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Caricature and Propaganda: Works by the KuKryNikSy Group of Artists from the Mamontov Collection

VIENNA.- The exhibition, on show from September 19, 2008 at the Ethnological Museum, presents 91 works by the Soviet KuKryNikSy group of artists that are now in the remarkable private collection assembled by the Mamontov family. The collective name KuKryNikSy is derived from the combined names of the group’s three members: Ku stands for Mikhail Kuprijanov (1903–1991), Kry for Porfiri Krylov (1902–1990), and Niks for Nikolai Sokolov (1903–2000). Their collaboration dates back to 1924 when they were fellow students at Vkhutemos, the celebrated first Soviet art school, and they successfully maintained this creative unity until the end of their lives. KuKryNikSy was active as a group of artists for over sixty years; their form of artistic production, which placed the collective above the individual artist, represents a truly remarkable phenomenon in Soviet art history.

In the USSR, the artists comprising KuKryNikSy were universally popular and received numerous official decorations and awards. They were full members of the Academy of Fine Arts of the USSR, were awarded the titles People’s Artists of the USSR and Heroes of Socialist Labour, were recipients of the Lenin Prize and the State Award of the USSR; Soviet art history regards them as representatives of official political propaganda. Lately, however, KuKryNikSy’s art is seen in a different light. Their artistic aims, their choice of subjects and their compositions surely transcend the limits of the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, and their relationship with the pictorial traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century European art are increasingly being appreciated. KuKryNikSy’s focus on the dynamics and paradoxes of life in the twentieth century, as well as the existentialist questions posed in their work are proving increasingly popular with critics and the public.

The exhibition organized by the Kunsthistorisches Museum focuses on three aspects of KuKryNikSy’s artistic oeuvre: In the years leading up to and during the Second World War their main focus was the fight against Fascism. They established the “TASS windows” in Moscow, posters with a strong focus on propaganda and agitation. Their caricatures savagely attack and deride the proponents of European Fascism. Mussolini, Franco, and especially Hitler and his henchmen, Goering, Himmler and Goebbels are ridiculed again and again. The series helped motivate the soldiers of the Red Army and demoralize the German Wehrmacht who had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

The second section of the exhibition focuses on KuKryNiksy’s pictorial and graphic oeuvre, with special emphasis on the work of Nicolai Sokolov. Like his two friends, he loved graphic portraits and caricatures. His works include charcoal and pencil drawings, watercolours and many paintings. Sokolov’s interesting works from the war years document his skill in drawing and painting from the life (After the Retreat, Our Willis, both 1842, pencil on paper; Man Keeping Warm, 1942, pencil on paper, all Mamontov Family Collection). Of seminal importance for Sokolov the painter were his friendship with Mikhail Nesterov and the art of Nicolai Krymov.

The exhibition will feature landscapes by Sokolov from the war years, such as Berlin, Alexanderplatz with its dominant colours, Berlin, Monument for William I, marked by its stage-like composition, and the panorama-like Berlin, Kaiser-Wilhelm Palace (all 1945, oil on cardboard, Mamontov Family Collection). In the years after the Second World War, N. A. Sokolov’s landscapes moved closer to the Russian tradition of “mood landscapes” and Krymov’s “tonal landscapes”.

The third and final section of the exhibition focuses on Soviet society during the 1930s, its serious shortcomings and attempts at modernization, with relevant works predominantly published in “Pravda” and the Soviet satirical paper “Krokodil”. Also included in the exhibition are a selection of works from the collection’s rich holdings of book illustrations, depictions of different human types, and portraits. The artists of the KuKryNikSy group executed series of illustrations - both aquatints and coloured pen drawings - of scenes from the great works of Russian literature. For example, they illustrated the novels and stories of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Nikolai Gogol, Maxim Gorki, Nikolai Leskov, Ilja Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, as well as Anton Chekhov.

The great museums of Russia and the former Soviet republics hold works by KuKryNikSy, as do various collections in Western Europe.

The acquisition of around 200 of their works by the Mamontov Collection clearly documents the revived interest in the KuKryNikSy phenomenon. This exhibition marks the Austrian public’s first opportunity to see a comprehensive survey of their work.

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