Attacks on the Avant-garde, Continued…
For the final class before spring break, we’ll be returning to the Russo-Soviet context and continue to observe the socialist avant-garde under siege by the state. Artists began to dance at the unstiffening edges of socialist realism following Stalin’s death, during the Khrushchev cultural thaw of the sixties and the epoch of stagnation overseen by Leonid Brezhnev in the seventies and early eighties–but they were made to feel the limits of liberalization on certain occasions. We’ll be looking back at two of the most notorious ones: the Manege Affair of 1962 and the Bulldozer Exhibition of 1974. Katherine will help us see these dissident perspectives in her class presentation and the post below!
For tomorrow’s class, I will be discussing the events of the 1974 Bulldozer Exhibition and Izmailovsky Park Exhibition in Moscow and how these repressive acts affected the citizens and art scene of Russia. As we have read thus far, Socialist Realism dominated Russian art throughout the 20th century, even acting as the basis for the Russian Artists Union. Artwork was moderated with police intimidation and was especially prevalent in the exhibition events of 1974.
Oskar Rabin and Aleksandr Glezer directed a group of underground Moscow artists to hold the first open-air art exhibition in Cheryomushki, a remote town just outside of Moscow, on September 15th, 1974. These underground artists merely wanted to show off their artwork, but found they were in for a different kind of surprise; what turned out to be a political provocation. On September 15th, the artists attempted to hold their exhibition in an empty lot but soon found themselves and their art being attacked by bulldozers and militia who claimed they had been scheduled to build a park there. Many were beaten and forced to leave the site, while their artworks were rolled over with bulldozers and completely destroyed. This was an act by the government against free artistic expression. The threat of the symbolic uprising against them needed to be dealt with in order for them to maintain complete control over the population.
Official Soviet news agencies claimed that the exhibition was merely a “cheap provocation with the sole intent of creating anti-Soviet sentiment” (68). Although this was a terribly disturbing occasion, the artists did not give up and attempted to hold another exhibition two weeks later. Threats and strict regulations dominated the Izmailovsky Park exhibit, forcing the artists to swear that they would not show any anti-Soviet, religious, or pornographic art.
The exhibit was surprisingly successful, regardless of bulldozers waiting in the surrounding forest, and this was the first uninterrupted public display of unofficial art in the Soviet Union (70). However, break-ins and confiscations of underground artworks persisted, and, oddly enough, all of the artists from the open-air exhibition were either exiled or died of mysterious circumstances in the late 1970’s.
The letters and interviews with Russian artists at the end of this article propose multiple perspectives on these dramatic events, and I will discuss these different arguments, as well as the artworks of some unofficial Soviet artists in class tomorrow.
Anyway, here are some questions to think about in the mean time!
Why do you think the Bulldozer Exhibition was immediately interpreted as a “political provocation”?
As referred to on page 493 of Chipp’s article, the artists of the Bulldozer Exhibition wanted to display their “art for art’s sake”. Based off of this notion, do you think the event played into the hands of the bourgeoisie?