Schrecken und Hoffnung: Peace and War as Seen by Artists (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, till 28 April; Hermitage, Leningrad, 20 May-29 June)
Artists of a shared history
Shortly before we saw the smiling Franz Josef Strauss in Moscow last December the first exhibition to be jointly sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the Deutsche Bank had arrived in Munich. Its theme is war and peace as seen by German and Soviet artists in modern times, and it raises the old spectres that haunt the two nations and whose voices are still heard at a time when the slow process of Soviet- German rapprochement seems to be accelerating. If the future of Europe really does depend on the relationship of the two former enemies, then Schrecken und Hoff- nung could lay claim to be the most important European exhibition of 1988. In Moscow, where the exhibition opened last week, it will be a showcase for contempor- ary Soviet painting and for the European modernism hitherto viewed with suspicion there. For the English visitor its fascination derives from the airing of private national obsessions: German angst and Russian righteousness.
One is immediately struck by how much one feels an outsider, even in Anglophile Hamburg where the exhibition first opened. I remembered a German friend whose father had not been released as a prisoner of war from Russia until 1950, another whose grandfather had starved and died in liberated Konigsberg. In this context even the individual force of the great personalities on show — Kandinsky, Grosz, Dix, Tatlin et al — seems secondary to the seriousness of the exhibition's theme. At a time when New York, the erstwhile capital of modernity, seems to be sinking slowly in the west in a twilight glow of neo-Pop, it is refreshing for the jaded Westerner to see a show with such ambi- tion. The depth of their viewers' common historical experience on which the selectors have been able to draw has become a rare commodity in Britain and America.
The exhibition's theme is immediately brought home by images that belong deep in the national psyches, as an Andrei Rublev icon of the Trinity, a vision of heavenly peace, is set against Diirer's `Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'. The introduction builds through 17th-century atrocities and the elegance and brutality.of Frederick the Great's campaigns to the shared German and Russian experience of national resistance to Napoleon. Here begins the true narrative, as 19th-century scenes of patriotic warfare alternate with idealised visions of summer and harvest in the cherished homeland. Thus with con- vincing clarity the origins of modern con- flict are traced, with some of the best Friedrichs from Hamburg used to support the argument. This contrast of a utopian Detail from Maxim Kantor's 'Chernobyl: The Bitter Star', 1987 dream • with the martial force used to sustain it reaches its climax in the collapse of old Europe in 1914, brilliantly evoked in a dazzling display of Tatlin, Larionov, Chagall, Kandinsky, Grosz and Dix.
Surprises appear as one becomes more and more absorbed by content rather than the familiar divisions of art history. The exhibition turns on a relatively small room (in Germany entitled 'Bose Nacht') in which are hung a handful of large Soviet works on second world war themes. These are exactly the kind of pictures that soph- isticated visitors to the Soviet Union shuf- fle past in embarrassment, guiltily trying to recall the genuine suffering that lies behind the mediocrity of the painting. Here there is the Soviet answer to Norman Rockwell in Laktionev's 'Letter from the Front'. There is an image of a raving Hitler in the bunker which apparently took three pain- ters from 1947 to 1948 to produce. The result combines kitsch, caricature and hor- ror in a way that only a Syberberg tableau could pull off. Yet, shown in Germany, the room was strangely riveting. The hanging of the exhibition is challenging and in- spired throughout, but much of its power comes from a simple introduction of pain- ters and public who have hitherto been strangers. The same effect will be mirrored in Moscow and Leningrad.
The context also works in favour of the German art of the Sixties. Anti-Vietnam pieces, pictures of American jets raining bombs, sound boringly predictable as one mentally reassembles their usual setting. Yet here they seem both fresher and more serious set amongst a real experience of war, and presumably are perfectly accept- able to a Soviet audience. One wonders, however, what Moscow will make of Gunther Uecker's 'The Destroyed City of Cologne' (1983), an aerial photo taken after the bombing, stuck on board and pierced by rows of nails with points facing out: a modern crucifixion and an image for Russians to set beside that of Stalingrad.
The exhibition weakens as it approaches the present and war is replaced by a vaguer nuclear dread. Tension and drama slacken as one senses undercurrents of the anti- huclear rhetoric that is becoming a conven- tional part of international diplomacy. Yet just as the more familiar ground of the old-fashioned Soviet line seems to be within sight there appears an unmistake- able product of glasnost: 'Chernobyl: The Bitter Star', Maxim Kantor's 1987 icono- stasis of gaunt, ashen figures. This is fresh from the Soviet Ministry of Culture, and could not be a better advertisement for the regime's good intentions. The style is conventionally expressionist but its dreary greys chillingly recall the cancerous poison of radioactivity. Once again an outsider, one's attention is regained. The exhibition now becomes a barometer to gauge the tolerance levels of glasnost. Omissions become apparent. Naturally there are no overtly dissenting works here and one will have to continue to wait to see Nazi and Stalinist work hung together (surely the similarities would be too much even for glasnost). There is Chernobyl, but there is no Afghanistan. Sergei Sherstyuk's 'My Father and I' (1983) comes nearest to expressing some challenge to the past. A diptych, it con- trasts a young, uniformed Red Army offic- er with the artist, long-haired and diffident in large spectacles. • But, strangely, images of normality appear convincing when seen as precious, precarious moments snatched in an unsafe world. For once the horrors of war seem effectively balanced. Even Yuri Koro- liyov's 'The Brotherhood of Space' (1980), the sort of image more familiar to stamp- collectors than gallery-goers, makes some sense. Here handsome and tanned white- suited astronauts smile and chat against a sky of brilliant pale blue in an unknowing masterpiece of camp. Its innocence is charming, and one is seduced by the quality that we have learnt to forget optimism.