Few things fascinated me as a child more than Russia. I wasn’t alone in this. Everyone experienced it. And it wasn’t only the Soviet Union—though it played the bogeyman in Cold War films, loomed over history textbooks, and seemed to exist in a forbidden parallel universe in Reagan’s America. But what came before it was equally outsized and tragic: the Romanovs, Rasputin, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible…. Russia’s modern history came into focus through its novelists—the intricate social distinctions and complicated family dynamics, the palace intrigues, the gallows humor, discontent, and resignation of ordinary Russians….
After 40 years of uneasy détente with the world’s other superpower, Americans found the pieces of their view of Russia falling into place almost imperceptibly. But nothing—I repeat, nothing—prepared The West for Russian modernism. It drove the CIA to such distraction that they secretly funneled money to jazz artists and Abstract Expressionists to fight a culture war. It made no sense to us. “This is completely ridiculous!” says Brian Cox above, expressing a sentiment shared by many when they encounter Russian Formalism, or Suprematism, or Futurism, and other avant-gardisms.
Cox, narrating the “Quickest History of 20th Century Art in Russia,” does an excellent job of conveying the shock, excitement, and bewilderment we feel when we encounter Malevich and Mayakovsky, the startling folk Neoclassicism of Russian Art Nouveau—where the film begins—the Conceptualists of the Thaw, and the outrageous performance artists of the post-Soviet era. None of this, to quote Tristan Tzara, is art made to “cajole the nice nice bourgeois”—with the ironic exception of Socialist Realism, which outlawed the Russian avant-garde and said “look, everything we have is so grand, abundant! We have everything aplenty!”
Socialist Realism resembles nothing so much as American magazine advertising of the Life magazine and Norman Rockwell eras, a reminder of one way the two belligerent empires came to increasingly resemble each other over time. “Socialist Realism,” says Cox, “is almost a caricature, only with incredible pathos.” It is “the first tendency to rule out criticism completely.” It absorbed critique and turned it into celebration and denunciation, both of them noble acts of State. Where American didactic art sold hundreds of products and a handful of ideological poses, the Soviet variety sold one thing: the Party. This does not, however, mean that Socialist Realism is “bad”—not entirely. It is, instead, like so much modern Russian Art to non-Russian eyes… uncanny.
The 25-minute “Quickest History of 20th Century Art in Russia” comes from a series of “Crash Courses” from Arzamas Academy that includes “Ancient Rome in 20 minutes” and “Ancient Greece in 18 minutes.” All of them feature the wry, mellifluous voice of Cox, and I highly recommend them all.