Art of the State

EXHIBITIONS For 50 years, Russian painters suffered Stalin's straitjack et. A new show hints at creative defiance

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).

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015
    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall