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“Usually, we do not exhibit this painting because it frightens the museum’s employees.” Kirill Svetlyakov, Head of the Department of New Tendencies in Art at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, was leading a tour through Not Forever, a sweeping exploration of Soviet visual culture from 1968 to 1985. Svetlyakov had paused before the 1984 painting Carnival. Its artist, Nikolai Yeryshev (1936–2004), was a prize-winning participant in exhibitions organized by the state-run Soviet Union of Artists. Today, however, he remains known primarily within the Ural city of Orenburg, where he spent most of his career, and as one of the last students of the maestro modernist Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969). Peering at Carnival, viewers may sense a hint of Deineka-esque otherworldliness in the motley crowd of revelers lining the palatial canals of Venice. But then things get strange: among the demonic-looking creatures, we also spot Mickey Mouse joyfully engaging in hedonistic acts. Things also become dystopic. Rather than fireworks illuminating the Venetian revelry, Yeryshev painted missiles to give the sky a fiery glow. “Most of our guides are unsure of how to talk about this work,” Svetlyakov explained, half apologetically.
One way of gauging the impact of Not Forever is to consider whether it produced just this: a language for understanding seemingly bizarre works like Carnival. The show is the second chapter in a trilogy that the Tretyakov has been staging about post-World War II art in the Soviet Union. Not Forever followed Thaw (2017), an exhibition devoted to the period of relative international openness and modernization following the death of Joseph Stalin. It preceded a forthcoming assessment of the art of perestroika and glasnost when, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, more individual freedoms were extended to citizens across the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
Not Forever nominally covered the intermittent period under Party Chair Leonid Brezhnev known as the “stagnation,” a term that frames the era as a cultural and economic standstill. Many revisionist historians, such as Dina Fainberg and Artemy M. Kalinovksy, now consider that label dubious (as probed in their Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange, 2016). It was ascribed to the period only retrospectively, by Gorbachev’s government, to herald its own economic and cultural reforms. The term “stagnation” can thus be said to reveal more about the way contemporaries understood their world than the nuances of that world itself.
The Tretyakov situated its curatorial concept within this discourse, with the label “stagnation” remaining conspicuously absent from the exhibition title. Instead, the curators Yuliya Vorotyntseva, Anastasiya Kurlyandtseva, and Svetlyakov decided that their exhibition would focus on the complex cultural psychology of late socialism. To do so, they invoked historian and anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s interpretation of the period as one that was far from the teleology of progress propagated by the Communist regime—but which nevertheless seemed indefinite. One of the main contributions of Yurchak’s book, Everything was Forever Until It was No More, was to demonstrate that state ideology produced not only a sense of a strong, monolithic state, but also possibilities for individuals and communities to create their own realities and tactics within and at times in opposition to it—thus undoing the binary of “official” and “unofficial” practices. It is this undoing that Not Forever also sought to continue.
The exhibition gathered 450 works from the Tretyakov’s collection as well as regional and European institutions—an impressive feat. It opened with a stunning portrait of Brezhnev (1981) by Yury Koroleyov; a cluster of microphones bend toward the leader’s open mouth, as if he is inhaling not only the oxygen but also the objects around him. The subsequent rooms were arranged according to thematic headings like Ritual and Power, Sots-Art, Countryside, and Communities.
Within these rubrics, the curators tapped moments of beauty and strangeness, such as Mikhail Schwarzman’s mystically totemic face in Redemption (1972), and of travel real and imagined in Vitaly Komar’s and Aleksandr Melamid’s First Duty-Free Trade Between the USA and the USSR. We Buy and Sell Souls Project (1979). There were flashes of wit in the Nest Group’s Chart of History (1976), which depicts a line graph with only the planned party congresses as its data points. We sense momentous events, ranging from the intimate to the publicly paraded. There was Rashid Asaev’s Interior at Senezh (1982), with a private exchanging unfolding before a blank canvas in an artist’s studio in; and Valery Shchekoldin’s clever series Blow-Up (1978), in which the artist photographed large-scale murals and banners of Brezhnev as they were being assembled, thus shattering any sense of the leader’s monumental wholeness. Thus, if the economy was stagnating during late socialism, its cultural life did not. Not Forever revealed a dynamic underground scene, spiritual life, engagement with narcotics, international forums, and visual cultures that stretched from conformity to critique.
We nevertheless need the exhibition catalog to understand the aesthetic, political, and conceptual ties (and divisions) between the diversity of practices that were on view. Edited by Irina Lazbenikova, it includes important essays by Yurchak, Svetlaykov, art historian Viktor Misiano, among several others. Those collected writings represent real intellectual labor. The viewer needs them to grasp, for example, the critical nuances between works that emerged from a place of opposition or support, or which cleverly collate homage and parody in a single image. We read in Aleksandr Borovsky’s essay that in the 1970s, Mikhail Bakhtin’s early twentieth-century theory of the carnivalesque served as a model for cultivating an alternative social order within the depths of hegemonic Soviet culture. For Bakhtin, the carnival constituted an exceptional space and time where excess could deconstruct actual culture and eliminate existing social hierarchies. In this light, Yeryshev’s juxtaposition of oblivious revelry and atomic warfare engages one of the period’s key intellectual references. Can the party rage on as missiles launch overhead? It did—until it didn’t any longer.
Overall, the curators treated the exhibited works as mirrors of a particular historical moment. The installation reinforced this point, as it was augmented by period colors and wallpaper patterns throughout. This object-as-historical-mirror approach to curation has the effect of presenting the works as specimens of specific past time instead of articulating their relationship to the contemporary moment.
The firestorm of debate among local critics and artists that followed the exhibition revealed that the relevance of this body of work to the current moment was indeed lacking. Many of the exhibited works were considered benighted, produced as they were for state-organized Union of Art exhibitions. This connection to propaganda thus raises a question of their place in the history of Soviet artmaking, and whether they should be exhibited alongside works by Komar and Melamid or Ilya Kabakov—artists now celebrated internationally as a postwar avant-garde. The exhibition also represented few artists who practiced outside of Moscow; while not a problem in and of itself, the Moscow-centricity of the show ought to have been acknowledged. Even as the Tretyakov creates postwar canons by calling attention to lesser-known objects in addition to its collection highlights, its audiences will continue to debate the contemporary relevance of these works.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, American University of Sharjah