Under the Iron Curtain: Modern Art from the Soviet Bloc

Under the Iron Curtain: Modern Art from the Soviet Bloc

On view from December 16, 2012–March 31, 2013
Text by Emily O’Leary, Assistant Curator

Under the Iron Curtain: Modern Art from the Soviet Bloc features paintings and works on paper from the period 1950-1969 by artists working in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Created in the politically charged context of Soviet art and culture, the works by 19 artists—both “official” and “unofficial”—represent a cross-section of modern art styles and movements in the Eastern Bloc.

The exhibition is on view concurrently in the Derfner Judaica Museum and the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery. The artists featured in the Museum range from dissident members of the May 57 group in Prague and Nonconformists in Moscow to Russian artists working in the “Severe Style” of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism was the officially-sanctioned figurative art style meant to further the goals and ideals of Soviet society. Official artists—many of whom depicted nationalist subjects, such as popular landmarks, landscapes and cityscapes—are included in the Gilbert Pavilion Gallery. Many of the artists in the exhibition developed in the context of the Thaw—Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization efforts after the death of the Soviet Premier in 1953—which came to an end in 1962.

Meer Akselrod, Elena Kamenetskaya, George Khrapak, Mikhail Matorin, and Vasily Sigorsky represent official artists whose deftly executed watercolors and gouaches depict views of Moscow and other cities. Other Soviet regions are also represented, such as the mountain ranges of Armenia, for example, in Aragats (1962) by Albert Papikian and Mountains in Garni (1963) by Aram Kupetsian. Vladimir Gedikyan’s work, A Tale of the Northern Urals (1962), reflects the widespread attraction of travel to the northern regions, beyond the boundaries of large cities during the Thaw. A Socialist Realist work, At the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (1959) by master watercolorist Antonina Romodanovskaya, illustrates the government-sanctioned exhibition that celebrated the accomplishments of Soviet industry and culture.

Vasily Sigorsky (Russian, 1902–1978), Morning, from Our Moscow, 1958, gouache on paper, 15 1⁄2 x 23 inches, HHAR 1483. The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale

The Thaw influenced changing interpretations of Socialist Realism, too. For example, the paintings on view in the Museum by Pytor Ossovsky and Anatoli Nikich exemplify the “Severe Style,” a movement that adhered to Socialism’s core principles, but rejected the artificial, propagandist quality that was demanded of artists under Stalin. These qualities are evident in Ossovsky’s The Railway Crossing (1964), which suggests a more realistic view of everyday life.

Pytor Ossovsky (Russian, b. 1925), At the Railway Crossing, 1963, oil on masonite, 30 x 47 inches, HHAR 1386. The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale

The Thaw fostered the emergence of artist groups whose members sought to create work outside the boundaries imposed by Socialist Realism. In Moscow, the Lianozovo Group formed in 1958 and was centered around Oscar Rabin, along with his wife Valentina Kropivnitsky and his teacher, Evgenii Kropivnitsky. These artists and others who were not part of the Group later came to be known as the Nonconformists. The Nonconformists were not united by any singular style, but rather by a common desire to create freely and to exhibit their work without restrictions. Precluded from membership in the official Artists Union, these artists were considered dissidents.

Rabin’s Bread and Factory (1964) contains typical motifs from his visual lexicon–ordinary objects set against grim cityscapes. The ominous juxtaposition of bread against industrial smoke stacks exposes a darker view of everyday life in the Soviet Union. “My imagery is simple because I live a simple life,” Rabin explained in 1964. “I go nowhere and see nothing. My life is spent between the elektrichka [electric commuter rail], the kontora [office] where I work as a commercial illustrator, and my easel. That is the world I know, the world I see out of this window and the elektrichka, that is the world I paint.” (Sjeklocha and Mead, 141)

Rabin, Bread and Factory
Oscar Rabin (Russian, b. 1928), Bread and Factory, 1964, oil on canvas, 28 x 39 inches, HHAR 1075. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale

Following Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, and his succession by Leonid Brezhnev, the tolerance for unofficial art ebbed. In 1974, Rabin was at the center of the infamous “Bulldozer Exhibition,” so dubbed when an outdoor exhibition of unofficial art that he was instrumental in organizing was razed within hours of its opening by bulldozers and water cannons sent by the Soviet authorities. Artists, journalists and bystanders were arrested, some people were injured, and many works of art were destroyed. Rabin was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1978 and emigrated to France.

The treatment of unofficial art elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc varied. In Czechoslovakia, for example, young artists who rejected Socialist Realism founded the May 57 group in Prague in the late 1950s within the framework of the newly overhauled Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists. However, the group functioned relatively independently.

Richard Fremund, Mill in the Woods
Richard Fremund (Czech, 1928-1969), Mill in the Woods, 1958, oil on canvas, 37 x 44 1⁄2 inches, HHAR 158. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale

Richard Fremund was a central figure in May 57. His four brightly colored paintings of abstracted Czech townscapes influenced by folk art represent the type of unofficial art that was hotly debated in the Czech media. A Czech critic quoted in The New York Times in 1956, for example, extolled the virtues of young artists who continued to push Czech art forward, yet described Fremund’s colors favorably, though critically as perhaps “too hot.” Some critics took a more hard line view, insisting that realism must be the future of Czech art.

Solomon Gershov (Russian, 1906–1989), Tevye, ca. 1960s, gouache on paper, 26 x 22 inches, HHAR 39. The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale

Under the Iron Curtain also includes paintings by Solomon Gershov, who was sent to prison twice, once in 1932 for criticizing the Artists Union, and then again in 1948. Gershov had been a victim of Stalinist terror, particularly against Jews who openly expressed their national identity. After his release from prison in 1956, he created imaginary portraits of “Tevye the Dairyman,” the famed protagonist who first appeared in a short story by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in 1894. Gershov likely considered Tevye to be a symbol of the sorrow and humanity of his experiences and of the challenges faced by other Soviet Jews.

Also on view in the Museum is a painting by Hungarian artist Gylua Konfár, who suffered no political repercussions for his work. Nonetheless, his highly introspective portrait likely reflects a deeply oppressive atmosphere, political or otherwise.

Derfner 07
Installation view of the exhibition. On long wall by Richard Fremund (Czech, 1928–1969), from left to right: Mill in the Woods (Mlýn v Lese), 1958, oil on canvas, 37 x 44 1⁄2 inches, HHAR 158; Blue Landscape (Modrá Krajina), 1957, oil on canvas, 36 x 45 1/2 inches, HHAR 125; Easter Landscape (Velikonocni Krajina), 1963, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 1/2 inches, HHAR 1276. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale. Two works in foreground by Grisha Bruskin (Russian, b. 1945), from top to bottom: Litza, from Lexica, 1992, serigraph, 17 1/2 x 15 inches, 09.07.11; Adam Kadmon, 1991, steel, 6 x 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches, 09.07.08. Both works Gift of the Aber Family, Collection of the Derfner Judaica Museum at Hebrew Home at Riverdale

The exhibition also includes a print and small sculpture created in the United States by Grisha Bruskin, a younger Nonconformist artist who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989. The motifs reference invented symbols drawn from Judaism that the artist first used in his work in the Soviet Union. With them, Bruskin reflects on the construction of myths and their relationship to his experience of being an outsider, both as a Jew and as a human being.

Except for two by Bruskin, the works in this exhibition were acquired for the Hebrew Home Art Collection from Grosvenor Gallery in London in the mid-1970s. Grosvenor was founded in 1960 by the eminent art collector Eric Estorick and his wife, Salome. The gallery was a premier exhibition venue for many little known Eastern European artists, both unofficial and official. Rabin’s first solo show took place at Grosvenor in 1965 (Bread and Factory, now in the Hebrew Home collection, was included in that exhibition).

Estorick was born in New York City in 1913, his family having emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1905 to escape anti-Semitism. He became a political writer and lecturer in sociology at New York University. His interest in contemporary art began with his introduction to photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery–one of the first venues in New York to exhibit important European avant-garde artists. Estorick died in London in 1993.

An art lover who established the Home’s renowned art program, Jacob Reingold (1915–1999), the Hebrew Home’s Executive Director for almost four decades, met Estorick through a family connection, and with the assistance of donors, was able to acquire works from Grosvenor Gallery. This exhibition provides a survey of many of those acquisitions that have been “re-discovered” since the 1970s.

Further reading:

Bulanova, Maria, and Dr. Alla Rosenfeld. Soviet Dis-Union: Socialist and Nonconformist Art. Exh. cat. Minneapolis: The Museum of Russian Art, 2006.

Chmelarová, Marcela. Richard Fremund: krajiny z let 1959-1965. Exh. cat. Prague: Orlys Art Auctions, 2011.

Chmelarová, Marcela, Ilona Tunklova and Jan Kriz. Richard Fremund (1928-1969). Exh. cat. Pardubice, Czech Republic: East Bohemian Gallery of Fine Arts, 2003.

Dvorák, Frantšek. Richard Fremund. Exh. cat. Prague: Galerie Ceskoslovenského spisovatele v Praze, 1958.

Estorick, Eric, and Jennifer Louis. Oskar Rabin: Painting, 1956-1965. Exh. cat. London: Grosvenor Gallery, 1965.

Gedikyan, Vladimir, and Tatiana Blavatskaia. Vladimir Mikhailovich Gedikyan. Moscow: Sov. Khudozhnik, 1991.

German, Mikhail. Oscar Rabin. Trans. Todd Bludeau. Moscow: The Third Wave Publishers, 1992.

Gershov, Solomon, and Lev Mochalov. Solomon Gershov. St. Petersburg: P.R.P. LLC, 2004.

Goodman, Susan Tumarkin. Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890-1990. Exh. cat. New York: Prestel-Verlag and The Jewish Museum, 1995.

Gruson, Sydney. “Prague Art Show Scorns ‘Realism.’” The New York Times, April 15, 1956.

Hillings, Valerie L. “Official Exchanges/Unofficial Representations: The Politics of Contemporary Art in the Soviet Union and the United States, 1956-1977.” In Russia! Exh. cat. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2005.

Laskin, Semyon. “Echoes of Vitebsk.” Trans. Deborah Lipson. Ariel: A Review of Arts and Letters in Israel 89 (1992): 11-20.

Legéndy, Péter. Konfár. Budapest: Hungarian Art Forum, 2000.

Primusová, Adriana, and Marie Klimešová. Skupina Máj 57: úsilí o umeleckou svobodu na prelomu 50. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 2007.

Rabin, Oscar, and Claude Day. L’artiste et les bulldozers, être peintre en URSS. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1981.

Sjeklocha, Paul, and Igor Mead. Unofficial Art in the Soviet Union. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

Wren, Christopher S. “Russians Disrupt Modern Art Show with Bulldozers.” The New York Times, September 16, 1974, C17.

Artists in the exhibition:

Meer Akselrod (Russian, 1902–1970)
Irina Belopolskaya (Russian, dates unknown)
Grisha Bruskin (Russian, b. 1945)
Richard Fremund (Czech, 1928–1969)
Vladimir Gedikyan (Russian, b. 1928)
Solomon Gershov (Russian, 1906–1989)
Elena Kamenetskaya (Russian, b. 1918)
George Khrapak (Russian, b. Ukraine, 1922–1974)
Gyula Konfár (Hungarian, 1933–2008)
Aram Kupetsian (Russian, b. 1928)
Mikhail Matorin (Russian, 1906–1976)
Anatoli Nikich (Russian, 1918–1994)
Piotr Ossovsky (Russian, b. 1925)
Albert Papikian (Armenian, 1926–1997)
Oscar Rabin (Russian, b. 1928)
Antonina Romodanovskaya (Russian, 1906–1985)
Solovieva-Fateeva (Galina Solovieva, Russian, 1908–1984) (Irina Anatolièvna Fateeva, Ukrainian, 1908–1981)
Vasily Sigorsky (Russian, 1902–1978)

This brochure has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition Under the Iron Curtain: Modern Art from the Soviet Bloc on view concurrently in the Derfner Judaica Museum and the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery, December 16, 2012–March 31, 2013.

All works in the exhibition are from The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, Hebrew Home at Riverdale is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families, and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. The Home is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 11,000 elderly persons in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.