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The Great Purge carried out by the Stalinist authorities between 1936 and 1938 resulted in a widespread hunt for so-called enemies of the people. The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the secret police organization best known by its Soviet acronym, NKVD, persecuted hundreds of thousands of individuals for their alleged involvement in anti-Soviet activities. The reverberations of the purge were felt throughout the Soviet Union. Museum personnel were instructed to collect the works of artists condemned as anti-Soviet, as well as any object that bore traces of formalism, a loose, fluctuating term used by administrators to signal a reliance on visual strategies deemed detrimental to the socialist project. These works were relegated to special sealed holdings or “funds,” kept out of public view in museum storage facilities, or destroyed. Thanks to a group of clever curators, who minimized the artistic significance of the Kiev fund’s contents to the central administration in Moscow, the collection of works remained more or less intact in storage in the National Art Museum of Ukraine throughout the Soviet period, although some were lost as a result of the chaos and looting during the Second World War.
Yulia Lytvynets, the museum’s chief curator of collections, has put together a comprehensive display of the contents of the “Special Fund.” The exhibition includes more than one hundred oil and tempera paintings, as well as a few sculptures, produced between 1917 and 1939. Many of these objects have been hidden from public view since 1937, the year when purge activities were most intense. Though scholarship on Soviet art has tended to focus on the avant-garde strategies of abstraction and disruption that persisted into the early 1930s, this show reveals that artists working in early Soviet Ukraine considered the relationship between modernity and the body one of the primary concerns of socialist art. The once repressed works now on display offer innovative approaches to figurative representation, which allowed their creators to explore how Ukraine’s complex regional histories contributed to the emergence of different concepts of the new Soviet individual.
One accesses Special Fund by ascending the National Art Museum’s grand, neoclassical staircase. The show is divided into two parts. The first contains works produced during the period of cultural revolution that coincided with the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32)—the party’s scheme for rapid industrial and economic development—and occupies the three rooms to the right of the staircase. The second part is integrated into the museum’s permanent displays to the left of the staircase and contains mostly abstract works of the postrevolutionary avant-garde produced before 1928. A small sign at the top of the stairs directs visitors to begin with the rooms to the right. There, the introductory English-language wall text provides an overview of the historical background of the exhibition, highlighting the significance of the relationship between Soviet practices of categorization and the fate of the objects relegated to the Special Fund. Examples of record books that once accompanied the fund, bearing traces of eradication and rewriting, rest open in a vitrine below. These marks reveal the significance of local disputes over the formalist categorization and emphasize the role of particular interpretations of party imperatives in determining the ultimate fate of visual objects in Soviet Ukraine. The lack of English translation, however, makes it difficult for a viewer whose native language is neither Russian nor Ukrainian to understand that these seemingly banal pages determined the fate of Ukrainian modern art, or to appreciate the critical role that such written bureaucratic exchanges played in the development of Soviet cultural politics.
The works in this first room examine the ways in which revolution transforms spaces and subjects. Despite their diverse approaches to color and perspective, all the artists relied on renderings of the figure to elucidate how the cataclysmic political events of the Bolshevik Revolution altered the everyday experience of corporeal sensation and the perception of the modern body. The works can be grouped into two categories: those that examine collective political action and those that examine the transformation of individual bodies. For example, Olha Hurska-Kalachova, in her image of unarmed workers protesting police violence against disabled veterans—The Shooting of Veterans (early 1930s)—combines soft lines and contrasting reds and blues to picture the sensual closeness of solidarity in the face of terror. The two female figures in Semen Yoffe’s At a Shooting Gallery (1932), in contrast, suggest that there is a link between revolutionary violence and the corporeality of the postrevolutionary subject. The women, who stand facing one another in the confined shooting gallery space, have muscular yet disproportionally elongated limbs. Both rest their hands on their rifles, and one holds a paper target displaying the accuracy of her shot and her triumph over her comrade. Yoffe’s work suggests that the thrill of victory, whether actual or anticipated, and the shock of violence played a critical role in the formation of Soviet embodied identities in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The show’s second and third rooms are devoted to the two most glorified forms of Soviet labor: collective farming and industrial production. Here, as in the previous works focusing on the revolutionary event, representations of the human figure serve as the dominant means for exploring the transformation of labor under the First Five-Year Plan. The curatorial team’s decision to separate the objects devoted to collective farming from those devoted to industrial labor, and to display the former before the latter in the exhibition’s progression, suggests that the physical experience of the collectivization of agriculture played the more formative role, for better or for worse, in the construction of national identity in Soviet Ukraine. None of the figures shown at rest in fields, posing next to disproportionally large tractors, or depicted disputing the details of the plan appear to exalt the virtues of collectivization. Indeed, the dark, roughly rendered figures in M. Charodetskyi’s Tractor in a Kolkhoz (late 1920s–early 1930s) appear dispirited by the arrival of the farm’s first tractor. A similar sense of uncertainty about the drive to supplant the methods of the past with those advocated under the plan also pervades Vasyl Vochenko’s Kolkhoz. Team Labor (early 1930s), an image of anxious farmers waiting for a local party bureaucrat to finish a road inspection, and Ivan Padalka’s Gathering Tomatoes (1932). Padalka relegates his most overt references to collectivization—a speeding truck and a neat row of modern farm buildings—to the background. He fills the foreground with peasant women in traditional Ukrainian blouses placing sumptuous red tomatoes in woven baskets and then transferring them to industrial packing crates. The women’s older, local methods appear to not only fulfill the aims of the plan but also harmonize its rhythms.
While the works in the second and third galleries reveal multiple different perspectives on the implementation of the Five-Year Plan, the exhibition makes no reference to the dramatic disagreements that arose among the artists, which played a critical role in the development of these diverse perspectives. Oleksandr Syrotenko, for example, was a member of the Ukrainian affiliate of the Association of Artists of the Revolution (AKhR), a group that had promoted figurative, realist painting since 1922. Oksana Pavlenko, in turn, was connected through her partner, the Hungarian painter Béla Uitz, to the October Association, a group that also included Aleksei Gan, Gustav Klucis, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The October Association opposed AKhR’s platform and continued to develop ideas about mechanical reproduction and the eradication of art’s commodity status that avant-garde artists such as Klucis and Rodchenko had put forward in the early 1920s. Syrotenko’s Rest (1920s), an image of three different generations of Ukrainian farmers at ease in a field after a long day’s work, hangs diagonally across from Pavlenko’s Women’s Gathering (1932), which depicts a group of peasant women engaged in a heated debate. Both artists emphasize the figures’ muscular bodies, rough, powerful hands, and physical solidity of their postures. Although Syrotenko and Palvenko aligned themselves with opposing artists’ factions, both emphasized figuration as the primary means for reckoning with the transformation of the postrevolutionary subject. The juxtaposition of their works suggests that in Ukraine in the late 1920s, the rift between conservative realists and radical avant-garde artists regarding the most appropriate form of socialist art was no longer rooted in questions about the need for figuration. The exhibition’s general lack of reference to the different factions and their debates, however, obscures the significance of questions about mechanical reproduction and monumental art on the development of the early Soviet visual strategies that were eventually repressed.
The works in the exhibition’s third room focus on the relationship between the mechanics of the human body and the dynamics of large-scale industrial processes. Borys Kriukov, in his Implementers of the Five-Year Plan (1931), applies incrementally illuminated primary colors to imbue his image of steel mill workers on the move with a palpable sense of rhythm. Furthermore, O. Siriakova, in her image of three women pulling cloth in a textile mill—Textile Workers (1931)—emphasizes the subjects’ refined musculature to convey their proletarian might. Abram Cherkaskyi’s Arrival of Foreign Workers (1932) also takes up the question of how heavy industry transforms the body, but the content distinguishes this painting from the others in the gallery. As an image of a Soviet family welcoming newly arrived African American workers into their home, Cherkaskyi’s picture reveals that artists working on the Soviet periphery were as engaged in the campaigns for international socialism and antiracism as their counterparts at the center in Moscow. As a historical representation of its own local context, the work also provokes important questions about the role of African American émigrés in the industrial development of the early Soviet Union—a phenomenon described by Joy Gleason Carew in “Black in the USSR: African Diasporan Pilgrims, Expatriates and Students in Russia, from the 1920s to the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century” (African and Black Diaspora 8, no. 2 (2015): 202–15)—as well as questions about their influence on the development of Soviet-Ukrainian culture and identity politics.
To find the second part of the exhibition, the viewer must retrace her or his steps back through the first three rooms, to the galleries of the permanent collection. Here, each of the twenty or so paintings that were once forbidden has been tagged with a small rectangle of brown wrapping paper stamped with the words “Special Fund.” Most of these works were produced before the full implementation of the First Five-Year Plan. Paintings such as El Lissitzky’s 1919 Composition, an examination of color and planarity, and Viktor Pal’mov’s Village (1928–29), a fantastical image of everyday agrarian life rendered in thick white lines and layered patches of blue, green, and red, rely on abstraction, compositional fragmentation, an emphasis on the inherent flatness of the picture plane, or a combination of these strategies. Unlike the works in the first three galleries, they do not employ figuration as their primary means of artistic expression.
The current exhibition reveals that only a minority of the artworks in the Kiev Special Fund emphasized formal experiment, and, in so doing, it expands our current understanding of the formalist condemnation used to justify the relegation of particular objects to the funds across the Soviet Union. The contents of the record books in the first gallery of the exhibition, together with the artworks themselves, reveal that while a reliance on the abstract, disruptive strategies of the modernist avant-garde could earn a work such a distinction, so too could the invocation of any type of figuration considered misrepresentative of the party’s plans for economic and social development. In the Ukrainian context, the definition of what constituted a formalist misrepresentation depended directly on local interpretations of Soviet imperatives. That only modernist works are exhibited in the permanent display indicates the higher value placed on avant-garde objects over figurative paintings. The textual artifacts and visual juxtapositions in the exhibition, however, invite viewers to consider how political and historical factors, both in the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present, have contributed to the production, deconstruction, and reproduction of artistic significance in Ukraine.