Published: 11.02.2021
An interview with Arina Zinovyeva

Welcome, today’s post is devoted to Soviet art and an important era in Russian history – art movements, styles, and creative groups during 1917 – 1991. Here is the interview with Arina Zinovyeva, the artist from Russia who's career started in a small apartment in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in 1991. What was so special about Soviet art? What are some of the facts, which are not commonly known? Keep reading to find the answers!

photo by Kim Sanders

1. Background – introduction. A bit about yourself and your art career.

One day I especially recall quite clearly. I was by myself in a room while my mother and her girlfriend were in the kitchen. I was little Arina, a four-year-old, trying to find colors and textures that would symbolize days of the week. I’m not sure why I was so concerned about finding a perfect representation of Monday and Tuesday, but I was determined to be precise. This was a turning point in my career. Another significant moment was during an interview with an American man who selected Russian young talented teenagers to go and study in the USA for a year on the American government scholarship. He asked me who I want to become. I was very nervous, but replied: “An abstract painter.” Everything else that happened to me since then just details: graduating art school in Russia, exhibiting in museums and galleries, completing my Bachelor's Fine Arts with distinction, working on a successful project ‘entanglement: quantum physics and art’, selling my art and taking commissions, being part of the vibrant Sydney art culture, teaching art in Australia… Life just goes on like that.

Day of Constitution by Isaak Brodsky

2. Tell us a bit about the Soviet art

First of all, we must take into account quite a lengthy period of time where a lot of transformations took place not only in the political but also in the social and cultural domains. The important movement to mention is Socialist Realism. This art form was considered by many outside of USSR as an act of pure propaganda, but I think there is more than that to it and in order to understand the mentality of people who imposed this style on artists, we need to discuss basic psychological traits of a Russian. The traits that are famous around the world are incredible stamina, resilience, and strength of mind and spirit. These qualities got a Russian man through two world wars speaking on a grand scale and lengthy winters of unhuman temperatures speaking on a small scale. These qualities were particularly apparent during the so-called ‘imposed and propagandistic’ era of Socialist art. Yes, it is true, artists who were respected by authorities had to please them, especially their political ambitions. For example Isaak Brodsky with his epic paintings depicting a strong stand of Lenin, Stalin, and France. He painted these men to be perceived as symbols of strength, leadership, stability, and trust. Art after all is a powerful tool for influencing people. If we look at other paintings of Brodsky we will see his endless love for nature, quiet contemplation of seasonal change that is so charming in the Russian climate. I think that the art practice of any artist should be considered as a whole, a continuum of experimentations with genres and subject matters.

3. What are your favorite Soviet artists and why?

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. I chose this artist as my favorite not necessarily because of the painting technique or subject matter, but because this artist had writing skills equivalent to his painting skills. “Petrov-Vodkin sought to obtain a deep and universal knowledge of the world, exploring his inner self in search of the essence of life”. I tend to gravitate to people who have similar values. It is more about how a person constructs his/her life rather than what he/she constructs. Both painting and writing is an expression of a thought process. Both modes of expression hold strong stereotypes: it takes next to nothing to create an abstract piece or piece of writing and it takes a talented person to paint beautifully or compose a text eloquently. First of all, both endeavors are time-consuming, and second of all, a key requirement from a person is to be emotionally invested in the work.

4. What are the three things/features/techniques/ of Soviet art which you would like to utilize/replicate/incorporate in your art?

Russia is vast and 74 years is a long time. The art was versatile, but one thing I can say for sure, a distinct feature of paintings of that period was concreteness. Artists were determined and such grandiose historical events gave creative practitioners an abundance of ideas. A lot of paintings showcased sceneries that are well recognizable. It is not about their technique as such rather it is an acute way of living and being tuned to ongoing social issues. Due to an information overload, it is extremely hard to find substance and differentiate between important and insignificant. It takes a lot of effort to stay focused and remember true deep values. I think artists in USSR didn’t have a problem like that and they could focus on what was in front of them. I think it is a distinct feature of contemporary Russia even now. A crisis in Ukraine, economic sanctions, World Cup, Olympic Games, major flood, never-ending bushfire: these issues that are inevitably visible and striking. After creating art for two decades it is hard to see bold events that can grasp my attention and make me paint about it. I focus on subtleties instead; I also like to explore ideas that are not yet widely known but will one day become. I like being in touch with cutting-edge scientific research and am grateful for having friends who like sharing information like that. I suppose Soviet art, especially posters, proclaim brave statements and their purpose is to convince people. What should I convince people of? I would like people to be kinder and more patient with each other and if I can get this message across with my art, it would be a miracle.

5. What was so special about Soviet art?

Lenin said that art must serve people, it must be understood by people and penetrate deeply in their consciousness in order to educate and inspire them to be an artist. Such philosophy was able to perceive art as an activity that anyone can be part of. This stands in a contrast to the philosophy of the XIX century and earlier when seeing and being around art was a privilege. Russian constructivism and Avant-guard had been developing rapidly during a turbulent time and their power was in giving people access to art. That time was a hallmark of acknowledging that art could become a part of everyday life.

Peasants by Kazimir Malevich
One very famous feature about the Soviet period is widespread political posters. They were the simplest way of informing the population about key ideas and values of communism-socialism. Although these posters were nothing in comparison to large-scale paintings, they were nevertheless a form of art. In fact, I would argue that Pop art and Soviet posters have a few things in common. Both genres are political and they are created to spread a message around. Soviet posters were graphical and usually, artists who worked for journals created them. A limited palette was used and short phrases that called for action were incorporated. The themes of posters revolved around work ethics, morality, scientific achievements (such as Gagarin's launch to space), and civic duty (such as compulsory army conscription).
…and what has happened after the USSR collapsed?

The so-called “perestroika” had begun. Another wave of massive changes emerged in politics, society, and culture. Some cultural activities gravitated towards western values by calling them universal others maintained a traditional approach that was Russia-centric. Regardless of this division in society, a very positive moment happened: artworks, books, and movies that were strictly prohibited during the USSR era were brought to the public. Museums and galleries were able to exhibit artworks that were carefully hidden in their basements since the 1930s. The government didn’t control how art was taught and what kind of art should be created. It gave artists the liberation that they needed. Styles of artworks after the collapse were versatile and one could find anything: symbolism, neopositivism, surrealism, and abstractionism. Malevich’s artworks (1879 – 1935) were exhibited in a solo exhibition in 1988. Malevich played his part in October Revolution.

6.What or who (in your opinion) inspired Soviet artists?

Isaak Brodsky learned from Repin for example, but not only. A lot of Soviet artists traveled to Europe to learn from masters there. Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by Matisse, and it is apparent in his 1912 masterpiece “Bathing of the Red Horse”.

7. Where we can still find some pieces of Soviet art?

The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg has an entire room dedicated to Petrov-Vodkin. Icons of Russian futurism can be found in collections together with Italian Futurism, exhibitions like that often travel around the world. “The State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum, and the Kremlin Museum” also have extensive collections of Socialist Realism and other genres of art.

8. Any information you would like to share with us – about Soviet art/artists, which can be of interest to those studying Russian and interested in Russian culture/history/art.

An interesting fact about the early Soviet period in relation to art is the nationalization of museums. Private collections were gathered under one roof, for example, The Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage, and the Russian museum united collections of private owners. A lot of private estates were turned into museums, which increased the number of museums from 87 in 1919 to 210 in 1921. A process of systematization of museums began by establishing the State Museum Fund. Artworks were systematically archived, studied, and then distributed evenly among museums in the entire country.

In 1918 Lenin published a decree “About monuments of the Republic”, which aim was to influence the population by means of culture. It gathered the best sculptors of the country to create monuments. A lot of monuments were created in a short time, but only a few of them lasted until this day as they were created using cheap materials.

9.Conclusion – a few sentences you would like to end the interview with.

It was a great pleasure to talk to you, Elena and I hope that the readers of this blog will have a chance to see Soviet art by visiting some of the museums in Moscow and St Petersburg. I would also encourage readers to explore Soviet art in their own time so that they can find an artist, an art movement, or a painting that they particularly like. Art is very subjective and the best way to explore it is by looking at it. There are a lot of online galleries that provide an audience with high-resolution pictures of original art. It can be a great start to stepping on a little Fine Arts journey.

Elena Killiakova

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