This fall break, I traveled to Moscow with my urban studies class. Over the course of the week, we focused on assimilating ourselves into the fabric of the city, observing how people moved on the wide streets, riding the hyper-efficient metro, and even interacting with local university students at dinner one night. We walked through Red Square, looked at tombstones of Russian writers, artists, and leaders at Novodevichy Cemetery, and saw how people lived in communal housing during Soviet times at Kommunalka Museum. As our hours in the city unfurled, it became clear that history lay at the very core of the city, that Russians were fiercely attached to their past, be it the nostalgia for the communist era or the prior Tsarist regime.
It was with these reflections that I arrived at Tretyakov Gallery, the foremost museum of modern art in Moscow. My visit began in typical Russian fashion as I waited outside for tickets while cold air and snow whirled around me. When I finally got inside, I had forty-five minutes to race through the massive space before meeting up with my class for dinner. Enough time, I thought to myself, to quickly look at a few paintings by Kandinsky and Malevich.
As it turns out, the time was woefully short. I could have spent several more hours poring through the collection. Every turn into a new gallery drew me into a different era of Russian art, and paralleled the history of its time. One turn to the right, I found myself facing an enormous wall which revealed one of Kandinsky’s compositions: Composition VII. The pop of colors and the meandering lines provided an overdose of visual stimuli, very different from my typical experience of seeing Kandinsky’s work projected on the wall in lecture. But different, too, was my reading of the painting, now layered with conversations and experiences I had in Moscow. One of the Russian students I met told me that she disliked Kandinsky’s work because the off-white color of the ground reminded her of Soviet hospitals. Another student, Sasha, told me that she loved Kandinsky for the freedom of expression in his lines and use of color. And so looking at this pre-Soviet era painting, I saw both mappings of the Soviet past and also the increasing freedom of the present.
Another turn and Kandinsky morphed to Tatlin and Malevich. As a prelude to Malevich’s iconic Black Square, a quote from a Soviet journalist from Pravda was displayed on the wall: “In a frame, on a white background, there is a large black square. How profound, isn’t it? What a great technique, what colouration, what a vivid reflection of the era!” Dripping in sarcasm, his words were not dissimilar to my initial thoughts on the painting when I first saw it in my art history class. Faced with the tiny painting in real-life, however, I spent a surprisingly long amount of time observing the thin, hairline cracks that had formed on the square. The cracks had formed in such a way that they revealed glimmers of color that lay underneath, and their circular shape indicated that the paint had been layered onto the canvas, not just applied in a flat manner. These additional layers of complexity that came with looking at the painting in real-life elevated my understanding of the work.
Shortly after, the style in the galleries started to change to Socialist Realism, or in other words, unashamed Soviet propaganda. Gone were the whimsical lines and stark geometric forms – now there was a realist depiction of Lenin writing at his table, a halo-like light around his head. Another portrayed “the Bolshevik,” an idealized, giant figure leading the masses through the city, holding a waving red flag and putting an end to the oppressive monarchy. There were images of the new Soviet woman, dressed in practical clothes and holding a T-square in her hands, a nod to the so-called egalitarianism of the Soviet period. The sudden change in style and works was indicative of the abrupt upheaval that the country went through after the 1917 Revolution. A new order was imposed and the old one quashed; a new sycophantic style was enforced and the Expressionists and Futurists were dispelled.
Paintings such as Kliment Redko’s Uprising were especially interesting because they combined the geometric form of the square with Socialist Realism. Redko presents the rise of communism through the stark shape of the square in the center, the gaunt faces of Lenin and the other Soviet leaders, and the erasure of the black (the old order) by the red (communism). Emerging from the square are depictions of public housing complexes that were built for the masses, to ensure that everyone had a place to live. The uniformity of the structures and the lego-like quality of the architecture reminded me of a tour of Khrushchyovkas that we had been on a few days before. The Khrushchyovkas were essentially pre-manufactured concrete blocks that were piled on top of each other with cement to create housing on the outskirts of Moscow, built when Nikita Khrushchev was in power. In the painting, the housing is shown to be a great achievement, with light seeping into the darkened windows. However, my experience seeing the living conditions in the Khrushchyovkas and communal housing complexes at Kommunalka Museum elicited a skeptical response from me and allowed me to relate what I had observed in present-day Moscow to the painting.
The last galleries presented a critique of Socialist Realism and of the Soviet regime, mirroring the fall of the Soviet Union and the new wave of freedom of expression in the country. For instance, the painting in the foreground below captures the socialist fraternal kiss that took place between Brezhnev and Honecker (leader of East Germany).
Further, Malevich. Sold. by Alexander Kosolapov emphasizes the brand name that Malevich has become, and makes a comment about the commodification of art in the newly-capitalist Russia. Chains like McDonald’s and KFC have become extremely popular in post-Soviet Russia, and malls have popped up on the outskirts of Moscow to set capitalism into motion, making this work indicative of Russia today.
Thus ended my tour of Tretyakov Gallery, or rather, a speed-walk through 20th century Russia. Exiting the museum and once again facing the snow, I noticed that there were still people queuing to enter the gallery. As Sasha noted to me at dinner, Moscow is all about history, and this could not be more evident than within the walls of Tretyakov Gallery. The monuments to Marx and Lenin on the streets are paralleled by the Socialist Realist paintings, the burgeoning capitalism is mirrored in satirical comments by present-day Russian artists. I emerged from the gallery with a sense of amazement at Moscow’s preservation of its history through art, and I hope to return one day to once again take a stroll through the decades.