Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"New Art From the Soviet Union," the show of "unofficial" Russian art on view at the Arts Club, 2017 I St. NW, evokes as such shows will, the usual cliches.
In the background are the bad guys - the heavy-handed comissars who insist on Socialist Realism and squash all other styles. In the foreground are the good guys - the few heroic artists of the underground who dare to do their own thing despite the crushing power of the totalitarian state.
It would be easier to cheer if one did not have to see the pictures on display. Wit a few exceptions, they are second-rate.
The two sorts of Soviet art, the official and the underground, are negatives of one another. Official art, with its handsome, happy workers and noble proletarians, is ruthlessly optimistic. It tries to soothe the masses. Much unofficial art tries as hard to shock.
Many of their images (if not their borrowed Western styles) seem intentionally offensive. They are full of bloated bodies, servered heads, public hair and bugs. Americans brought up on horror movies, Hustler, and the National Lampoon can take this stuff in stride. Perhaps it's not surprising that Soviet officials, whose people worshipped icons, look at it askance.
A few of these artists, for instance Igor Tiulpanov (who has looked at Hieronymous Bosch), draw very well indeed. Some (Kropivnitskaia, Lapin, Gorokhovshy) might earn a living in the West as commercial illustrators or magazine designers. Because so many of these artists yell, or thumb their noses, at those who see their pictures, it is a relief to find a few small works (by Meel, Malle, Leis, and Mare Vint) that aim to please the eye.
Wednesday night's opening (and next week's exhibitions at the Editors Building, 1729 H St. NW, and at the Haslem, B. David, Rowe House and Atlantic Galleries) marks the publication of "New Art From the Soviet Union," edited by Norton Dodge and Alison Hilton (Acropolis Books, 120 pages, $14.50).
"My field is Soviet economics," said Dodge, a professor at the University of Maryland, "and I'm a frustrated artist. Since the Soviet economists wouldn't talk to me, I turned to Soviet art." Dodge's Cremona Foundation has established an archive and collection of modern Soviet art.
"Congratulations, Norton," said art dealer Franz Bader, who had come, as had around 40 others, to see the Russian show. "We need more people who care for an idea as much as you do. You have dedicated your life to unofficial Russian art."
Said Dodge. "You may think this art is good - or bad; I think it should be seen."