a crucifix is shown being attacked by mosquitoes. As noted in the wall text, the loss of blood from the insect bites often resulted in death.

Some of these grisly scenes are undercut by Getman’s slightly cartoonish style. A few of his inmates, bathed in halos of light, appear as heroically idealized as the laborers of Soviet-style socialist realism.

Not all of the paintings concentrate on doom and gloom. Scattered among the prison vignettes are colorfully rhythmic landscapes painted in an impressionistic style. One of the most striking, “In the Far North,” juxtaposes spidery trees against scarlet hills and valleys.

As noted in the exhibit, Getman was struck by the natural beauty around the camps as a reminder of his lost freedom. He also recorded scenes of indigenous Chukchi people, some of whom were imprisoned by the Soviets for trading with Americans.

Before his death in 2004, the artist sought ways to transport his Gulag paintings to the West, fearing they would be destroyed once they were out of his safekeeping. The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank founded to help Soviet dissidents, brought the artworks to this country and exhibited them in the Russell Senate Office Building in 1997 before donating them to the Heritage Foundation.

At the conservative think tank, which has no art gallery, the paintings are hung in office hallways and an auditorium, which makes for some awkward viewing. Even so, Getman’s pain in remembering his ordeal comes through in this vivid series devoted to a side of communism unknown to most Americans.

WHAT: The Gulag Collection
WHERE: The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE
WHEN: Weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; through Dec. 10
PHONE: 202/608-6186

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