The Soviet artists who came in from the cold

Valentina Savelieva '' The Factory Newspaper Wall '' 1968

Valentina Savelieva '' The Factory Newspaper Wall '' 1968 - Credit: Archant

Works painted by state sponsored artists under the Communist regime go on display at Highgate Gallery

Soviet-era artworks go on show at Highgate Gallery, a century after the Russian Revolution.

The Highgate Literary and Scientific Insitution hosts an exhibition of drawings and paintings by members of the Artist’s Union of St Petersburg from 1950-1980.

Curator John Barkes has been visiting the city since the early 1990s forming close links with artists who were previously paid to promote and glorify Communist values.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 it left many of them without salaries or resources.

“They had been working for the Government all their lives and led privileged lives with good apartments, magnificent studios, and teaching jobs,” says Barkes.

“They were really well set up but then abandoned by the system. When I first went some were in their 70s, surrounded by their life’s work. Socialist Realist work idealised things for the politicians, but I was interested in the pictures they had done for themselves or in their youth.”

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Barkes preferred the vibrantly observed sketches and drawings to the formal finished article which he says was often “stiff and constipated”.

He was able to buy sketches that were worth little in Russia.

“With the fall of Communism, these pictures became deeply unfashionable with the general population. I could go and see the most premium artists and give them more money than anyone else. The best of them are wonderful. 25 years on most Russians want 19th Century, avant-garde or abstract work, but a few in their 40s who grew up in the old system see these works and say ‘that’s my childhoood’.”

The style dates back to the 1920s soon after the revolution, and was formalised by a Kremlin committee in 1933 who wanted art to be an instrument of the state, educating people to be good citizens.

“It was invented by a politician,” says Barkes, who with his brother ran a gallery in Parkway Camden Town between 1988 and 2003 selling art from Russia.

“Josef Stalin said ‘don’t paint things as they are but as they ought to be’. You get fantastic harvests and happy children. Commissions for every institution of state; World War II paintings for a military college, pictures of cold war pilots for the air ministry or sportspeople for the Olympics.

“Like Putin taking over the TV, Stalin worked out you don’t have to lock people up just control the means of communication.”

The upside, says Barkes, was generous funding for Soviet art schools.

“There was a great system of training akin to the 19th Century atelier system. They would enter at 11 and wouldn’t be let loose on a commission until 26 or 27 by which time they were well trained. The best of them can produce the most wonderful pictures.”

Artists could either take a lower wage and be able to sell on commissions, or a larger wage with all their work belonging to the state.

“There were rules of the game,” he adds. “You couldn’t paint things unacceptable to the powers that be.”

One artist’s sketches of people at a bus stop including three men smoking and talking was vetoed

“Three people talking was a meeting and they might be criticising the government, so he changed it to women and children instead.”

And while anti-Fascist cartoonists were allowed to criticise a generic inefficient boss or lazy worker, one cartoonist got into hot water for depicting a mental hospital with a patient who hallucinated fish in a fish shop.

Barkes is exhibiting and selling these Socialist Realist works which include Evgeni Kazmin’s designs for mosaic and mural projects from the 60s and 70s including the Sochi State Circus building.

“Nina Simone said it was the duty of an artist to reflect their times and in a way they did that. They are just artists who painted what was going on around them. Perhaps some sneaked things in; I remember one picture of Lenin in which he looked completely psychotic. But these artists devoted their lives to Communism. They were Communist in a pure way, the way we are democrats. They didn’t adore the politicians but they did believe it was the best system for governing a country where everyone gets an even go.”

At the Highgate Gallery in Pond Square from February 3-16. On February 5, Dr Elizaveta Butakova a specialist in Russian post war avant-garde gives a lecture on Socialist Realism alongside John Barkes. To reserve a place email