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For many, art is an area in which individualism is exalted and freedom of expression is glorified, but to define art as such would be to take artistic freedom for granted. “The Art of Subversion: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union,” an exhibit at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies running until Jan. 22, showcases artists that struggled to uphold these ideals in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union began to repress artistic expression. The artistic norm of the day was social realism, which “was charged with the task of constructing representational scaffolding for the projected reality awaiting Soviet citizens,” curator Anna Wexler Katsnelson wrote in the pamphlet accompanying the exhibit.
The idea for this exhibit was conceived ten years ago as Norton T. Dodge, who received his Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard in 1960, began a conversation with the director of the Davis Center, Tim Colton. After traveling to Russia in 1955, Dodge developed a strong interest in nonconformist art and began collecting and preserving a body of work that now numbers more than 20,000 pieces by over 1,000 artists.
“Dodge played a unique role in being the conservator of this body of art that may not have survived,” says Lisbeth Tarlow, associate director of the Davis Center.
With Dodge’s help, the Davis Center has assembled an impressive collection of Soviet nonconformist art. The first exhibit of its kind to be installed in the Davis Center, “The Art of Subversion” features 50 pieces, mostly lithographs and etchings on paper as well as photography and oils that span a 30-year period from the mid 1950s to 1980s. The exhibit contains works from the new Davis Center collection as well as pieces on loan from Rutgers University and from Dodge’s personal collection.
“This is the first dive into the visual arts for the Center. For us it was exciting to bring the arts into the Center where there is a heavy emphasis on social sciences,” says Tarlow. “Now [the students] can understand history through the prism of art.”
Located on the concourse level of CGIS South, in a large open space leading to various meeting rooms and offices, the Davis Center is clearly not constructed as a typical museum space. The non-traditional set up of the Davis Center created challenges for Katsnelson, a Harvard Ph.D. in art history; however, the space also presented her with a unique opportunity.
“[The space] is unlike a traditional museum space, which is specifically designated to exhibit art and is open for everybody, but it is also unlike the stricter academic space, the so called ‘ivory tower’, which is only open to the initiated, to the invited,” Katsnelson says. “The space of the CGIS concourse is both a public space and a learning space, and it provides a different viewing experience. It does not bracket art as rarefied the way a museum might.”
To overcome the divided wall space of the concourse and give some congruence to the wide variety of art she had to work with, Katsnelson organized the exhibit into four groupings, each accompanied by explanatory wall text.
The first group features abstract and avant-garde pieces ranging from oil paintings incorporating found objects to theater posters. This grouping features pieces by artist Evgeny Rukhin that Katsnelson feels are some of the most painterly pieces in the collection.
“He has an amazing feel for the materiality of the various surfaces he engages in his artwork,” Katsnelson says. “He navigates a kind of multilingual pictorial space, where the two-dimensionality of the canvas and the real life objecthood of the found elements are in a dialogue.”
The second grouping features pieces that use more realistic strategies. These images pushed the boundaries by employing the realistic methods that the Soviets encouraged but with controversial subjects. For example, artist Boris Sveshnikov uses his work to portray the harsh reality of Soviet gulags in his Vetlosian series.
The third and forth groupings are smaller and contain photographs from an artist inside the gulag as well as the art of various ethnic nationality groups. Boris Mikhailov’s image is one of Katsnelson’s favorites. Mikahailov took a picture of a standard Soviet event and by retouching the work with garish and kitschy colors made it a satirical commentary on the Soviet Union.
Despite the focus on the Soviet Union, Katsnelson believes that the exhibit covers issues beyond Russian studies, Soviet history, and art history.
“What I’m trying to show here is that art can be political,” Katsnelson says. “The Western world is very privileged. It often forgets how precious freedom of expression is, how rare it is in many countries, and how powerful art can be.”
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