Since the fall
of the Communist Bloc, many historians of the USSR have attempted,
through a meticulous study of archival sources, to go beyond the
antagonistic approaches of “totalitarianism”(1) and
“revisionism.”(2) In the field of the history of the
arts, this attempt has been expressed quite recently in research
into issues surrounding patronage, commissions, and exhibitions.(3)
Our work is part of that movement, which introduces some material
and economic considerations into the study of 1920s and 1930s
Soviet painting. We propose to nuance here the totalitarian idea
that the economy constituted merely a lever used to apply an ideology.
A consecutive presentation of the situation in the 1920s--which
was marked by the artistic diversity of groups--and then of the
period of the Cultural Revolution (1928-1932)--which was characterized
by the installation of the Stalinist form of organization--will
allow us to highlight changes in the position of the artist with
regard to such varied questions as: With what economic realities
were artists forced to compromise? How did those realities relate
to ideological considerations? What was their relation to the
very form of works? What sorts of coercive and free spaces were
The Economic Importance of Artistic Groups in the 1920s
Within the framework of the New Economic Plan (NEP), artists could
once again join forces within associations. Such connections were
made on the basis of networks of friends and artistic sensibilities,
and they generally led to the drafting of various programs. For
an artist, joining a group answered an economic need, as well:
groups obtained State subsidies, which were useful in organizing
exhibitions, buying materials, or lending money to one of their
members in case a specific problem arose.
structures of these groups proved to be more or less complex,
depending upon the collective. The Association of Artists of Revolutionary
Russia (AKhRR)(4), for example, possessed its own publishing organ
and had an office that served as an intermediary for artists and
These groups also held varying views about State economic intervention
in artistic activities. Thus, the AKhRR proposed to develop the
system of commissions that was especially active during the Civil
War, when the Red Army was demanding propaganda works. The Society
of Easel Artists (OST) and other groups, on the contrary, wanted
the State to invest more in the purchase of works and to increase
the allocation of subsidies.
the Twenties, private clients remained scarce. Purchases of artworks
were divided up among several commissions that had comparable
amounts of funding.(5) Each commission belonged to a specific
State administration or a museum and competed with the other ones.(6)
A system reminiscent of the art market was thus restored, in large
part within the State apparatus itself.
those commissions, the so-called State Commission declared that
it would privilege the acquisition of contemporary Soviet paintings,
sculptures, and drawings in order to support the easel arts, which
were then in the throes of crisis(7). Emphasis on the fact that
the easel arts were undergoing a major crisis serves to encourage
a revision of the traditional interpretation of the multidisciplinary
character of artists. Grasped as the sign of the creative freedom
that was shaking things up in the 1920s, this multidisciplinary
character of artists at the time, while it did indeed constitute
a specific, theorized attitude and artistic approach, must also
to be read within a particular economic context. The artist had
to broaden his repertoire of practices in order to intervene,
successively or simultaneously, in a variety of fields and to
diversify his possible sources of income.
The highly intense activity of some artists during the Thirties
in the fields of graphic arts and theater design therefore cannot
be thought of solely in terms of taking refuge from or creating
a rupture with prior artistic practice. Artists’ work was
based on multiple forms of expertise, which could sometimes allow
them to adapt to the context.
In this materially difficult set of circumstances, painters welcomed
the vast series of commissions artists were granted by the People’s
Commissariat for Public Instruction (which was headed by Anatoliy
Lunacharskiy) for the organization of an exhibition to celebrate
the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. This event is
generally thought of as the first Soviet State commission, and,
as in the United States, this interventionist policy was perceived
by those concerned as a sign of State support for creative artists.
The event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Red Army, which
was organized by the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia,
did not, however, arouse the same level of enthusiasm among the
AKhRR’s rivals. Indeed, the Association took advantage of
the occasion to continue its maneuvers of intimidation and to
destabilize other groups by deciding to invite some of their members.
The confrontations these exhibitions occasioned inaugurated the
Stalinist era and the period of the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution and the Establishment of Anniversary Commissions
two exhibitions show that the term commission thus designates
a multifaceted reality. In the case of the event celebrating the
tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, receipt of sketches
and of completed works was subject to discussion between the artist
and Lunacharskiy in person. In his memoirs, Sergei Luchishkin
related his experience:
“In order to respond to a commission offer for the anniversary
show, I had chosen a complex subject, that of famine in the Volga
region during the Civil War. I wanted to express the deep sufferings
the people of this region had been able to outlive. . . .
“According to the contract, the procedure for authorizing
initial sketches was simple. A. V. Lunacharskiy personally decided
whether they would be rejected or accepted. I therefore went to
him with my preliminary work. Having looked at my work, which
was truly gloomy, he said, ‘The works of yours with which
I am familiar are so gay, so anchored in our new life, and suddenly
you choose a theme that doesn’t suit you at all! The famine
in the Volga region was a horrifying trial, and we are celebrating
a great holiday; why cast a pall over it with such memories? I
ask you to put this theme aside and paint something that corresponds
to who you are. Little time remains; bring me a simple sketch
done in pencil and I’ll trust you.’
“I had an idea right away. That Spring, on Tverskoy Boulevard,
a large book market was being held. Publishers and book dealers
set up commercial stalls along the street. You could meet some
writers, and parades had been organized. There was a lot of merry
commotion. In a few days, I returned to see Anatoliy Vasilyevich
with my pencil sketch and he signed it.”(8)
At the same time, in order to commemorate the tenth anniversary
of the founding of the Red Army, the Association of Artists of
Revolutionary Russia worked with the Revvoensovet on implementing
the contracts for artistic commissions. The theme of the work
was defined in advance and the payment of the money followed along
with the different stages of execution: two presentations of sketches,
then the submission of the completed work. In order to handle
their subject, the artists could go on creative field assignments.
As early as the 1920s, the AKhRR had undertaken to organize artists’
trips on the model of those taken by the Wanderers, but while
directing creative artists toward industrial sites, kolkhozes,
and Red Army training facilities.
The ambition of such visits was to furnish artists with the visual
material needed for the treatment of their subject and to strengthen
their knowledge and understanding of Soviet reality. According
to the members of the AKhRR, direct contact with the motif would
allow artists to develop their political and Soviet consciousness.
The contract therefore included some obligations, mainly of a
thematic nature, the members of the Association privileging, in
practice, the choice of Soviet subjects.
artists of the AKhRR also promoted a mimetic form of art that
would be legible and understandable. Despite the fact that within
this group and in this exhibition an approach to art that was
based on the great principles of late nineteenth-century Russian
Realism predominated, some major works were nevertheless created
within the framework of these contracts. We are thinking in particular
of Alexander Deineka’s The Defense of Petrograd
and Yuri Pimenov’s The Seizing of an English Blockhouse,
a picture with explicit expressionist references.
term commission thus designates a variety of practices
(and the procedure was to become even more varied in 1932, at
the time of the two exhibitions commemorating the fifteenth anniversaries
of, respectively, the Russian Republic and the Red Army).(9) During
the Cultural Revolution, the Party, through its violently activist
youth members (mainly members of the RAPKh, the Russian Association
of Proletarian Artists, beginning in 1931), tried continually
to impose a stricter form of organization on commissions in order
to orient the choice of subjects toward a “Soviet thematics”
and artistic expression toward a legible and comprehensible form.
Inspired by the practices of the AKhRR, the young activists were
going to try, in particular, to use the creative field assignments
toward those ends, employing such assignments as a tool for “reeducating
fellow travelers.” But the ambient disorder generated by
the great institutional reforms, changes in personnel,(10) and
resistance from artists themselves were not going to allow the
RAPKh to achieve its ends. Moreover, one should not neglect the
impact of economic factors here and in the organization of the
Between Ideological Constraints and Economic Facts
artists, the anniversary commissions appeared as a way to allow
them to work and to make themselves known. All creative workers
sought to obtain as many such commissions as possible within this
framework. Nevertheless, in 1932 a shortage of paint and canvas
that followed the order to limit imports and to develop national
production was to curb the work of young artists, in particular,
to a considerable degree. Some were not even able to honor the
terms of their commissions.(11)
the same time, these major commissions, which were offered only
for anniversaries of the Revolution and the Red Army--that is,
around once every five years--could not constitute artists’
sole source of income. Other systems existed in parallel,(12)
like contract hires, which the All-Russian Cooperative of Artists
(Vsekokhudozhnik) played a major role in developing.
This socio-professional organization, created in 1928, quickly
became a major base of material life for artists. It intervened
on such topics as commissions, creative field assignments, the
distribution of subsidies (for pregnant women, for example), and
the organization of exhibitions. (Indeed, the Cooperative had
at its disposal an exhibition site, which was rather rare at the
time.) Starting in 1931, the Cooperative thus organized its much-talked-about
bazar-show, the goal of which was to sell the exhibited works.
It thus played at the time the role of a gallery taking a percentage
order to build up its funds, the Cooperative also set up, like
the State publishing house and the Association of Artists of Revolutionary
Russia, a system of contract hires. This system involved paying
a painter a monthly salary for the delivery of a certain number
of works over the period of a year. Until the second half of the
Thirties, monitoring of the artist seems to have been relatively
light on the Cooperative’s end, in particular as regards
thematic requirements. In 1935, Yuri Pimenov, for example, in
responding to the theme Assessments of the First Five-Year
Plan, Storming the Second Five-Year Plan!, painted Young
Woman in a Hammock.
her writings, Christina Kiaer has reexamined the traditional opposition
between the Western art market, thought of as the expression of
democratic freedom, and the system of Soviet commissions, understood
as a manifestation of the operation of a totalitarian machine.(13)
This historian proposes that we consider contract hires as an
alternative to the Western art market. More generally speaking,
the interweaving of various systems (creative field assignments,
commissions, sales of works) seems to us more apt to offer this
alternative--especially in 1934-1935, when the new Stalinist nomenklatura,
seeking respectability, constituted a new private clientele base
in demand of works.
Taking economic factors into account when studying the Soviet
painting of the 1920s and 1930s allows us to shed additional light
on this patch of art history. That approach also invites us to
examine from another perspective such facts as the formation of
artistic groups or the multidisciplinary character of artists’
practices during the Twenties, and it encourages us to offer new
explanatory factors that may add to previous studies. At the same
time, the introduction of economics allows us to propose a more
precise definition for the organization of the varied systems
of commissions and sales-purchases of works. We come to understand,
then, that certain economic facts curtailed the application of
a highly strict ideological line, as is shown by the activity
of the All-Russian Cooperative of Artists, which worked in particular
with a private clientele. Conversely, a constraint like the shortage
of canvas and paints could aggravate the material situation of
some artists, without pressures of an ideological nature being
at the origin. The link between economics, ideology, and artistic
practice thus restores to the Soviet system its real complexity.
school of thought, which predominated until the end of the 1960s,
was the heir to the works of Hannah Arendt and Raymond Aron on
totalitarianism. It postulated a monolithic political regime,
an all-powerful State exercising absolute control over an indoctrinated
and lawless society where terror reigned. This school focused
on political history in the strict sense, wherein the State coincided
with the Party, and history was the history of the leaders of
this Party, mainly of its omniscient and omnipotent head. The
advocates of this approach thus had a tendency to take the ambitions
of the regime for reality and to disregard the tensions and conflicts
that nevertheless really existed. We count among the representatives
of this school Leonard Shapiro, Robert Conquest, Martin Malia,
and Mikhail Heller.
2. In the 1970s, a current of social history
emerged that was immediately accused of “revisionism”
by the totalitarian school. This current said the opposite of
what was being said in prior research on the subject by proposing
a history “from below” and not “from above.”
These historians were disposed to depoliticize discourse on the
USSR, to deideologize it, to inquire into the relations a society
entertained with its institutions, to break with the demiurgic
conception of the Party, to stop privileging political power as
the main analytical source, and instead to look into the economic
and social spheres. The “revisionist” movement naturally
owes much to the Annales School. Major events no longer appear
as the result of a political initiative coming from Stalin but
as the product of domestic tensions. Two main criticisms have
been directed against this current: on the one hand, it is said
to have made hasty generalizations; on the other, it is said to
have a tendency to minimize terror and violence as significant,
nay major, components of the regime. Among the notable partisans
of this school are Stephen Cohen, Moshe Lewin, Sheila Fitzpatrick,
and Gabor T. Rittersporn.
3. We are thinking here in particular of the
works of Christina Kiaer and her students at Columbia University
and then at Northwestern University, the exhibitions organized
by Ekaterina Degot, and the research work of Galina Yankovskaya.
4. This group, founded in 1922, counted among
its noteworthy members, the former Wanderers. They also held a
view of art that was inherited from the Russian Realists of the
late nineteenth century.
5. Vitalii Manin, Iskusstvo v rezervatsiy
(Moscow: Editorial URSS, 1999), p. 120.
6. Thus, the Revolutionary Military Council (Revvoensovet)
or the Soviet Narodnykh Komissarov (SNK, Soviet Council of People’s
Commissars) had their own commissions. At the same time, the main
museums, such as the State Tretyakov Gallery or the Museum of
the Revolution, vied with the State Commission officially charged
with the purchase of artworks. This last commission, as well as
the museums, were connected to two different departments of the
Glavnauka, the Chief Administration for Science and Scholarship.
7. The budget allocated for purchasing works
kept on growing during the second half of the Twenties and ended
up overtaking the total amount of grants given to artist groups
in 1927-1928. See, on this topic, the Katalog priobreteniy
gosudarstvennoy komissiy po priobreteniyam proizvedeniy rabotnikov
izobrazitelnykh Iskusstv [Exhibition catalogue of works purchased
by the Commission for the Acquisition of Works by Visual Arts
Workers] (Moscow:Sovetskiy khudozhnik, 1929).
8. Sergei Luchishkin, Ya ochen lyublyu zhizn
(Stranitsy vospominanya) (Moscow: Sovetskiy khudozhnik, 1988),
9. Pressed by time, the organizers sometimes
commissioned pictures that had already been begun, paying out
money to aid in the completion of certain works.
10. On the issue of the elimination of old personnel
by the younger generation on which Stalin was going to lean for
support, see Sheila Fitzpatrick, Cultural Revolution in Russia,
1928-1931 (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1978).
11. See, on this topic, the polemic that broke
out in the press and the complaints of artists concerning the
availability of materials. Among the most significant articles
we can cite are: Yur, “God Raboty ‘Khudozhnika,’”
Byulleten Vsekokhudozhnika, April 1931: 10-17; Tyutyunnik,
“zhivopisnyy material,” Byulleten Vsekokhudozhnika,
June 1932: 50 ; L. Bachinskiy, “O khudozhestvennykh kraskakh,”
Sovetskoe iskusstvo, September 15, 1932 ; D. P. Sterenberg,
“Udacha èntuzyastov,” Sovetskoe iskusstvo,
September 15, 1932.
12. For a description of the various systems
of granting commissions, we refer to our article “Peindre
en URSS dans les années 1920-1930. Commandes, engagements
sous contrat et missions de créations,” Cahiers
du monde russe, 49:1 (January-March 2008): 47-74.
13. Christina Kiaer, “Was Socialist Realism
Forced Labor? The Case of Alexander Deineka in the 1930s,”
Oxford Art Journal, 28:3 (2005): 321-45.
Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Art under Stalin.
Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1991.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Cultural Revolution
in Russia, 1928-1931. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Jankovskaja, Galina. Iskusstvo, Dengi i politika:
khudozhnik v gody pozdnego stalinizma. Perm: Permski Gosudarstvennyy
Kiaer, Christina. “Was Socialist Realism
Forced Labor? The Case of Alexander Deineka in the 1930s.”
Oxford Art Journal, 28:3 (2005): 321-45.
Manin, Vitalii. Iskusstvo v rezervatsiy.
Moscow: Editorial URSS, 1999.
1 Alexander Deineka, The Defense of Petrograd,
1964, copy of the 1927 painting, oil on canvas, 210 x 238
cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
2 Sergei Luchishkin, Famine in the Volga Region,
3 Sergei Luchishkin, Book Festival, Tverskoy Boulevard,
1927, oil on canvas, 159.7 x 111 cm, Tretyakov Gallery,
4 Yuri Pimenov, The Seizing of an English Blockhouse,
1927, oil on canvas.
5 Yuri Pimenov, Young Woman in a Hammock, 1934,
oil on canvas, 129 x 161 cm, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg.