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Socialist art finds life after socialism

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Raising the Banner
This painting was the inspiration for the title of the Museum of Russian Art's exhibition. It's part of a triptych of paintings portraying the ordinary communist man as a hero.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Brad Shinkle, director of scholarship for the Museum of Russian Art, says in the past his museum has exhibited group shows. This is the first time his museum is focusing on the work of just one Russian painter. And he says Geli Korzhev is the perfect choice. 

"In my experience there is no one artist that has a more diverse, a more comprehensive body of work than does Geli Michaelovich Korzhev," says Shinkle.

A realism that's too real
Painter Geli Korzhev was known for working in the "severe style" -- in other words not romanticizing the life of Russian people, but instead finding dignity in the everyday. However in his younger years he was at first criticized for being too brutal in his depictions, leaving little room for hope or inspiration.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Geli Korzhev is now in his 80s. His paintings span seven decades and include portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, allegory paintings and even fantastical scenes with imaginary creatures. 

His most critically acclaimed work was painted in the '50s and '60s, at the end of Stalin's reign. As a socialist realist painter, his art was supposed to glorify the common worker, by presenting his or her life and work as admirable, no matter how much they suffered. 

In one of his most famous paintings, "Raising the Banner," a determined man picks up the red flag of a fallen soldier and replaces him in battle. In an interview, Korzhev said the painting was not inherently political.

"I depicted a heroic act common to all mankind, not a specific action of a communist," said Korzhev. "Personally I share the ideas of communism, therefore I called the painting the way I did, but the painting itself isn't about communism, it is about a heroic act. The flag could be any color."

Russian visitors
Representatives of two Russian national museums attended the opening of the "Raising the Banner" exhibition. In pink is exhibition curator and art historian Maria Bulanova. In green is Ekatrina Selezneva, curator of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Korzhev said he almost never received commissions for artwork from the government, and he didn't seek them out, because he found such commissions artistically limiting. 

Korzhev became quite popular, and received numerous awards for his work, but Northwestern Univerity art history professor Christina Kiaer says Korzhev belonged to a small school of socialist realist painters known for working in the "severe style," and sometimes his paintings were criticized for being too realistic. 

"Socialist realism was a style that was supposed to be realistic, and yet always be aiming toward some sort of uplifting message for the spectator," says Kiaer, "and the problem with the artists of this so-called severe style was that there was a sense that they weren't always doing that. It was actually showing the severity  of Soviet life."

Belly God
Now in his 80s, painter Geli Korzhev has worked through several different artistic periods. He's painted landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. In his later years his grandson challenged him to create fantastical beings, which he calls his "mutants." The paintings serve as artistic jokes, often using dark humor to comment on our own reality.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

This is the first solo exhibition of Geli Korzhev's work outside of the former Soviet Union, and it brings together paintings from 13 private collections and two Russian national museums. 

Ekatrina Selezneva, curator of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, came to Minneapolis for the opening of the Korzhev exhibition. She says Korzhev's work is influenced heavily by his childhood, raised by a school teacher and low-level architect.

"Life was difficult for people; they lacked everything," says Selezneva. "But the people around Korzhev showed him that that was not important. What was important was to put up with whatever destiny sent your way with dignity. And this dignity, in my opinion, we can see in all his works."

Don quixote with lady
Painter Geli Korzhev did several paintings with Don Quixote as his subject. Don Quixote was a literary figure greatly respected in Russian society, and held particular power for Korzhev, who stayed true to his Communist vision long after his country had moved on to other ideologies.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Selezneva says Korzhev has stuck to his personal communist ideology, despite changing political times. And she sees him as one of the few Russian painters today who is a master at translating ideas into images. 

The Museum of Russian Art's Brad Shinkle says, ideology aside, he wants to show the American public that Russian art means a great deal more than fawning portraits of political leaders or propagandist posters.

"We think that the art of Geli Korzhev goes a long way in dispelling the stereotype of heroic agricultural workers smiling while they bring in the harvest," says Shinkle.

Raising the Banner: the Art of Geli Korzhev runs through Jan. 5.