Art of the State

EXHIBITIONS For 50 years, Russian painters suffered Stalin's straitjack et. A new show hints at creative defiance
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The Independent Culture
ROY Miles has been going to the former Soviet Union to buy paintings since 1982, and he knows a lot about this new area of the art trade. Some procedures are quite simple. You need a very large number of clean dollar bills, a van, vodka for the artists, scarves for their wives, toys for their children. Expertise about the paintings themselves is more complicated. Miles must have been gathering specialised and first-hand knowledge on his travels, for his Russian exhibitions have been getting better and better. On the other hand they have been anthologies rather than shows. The present one is different. It's called "Stalin and his Art", and it invites us to consider the nature of Socialist Realism.

This is still uncharted territory, especially in the Mayfair art world. There are no art history books to consult, and how many people can give a name to any socialist realist artist? We do, however, know some basic facts. Socialist Realism was not a movement, it was art by state edict. The principles of the new Soviet culture were laid down in the mid-Thirties as the avant garde was banished. Official art ruled Russian creative life for nearly half a century. But in spite of the most stringent training in the Russian academies, a uniform style could not be imposed. Even though they dealt in cliche and untruth there's a way in which the painters often produced genuine creative art. Something comes out in the brushwork or the colour, and you can tell how the human spirit has beaten falsehood.

Viktor Zinov's Stalin at Yalta, for instance, is a curious and mixed painting. According to Miles it was painted from life. Stalin sat rather than stood because he didn't like to be seen as a short man. So Zinov at his easel was physically close to a man whom he must have known to be a tyrant and a murderer, for this picture belongs to 1950. Yet in many respects it is not official. The dictator's armchair seems to have been taken out into a garden or field. There's a hedge and lots of flowers, painted in a rather free and spotty manner. One would have expected a more enamelled finish, more precision and academic smoothness. Not so. Zinov made a picture that ignored the rules and did so under Stalin's very eyes, surely a dangerous thing for one who didn't toe the party line on art.

Almost everywhere in this interesting exhibition there are signs of free handling, a way with the brush that is often reminiscent of Russian artists whom we know well because they have an honoured place in the history of the avant garde. In Vladimir Korban's The Kossacks, for instance (also of 1950), one finds a choppy application of paint that allies the artists with certain pioneers of modernism. In broader terms, Korban's picture looks as if it belongs to the symbolism of the 1890s, and a number of pictures have a time-warp characteristic. Vladi-mir Sherbakov's Mother and Son was painted as recently as 1990, but one might guess its date to be almost any since the early 1920s.

This is not an historical show and much remains unexplained. Roy Miles believes that Socialist Realism was at its height in the earlier 1950s. That was the period of of the greatest Soviet power and Russia's almost total cultural estrangement from the West. Miles's theory is plausible, but the evidence is hard to pin down. Perhaps the nature of socialist realist art changes not only with the course of history but with the facts of geography. After all, the USSR was an immense area in which more than 100 different languages were spoken. One would expect state art to be at its most official in Moscow and in the other regional capitals, but perhaps to have more freedom in the remoter provinces. And were there not artists who had not been trained in state academies, ie amateurs?

Aesthetic questions follow these historical puzzles. It is clear that Stalin's art was one of subject matter: workers, peasants, factories, heroes. Could there be a socialist realist painting that had no ideological topic, that was, say, a pure landscape? Ivan Kolin's Sunday, Novodevichy of 1955 might be put in such a category. Novodevichy was a riverside place where Muscovites gathered on their day off. This ought to be a sunny picture, and indeed it represents sunshine, but I find something a little threatening in it, as though war were just around the corner. Pure little landscapes of some beauty come from Mikhail Barancheyev. His snow scene The Artist's Dacha (1954) is untroubled, a canvas of purely painterly instinct.

A favourite Stalinist topic was sport. The dictator's son Vasili Stalin may be seen in the audience of Vladimir Bogomazov's Training for the Olympics of 1954. Vasili drank himself to death later on, perhaps a good way to go under his father's regime, better anyway than starving to death or being shot. A picture without such sinister undertones is Viktor Tsvetkov's The Finish (1947). The black man who witnesses the runner's triumph is Paul Robeson. Obviously, Tsvetkov's painting has the feeling of an academic mural, but I was surprised to find how many paintings in the show are domestic in nature. Socialist Realism was not exclusively a public art form. It may be asked if the paintings are of "museum quality", as we understand the term in the West. Quite a few. Roy Miles has one real classic of Stalinist art in Leonid Tikhomirov's allegory of Mother Russia, painted long after Stalin's death, in 1969. It deserves to be in a museum. What a pity that no British public collection takes an interest in the sort of art that comes back in Miles's van.

! Roy Miles Gallery, Bruton St, W1 (0171 495 4747).