The Russians are here!
The Annee France-Russie, which started in March with religious art at the Louvre, has grown into an all-out invasion: Four Russian exhibitions recently have opened in Paris.
For the vernissage in March, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came over and bought four French amphibious assault ships on the side. This time, he met President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Deauville to discuss the idea of a zone of security and economic cooperation in Europe.
One of the exhibitions almost ended before it opened.
The Louvre had invited 18 Russian artists or artistic teams, born between 1933 and 1969, when the Ministry of Culture in Moscow intervened and wanted one of the selected works removed from the list. Out of solidarity with the black sheep, other participants threatened to boycott the show. The bureaucrats gave in.
The bone of contention was one of four abstract prints in the style of Kasimir Malevich, the pioneer of Suprematism. What drew the ire of the ministerial watchdogs was Avdei Ter-Oganyan’s provocative captions. The one in question reads: “This work is an appeal to assassinate the statesman V.V. Putin in order to end his political career.”
Black humor abounds. The Blue Noses Group makes fun of the sacrosanct Suprematism by turning Malevich’s rectangles and circles into sheets of plywood in a carpenter’s workshop. Vitali Komar and Alexander Melamid mock the surveys of market researchers: Based on a poll of 3,000 people, they come up with “Russia’s Most Wanted Painting” -- a landscape with a lake, a forest and Jesus.
“Contrepoint: L’Art Contemporain Russe,” which is supported by shares in LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, runs through Jan. 31, 2011. Information: http://www.louvre.fr or +33-1-4020-5317.
Amusing as the glimpse into contemporary Russian art is, the most important of the four shows is “Lenin, Stalin and Music” at the Cite de la Musique.
Some 400 objects -- paintings, prints, photos, films, manuscripts, maquettes and costumes -- tell the story of music in the Soviet Union from the October Revolution in 1917 to Stalin’s death in 1953.
The organizers have divided the show into two parts; the first ends in 1929 when Stalin had defeated his rivals and became the country’s undisputed master. In fact, 1932 would have been a more appropriate break: That was the year when Socialist Realism became the official doctrine.
In the preceding 15 years, under the benevolent eye of Anatoli Lunacharski, the People’s Commissar for Education, artists still enjoyed considerable liberties. The show includes mementoes of the premieres of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” and early ballets whose musical language was far more advanced than the proletarian simplicity favored by the hardliners.
This changed in 1932 when all musical activity was brought under the control of the Communist Party-dominated Composers Union. Shostakovich became the most prominent victim of the new policy.
In 1936, after Stalin had seen his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” at the Bolshoi Theater, an editorial in Pravda, the party’s mouthpiece, attacked the work’s “deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sounds.” It vanished from the Soviet scene until after Stalin’s death.
The authorities, instead, touted as a model Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s 1935 opera “Quiet Flows the Don,” an easily digestible succession of songs, folk dances and rousing choruses.
An important part of the artists’ duties was the glorification of the “Father of the Fatherland,” and many, as the exhibition amply demonstrates, complied.
The Cite de la Musique is at 221 Ave. Jean Jaures. The show runs through Jan. 16, 2011. Information: http://www.citedelamusique.fr or +33-1-4484-4484.
For more on the other shows, “In the Service of the Tsars: The Imperial Guard” at the Musee de l’Armee and “Romantic Russia” at the Musee de la Vie Romantique, go to http://www.invalides.org and http://www.vie-romantique.paris.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)