The Secret History of Totalitarian Art

September 1, 1991 Topic: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: RealismPostmodernismSociology

The Secret History of Totalitarian Art

Mini Teaser: Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China (London: Collins Harvill, 1991).

by Author(s): George Walden

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.

But the infatuation of avant-garde painters with revolution was mainly a result of that most delirious of all abstractions, art-intellectualism: the exultant proclamations of artists about how their paintings or sculptures are the harbingers of a new and better world.  And it was the promise of a world turned upside down that inspired many pre-1917 artists in Russia, and was later to draw them to the Bolshevik Revolution.  And just as they welcomed the cataclysm of 1917, so in 1919 the Italian futurist painter and theoretician Marinetti was at the side of Mussolini when the Italian Fascist movement was launched in Milan.

Today we think of abstract or futurist painting as the antithesis of socialist style, national or communist.  But, as Golomstock shows, in early revolutionary Russia, the terms futurist and communist meant the same thing.  In the first years of the Soviet regime all the key positions in art were held by avant-garde artists: Kandinski himself was the first chairman of the Institute of Artistic Culture.  Meanwhile, in Italy, the futurists were proclaiming that "We rebel against the spineless worshipping of old canvasses, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything that is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time."  It is salutary to remember that half a century later Mao Tse-tung was encouraging Red Guards in his Cultural Revolution to "smash the old," to the enthusiastic applause of the recently deceased hero of the Italian Left, Alberto Moravia.

The perversion of the ideals of avant-garde artists began in Russia.  As in literature, those modernist artists who did not escape abroad (and many of them did) were destined to be consumed by the revolution.  But however much one admires their work and deplores their fate, they cannot be seen as purely sacrificial victims.  In the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was not the Communist Party or its cultural overseer Lunacharsky but the modernist artists and theoreticians themselves who pressed for strict, centralized administration of the arts.

As we now know, they got it with a vengeance; the party knew what it liked, and it wasn't abstraction, experimentation, or "degenerate formalism."  It wasn't long before the regime was suggesting that a rude, proletarian simplicity should replace the dizzy experimentalism of the modernists.  Already in 1922 there were attacks on the "abstract fabrications which discredit the world proletariat."  But again it was the artists themselves who took the initiative in supplicating the party for instructions on how they should paint.  The modernists were not eliminated overnight (this was the period of Lenin's New Economic Policy in which elements of capitalism were temporarily restored); but when the Communists found time to turn on them, both the artists and their works were ruthlessly suppressed.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the idealistic pre-revolutionary artist opened the road to totalitarianism, or to see modernist art as tainted.  (It did portend the future; it was just that the future didn't work.)  But that the avant-garde played a role in the formation of the totalitarian artistic ideology is undeniable.  Just as the words of Rousseau turned into the bloody machine of Robespierre, so did the dogmatism, the theorizing, the intolerance, the machine-worship, and of course, in the most debased form, revolutionary futurism itself become incorporated into totalitarian culture.

The fact that this culture is by definition international helps to explain why the paintings and sculpture of Bolshevik Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or Communist China were to become interchangeable: idealized workers and soldiers, somber, threatening monumentalism in sculpture or architecture, and the ubiquitous portraits of the heroic and far-sighted leaders of the people.  As a postgraduate student in Moscow, I remember ordering posters in an art-shop: three Khrushchevs, five Lenins, and a couple of Stalins while stocks lasted.  Mass production ensured that they only cost a few kopecks.

As Golomstock is able to demonstrate, despite their ideological differences, in matters of art Communists and Nazis were instinctively drawn to each other from the start.  And just as the artistic precursors of the Bolshevik Revolution were supremacists or futurists, so the cultural dictator-to-be of the Nazis, the exquisitely refined Josef Goebbels, was sympathetic in his youth to the modernists of his day: the expressionists.  Such a pity, he recorded in his diary, "that we and the communists have to bash each other's head."

As in Russia, with Hitler totalitarian art came full circle.  In Nazi Germany, like the victims of Robespierre's scaffold, the end for the modernists was total and terrifying:

[If] either these so-called artists actually see things in this way and therefore believe what they need only be determined whether their defect of vision has occurred in a mechanical manner or through inheritance.  In the first case it is deeply pitiable for these unfortunates; in the second [it is] important for the National Ministry of the Interior, which must then take up the question, at least to prevent further inheritance of such a kind of ghastly defect of vision....

Thus spake the Fuhrer and failed painter.

But it was in China that the universalist creed of totalitarian art emerges most glaringly.  After 4000 years of painting in inks rather than oils and never framing a picture, after Mao Tse-tung took over China's painters dipped their fine brushes in their coloured inks to depict portraits of the chairman, tractors, blast furnaces, or pylons, and framed the results.  I have some of them in my possession, bought in Peking during the Cultural Revolution; there is something extraordinarily poignant about the enforced application of superb traditional craftsmanship to inhuman, propaganda ends.

The untold history of totalitarian art and its origins is charted superbly in this book, which comes complete with appropriately lugubrious illustrations.  As a former member of the Union of Soviet Artists and a specialist on twentieth-century painting who left the Soviet Union in 1972 after championing the dissidents (he now lives in Oxford), Golomstock knows what he is talking about from inside experience.  But his book is not just about painting.  It is the history of the intellectual perversions of the twentieth century, seen through the lens of art.  The revolutionary enthusiasms of Western artists of the period would make a wonderful follow-up volume.  Its motto could be the bon mot of the surrealist Salvador Dali: "I am a genius.  So is Picasso.  I am a communist.  Nor is Picasso."

George Walden, a former British diplomat, is a Conservative Member of Parliament.

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