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Art in Stalin's Shadow

USC College co-sponsors May 19 event exploring artistic expression and Socialist Realism.

Art in Stalin's Shadow

On the eve of the Stalinist purges, a time when dogmatic Russian propaganda was in vogue, filmmaker Grigori Alexandrov came out with "Veselye Rebyata" ("Jolly Fellows"), a Hollywood-style musical. The romantic screwball comedy was a major hit in 1934 — proof that creativity could bloom even in the shadow of Stalin.

Alexandrov, who had collaborated with the mighty Sergei Eisenstein on the 1925 classic "Battleship Potemkin," survived the Stalinist purges, lived to make many more films and died at a ripe old age in 1983.

The theme song from "Veselye Rebyata," “We Are Conquering Time and Space,” is also the theme of an all-day symposium on Soviet culture taking place on Saturday, May 19, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in USC’s Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre.

The symposium examines the way Socialist Realism — the official aesthetic under Joseph Stalin — both helped and hindered musicians, designers, fine artists and architects.

In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, many artists were inspired by the new regime’s utopian vision. Communism was genuinely viewed as “an international and even cosmic force that would conquer not only the nations of the world but would extend into the universe,” explained symposium organizer John Bowlt, a professor in USC College’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“Many years ago, I and colleagues would meet people who had been arrested as ‘bourgeois artists’ and had spent 10 years in a gulag,” Bowlt said. “And they still believed in the basic idea of communism.”

The symposium’s perspective — a rather controversial one, Bowlt admitted — is that “yes, censorship interferes, but a lot of the art from that era is wonderful in spite of it.” And possibly, to some extent, because of it.

“Perhaps the most engaging artifacts,” he added, “date from the 1920s — before the terrible censorship of the 1930s.”

By 1934, Russian creativity had all but dried up. With the great Stalinist purges of 1937, right up to the time of the dictator’s death in 1953, there was little room for experimentation.

“If you were a writer or musician, you were very, very careful,” said Bowlt, whose expertise is in Modernist visual arts. “There were guidelines you could follow about what art should be — the party issued these in the form of commandments and manifestos.” But official “caprice” and “spontaneity” made for dangerous wild cards. “Stalin might change his mind, or the censors might see something in your piece that you hadn’t intended,” Bowlt noted. “But with the cultural thaw under Khrushchev, artistic expression became easier, though rigorous ideological rules continued to abide.”

The symposium is part of a wider Soviet arts festival co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since early April, “Shadow of Stalin” has brought a wealth of 20th-century Russian music to Walt Disney Concert Hall. The festival continues through June.

Upcoming events include a program of controversial underground music known as “Russian Chansons,” remixes by contemporary VJs of Soviet-era art music and classic Russian film clips, and a series of four concerts focusing on works by Popov, Mosolov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other composers from before, during and after the crackdown.

Known for its expertise in Soviet-era art and culture, USC’s Slavic languages department was an obvious festival partner for the Philharmonic. Other sponsors include ArcLight Cinema and the USC College-based Institute for Modern Russian Culture, home of the newly acquired Ferris Collection of Sovietica.

Donated by Jeri Ferris, the collection consists of some 8,000 pieces of material culture and fine applied arts, primarily from the Brezhnev years, which she collected together with her late husband Tom. The Ferris Collection, along with USC’s Institute for Modern Russian Culture, takes up residence next month in the Shrine Auditorium, under the care of archivist Mark Konecny.

“We Are Conquering Time and Space” is the second of two symposia in the “Shadow of Stalin” festival. In early April, Bowlt and colleague Sally Pratt, also a Slavic languages professor in USC College, had organized a symposium titled “Beauty and the Beast.”

In addition to expert speakers on Soviet aesthetics, the humorously titled symposium drew on “Art in the Evil Empire: Politics and Culture in Stalin’s Russia,” a freshman seminar taught by Bowlt and Pratt. Students enrolled in the course worked hands-on with artifacts from the Ferris Collection, exploring the negative and positive impact of forced political engagement on artists.

In his talk during the “We Are Conquering Time and Space” symposium, Bowlt will consider the decorative arts in the context of the Moscow subway, its canal system and mid-century high-rise buildings, seeing in their emblems key values of longevity, happiness and abundance.

Other featured Soviet arts scholars include:

  • Princeton music historian Simon Morrison, an expert on 20th-century Russian music and the author of a forthcoming book Prokofiev: The Soviet Years (Oxford Press).
  • Independent scholar, musicologist and Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay, author of four books on the great Russian composer and festival scholar-in-residence.
  • Russian-born designer and architectural historian Vladimir Paperny, author of Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.
  • University of Naples art historian Nicoletta Misler, an expert in the Russian avant-garde and a frequent curator of international art exhibitions.