Aleksandr Deineka: The Soviet Master of Modernity at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

Future Aviators © Tret'jakov National Gallery, Moscow
Ever since I read Camilla Gray's The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922 as a student, I've always had a fascination with Russian art and in particular, the impact of that extraordinarily creative period at the beginning of the last century which saw the abstract paintings of artists such as Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky influence the course of modern art in the Western world. Gray's wonderful book closes the story in 1922 in the early years of the Soviet regime and only mentions in passing the following generation of artists such as Alexander Deineka (1899 – 1969) who would once again embrace figurative painting in a style tagged Socialist Realism. I confess, my own knowledge of the period stopped at the end of Gray's book too, so the discovery of Deineka's work via the major retrospective currently on show at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni – the first ever to be held outside of Russia – has been immensely rewarding.

The Defense of Petrograd
© The Central Museum of the Armed Forces
The Soviet Russian painter, graphic artist, mosaicist and sculptor is now considered one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century and this extensive exhibition, which launches a year of cultural exchanges between Italy and Russia, is a beautifully curated show sure to garner numerous new international admirers. Being unfamiliar with the artist, my expectations for a show of politically motivated modernist Soviet art were that I would be inevitably confronted with historically interesting, but possibly slightly kitsch propagandist work – I was totally unprepared for the sheer beauty of most of the paintings. Addressing the fundamental formal concerns of a great painter – composition, light, colour and space – Deineka's art utterly transcends the political.

The show places the artist firmly within his political oeuvre from the outset, however, and opens with his iconic 1928 painting The Defense of Petrograd - propagandist yes, but with its dynamic composition and cinematographic feel, this image cannot fail to fascinate. The Interventionists' Mercenary (1931) is another overtly political painting, but cropped like a snap shot and painted using a limited palette, the image has the power of the best photojournalism - the unflinching stare of the mercenary soldier standing above the corpses of three victims and posing, hand on hip, is genuinely disturbing.

Race © The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Whilst the Italian Futurists had celebrated the modern age of speed with frequent references to motor cars and planes, Deineka's Socialist Realism instead put man at the centre of progress at the beginning of the century – sport and fitness are recurrent motifs in his work and there are plenty of runners, skiers and footballers in this exhibition. Once again, these paintings are surprisingly beautiful - Race (1932-33), which depicts five youths running on a race track watched by a girl, is so carefully observed and compositionally so pleasing, that I found myself gazing at it for quite some time. When planes are featured, they are there in the distance, representing the future of the younger generation, as in the gorgeous The Pioneer from 1934, in which a young boy has set down his book to watch two distant aircraft, or in the image which is being used in the poster campaign for the show and is appearing on buses and billboards all over town right now, Future Aviators from 1938.

Roman Road © Tret'jakov National Gallery, Moscow
There is something rather appropriate about the fact that Alexander Deineka's first monograph show outside Russia should be in Rome. Travelling to the city on a study trip in 1935, the artist created several important works here including Roman Road. Its dazzling blocks of colour – the carmine cassocks of two cardinals, an azure sky animated by a solitary cloud and typically ochre plaster on a Roman palazzo, with a dark suited, anonymous passer-by filling the foreground – reminds one of a Mediterranean-style Edward Hopper.

With over eighty pieces of work on display including not only paintings, but also graphic work such as posters and illustrations, bronze sculptures, as well as mosaics and a fascinating and highly effective video installation look at the oval mosaic ceiling panels at the Moscow Mayakovskaya Metro Station, this is a hugely enjoyable exhibition that I'll be returning to several times during its run. Highly recommended!

Aleksandr Deineka: Soviet master of modernity is curated by Irina Vakar, Elena Voronovič and Matteo Lafranconi and continues at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni until 1 May 2011.

Copyright on all images in this post as indicated (web-resolution, fair use rationale).


Colenso said…
Agree completely with your comments! He's absolutely fantastic isn't he?