PRINT November 2012


Aleksandr Deineka, The Ball Game, 1932, oil on canvas, 49 x 49"

WHY DEINEKA NOW? At a time when contemporary art is revisiting all forms of figuration, realism, and neoclassicism, it should come as no surprise that the work of Russian artist Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969) is garnering new audiences, with four major exhibitions on view in Europe within the past few years. There is more to the story, however, than the belated recognition of a talented figurative painter. Deineka conjured Soviet bodies—working, playing sports, flying, bathing, marching, meeting, and fighting from the Revolution through the early Brezhnev era—with a haptic intensity that belies our preconceptions about the massive cultural project of the period: socialist realism. Yet while his work was not fully representative of this system, he was a major player in its institutions and a staunch supporter of the program it represented. This position within and without socialist realism was unique. It offered a singular model of political engagement, conveyed through his sensuous bodies, that unexpectedly shows us what “engaged art” might look like today, in a moment that seems strangely suspended between the sociable politics of relational aesthetics and the unruly activism of Occupy.

Although hardly a household name outside Russia, Deineka is certainly familiar to fans of Russian art. In the 1930s, his work was exhibited to critical and popular acclaim in Europe and the United States; in 1934, when describing the Soviet artists then in favor, Henri Matisse singled out Deineka as “the most talented” and “the most advanced” of the lot. His international profile dimmed for the remainder of the Soviet period, but the work has enjoyed a resurgence since the fall of the Soviet Union. His modernist-inspired canvases from the ’20s were staples in the exhibitions of avant-garde art that took off in the early post-Soviet years, such as the “Great Utopia” shows in New York, Frankfurt, and Moscow in 1992 and ’93, showcasing works that were newly accessible with the opening of former Soviet museums. While these exhibitions primarily catered to the fascination with the Russian avant-gardes, such as Suprematism and Constructivism, whose radical abstraction seemed to align with key moments in Western modernism, these exhibitions expanded the picture of innovative Soviet art by including works of experimental figuration such as those produced by Deineka’s group, the Society of Easel Painters (OST), whose members practiced various modernist-influenced but resolutely representational styles to convey a new socialist subject matter. And Deineka’s later, more properly socialist-realist paintings—equally ideological, but less inflected by modernist pictorial strategies—figured prominently in the constellation of thematic exhibitions of socialist realism that burgeoned a decade later, which attempted to reconsider critically the previously ignored art produced under Stalin.

More recently, Deineka has enjoyed an unprecedented flurry of solo exposure in Russia and Europe, suggesting that the appeal of his work is unique even amid a growing interest in socialist realism. His first Moscow retrospective since the end of the Soviet Union took place in the spring of 2010, at the State Tretyakov Gallery (his last solo exhibition in Moscow was in 1990, to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of his birth): It constituted nothing less than a rediscovery of his work for a new generation of Russians. A smaller version of the Tretyakov show traveled to Rome in spring 2011; an independently curated exhibition of his work appeared last fall in Madrid; and this past spring he was one of three artists featured in the exhibition “Exhausted Heroes” in Hamburg.

IT IS NOT HARD to identify the larger political impetus behind the staging of the massive retrospective in Moscow: Deineka is the perfect Russian artist for the Putin era. In the Putin narrative, the Soviet period—despite some regrettable excesses—was just one among the many glorious ages of Russia as a dominant nation on the world stage (defeating Hitler in World War II, Sputnik, nuclear superpower). There is no need to apologize for Communism, but no need to exaggerate its importance, either, in that long nationalist history. Thus contextualized, the strong graphic lines and large size of Deineka’s canvases, combined with his stern imagery of individual and collective endeavor, can convincingly project the muscularity of Russian state power. The introductory wall text in the Moscow exhibition neatly captured this narrative, declaring that “the time for politics is past”; we can now appreciate Deineka simply as a “great Russian master.” This seems like a staggering claim for such an overtly political artist (his works depict industrial workers, collective farms, and Bolshevik partisans, among many other charged subjects), but it certainly set the tone for the exhibition’s public reception, which was extensive and enthusiastic. Deineka’s topical World War II paintings, which appeal directly to the intense patriotism that still surrounds that subject in Russian culture, were a favorite subject for the cameras, stressing a folksy nationalism over his intently partisan socialist vision. This selective depoliticizing of historically political art offers a troubling mirror to the Russian government’s crackdown on politically ambitious contemporary art, of which the recent trial of Pussy Riot is but the most obvious example.

Aleksandr Deineka, The Goalkeeper, 1934, oil on canvas, 3' 10 7/8“ x 11' 6 1/2”.

Neutralized in this way, Deineka is also the perfect export from today’s Russia. The Tretyakov exhibition traveled to Rome in 2011 as part of the official “Year of Russia in Italy,” an interstate agreement reached by President Dmitry Medvedev and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to foster friendship between the two countries. Handsomely designed and dramatically lit, the grand spaces of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (the site of the famous 1932 “Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista” [Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution] celebrating ten years of Mussolini’s rule) set off Deineka’s works to maximum advantage. Extensive wall texts promoted a highly aestheticized view of the artist, with references to his affinity for Russian icon painters and the murals of the Italian primitives.

This curatorial approach finds its counterpart in the other sense of exporting as well—on the international art market, where Soviet and socialist-realist art has been commanding impressive prices at auction in recent years. Deineka’s works are mostly in state collections and rarely come up for sale but are snapped up when they do: A small, uncharacteristic 1937 still life attributed to Deineka sold in London this year for more than six hundred thousand dollars. Money helps, in other words, to promote the narrative of Russian greatness abroad, as oil-rich expatriate collectors drive up prices by searching out appropriately “Russian” works for their collections, apparently unfazed by the irony that many of these works were made not only under the Soviet art system but in support of now-discarded socialism itself.

An exploration of Deineka’s political engagement finally emerged on the European scene a few months after the Rome show, when “Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969): An Avant-Garde for the Proletariat” opened in October 2011 at Madrid’s Fundación Juan March. The usual presentation of Soviet art is dominated by the ’20s avant-garde, with a few realist works thrown in as foils. Here, the procedure was reversed: Works by Tatlin, Popova, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Klucis introduced the show, setting the stage for Deineka. Throughout much of the exhibition, Constructivist posters, journals, and objects provided a detailed historical context for his works.

We have long been under the spell of the modernist avant-gardes, with their ban on naturalistic representation and insistence on certain narrowly defined models of criticality and resistance. But by taking as a given the fact that Deineka was operating within a particular political system—one in which he largely believed—and setting out to show the audience as much as possible about that system and his place within it, the exhibition effectively demonstrated that we are now ready to see socialist realism in ways we couldn’t before.

New vantages on the politics of realism were posed even more clearly in “Exhausted Heroes,” at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the most recent Deineka show to appear in Europe. Here Deineka was in the company of contemporary German artist Neo Rauch—known for his disenchanted figurative paintings in the context of postunification Germany—as well as fin-de-siècle Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler. All three artists were presented through their different relations to the twentieth-century ideal of “the new man.” Within this trio, Deineka was not bracketed as somehow false—operating within a system of mendacious propaganda that cannot be trusted—but rather as an artist with a specific, socialist investment in the possibility of a new human identity under Soviet Communism. Hodler had been a model for Deineka, and the show suggested the ways in which the latter’s particular realist aesthetic built on aspects of the former’s monumental, decorative seriality. At the same time, Deineka’s combination of severity and hapticity had served as a welcome example of a reflexiveness rare among the socialist realists whose work Rauch studied in East Germany. It became clear that when presented outside what might be described as the totalitarian model, in which the “liberated” modernist art of the West is pitted against a coerced socialist realism behind the Iron Curtain, Deineka’s realist aesthetic has the power to initiate reevaluations not only of the art of his own era but of realist modes of both the nineteenth century and the twenty-first.

INDEED, DEINEKA’S RECENT RE-EMERGENCE can perhaps best be explained by the way he helps us to resist not only the waning—if still pervasive—logic of the totalitarian model but the equally pervasive logic of modernism, with its formal condemnation of what Clement Greenberg once called the “vicarious experience and faked sensations” offered by socialist realist works of art. Clinging to the authenticity and purity of aesthetic experience as a bulwark against totalitarian instrumentalization, Greenberg dismissed the possibility that ideological art systems could produce anything but fakery. How, exactly, did Deineka subvert these expectations of socialist realist art without necessarily subverting its ideological principles?

Aleksandr Deineka, Conquerors of Space, 1961, oil on canvas, 11' 17/8“ x 4' 3 1/2”.

Deineka’s pictures convey Soviet experience with an intensity and immediacy that belie Greenberg’s allegation of vicariousness. One of the hallmarks of that experience for younger artists in the later 1920s was what I call laterality: a shared, nonhierarchical, horizontal distribution of aesthetic production, reception, and even form. These artists rejected what they saw as the false originality of the bourgeois avant-garde, with its endless production of privatized feelings and formal experimentation aimed at an art market rapacious for novelty, attempting instead to create a new institutional space for purposeful, commissioned artistic labor that would legibly and publicly affirm the shared project of revolution. Institutionally, these artists embraced public contracts and commissions that constrained their artistic production in some ways but also freed them from market systems. Psychologically, they consciously chose to conform their art to shared ideological goals, rather than merely surrender their individual expressiveness to external demands, as Greenberg implied.

This laterality was a deliberate rejection of the “verticality” of the avant-garde, in which the innovative artist—think of Malevich—overthrows and overtakes previous art. In 1928, Deineka stood poised between the hierarchy and originality of the avant-garde (he was a member of the experimental OST group, as mentioned above, and was friendly with avant-gardists such as Mayakovsky) and the contrasting urge toward a deliberate sameness and repetition that could be observed among younger realist artists.

Such a balancing act is precisely what makes a picture like The Defense of Petrograd, 1928, so gripping. Petrograd is obviously indebted to the geometric abstraction and Purism of the ’20s in the patterning of its composition—the bisecting horizontal of the bridge and the sharp diagonals of the rifles—and in the flattened human forms picked out against the undifferentiated white ground. The modernist sheen of such early canvases has made Deineka a favorite among Western art historians, yet focusing on that sheen neglects his graphic and communicative ambitions. In fact, he came to painting from an established career as a graphic artist for mass magazines like Atheist at the Factory Workbench, in which his drawings communicated their Communist message starkly and effectively; critics admired his paintings for their “biting graphism,” always noting their affinity with his mass-produced work. He produced the painting for the 1928 exhibition “Ten Years of the Red Army,” for which all commissioned artists shared the same brief of producing military- and especially Civil War–themed canvases. This voluntary, lateral model of a shared brief among Soviet artists stands in sharp contrast to the more familiar one of top-down coercion. Petrograd’s theme of Bolshevik fighters’ heroism in fending off the White Army during the Civil War is therefore deliberately not unique, even if the pictorial qualities bespeak Deineka’s original approach, and the subject matter is amplified by visual analogy through the lateral structure of the picture itself: One set of exhausted fighters returning from battle, above, is replaced by a set of fresh forces marching in below, their erect bodies an endless lateral stream of Soviet subjects ready to participate in the shared experience of socialism.

This picturing of collectivity could also be more properly felt. In the years immediately preceding the 1934 declaration of socialist realism as the official mode of Soviet art, Deineka made a group of works dubbed “lyrical” by contemporary critics, which began to explore the sensation or affect of the singular socialist body. Intimate, close-up images of beautiful bodies, they depart from the serialized working or marching figures, often shown in urban or industrial settings, which had previously dominated his work, focusing instead on a more personal experience of corporeality. This contrast is clearly visible, for example, between the three figures in Women Textile Workers, 1927—who embody the serialization of industrial labor, each at an assembly line post and gazing in a different direction—and the three nude women in the “lyrical” Ball Game, 1932, who face each other in a tightly enclosed, intimate space.

Nearly devoid of overt social or ideological signifiers, the lyrical pictures certainly do not provide the pedagogical or didactic analyses of social processes that we usually associate with socialist realism. Yet they fit within a different, lesser-known demand for the evocation of “socialist feelings” (sotsialisticheskie chuvstva) that appeared within Soviet art and film criticism at this time. (A review of Deineka’s work in a 1933 exhibition was titled “An Art of Joy.”) For instance, from everything Deineka said and wrote, we know that his warm sentiment for youthful sports as the embodiment of his dream of socialism was anything but Greenberg’s “faked sensations.” And in the case of many of his lyrical paintings, the naked bodies on display—such as the three powerful blondes in The Ball Game—were that of one particular sportswoman, to whom he had a real, if unrequited, emotional connection: the teenage Liusia Vtorova, a champion long-distance swimmer whom Deineka met and wooed in 1932. The artist’s own complicated, private desire, in other words, was at play in the aesthetic choices he made to convey a more sharable feeling of socialist “joy” to a broad public of Soviet viewers.

Aleksandr Deineka, The Defense of Petrograd, 1928, oil on canvas, 82 5/8 x 93 3/4".

Most saliently, Deineka’s aesthetic of the ’30s, while more obviously realist in its representation of solid, naturalistic bodies, continued to mobilize modernist strategies, such as fragmentation (the radical cropping of the compositions) and transmediality (the invocation of the photographic snapshot and sculptural form), in contrast to the presentation of conventionally composed and realistically detailed “types” (tipazh) that increasingly dominated Soviet art. We can see these strategies in the dazzling effect of peachy flesh straining against the tightly cropped bounds of these pictures and the tactile sense of walking around its sculptural figures, experiencing them in different positions, which work to deepen the sensation of the depicted bodies—or, better, of Liusia’s particular body—through which socialist values would be communicated haptically. For, as a mode of vision that is near, the haptic is analogous to touch in its combination of multiple sensory responses, in contrast to the distance of the optic. And yet the lyrical or haptic aesthetic is no less ideological than the more pedagogical or analytic modes of socialist realism, or even, for that matter, of Soviet factography. The difference is that this mode addresses the feelings, more than the critical capacities, of the imagined collective viewer: It aims for empathy as much as analysis.

This haptic effect extends beyond Deineka’s paintings of nude women to one of his best-known sports images, The Goalkeeper, 1934, and beyond the obviously tactile medium of oil painting to his extensive graphic work, such as his most famous poster, Physical Culture Girl, 1933—which also incorporates Liusia’s image. Neither vicarious nor fake, didactic nor pedagogic, Deineka’s realism is a form of “supercharged mimesis” (to use Devin Fore’s term). It does not revert to nineteenth-century mimetic realism, but reflexively produces a new mimesis incorporating the lessons of modernism, in order to intensify the sensations of living socialism. As the critic Adrian Piotrovsky put it at the time, the filmic strategy of “lyrical sympathy”—which deployed modernist techniques of montage not to produce a critically reflective spectator as in, say, the films of Dziga Vertov, but to lead Soviet spectators to experience the socialist meaning of films more deeply and viscerally—had the power to “infect” the viewer with socialist meanings. Casting aside the depiction of actual conditions of Soviet life, or ideological scenarios of developing social processes, these lyrical pictures and films imagine other affective possibilities under socialism.

AT THE END OF 1934, Deineka took his supercharged mimesis on the road to the West, spending almost three months in the US as the official representative of the traveling exhibition “Art of Soviet Russia” (in which his Goalkeeper and other works received wildly positive reviews from American critics), followed by shorter stays in Paris and Rome. His sketches and paintings from abroad vary sharply in tone: from the documentary (his many cityscapes of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Paris) to the almost sentimentally lyrical (his African-American subjects, whom he fetishized as a soulful proletariat, and his breakfasting Roman workers) to extraordinary examples of his haptic vision, now amped up by a modernist flatness authorized by the Western subject matter, that astonish in their caustic criticism of capitalism (his rich Philadelphia lady in Boredom; his worker and clerics in A Street in Rome, both 1935). These trenchant pictorial accounts of America and Europe from a confident Soviet perspective are especially provocative for Western audiences today, when our supposed capitalist superiority has been severely challenged; they captivated Soviet audiences, too, when they were shown in Deineka’s major solo exhibition in Moscow in late 1935. In fact, the extensive critical response to this exhibition anointed him as the most modern and promising artist for the future development of socialist realism. The show also included two large-scale Soviet-themed canvases that Deineka completed on his return from the West—Collective-Farm Worker on a Bicycle and Lunchbreak in the Donbass, both 1935_—_that join his haptic forms with more explicitly lateral, class-based, and public subjects to produce stunning images of the USSR as what we could call a modern lyrical community—the unique experiment in modernity made possible by Soviet socialism.

Deineka’s allegiance to this fantasy of lyrical community persevered in his pictures even during the Terror (1936–38), when he was denounced in the press for “formalism” (Soviet code for Western modernism or insufficient realism), and his position within the Soviet art system became tenuous. His 1937 painting At the Women’s Meeting—commissioned for the massive 1939 exhibition “Industry of Socialism,” showcasing the achievements of socialist realism—depicts an exclusively feminine political community with an overwhelming lushness of flesh, color, and texture that magnifies the sensation of their casual, undirected, and nonhierarchical togetherness. The laterality and lyricism of this tableau was singular, nothing like depictions of similar subjects by other artists in the exhibition, in which female political actors were always pictorially subordinated to male authority figures—especially Lenin and Stalin—in line with the return to gender and status hierarchy that characterized Stalinism from the mid-1930s on.

Aleksandr Deineka, Collective-Farm Worker on a Bicycle, 1935, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 86 5/8".

But while Deineka’s painting may have been resistant, even subversive, in aspects of its visual form, he was no dissident. His work conformed in subject matter, and to a great extent in style, to the broad range of norms of socialist realism at that moment. At the same time, the pall cast by accusations of formalism had its effect: Deineka’s work was displayed at the “Industry of Socialism” exhibition and illustrated in the catalogue yet ominously passed over in silence in the critical reception of the exhibition, and it was not included as a stop on official tours.

Deineka would retain this uncertain status, in which he alternated between favor (the occasional commission or administrative post) and disfavor (dangerous snubs and demotions), for the next twenty years, as the Soviet art system continually shifted its policies toward its more “leftist” or “formalist” wing. He was only fully reinstated in 1957 under Khrushchev’s thaw and was once again celebrated, as he had been after his solo show in 1935, as the exemplary modern Soviet artist. His symptomatic Self-Portrait of 1948 disavows the inadequacy he felt as a result of his marginalization at the time he painted it: Standing five-foot-seven, almost fifty years old, he in no way resembled the long, lean, muscular, and movie-star-handsome artist depicted in his studio. Although many of his later works would harden into an academic or illustrative visual style—sometimes, at their best, with an acidic proto-Pop sensibility—the self-portrait recaptures some of the haptic intensity of his earlier paintings in the profusion of surface textures and vivid colors, and in his piercing blue gaze, physically insisting on his right to belong to the community of Soviet artists.

Deineka never wavered in his desire to be a part of this community or its institutions, or in his commitment to picturing the Soviet Union itself as a modern lyrical collectivity—even as his political engagement with the idealistic model of laterality and his imaginings of socialist bodies became increasingly outmoded within the ossifying Soviet system. He falls outside the comforting ideological dichotomy of critical resistance versus complicity that has been so crucial to discussions of socialist realism, as it is to contemporary discussions of the relationship of artists to the global art market. Now as then, perhaps our best objective is not so much to supersede the systems within which we work, but to find new, “supercharged” possibilities within them.

Christina Kiaer is an associate professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.