Thursday, November 3, 2011

This Lump of Coal's for You, USSR

11/3/11 - La Casa Encendida
“Red Cavalry. Creation and Power in Soviet Russia, 1917 - 1945”

Early Soviet artists and writers were caught up in a monumental project to remake the world.  A free exhibit at the cultural center La Casa Encendida illuminates the role of theater, music, art, film, industrial design and mass spectacle in the heady years of post-revolutionary Russia, before Stalin brutally stole the show.  

La Casa Encendida. Ronda Valencia, 2

Part of a year-long cultural exchange with Russia, "Red Cavalry" complements the exhibit of Aleksandr Deineka's work at the Juan March Foundation.  A generation has passed since the Soviet Union sputtered to an end in 1991, and these concurrent exhibits provide new revelations.  It's also useful in "Red Cavalry" to view avant-garde works from the 1920s together with later soviet art, such as Wilhelm Lukin's 1938 still-life of a lump of coal.  Old black-and-white film footage is priceless. The smiling pioneer girl looks like she's enjoying the camera's attention, but some of the others are merely tolerating the marching as best they can.  And what is H.G. Wells doing with Stalin on the Kremlin balcony? 

Trans: "The smoke from smokestacks is the breath of Soviet Russia"

Malevich, Meyerhold, Shostakovich and Eisenstein are represented, as well as Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, and Deineka’s portrait of Mayakovsky (caught in the act of painting propaganda).  Some unexpected items include a 1927 chess set by Vasili Guriev. Chess pieces representing the “Capitalist World” square off against “Soviet Russia.”

All the capitalists have pot-bellies

But there are more obscure finds, like a season pass to—get this—Lenin’s tomb, made out in 1924 to Anatoly Lunacharsky, first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education and Enlightenment.  The card reads (in my translation): “Permanent pass, the right to unobstructed entrance to the tomb of V.I. Lenin at any time.”  Who knew this kind of document existed?  For some reason we also see Lunacharsky’s margin doodles from a Ministry of Education meeting in the late 1920s—odd faces, a pig, and can it be…it is…the head of a French bulldog!  One last Lunacharsky tidbit.  He was appointed ambassador to Spain, but died on route to Madrid, in 1933. As one of Stalin’s men, it’s a miracle he lived that long.

Highlights include Arthur Landsberg's colorful painting of a set design for Gogol's play "The Inspector General" (containing every cliche of Russian life--samovar, orthodox church, bottle of vodka, piece of herring, cigarette); a copy of Fyodor Gladkov's aptly-named 1930 novel Cement (I read it in graduate school, such memories); and a funny painting by Ivan Vladimirov called "Foreign Tourists in Leningrad" (1937), in which the foreign ladies peer through lorgnettes from the back of their sedan.

The exhibit at La Casa Encendida runs from October 7 through January 15, 2012.

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