Sunday, March 28, 2010

You Shall Not Pass

The New Tretyakov Gallery has a huge exhibit for the Jubilee of artist Aleksandr Deineka's birth. The above is a fragment from one of his more famous works, The Defense of Sevastopol. See the full painting, in a lower resolution, here.

I had seen the work in person once before, last summer, when I tagged along with a delegation to the opening of museum-territory Tsarityno (I was told to keep in the back of the group and to keep my mouth shut so they wouldn't hear my accent).

That first time I paid more attention to the general cast of the work, which is a nice idea but so...I don't know how to say vulgar in the ideologically patriotic High Stalinist way that only post-war Communist artistic works can be...

This time around I happened to notice this man's expression, and now I can't decide what I think of it. Is it pure desperation? Horror? Defeatism? We can only see three faces clearly in the entire work, and they all belong to Soviet sailors. There's the shirtless man with a bottle - likely the empty bottle of liquid courage he just drank, to make him look so brave and fearless - who stares out at the viewer as if challenging, "YOU'RE not Nazi as well, are you? 'Cause I'm-a come get you..." There's the man further in the background, grinning, likely because he's holding a gun that actually has ammunition.

And then there's this man in the foreground, this man, who, in size and placement and every other artistic technique, is the hero of the story. Is he meant to bridge the gap between us, the lowly viewers who managed to live through the war, and the Heroes of Old? Since we're alive, we're automatically not of the same caste as martyrs... Since we're alive now, we've not yet become Homo Sovieticus, and this man, our hero, himself was not Homo Sovieticus, not yet, not until he completed the action of throwing those bottles at the Nazi troops and was slaughtered. Only later in the painting's chronology than the temporality we can see will he reach his self-perfection.

1 comment:

S.H.S said...

Also weird: how dirty all their faces are when the stones, uniforms, and muscular skins [homosocial much?]. Seriously. there is so much dirt that it looks like they are wearing masks.

I really like your argument. But just for fun, here is a variation: Maybe none of these men--scared, crazed, dead, aggressive, enthused--are meant to be "realistic" characters, or objects of identification. Maybe they are all the different hyperbolic FACES of the myth of a hero? Or maybe i just can't imagine identifying with someone so blond.