Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China (London: Collins Harvill, 1991). 416 pp., L(pound symbol)30.
Art, its practitioners are wont to remind us, prefigures the future. As they watch their works disappear from museums and their state collapse into the rubble of communism, the official artists of Eastern Europe must be asking themselves what happened to their future, and where they went wrong. Since to a man and a woman they were zealous opponents of abstraction and "bourgeois formalism," they would be surprised to learn that part of the answer lies in the links between avant-garde painting and totalitarian art.
On the face of it, anything more distant from the exquisite early abstractions of the Russian painters Malevich and Kandinski, or the exhilarating futurism of the Italian Marinetti, than the tractor drivers of Soviet socialist realism, the idealized peasants of the Italian Fascists, the official portrait of Goering at Luftwaffe Headquarters, or Chinese woodcuts of Chairman Mao, seems impossible to imagine. Yet, as Igor Golomstock demonstrates in his brilliant new book, Totalitarian Art, totalitarian realism had ideological, if not formal, roots in early twentieth-century modernism.
Sometimes it was sheer naivete: "Lenin turned Russia upside down the way I turn my pictures," Marc Chagall, the painter of tipsy churches and airborne peasants wrote in the first flush of revolution when he was commissar for arts in the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment. Twenty years later, in Paris, he made amends for his early enthusiasm by painting Lenin on his head as a clown.