By Laura Milani Alessio

Despite all of the oppression of this era—or maybe because of it—these artists were able to foster great creativity and innovation, and their work captures a living and breathing moment in time that w”
—Shauna Quill
University of Chicago Presents

Born out of a lunch conversation about the music of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the University of Chicago-led Soviet Arts Experience grew into an unprecedented look at life behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain.

Featuring works that were created under or in response to Soviet Communism, the 16-monthlong, citywide collaboration explores the artistry of world-famous composers like Shostakovich as well as a cadre of lesser-known artists in music, poetry, dance, theater, and visual arts. The Soviet Arts Experience kicked off in October 2010 and continues at UChicago and throughout the city with several new exhibitions that spotlight the visual ideology that once saturated Soviet society.

“This fall in Chicago, we will have more Soviet graphic art on display from more periods, artists, and media than has ever been displayed anywhere in the world before—including the Soviet Union,” says Robert Bird, professor in Slavic languages and literatures and a primary scholar behind the Soviet Arts Experience.

Bird points to one of those lesser-known figures, Dem’ian Bednyi, who lived in the Kremlin for 25 years and was the most widely published poet in the Soviet Union. “He’s not someone whose work we frequently collect, study, and publish,” Bird says, “but his output constituted the wallpaper of existence for the Soviet people more than anyone else. And that’s what these exhibits express—without endorsing it in any way, we’re trying to see what it felt like to be in that media system.”

Ambitious project gains momentum

Organizing the series of performances and exhibitions under one banner stemmed from an “ah-ha” moment for Shauna Quill, outgoing executive director of University of Chicago Presents. It began after a lunch where she learned that the Pacifica Quartet, resident artists at UChicago, were planning an ambitious schedule to perform the complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle. At the same time, other arts organizations were planning programs and exhibitions that might complement each other. The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, had long been preparing an exhibit of Soviet era posters, a major exhibition for which they were seeking programming partners.

Quill realized the University was in a unique position to lead a larger, multidisciplinary effort that would combine the strengths of many Chicago arts organizations under the banner of the Soviet Arts Experience. The resulting series illuminates a cultural era that saw great struggle and oppression, but also bursts of creativity and distinctive styles.

Bird says the timing of the Soviet Arts Experience is ideal. “We are just coming up to the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so there’s now a kind of temporal distance that’s allowing us to question how ideology and aesthetics worked together to form the experience of Soviet people—and maybe everyone to a certain degree—in the 20th century.”

The massive collaboration has grown to include 26 artistic partners, offering 100 Soviet-themed events throughout the Chicago area.

Recently the project offered the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert with Yo-Yo Ma, in which they played two Tchaikovsky pieces at Ravinia. As the 2011 schedule continues, the focus turns toward the visual arts. The University Library’s Special Collections Research Center recently opened “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary,” which features a collection of Soviet children’s books and graphic art. The Smart Museum of Art opened “Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard” on Aug. 30, and will open yet another Soviet Arts Experience exhibition, “Vision and Communism,” on Sept. 29.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s recently opened “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad 1941-45,” and the “Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons” exhibit premiering Sept. 20 at Northwestern University, another Soviet Arts Experience partner, add to the massive number of Soviet graphic artworks on display throughout the city at one time.

Creating a new world

The University’s Smart Museum exhibits display iconic Soviet propaganda, including posters and other mass-produced works by artists such as Valentina Kulagina and Gustav Klutsis. The Special Collections exhibit, drawn entirely from the library’s holdings, reveals a more subtle but no less vibrant form of Soviet visual ideology: the children’s book.

A common theme to both forms of media were the objectives of Stalin’s five-year plans for advancing the new nation’s technology, infrastructure, and industrial goods. Bird notes that this necessitated the future-focused art associated with the early Soviet Union—particularly for imagery aimed at children, who would become the first true Soviet generation.

“Soviet children were being asked to live in a world that didn’t yet exist, one that they themselves would be building,” Bird says. Books often focused on career choices and creating or inventing new things.

For example, one of the books, Otkuda stol prishel (Where the Table Comes From), shows how a table is constructed—where to find the tree for lumber, how it’s cut down, and how it’s transported. “But in the end,” Bird says, “the table is used for making drafts of a new kind of airplane. The message is that this is the purpose of things—to create a new world.”

Oppression fuels distinctive design

Also born of necessity was the characteristically abstract, minimalist design that came to define Soviet imagery, which contributed strongly to the avant-garde movement, says Matthew Jesse Jackson, assistant professor of visual arts, art history and the College.

“Even before the revolution, Russia was a country that required many different ethnic and religious groups to be together under one uniform way of understanding the world without necessarily having literacy to depend on,” says Jackson, a curator of the SCRC and Smart Museum exhibitions.

“There was this need for an intensely visual world,” says Jackson. “What’s distinctive even today when you look back at Soviet art is that, especially in graphic art and design, how bold and simplified the messages are. It’s hard to remember what visual communication looked like before the influence of the Soviet avant-garde.”

As the exhibits show, Soviet imagery also had an impact outside its own media system. Viktor Koretsky, whose work is featured in the “Vision and Communism” exhibition, is believed to have helped fuel liberation struggles in African and even the U.S. civil rights movements.

With the quality of life not advancing as the Communist agenda had promised, Koretsky’s posters, photographs, and maquettes sought to depict oppressed people suffering in capitalistic societies. “Koretsky wanted to show citizens that although the Soviet Union wasn’t the greatest place, there were all sorts of terrible things happening in other parts of the world so that maybe they wouldn’t think it was so bad there after all,” says Jackson.

The breadth of offerings in the series can help modern audiences and artists draw lasting inspiration from the tumultuous Soviet period, Quill says.

“Despite all of the oppression of this era—or maybe because of it—these artists were able to foster great creativity and innovation,” she says, “and their work captures a living and breathing moment in time that we can continue to learn from.”