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It is an image that would no doubt pique the interest of the martial arts-loving Russian president Vladimir Putin: in Oleg Ponomarenko’s striking 1979 painting “Judoists”, a group of fighters is caught, for a rare moment, off-guard. They are resting in the corner of the gym, a couple of them grappling each other as they tumble out of the foreground of the canvas.
Because the painting is from the Soviet era and depicts a sport in which the country was expected to excel, our expectations are programmed. We guess that even in repose, the judoists will be strong, confident, full of certainty. Defeat will not be countenanced. It is not the Soviet way.
But Ponomarenko’s deftly executed painting confounds us. His fighters look physically and mentally exhausted. Their faces show self-doubt, even fear. One of them, who looks like Wayne Rooney, appears bewildered. This is sport viewed as existential conundrum. It is less about promotion of national excellence than a profound reflection on the realisation of the self.
This surprising work – Soviet art was not known for its subtle observations on the human condition – is one of more than 60 works on show at Sotheby’s in London in a non-selling exhibition of art works on sport in the Soviet era. It has been put together by Alexey Ananiev, the Russian media and real estate magnate, and chairman of Promsvyazbank, who believes that the art of his childhood has been harshly judged by posterity.
Such is the strength of Ananiev’s convictions that he has founded his own Institute of Russian Realist Art in a former cotton-printing factory in Moscow, containing his private collection of works in the genre. It may be the revolutionary art of the earlier Soviet era, full of dash and daring, that is more commonly lauded by art historians, but Ananiev insists that these understated, psychologically astute works have their own quiet power.
I ask Ananiev, in a Skype conversation earlier this week, if these works weren’t tainted by the political imperatives placed on them? The compromises demanded by the Soviet leadership, which denounced artistic “formalism” as vigorously as it excoriated capitalism, surely made it impossible to make great art while at the same time staying inside the system?
Even so towering a talent as Dmitri Shostakovich resorted to playing with musical motifs that would spell out his own initials, so cowed was he by the Stalinist authorities. Was it even possible to aspire to greatness under such conditions?
Ananiev spells out a vital distinction. “Much of the art that was produced under these very politically biased conditions was justifiably labelled as Socialist Realism – but it wasn’t realism as such. Those works described a world, not like it was, but like it should have been.”
The artists collected by Ananiev, on the other hand, are full of insight and psychological drama. A feeling of dread permeates Olga Vaulina’s 1930s “Wrestlers”. Two lumpy bodies address each other, as if in the opening seconds of what will be 10 hard-fought rounds. There is no sense of spring or sharp movement, just a latent, forbidding strength.
But Vaulina is also playing with artistic convention here. The Russian realist painters were not unaware of developments in the avant-garde, nor did they disdain abstraction. Look at the planes of colour, the absence of detail in the men’s features in “Wrestlers”: this is realism with an edge, not some embarrassing throwback to a defunct style of painting.
This is the point that Ananiev is making. “It is to show that the Russian realists, during the Soviet period, were continuing a long and cherished tradition that started in the mid-19th century,” he says. “Those skills were transferred from one generation to another. They were not lost.”
Bringing the art to London, he says, “will draw attention, for those who know little about Russian art, to an art form that has not a hint of propaganda.”
This is, as much as anything, a hopeful message about art. The CIA famously exploited the burgeoning abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s to show that the US enjoyed greater freedom of expression than the Soviet Union. But the painters assembled here, making light of the restrictions placed on them, still managed to focus on deeper truths than politics allowed.
“They show the human nature of sport, not its propagandistic splendour,” says Ananiev. “They are understanding, and humble.” These are not words that we associate with the bombastic nature of Socialist Realism; but art has a way of seeping under the thickest skins.
Sotheby’s, London, until January 14. sothebys.com
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