Stalinism in art and architecture, or, the first postmodern style

Book Review:

Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in
the Age of Stalin: Culture Two

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Originally published by Situations: Project for the Radical Imagination (Vol. V, No. 1). You can view a free PDF of the document here.

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Last year, the English translations of two major works of art and architectural criticism from the late Soviet period were rereleased with apparently unplanned synchronicity. A fresh printing of Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (2002, [Культура Два, 1985]) was made available in June 2011 by Cambridge University Press. Verso Books, having bought the rights to the Princeton University Press translation of Boris Groys Total Art of Stalinism (1993 [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988]), republished the work in a new edition. This hit the shelves shortly thereafter, only two months after Paperny’s book was reissued.

Each book represents an attempt, just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, to come to grips with the legacy of its artistic and architectural avant-garde of the 1920s, as well as the problematic character of the transition to Socialist Realism and neoclassicism in the mid-1930s, lasting up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Not only do Paperny’s and Groys’ writings follow a similar trajectory, however: they intersect biographically as well. The two authors knew each other prior to their emigration from the USSR and still maintain a close personal friendship. But their arguments should not for that reason be thought identical. Paperny began his research much earlier, in the mid-1970s, and Groys’ own argument is clearly framed in part as a polemical response to his colleague’s claims.

Left: Vladimir Paperny, painted by Diana Vouba;
Right: Boris Groys painted by Luca Debaldo

Both can be seen to constitute a reaction, moreover, to the dull intellectual climate of official academic discourse on the subject during the Brezhnev era. In his introduction to the English version of Paperny’s book, Groys recalls the “background of almost total theoretical paralysis” against which it first appeared in 1979. “[I]t felt like breathing fresh air in the stale intellectual atmosphere [of Moscow] at the time,” he wrote.1 Indeed, Eastern Marxism’s most talented aesthetic theorists after the expulsion of Trotskii were by and large conservatives — the repentant Georg Lukács or his equally repentant protégé Mikhail Lifshits, each an apologist for the Zhdanovshchina and hostile to modernism. After destalinization commenced in 1956, following Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” the tables were turned. Socialist realism and neoclassicism were out; the heroic avant-garde movements of the 1920s were back in (albeit in the diluted, vulgarized form typical of Khrushchev). With the rise of Brezhnev in the mid-1960s, the thaw came to a close. But full-fledged Stalinism was not reinstated, at least not in the realms of art or architecture. Now neither alternative — modernism nor Stalinism — appeared in a particularly favorable light. That they had existed was accepted on a purely factual basis, as part of the historical record. Expressing an opinion on either, however, much less an interpretation, was generally considered unwise. Continue reading