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Soviet Art Soviet Sport: Sotheby's London opens a pioneering exhibition of Soviet art
Sergey Luchishkin, Parade at the Dynamo Stadium (1936-1976), oil on canvas. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby’s, The Institute of Russian Realist Art and PromSvyazBank present the exhibition Soviet Art Soviet Sport – one of only a very small number of exhibitions of Soviet Art ever to have been staged in the UK. Bringing together 35 important paintings, drawings and sculptures from the collection of the Institute of Russian Realist Art, the exhibition will explore the representation of sport – one of the most powerful symbols of Soviet ideology - in 20th century Socialist Realist art. Following the 1917 Revolution, sport, with its associations with strength, unity and glory, emerged as a leading theme in Soviet art - the finest examples of which include some of the most evocative and vivid Russian artworks of the 20th century.

Soviet Art Soviet Sport is on view at Sotheby’s in London between 19th – 21st December 2013 and 2nd – 14th January 2014. It marks the first international initiative by the Institute of Russian Realist Art and has been generously sponsored by PromSvyazBank.

In the same way that court painters like Velázquez were obliged to adjust their style to please royal families, artists in the USSR were expected to adapt their personal style and tastes to meet the demands of their chief patron – the Soviet state. Artists were expected to focus on figurative art glorifying Soviet life, the people’s unity and collective optimism and not to fall into ‘formalism’, that is, deliberate lack of ideology. There were circles of artists who worked on the boundaries of what was seemed acceptable and the majority of them did not fare well. The artist Mikhail Sokolov was declared a formalist, accused of counter-revolutionary activity and was eventually arrested and exiled.

Nonetheless, this ideological pressure found its expression in the evolution of an extremely strong and vibrant aesthetic canon. As long they did not deviate too far from Soviet ideology, artists could explore through sporting themes a wide range of means of self-expression and to experiment with style and content – for example incorporating aspects of the avant-garde or Impressionism into their works – reflecting the true depth and diversity of Socialist Realist art.

Alexander Deyneka, one of the leading artists of the Soviet era, explains the allure of sport as a subject for artists: "Sport has one wonderful feature: it can safely fit into a very wide variety of artistic frameworks. This subject is inexhaustible because it is democratic and popular. Sport accommodates within itself shades of feeling - it is lyrical, it is positive and full of optimism. It draws on heroic origins.”

Along with other key characteristics of the USSR such as industrialisation, space and ballet, sport was often heavily influenced by Soviet ideology.

Not only were Soviet sporting achievements important ideological weapons used to increase the prestige of the USSR, but sport was also an integral part of day-to-day life that was formally given the same status as traditional ideological education in 1925. Every citizen of the USSR aged between ten and sixty was required to perform a number of sporting activities that were examined on an annual basis. For many decades, the entire USSR was awoken every day by energetic music on the radio accompanied by instructions as to which gymnastic movements were to be performed. Almost every organisation in the country from schools to factories began the day with compulsory gymnastics.

Mass sporting events were an integral part of Soviet society in the 1920s-30s and parades to demonstrate the physical prowess of the Soviet people were carried out in the main stadiums and squares across the country. Artists were often involved in staging such events, and had an insider’s understanding of all the aesthetic subtleties and ideological demands. In Parade at the Dynamo Stadium, Luchishkin depicts a parade at the oldest surviving sports arena in Moscow, the Dynamo Stadium, with young Soviet women marching towards a bright and happy future.

Olga Vaulina’s artistic experiments sometimes contrasted strongly with the established aesthetic of the Soviet state, however she escaped any obvious repression. Her saving grace may have been a willingness to deliver ‘socially useful’ work – she travelled to Central Asia to paint and illustrated textbooks for the people of the North. In these two works from the 1930s, Wresting and In a Sports Hall, Vaulina pushes the artistic boundaries established by the Soviet state. In the first painting, Wrestlers she pays homage to the avant-garde experimental ‘Jack of Diamonds’ artistic community using bright colours, wide marks and colour planes. In the second canvas, In a Sports Hall, she blurs the traditional borderlines of strength and beauty to depict a powerful, strong woman next to a thin man – far removed from the characteristic images of the impressive Soviet sportsmen often produced in the 1930s.

Alexander Deyneka is one of the most celebrated Russian artists of the 20th century. His works are held in the country’s most important museums and his beautiful mosaics decorate the lobby of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses and the Mayakovskaya and Novokuznetskaya stations of the Moscow metro.

Sportswoman Tying A Ribbon depicts a new ‘Soviet Madonna’ with a determined expression, strong hands and a powerful – but still feminine – figure. Looking at Deyneka’s portrait, it is difficult to say what the character embodies most – an athlete or woman. This type of heroine was typically glorified by Soviet art from the 1930s to 1950s. This drawing is the sketch for his famous painting, Bather, held in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

After the end of the Second World War there was a radical change in the nature of sporting art: the glory, the struggle and the confrontation were lost and sport was presented as an important part of the recreation of the ordinary Soviet citizen. Waverunner, one of Kutilin’s early works, shows a young, strong athlete water-skiing. Though still an exotic sport in the 1950s, water-skiing quickly gained popularity among young people in the USSR.

The energy of youth and the desire to move forward and open up new horizons perfectly matched the spirit of the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, a period of relative liberalisation in the USSR following the death of Stalin. The new heroes of this generation were geologists, physicists and amateur sportsmen and women. Sport was no longer solely associated with heroic achievements for the sake of the country, but rather with personal feats and self-improvement.

Although Popkov is often included among the artists of the ‘Severe Style’, his works clearly stand out from any single art movement. In the artist’s own words, his paintings convey ‘the spiritual, the intangible’ and are characterised by multi-faceted images and emotions. In his canvas and fibreboard from 1968, Volleyball, he somehow imperceptibly fits a banal episode from rural life into the wider context of the universe. For the artist, sport had nothing to do with tournaments or competitions; it was an element of everyday life that he depicted and infused with metaphorical meanings of his own.

When volleyball was introduced to the USSR, actors and artists quickly fell in love with the new game as it celebrated grace and strength - among the sport’s biggest fans were the artists Georgy Nissky and Yakov Romas.

The ideological thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s granted real-life sporting heroes the right to their own individual identities and artists began to create portraits of famous athletes. In these works there is no longer an imposing evocation of the strength of the Soviet state; instead, the artists carefully convey the sporting spirit, internal strength and outward beauty of the contestants. In Gymnasts. Portrait of Vladimir Artemov and Yury Korolyov, Mikhail Izotov depicts two of the most outstanding gymnasts of the Soviet era.

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