Deineka a Roma. Ritorno e ripartenza
by Matteo Lafranconi
Thirty years will soon have elapsed since the city of Düsseldorf courageously paid tribute to Aleksandr Deyneka (Kursk 1899 - Moscow 1969) in 1982, when the USSR was still in existence. For the painter who was the most distinguished and complete exponent of Socialist Realism in the figurative arts, this was his first monographic recognition outside the borders of Russia. It may have seemed unlikely at the time, but that posthumous recognition - seemingly a signal of the need for a critical reassessment on the part of a West as it now stretched out its arms to embrace the postmodern, rapidly shunning ideologies and thus ready to return to the river bed of history, all-embracing yet all but ignored in the decades of the Cold War - is only now receiving its first genuine boost in this exhibition in Rome.
At home, Deyneka was celebrated as an exemplary artist who was co-opted into the paradise of Soviety hagiography when he was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1964, and when he received the supreme honor of becoming a Hero of Socialist Labor shortly before his death. Painter, sculptor, graphic artist, illustrator, monumentalist, teacher, essayist and theoretician, Deyneka triumphantly lived through the entire experience of Socialist Realism, season by season, innovating its artistic vocabulary and embodying its most unashamedly idealistic values. Yet neither the revolutionary innovations of his figurative vocabulary nor the universal nature of his referent iconographies have been able to date to act as bridge ferrying him to his rightful place in the global history of 20th century art through the universal recognition of his role and value.
Deyneka has long suffered from the effects of the aversion - so automatic as to become an idiosyncrasy - which Western art criticism has felt for the figurative culture of the USSR, perceiving it as being solely the mechanical product of political circumstances and of ideological pressure, likening it if anything to the world of kitsch. Even today, after crucial elements of historical information have come to light and after a major job of critical revision has been undertaken in the scholarly field, people inevitably tend to sum up the history of Russian art in the 20th century in a pattern that simply dismisses the entire Soviet phase as being uninfluential: "An original, explosive and innovative movement called the avant-garde made its first appearance in Russia in around 1910; after reaching a peak in around 1915, the movement - which mainly took the shape of abstract painting - gradually passed through the experience of bourgeois formalism from the early 1920s on, thus attracting the hostility of the Soviet state which enforced the absolutism of propaganda-based and anti-modern realism in 1932". In other words, the avant-garde was followed by a void.
Yet the irreconcilable divergence between Soviet and Western art was by no means there from the outset. In the course of the 1930s one can identify a large number of exchanges with other national experiences in the West, and this mutual influence and attraction are particularly noticeable, in the sphere of art, between the Soviet Union and the United States. The USSR's attempt to turn the values of Soviet society into a subject of dialogue with the world at large, by highlighting their universal significance and their idealistic value before the war and the tragic gloom enforced by Stalin's dictatorship, was represented in a particularly effective metaphorical way in the Soviet Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1937. The colossal figures of a factory worker and a Kolchoz worker designed by Vera Muchina and set on the roof of the pavilion dominated the symbolic space of the Paris esplanade with unsurpassed magniloquence. The equally mammoth painted panel depicting the march of the Illustrious Men of the Land of the Soviets, the last thing that the visitor saw before leaving the pavilion, earned Deyneka on that occasion a public award (the gold medal for painting) whose apolitical and supranational value was immediately clear in connection with the neo-humanistic inspiration of iconography (cf. below, Voronovic ˇ, figure on page 37).
Rather, we should consider people's resistance to recognizing the dignity of the art system of Socialist Realism, as a product of the so-called "modern preconception", one of the most obstinate consequences of the ideological polarization trigged by the Cold War: in the West we had only abstract art, a metaphor of freedom and of the expression of creative individualism; on the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was the dictatorship of a demogigcal, propaganda-based realism linked to a 19th century figurative approach and thus stylistically retrograde. Yet it is precisely the figurative strength of so much of the art of Socialist Realism, bursting with narrative immediacy at the very moment it was produced, which, once recognized, prevents us from hastily dismissing the movement on the grounds that it is anti-modern. On the contrary, it is universally acknowledged that, as long ago as with the Soviet criticism of the late 1920s, the term Realism represents the precise equivalent of the concept of modernity. Only by being a realist in the country that believed that it had turned the future into a reality, could one be a man of his time. Indeed, Socialist Realism should not be seen as a more or less pleasing and more or less up-to-date style; it should be seen, rather, as a method, a process capable of thematizing people's lives in their social evolution. But it is right to note that this process, in other words the attempt on Soviet artists' part (with Deyneka heading the list) to excise every last trace of formalism from the process of artistic creation, was not (until the late 1930s at least) a political maxim to be obeyed, so much as a broadly accepted principle reflecting their passionate subscription to a movement which, in turn, put paid to the solipsistic fetishism and exasperated search for the absolute typical of the kind of artistic practice imposed by the avant-garde. Just as, from a Western viewpoint, what we call modern art is pitted again what that same viewpoint calls tradition, so Soviet art uses the Realist method to counter the sterile outdatedness represented by Western formalism in terms of ideals.
Deyneka himself, recalling certain impressions that he acquired during trips abroad, says that everything that he saw in Europe seemed to him to be "small and old", devoid of the "yearning for a far loftier and far deeper purpose" which, on the contrary, could be perceived in the climate prevalent in his own country. Thus for the Soviet artist, the vocabulary of Realism is a fundamentally revolutionary vocabulary which uses tradition as an expedient to "shake off the domination of form that still leads us against our own will toward a vacuous professionalism, tearing us away from modernity and from life". This is one of the reasons why it is inappropriate to attempt to justify Soviet art by linking it to the context of the various revivals of the order of the 1920s and 1930s; this, because neither the idea of a revival nor the idea of an order have any connection with the intrinsically revolutionary quality of Socialist Realism. On the contrary, it is the truly labyrinthine complexity of the exchanges, which are indecipherable even allowing for all the give and take, that is the most evident feature of the family tree of the many forms of realism that were pursued in Europe and in the United States between the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, one has but to consider the particular ancestry and origins of Socialist Realism as lying between "between revolution and reaction", so intuitively perceived by Jean Clair in the early days of the new exploration of global 20th century realism; an ancestry which, in the context of a cartography that is of immense hermeutical fascination even today, placed the Soviet movement in an intermediate, derivative line between 19th century realism and Picasso's Cubism (no less!), akin to radical tendencies such as the Effort Moderne (1929) and Forces Nouvelles (1935). The "Soviet modernity" alluded to in the title of the exhibition in Rome is not, therefore, an oxymoron forcing two categories perceived as being at variance with one another into an arranged marriage; it is the sincere critical vein in which the exhibition wishes to present Aleksandr Deyneka's art, as a successful mix of innovation and renovation.
Besides, to achieve a response capable of explaining, in a finally convincing manner, the grafting of neoclassical, neo-humanist or even neo-romantic features onto the heart of 20th century modernity, we shall have to take on board once and for all the realization that the dogmatically critical equation by which the history of the 20th century tenaciously tends to judge things (avant-garde equals revolution, realism equals reaction) is simply no longer tenable. No artistic avant-garde can expect to embody a revolutionary legitimacy, in exactly the same way as no artistic movement based on the renewal of traditional values can be dismissed as a mechanical response to the demands of an authoritarian regime. Rather, in both cases, we need to conduct our search by looking back into the start of the spiritual crisis in the second half of the 19th century, in order to find the common roots of a single trunk that branched out in different ways in the course of its development.
It may be excessive to call it the result of a deliberate plan, but the circumstance whereby a critical boost to this great "Soviet modernity" is being imparted precisely in Rome is certainly of some significance. It is significant not only because Rome in the 1930s was effectively one of the principle centers in which the various faces of realism converged and developed, but also precisely on account of its natural place in the geodesy of Western culture, lying as it does at the very center of the fault line caused by the clash between tradition and innovation. Deyneka visited Rome from 12 April to 3 May 1935, coming from Paris and on the way back from an official trip to the United States to accompany a traveling exhibition entitled The Art of Soviet Russia.
For those who are convinced that the potentially crucial impact of the image of Rome can (must?) transcend its immanent nature as a palimpsest of history in order to also highlight its highly individual contemporary dimension, the short but passionate notes that the artist penned in that spring of 1935 offer rare and exemplary confirmation a rebours. "Heavens what a city! Forget Paris!", Deyneka wrote to his beloved companion Serafima Lycˇëva, "and I am not talking about Michelangelo or the other greats [...]. People here are looking to the future!". Deyneka never tired of visiting the city on foot, almost incredulous at the numerous urban surprises that met his eyes, at the constant gap between old and new, at the unbroken nexus between architecture, monuments and decoration; but he was especially struck by the city's contemporary image ("there is some extremely interesting modern architecture, at once stern and traditional; the Mussolini Stadium is astonishingly impressive both in its scale and in its ground plan").
He put off visiting the city's museums for as long as he could; he was reluctant to enter them, repelled by their sad atmosphere and by the "gray and dusty" patina that sits on the works of art in them, sucking all life from them; while throughout the city he quite rightly admired the wall painting which, while aging, never lost the communicative force of its message ("we must paint in fresco!"). He insistently praised the quality of public graphic art ("there are very many posters in the streets; some of them are very good indeed and tastefully produced. People obviously set great store by such things here"), which is especially significant coming from an artist who had devoted so much of his designer's and creator's energy to inventing a new graphic vocabulary in publishing, in propaganda material and, in particular, in the poster format (plakat) that was one of the most effective means for disseminating the Soviet visual image.
Deyneka was sensitive to the interest held by city's modern side even when he observed it from a standpoint seemingly extraneous to any kind of artistic or monumental concern; he was struck by the vitality, by the anthropic dynamism that breathed life into the urban scene, waxing far more enthusiastic than he had managed to do in the United States or in France ("it is still light in the evenings here, and people are still all out in the streets [...]", unlike in New York "where everything is concentrated solely around Broadway", and not to mention Paris "where people lock themselves away behind their shutters at eight in the evening and the only people left on the streets are eccentrics like myself"). To interpret these statements, so seemingly unlikely when compared with the Western metropolitan stereotype, we must refer to the exquisitely popular, mass quality of that urban dynamism, a quality which possibly only certain neo-realist movies have suceeded in capturing since.
The surviving documentary evidence unfortunately leave us thirsting for more information in our attempt to recapture the mindset with which Deyneka observed and studied contemporary Italian art, of which he makes practically no mention in his letters ("the Italian artists are a joyful bunch; all they do is get together and bicker, like everywhere else..."). Yet quite by chance he had an exceptional opportunity to acquire an exhaustive overview of Italy's contemporary art scene, because it is unthinkable that he failed to visit the Second Quadriennale in Rome, which had been occupying the whole of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Via Nazionale, with its over seven hundred exhibitors, since the previous February. Devised by Cipriano Efisio Oppo, the 1935 Quadriennale offered a perfect snapshot of the country's art scene, with the triumph of Scipione, with awards for Severini and Marini, with the coming to maturity of Campigli and Rosai, with personal exhibitions of the work of Martini, Messina, de Pisis and Pirandello, with a large room devoted to the Futurists, and with the first showing of the work of abstract artists.
While showcasing the entire contemporary art scene, from the 20th century to the Italiens de Paris, the second edition of the Rome exhibition - the last major Italian art exhibition of the decade to be held in peacetime - was nonetheless dominated by a cross-tendency group of young artists to whom Oppo had given a far more prominent place than he had in the 1931 edition. There were countless moments of potential interest here for the Soviet artist, not only on account of the presence, among the themes depicted in the works on display, of figures portrayed in the demiurgic effort of sporting activities (Collina, Volterrani, and Moschi) on which Deyneka's interest was focused at the time, but also on account of the presence of highly original approaches to realistic figuration evinced both in the field of sculpture (Messina, Griselli and Romanelli) and in the sphere of painting (Capogrossi, Pirandello and Corazza). And we can bet that he stopped dead in his tracks when confronted with Farpi Vignoli's Guidatore di Sulki, a bold figure of a charioteer depicted with the pop panache of a latter-day go-kart driver, who greeted the visitor in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni's Rotunda which had been specially rebuilt for the occasion to the sternly rationalistic design of Pietro Aschieri.
Three-quarters of a century after that visit, Deyneka is now returning to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, to the very place where he met and took the measure of Italian contemporary art, for a fresh meeting and a fresh debate with the present day. Thanks to the exceptionally complete range of material that Russia has made available to the exhibition's organizers, this visual and intensely informative tour meets all the conditions required to impart a fresh boost to his critical fortunes, something which is to be hoped for and which, I believe, is certain to occur.