Pleasant Propaganda: The Museum of Russian Art
Plan on seeing the exhibit of Soviet Paintings (From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s-1980s) at The Museum of Russian Art in South Minneapolis before it closes shop later this month.
The paintings on the top two floors start with unbridled propaganda, depicting solid workers grinning about their jobs in the steel mills, factories and collectivist farms. The strong women and robust men in their industrial settings are both beautiful and horrifying at the same time, when you realize some of the workers were more likely emaciated prisoners from the nearby prison (“Beautifying Saransk” by Alexander A. Mukhin). But the exhibit takes you beyond the grand hyperbole to show how the artists worked within the political boundaries even as they let bits of reality in. By the time you get to the back of the top floor, you are seeing more realistic depictions, including the unsettling working conditions in steel mills.
It’s worth walking downstairs to see photos of actual workers, families and daily life in the Soviet Union: gritty and sober images in black and white. If you grew up during the Cold War, these are the images you remember.
And then it’s worth considering how images shape our lives. The propaganda paintings are easily recognized and dismissed—though many seem stunning today. The photos in the lower gallery seem more real—but they are just as much showing one viewpoint—another kind of persuasive effort that contrasts well with the upper galleries. A guy can’t help but wonder what sorts of images our political candidates can paint when $1 million fundraisers are the standard fare. A lotta loot buys a lotta propaganda.
Go soon—the exhibit closes shop in August.