In 1939, Clement Greenberg famously distinguished avant-garde art from kitsch, the “predigested art” manufactured for the “ignorant Russian peasant” who knows “no discontinuity between art and life.” That distinction has framed the discourse of American art ever since, but it was a matter of life and death for Soviet artists once social realism was officially established by Stalin, and even more so after June 22, 1941 with the beginning of a Nazi invasion that would take twenty-three million lives.
In 1997, twenty-six mysterious brown paper parcels were discovered deep in a storage room of the AIC’s Department of Prints and Drawings. They turned out to be the legacy of a cultural exchange fifty years earlier that brought to Chicago a collection of war propaganda posters created by TASS, the Soviet News agency. Ranging in size from five to ten feet tall, their irresistible visual impact is stunning, especially now, after they have been restored to their original condition, augmented with spectacular pieces from other museums (including MoMA and the Hoover Institute), and displayed chronologically to tell the story of both the art studio that created them and the nation that was fighting for its life.
Thanks to Greenberg’s theoretical distinction, American museums typically show Russian art only from the twentieth-century avant-garde. A single example of Russian realism, impressionism, or Orthodox icon painting will not be found in the encyclopedic collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. But now, perhaps, that will change with the impact of these dramatic posters, many of which are as graphically severe and strong as they are narrative. Possibly the art director of the TASS studio, Pavel Sokolov-Skalia (1899-1961), himself a very good designer, deserves much of the credit. There are also many examples of the painterly approach and tendency toward abstraction that characterize the work of Sergei Kostin (1896-1968), even if he was criticized for preferencing aesthetics over message. And most enjoyably, as the Nazi armies were driven back, there is that dark, cantankerous Russian sense of humor that the war propaganda of other nations just can’t match. (Chris Miller)
Through October 23 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.