The exhibition Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969): Avant–Garde for the Proletariat covers Deineka's entire body of work, from his early paintings of the 1920s to the twilight of his career in the 1950s. During the artist's final years, the futuristic quality of his first paintings gave way to the harsh materiality of everyday life, a life in which the utopian ideals of socialism had materialized. Deineka's graphic work, extraordinary posters and outstanding contributions to illustrated magazines and books are presented here alongside his imposing, monumental paintings. The exhibition therefore displays a variety of subject matter–factories and enthusiastic masses, athletes and farmers, the ideal and idyllic images of Soviet life. Not only were they outstanding ventures into painting and works of great formal beauty, but they were also symbolic of Soviet ideals and the conviction that social and material reality could be transformed by the revolutionary dialectic of capital and labor.
On account of its social, political, economic, and also cultural particularities, the Stalin era is a period of history well known to many. Traditionally associated with the darker years of the Soviet regime–which indeed it was–Stalinism became the subject of much historical (and political) debate following Khrushchev’s rise to power. It is an era known for the Five–Year Plans that revolutionized the country’s agriculture and introduced industrialization, the victory of the USSR in the Second World War, ever–increasing oppression under totalitarian rule, in short, the radical pretensions of totalitarianism. In the arts, Stalinism is associated with “socialist realism,” an artistic style that was enforced in 1932.
In spite of the vast amount of literature on Stalinism and the span of years it encompasses, the art produced during this period has not been explored in depth. Further aspects that remain unknown are the implications of socialist realism, the meaning of its tropes (“realist in form and socialist in content”), its aims and purposes, and, most importantly, its connection to earlier avant–garde movements and other forms of realism that developed concurrently outside Russia.
The relatively unknown art of the Stalin era–the focus of only a few exhibitions in the Soviet Union, Europe and America–tends to be disregarded (or cast out a priori from the usual canon) as an unremarkable effort that simply resulted in a pretentious and monumental variant of kitsch, a derivate and propagandistic form of art subject to ideological purposes and aimed at educating the masses.
Aleksandr Deineka formed part of the last remaining constructivist groups (such as October and OST). Because of this, and in spite of his commitment to the revolution and the formation of a socialist state, he was accused of adhering to formalism. He was nonetheless granted permission to travel to America and Europe and was granted the commission of major works by the Soviet state, whose utopian pretensions found their most notable expression in Deineka's depictions.
This “ambivalent” and “ambiguous” quality of Deineka’s art and career is mirrored by the work of other artists, and in magazines and documents. Presented together, these works expose a unique, coherent (and unexplored) set of relationships between socialist realism and the Russian avant–garde. Socialist realism viewed itself as a contemporary style, an artistic/political form of avant–garde art made for the proletariat, in sync with the political ideals of the Soviet state, unlike the artistic avant–garde which was dismissed as decorative, abstract, or, to be more precise, formalist. For this reason, Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969): Avant–Garde for the Proletariat draws a timeline spanning the years between the onset of the avant–garde in 1913, marked by the premiere of the first futurist opera–Victory over the Sun by Aleksei Kruchenykh, stage design by Kazimir Malevich–and the death of Stalin in 1953. The show explores the diverse forms of art that not only permeated all spheres of life during the period but also added to and revealed the intentions of a regime that represented itself in demiurgic terms in its effort to transform life in every way.
Given the intricacies of this subject, in addition to a broad selection of works by Deineka, the exhibition also features works by avant–garde and revolutionary artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky, as well as Liubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Aleksandra Ekster, Gustavs Klucis, Valentina Kulaguina, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Natan Al'tman, Mechislav Dobrokovskii, Solomon Telingater and Aleksei Gan, and realist artists including, among others, Kuzma Petrov–Vodkin, Iurii Pimenov, Dmitrii Moor, and Aleksandr Samokhvalov.