Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Soviet Art Museum

Aleksei Aleksandrovich Fedorov-Davydov (1900-1969) belonged to the first generation of Soviet art critics, historians, and curators. Just seventeen at the time of the 1917 Revolution, by 1929 he had already formulated guidelines for transforming Russia’s art museums into institutions that served the needs of a socialist society.1 In 1930 he presented his theses at the First All-Russian Museum Congress, where they were further developed by a special brigade of museum professionals. That same year, in response to complaints from the League of Militant Atheists, the administration of the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow was instructed to reinstall its galleries according to “the demands of Marxist art history and the goals of politically educating the masses.” As a result, the permanent collection was divided into three socio-economic stages: Feudalism, Capitalism, and the transitional era from Capitalism to Socialism (Soviet Art). The country’s other leading museums, the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum in Leningrad, followed suit, while at the same time all three organized special temporary exhibitions on themes such as “Realism of the 1860s-1880s,” “Revolutionary and Soviet Themes,” “Art of the Industrial Bourgeoisie,” and “French Art from the Age of the Decline of Feudalism and the Bourgeois Revolution.”

In 1933 Fedorov-Davydov published The Soviet Art Museum.2 At once a survey of the Soviet museum’s evolution over the previous decade and an explanation of how Marxist art theory could be applied to museum practice, the book is an important document of mainstream Soviet culture during the period 1929-32. Fedorov-Davydov describes the logical next step in the evolution of the art museum: from the history of great names, through the history of styles (Wölfflin et al.), to the history of class. What makes his argument compelling is the uncompromising break it makes with the aesthetic rules of the old museum—rejecting the hierarchy of the arts and forcing art to rub shoulders with social realities. When, in 1934, the doctrine of Socialist Realism was imposed on all aspects of Soviet cultural life, the experimental Marxist exhibition, embraced with such fervor by Fedorov-Davydov and his colleagues, became in turn, a victim of the evolutionary process.

The following extract from The Soviet Art Museum appears here in English translation for the first time. In it the author explains why the multi-media installation is the only possible vehicle in which the Marxist museum can explore the broad sociological implications of art history.

[ . . .] [T]he greatest struggle has focused on the principle of the ensemble, i.e. the combined display of various kinds of art. The museum fuddy-duddies made fun of the ensemble and deliberately distorted the idea behind it. They accused us of trying to kill painting, destroy art. They claimed that we want to hang engravings rather than paintings in museums, to set up beds and washstands and such like nonsense. This was all just stirring but cheap demagoguery that had little to do with the real state of affairs. First and foremost the ensemble was . . . the only way we could reveal and convincingly show the unity of a class’s artistic ideology at a given stage in the class struggle, to show at times the very essence of a style, for of course it is not arbitrary or fortuitous that the art of a particular [class] should be geared toward paintings or decorative art. Without the ensemble we cannot show whether a style is monumental or intimate, whether it tends towards synthesis or differentiation, we cannot fully reveal whether it is far removed from life or whether it is dominated by the goals of serving every-day purposes (as does the poster, newspaper graphics, etc.) Only in the ensemble can the art of the “lower social classes” be shown and compared with the art of the ruling classes. Peasant painting does not cease to be painting just because it decorates the base of distaffs rather than pictures. The crudest lubok doesn’t stop being art, however much it “offends” the aesthetic gaze of the snobbish art historian.3 These lubki, oleographs, embroideries and such like are necessary in order to reveal the “insular” position of aristocratic and bourgeois art, to destroy the illusion that the art of a given period is purportedly confined to the “high art” of easel painting; to show how the ruling class uses art to mold and suppress the consciousness of the repressed classes.

But from the very outset we were fully aware . . . that the ensemble was not an end in itself, that if the Marxist display of art history is unthinkable without the ensemble, nevertheless the ensemble can in and of itself be both formalist and idealistic . . . An ensemble for its own sake, the simple mechanical combination in one place of all the branches of art without dividing them into primary and secondary, turns the museum’s galleries into an antique shop. . . .What is important to us in furniture, housewares, and so on are their ideas and expressive aspects only . . . Not their everyday content but their ideology, not their function in daily life but the way ideas and emotions shape the everyday object—this is what we required of architecture and decorative art in the art museum. The very selection of furniture, porcelain and bronze, and their display, should be handled so as to destroy as much as possible the functional, everyday associations with which such objects are imbued. One may show interiors from specific periods via a painting or a drawing . . . but one must never arrange everyday interiors in art museums [. . .].

[In the exhibition “Art of the Industrial Bourgeoisie” 1930] the so-called “leftist” art of France and Germany (starting with Cubism) for the first time received a Marxist class interpretation of its various manifestations and tendencies; moreover, for virtually the first time the mass viewer was able to comprehend it. Photographs of Constructivist buildings, reproductions of Bauhaus furniture, costumes, photography, and photos of sports made the new content that Cubism introduced into art understood. Along with its separate formal and technical achievements, its profound social and ideological decadence also became clear. Examples of decorative art and “production graphics” on packaging and labeling showed the idea and meaning of Suprematism, etc., and the new and valuable technical and artistic elements that we can borrow and use from them . . .

[. . .] Contrasts between class-based styles are created using a small number of objects in the same room . . . If there is plenty of material and the facilities are large enough, two rooms may be juxtaposed, each devoted to the art of a single class. Thus, for example, the contrast of two galleries showing the art of the 1860s, one devoted to the art of petit bourgeois . . . democracy and bourgeois liberals, the other to aristocratic art. Standing in the doorway between the two spaces the visitor can at a glance view them both and grasp via the visual aid of the installation the difference and struggle of these styles, underscored moreover by the different color scheme of each room. This example shows very clearly the role of supplemental material in emphasizing style. In the art of the democrats their utilitarianism and political topicality, and the predominance of minor forms of easel painting are emphasized by the inclusion of drawings and magazine illustrations. In the art of the aristocracy the white furniture and porcelain of palaces underscore its tendency towards decoration and pleasure, its conventionality and affectations . . .
[By the late 1920s] big slogans and dynamic layout had played their part. The decorum and old-womanish propriety of the “temple of art” were boldly destroyed. The low whisper of the “academic” installation was replaced by the loud voice of the agitator. For the first time political slogans, quotes from Lenin, and party resolutions appeared on the walls of the art museum. But once the “sacred tradition” had been decisively, stridently shattered, the self-sufficient “holy places of art” reinstalled without symmetry, a red rope strung between the paintings, and a revolving circle of photos hung beneath the paintings; once the “temple” had been “defiled” by political slogans and the dynamism of the revolutionary street, this extremism was no longer needed. . . . [W]e had already learned much more about how to reveal the class essence of particular styles without having to fight against the art and diminish its objective artistic qualities. And we continue to be in favor of “the beauty of the exposition” and of ensuring that the museum visitor enjoy himself as well as learn. Strictly speaking, we have never rejected beauty or pleasure per se . . . but have fought against pushing them to center stage. The struggle against “beauty” for its own sake and simple “pleasure” was waged because these concepts concealed the old routine, because these concepts disguised the formalist, aestheticizing and idealistic content of old museum practice.
1. “Printsipy Stroitel’stva Khudozhestvennykh Muzeev” [Principles for the Construction of Art Museums], Pechat’ i Revoliutsiia, 4 (April 1929), 63-79.
2.Sovetskii Khudozhestvennyi Muzei. Moscow, 1933.
3. The lubok is a form of cheap woodblock print, often brightly colored. It has traditionally been a symbol of “low,” “popular” art, as well as a central source of inspiration for the Russian Neo-primitivist movement.
Text by Aleksei Fedorov-Davydov
Notes and translation by Wendy Salmond

Source : X-TRA Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1, 2003