"We have the opportunity to collect, in Chicago this fall, the largest and broadest representation of Soviet visual culture that’s ever been assembled in a single placeand that includes in the Soviet Union,” says Robert Bird, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures.

Bird and his colleague Matthew Jesse Jackson, associate professor in visual art and art history, have been integral to the conception and realization of the Soviet Arts Experience, says outgoing University of Chicago Presents executive director Shauna Quill. In addition to offering advice and guidance throughout, the scholars have played a key role in organizing the autumn 2011 art exhibitions Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary at Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center, Vision and Communism at the Smart Museum of Art, and Windows on the War at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibits are distinct in character but share a common goal: “to look at this material with a fresh eye and to think about what it was doing, to whom it was addressed, why it was formed, and the way it was formed,” according to Bird.

Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary is an exhibition of Soviet children’s literature. Bird curated the exhibit, along with eight graduate students in Slavic languages and literatures, art history, and history. The project team also included Jackson and an undergraduate student.

Many books in the exhibit are in the avant-garde style, characteristic of work produced immediately before and after the Russian Revolution (approximately 191535). The approach is experimental and whimsical, reflecting the artists’ attempts to envision a new society. Story lines and images reveal the possibilities of this society and encourage ambitious dreams: flying a kite to the stars, working with soldiers on a massive cruiser. 

“The child had to be imagined as a traveler biding time in the same visual universe as the illustrator, yet the Laws of History had already decreed that the young Soviet citizen would soon move on to the Future,” writes Jackson, an art historian, in the exhibition catalog. “Any truly ‘Soviet’ children’s illustrations needed to find a way to exist simultaneously on several different planes of experience.” Illustrators achieved this transcendental quality by placing protagonists in an empty space, “an expanse of immaterial whiteness.”

Over time, says Bird, the Soviet Union increasingly viewed art as an instrument for achieving specific policy goals, which led to a decline in innovation. Nevertheless, he continues, “there’s an attempt among scholars that’s ongoing, and that Matthew and I are a part of, to take a look at the later periods. The fact that artists don’t continue the same kind of experimentation doesn’t mean they’re not interesting.”

For example, Vision and Communism presents the posters of Viktor Koretsky (pictured here), who produced much of his work after World War II. Jackson collaborated with scholars and curators at and beyond the University to organize the exhibit; Bird assembled a complementary series of documentary films, with screenings at UChicago’s Film Studies Center.

The posters in Vision and Communism were sponsored and approved by the Soviet governmentwhat some would call propaganda, though Jackson and Bird avoid that term. “I’m inclined to think advertising is a better description,” says Jackson. “In the Soviet Union, you didn’t have access to products, so there’s no point in advertising that. But one could advertise the ideology.”

In doing so, Koretsky pushed the envelope, creating vivid, often violent images that painted a bleak picture of the postwar world outside the Soviet Union, “In the Soviet Union, you didn’t have access to products, so there’s no point in advertising that. But one could advertise the ideology.” and particularly of American culture and imperialism. A repeated theme is racial intolerance in the United States: lynching, Klansmen, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jackson explains that the Soviet Union was ahead of its time in terms of racial integration and equalityPatrice Lumumba University in Moscow welcomed students from around the worldand Koretsky seized on that strength to create powerful advertising for the state. 

His work stood out amid the typical government-sponsored posters lining Soviet streets, says Jackson: “Long rows of tractors; some beefy person saying, ‘we’re growing more grain for next year.’” Koretsky realized that “no one paid any attention to these posters. He knew you needed to confront people in the Soviet Union with images that were unfamiliar, that would have an emotive impact.” Not all of Koretsky’s work was so provocativehe had to make tractor posters, toobut he “created a surprisingly diverse and compelling body of work outside that,” says Jackson.

Bird’s Vision and Communism film series includes works by Aleksandr Medvedkin, a contemporary of Koretsky’s who focused on similar themes, including stinging critiques of US capitalism and involvement in foreign affairs.

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“We could easily dismiss such films as propaganda,” says Bird. “However, if we look at the work and try to get a sense of its individual texture, we see things that remain potentially enlightening or moving.” Medvedkin’s Letter to a Chinese Friend (1969), for example, follows a Soviet worker attempting to reestablish friendship with a Chinese counterpart by writing a letteran old-fashioned form of communication, says Bird, which seems to imagine “the Soviet Union and communism as a form of intimacy that is threatened by technological society.”

Similarly, the Windows on the War exhibit offers a glimpse into the subtleties of Soviet messaging. The exhibition includes 250 Soviet World War II posters with corresponding poems. Bird edited translations of the poems and elucidated them for the exhibition catalog. The posters are notable for their large size (between five and ten feet tall) and vibrant hand stenciling, but the poems, says Bird, are “not very good as a rule. They are rough and ready, and many are simply doggerel: make it rhyme by sticking the necessary words in there somehow.“

Moreover, as Bird notes in his catalog essay, they often do nothing more than enunciate over and over what’s already in the poster. But that repetition is deliberate, illuminating a motivation to promote unshakable truths: “the redundancy of the text underscores the close correspondence between ideology (text) and reality (image) in Soviet discourse, in which a always equals a and only a, no matter how many times and in how many variations it is repeated.” 

Marxism-Leninism was a set of ideas, says Bird, “but it was a set of ideas that required visualization. It required artists to imagine what the society could look like and to go out and implement these images. By organizing these exhibitions, we can get as close as possible to putting people within that image world and sensing how it was.”

Regardless of how one regards the Soviet Union, trying to understand its history is important, Bird continues: “The Soviet Union was one of two superpowers for over 50 years. Its role in World War II has never really been appreciated in the West. The workings of its society and its art remain obscure, but certainly artists were trying to reinvent visual, verbal, and musical language to suit a new civilization, and that carries through even into the darkest days.”

“We hope to bring a greater degree of complexity to people’s understanding of what the Soviet Union was,” says Jackson. “That does not mean that one’s assumptions will be necessarily contradictedthey might be very much confirmed. But they’ll be confirmed in a different way.”