This exhibition examines the themes of industrial work in Soviet painting in the post-Stalin era. Profound and lasting transformations in society took place after Stalin’s death in 1953. The decades following WWII saw a gradual relaxation of the ideological restrictions previously imposed by the Communist Party. The recognizably Stalinist painting aesthetic—highly idealized and formulaic—gave way to a more diverse thematic environment.
In Soviet museums and galleries, politically loaded depictions of idealized socialist heroes were exhibited side-by-side with candid portraits of laborers taken from ordinary life.
Staying within the boundaries of officially allowed themes (of which socialist labor was primary), many Soviet artists claimed the right to develop these themes as they saw fit. These developments were evidence of a newly granted freedom to express diverse opinions that emerged after Khrushchev’s attempt at liberalization in the late 1950s – early 1960s, known as The Thaw. The entire edifice of the Soviet state began to crumble and in 1991, the first state-wide socialist experiment collapsed. Two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, scholars of art increasingly recognize that during the post-war years, Soviet artists produced works of profound skill and intense symbolic power.
Depictions of hydroelectric power plants, factories, railroads, and foundries, as well as portraits of individual workers in From Thaw to Meltdown present a multifaceted picture of Soviet life as it was experienced by common laborers. Hundreds of huge factories rose across the vastness of the Soviet state during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Testaments to Soviet achievment, these scenes of industrial production reflect the gigantic scale of modernization as the Soviet Union became one of the world’s major industrial powers. Technological feats of collective labor furnished necessary solutions to the problems created by rapid industrialization while simultaneously providing exciting material for artists.
The approximately fifty-five works on the Main and Mezzanine levels–drawn from the collection of Raymond and Susan Johnson–exemplify the dramatic range of artistic styles and the evolution of artistic development as the Soviet Union advanced slowly towards oblivion. From Thaw to Meltdown closes August 12, 2012.