In 1931, the recently created RAPKh (Russian Association of Proletarian Artists) assumed a leading position in the country's artistic life. It divided all artists into three categories: fellow-travelers, elements alien by virtue of their class origins to the proletariat, and genuinely proletarian artists.
The 1937 Moscow Defamatory exhibition of Russian Modernism.
On April 23rd 1932 the Party Central Committee passed sentence on all art movements and groups. The sentence took the form of the following decree: "On the reconstruction of literary-artistic organizations". In view of "the emergence of new writers and artists from plants, factories and collective farms...", everyone had to "mobilize themselves around the goals of socialist construction" and to concentrate on "the political aims of the present day". To carry out the sentence, the Union of Writers and the Union of Artists were set up. Thus a new era began in the history of Soviet art.
After the disbanding of all artistic groups, streams and Movements in 1932, the official direction of Russian art has taken a certain form of Realism as the only allowed expression for art. Any Avant-garde tendency was declared as degenerate art and artists practicing it were severely persecuted. This included anything from denying them orders, blocking their participation in exhibitions, refusing to purchase their work by the various museums; up to active banishment to the Siberian expanses into camps and even death.
Many artists were driven to conforming and produced the results required, which included official propaganda; the aggrandizing of leaders political and military; depiction of Socialist "Reality" as dictated by the approved party guidelines etc. Artists were being "reformed", "broken" or otherwise de- and re-cultured. One may get the idea of the sort of demands made upon them from the style of praise in vogue in art criticism at the time. For example, a quote from the introduction to the catalogue of "The Jewish Autonomous Province and the Jewish National Regions in Painting and Drawing" exhibition:
"Each of the 160 works on view may rightly be described as 'Leninist-Stalinist national politics in action'. The young artists, whose works form the majority of the exhibits at this exhibition, stem from the 'leftist' art of the first years of October, as art that is formalistic, unemotional and ideologically emasculated. Only their direct participation in socialist construction helped these young artists to overcome formalism and, having taken from it only its careful attention to line, colour, compositional structure and all elements of form, to make this for a means for contributing to a fuller revelation of theme, to a more vivid expression of the ideational basis of a work of art. The involvement of these young artists in the building of socialism in the Jewish... national regions... has led them to the only true road for our art, as shown to us by the great Stalin, the road of Socialist Realism... There are as yet no large canvases depicting the gigantic steps forward taken by the Jewish workers under the leadership of the Leninist-Stalinist Party during the 18 years of the Great October. It is to be hoped the present exhibition marks the beginning of a comprehensive reflection in the fine arts of the road covered from the Pales of Settlement to the Jewish Autonomous Province, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution"
Meer Axelrod's student's record with the inscription from the purge.
The above opus is not signed, which is hardly surprising, as it reiterates the ideological cliches in favor at the time and no personal opinion is expressed. The identity of its author - I.Rabinovich - however, is revealed in an article published in Iskusstvo" (Art) Journal, #3, 1936.
Some artists managed to carve a niche in this field and retain their own unique style and outlook, despite the seemingly official themes and manner.
In her book about her father, the artist Meer Axelrod, the poet Elena Axelrod writes this interesting detail: "It is of interest that as early as 1924 a "purge" was carried out at the VKhUTEMAS: the students' social origins were checked. Most probably, those students belonging to the aristocratic and merchant classes were expelled - I do not know the details - the children of kiosk-holders, however were reprieved (at the time my grandfather worked as kiosk-holder at the Minsk Post Office). My father's student's record book has survived with the following inscription written across his photograph: 'Checked and left in the capacity of student at the VKhUTEMAS'. "
In 1937, the same year Hitler staged the Decadent Art Exhibit in Germany, Stalin staged a similar, if less ambitious, exhibition to drive the last nail into the coffin of Russian modernism. In the top photo in clockwise order are paintings by Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and Malevich (bottom right one may see "The Black Square" by Malevich). The slogans read: "The Bourgeois art has reached the dead end of formalism and self-denial".
Some of the material on this page was taken from:
The book "OST" by Kostin V., published by "Khudozhnik R
The book "Meer AXELROD" by Axelrod Elena, published by Mesilot, Jerusalem. 1993