St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

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From Disintegration to Silence: Drawing the Hungarian Revolution

Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.

The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.
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One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).

Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.

Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:

“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]

Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.

Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.

Exhibition: Dreamworlds and Catastrophes

Recommended by ESPIONART in 2015, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey is home to a vast collection of nonconformist Soviet art that was secretly amassed and brought to the United States by the late American economist, Norton Dodge. The latest exhibition at the museum focuses on fantastical and nightmarish scenes conjured up by Soviet artists at the height of the Cold War, inspired by the rapid technological developments in support of the Space Race and nuclear proliferation.

Sherstiuk Cosmonauts Dream

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and photographs produced between the 1960s and ’80s. The title is a nod to the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000), in which Susan Buck-Morss defines the collective Soviet experience as a “dreamworld,” where the constant barrage of utopian propaganda clashed with the realities of a struggling nation.

Mikhailov Sots ArtSimilarly, the Zimmerli exhibition compares unsettling imaginings of a brave new world on earth and beyond, as in the hyperrealist fantasy of The Cosmonaut’s Dream by Sergei Sherstiuk, with works such as Boris Mikhailov’s Sots Art photographs, which reveal the underlying paranoia of artists living in the shadow of the nuclear threat. The exhibition also includes examples of kinetic art by Valdis Celms and Francisco Infante-Arana that show an attempt by some Soviet artists to emulate and appropriate aspects of military and space technology.

Dreamworks and Catastrophes continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum until 31 July 2016, with admission free. And if you move quickly, you might be able to catch the special exhibition celebration planned for 14 April, to include a curator-led tour of the display and guest lectures on Cold War art and politics.

Images: Sergei Sherstiuk, The Cosmonaut’s Dream, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches; Boris Mikhailov, from the series Sots Art, 1975-90. Gelatin silver print handcolored with aniline dyes,  42 x 43.5 cm.

“Russ Chief Secretly Fancies Art”

“Russ chief secretly fancies art”! So screamed a headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel on 29 January 1983. The “Russ chief” in question was Soviet politician Yuri Andropov, who on 12 November 1982 succeeded Leonid Brezhnev to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and therefore leader of the USSR.

According to the newspaper report, which quoted the Times of London, Andropov had been covertly amassing a vast collection of abstract art, despite its low status behind the Iron Curtain. Similar claims were made in other major Western publications, including Time and the Washington Post, which also credited Andropov with an apparent love of jazz music and tango dancing. This news no doubt would have surprised many in Moscow. During his years as chairman of the KGB, and as a leading figure in the Soviet campaigns to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, Andropov had acquired a fearsome reputation as a hardliner and a ruthless suppressor of Soviet dissidents. The allegations also raised the suspicions of the New Republic magazine, which in February 1983 exposed them as fantastical rumours, conjured up by an alcoholic Soviet defector who may have never even met Andropov. While the reasons for the hoax are still unclear, it appears that the lack of factual information about the new leader had caused the rumour mill to go into overdrive.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had also declared that Andropov’s passion for modernist painting meant that soon “abstract art no longer would be labeled decadent by Communist Party ideologists.” Yet in the coming months, artists including cartoonist Vyacheslav Sysoyev (1937–2006) were jailed by the new regime. However, whatever the reality of Andropov’s aesthetic tastes, he didn’t have time to make much of a impact on the Soviet art scene one way or the other. Only 15 months after his election, on 9 February 1984, Andropov died of kidney failure, having spent most of his term confined to hospital.

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Image: Cartoon by Vyacheslav Sysoyev, 1987.

Recommended: Zimmerli Art Museum

New Jersey is the unlikely home of the world’s largest collection of Nonconformist Soviet art. Since 1991 the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, has hosted Norton T. Dodge’s incomparable collection of underground art, smuggled out of the USSR between the Khrushchev Thaw and Glasnost. The incredible story of the economics professor who became the saviour of unofficial Soviet art is the subject of John McPhee’s short but sweet book The Ransom of Russian Art.

The Dodge Collection includes over 20,000 works in all media by some 1,000 artists. Works are not confined to Russia, with examples of nonconformist art from across the Soviet republics – from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The Zimmerli Art Museum contains many of the underground movement’s now famous names, including Sots Art duo Komar and Melamid, the bad boy of underground abstract art Evgenii Rukhin, Khrushchev’s sculptor nemesis Ernst Neizvestny, Lianozovo Group artists Oskar Rabin and Lydia Masterkova, and Moscow Conceptualism installation artist Ilya Kabakov. The museum also holds a full-scale replica of an AptArt (apartment art) exhibition.

And if all that Soviet art wasn’t enough, there’s plenty more to see in the Zimmerli Art Museum, including a fine collection of pre-Soviet Russian art and Orthodox icons, and collections of 19th-century French art and American art from the 18th to the 21st century.

So if you find yourself in New York it’s well worth catching a bus an hour out of the metropolis to discover this hidden treasure.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Lenin and Giacometti, 1990. Metal and bronze, 47.5 x 41.5 x 14.4 cm; Bottom – Erik Bulatov, Krasikov Street, 1977. Oil on canvas, 150 x 198.5 cm. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Both: Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo Jack Abraham.

Exhibitions of the Month: From Germany to Lenin

This month sees the closure of the British Museum’s chronicle of Germany, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Germany: Memories of a Nation is an ambitious retrospective, attempting to tell 600 years of history through objects in a single room. The country’s difficult Cold War history, divided between the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic and the Westernised Federal Republic of Germany, is just the latest in a series of complex and traumatic episodes in its search for nationhood.

Reviews have been decidedly mixed, but if you want to form you own opinion Germany: Memories of a Nation remains open at the British Museum until 25 January 2015. The exhibition also accompanies an eponymous 30-part BBC radio series on German history presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, which you can listen to from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re on the other side of the Atlantic this month, Yevgeniy Fiks has a new exhibition in New York, hot on the heels of his curatorial triumph in Monument to Cold War History.

Until 17 January 2015 the James Gallery at CUNY is presenting a display of the Russian-born artist’s own paintings and installations entitled The Lenin Museum, focusing on the fascinating issue of homophobia as a Cold War weapon.

Image: Yevgeniy Fiks, Untitled (The Lenin Museum), 2014. Mixed media, 7′ 10″ x 5′ 8″ x 4′ 6″. Photo: Julia Sherman. Courtesy Yevgeniy Fiks.

The CIA Comic Book Airdropped Over Grenada

Operation Urgent Fury, the controversial US-led invasion of Grenada, concluded with a decisive victory for the United States on 15 December 1983. The Reagan administration claimed that this action, the country’s first major military operation since the end of the Vietnam War, was launched in response to appeals for help by Grenada’s neighbouring islands. However, it has also been widely argued that the campaign was instead a ploy aimed at quashing Cuban and Soviet influence in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the invasion an aggressive piece of artistic propaganda appeared in support of the official line. GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery, a 14-page comic book, was printed in its thousands and airdropped over the island. The eye-catching, brightly-coloured pamphlet presented Operation Urgent Fury as a glorious defence of democracy by the United States, reimagining its military not as invaders but as liberators from “imminent totalitarian danger”.

The comic was ostensibly sponsored by the fictitious organisation V.O.I.C.E. (Victims Of International Communist Emissaries) … but it later transpired that the book had in fact been produced by the CIA. The agency had secretly commissioned Malcolm Ater of the Commercial Comics Company in Washington, DC to write the script, with illustrations provided by veteran comics artist Jack Sparling.

A PDF version of the full comic book is available for free download from the Government Comics Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Images: Front cover and detail from page 3 of GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery (New York: V.O.I.C.E., 1984).