Sunday, November 11, 2007

Social Realism

Yesterday Patrick and I went to The Museum of Russian Art, a small museum in a residential neighborhood in south Minneapolis, which is devoted to 20th century Russian Art, specifically socialist realism. The current show is work by Geli Korzhev, a prominent Russian painter, born in the 1920s and still alive.

If I understood the labels correctly, his work is social realism, rather than socialist realism. I don't understand the difference. The work is certainly realistic. According to Korzhev, art has to be realistic, if it is going to reach ordinary people.

The paintings are large and clearly meant to be seen from across a room. For the most part, they show one or two large figures in the foreground. The people are mostly working people, their bodies worn and damaged by hard work and war. It's pretty obvious that the great experience of Korzhev's life has been World War II, the Great Patriotic War. The colors are grayed; the paint has a gritty texture; and the most common expression the people have is exhaustion. These are people who have worked hard and fought hard and endured.

The labels include many quotes from Korzhev. Per these, he believes in Communism and in the strength, integrity, intelligence, decency and endurance of ordinary people. My sense is, his work is utterly sincere. He does believe in Communism and the common people.

It occurs to me that contemporary American culture is not sincere. It is flip, glib, ironic. Nothing is as direct as these paintings.

My favorite painting is "Raising the Banner," part of a triptych titled "Communists." It shows a fallen worker, gray on a gray pavement. A second worker kneels beside him, grasping and lifting the banner the dead man has dropped. The entire painting is gray, except for the blazing red banner. In the label, Korzhev says he personally believes in Communism, but the point of the painting is to believe in something and raise that banner.

I think Korzhev is being too open minded. There are things which should not be believed in. But that aside, he makes a point about sincerity and commitment which is worth thinking about.

The museum was pretty full, not as full as the George O'Keefe show in the Art institute; but still there were no empty galleries, and we had to move around people to see the art. The viewers were looking at the art gravely and seriously, ordinary Minnesotans appearing almost reverent in front of art that could be called Communist propaganda. A very odd experience. I told Patrick I couldn't figure it out. He said there is a group of people in the US who would like to believe in something.

There was a group of paintings we could not see, because that gallery is closed at the moment. These are fantastic and grotesque with partly human figures that reminded me of Bosch and maybe Goya. (I saw one example in the little galley flyer.) According to Korzhev, these "are devoted to the political situation of 1993 and perestroika with its false implementations and the defrauding of the common people."

Did I like the art? I think it's thought provoking, and one has to respect Korzhev's respect for people. But I was raised to like avant garde art, and this is definitely not avant garde.


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