Arts & Culture

Portraits of dissent on view at Davis Center

5 min read

‘The Arts of Subversion: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union’ is subject of premier exhibition

Norton Dodge is an economist, a Harvard alumnus, and a savior of smuggled Soviet art. Smuggler is not usually a moniker that one would choose, but for Norton Dodge it is a badge of honor.

Concerned with the plight of artists living under Soviet rule, many of whom found their work prohibited by the regime, Dodge smuggled almost 20,000 works of art out of the Soviet Union during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Dodge ’51, Ph.D. ’60, who first traveled to the Soviet Union as a graduate student in economics to conduct research, has donated 56 works of art from his personal collection to the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. A selection of these pieces, along with others on loan from Dodge’s personal collection and from the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, will be on display for the first time as part of a new exhibition called “The Arts of Subversion: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.”

The exhibition, presented by the Davis Center, opens this week (Dec. 4) in the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), South Building. The artwork will be made available for use by students, scholars, and faculty across departments.

“From the late 1920s, a centralized aesthetic policy was being implemented in the Soviet Union, which mandated that art have prescribed content executed in a realistic, rather than abstract, manner,” says Anna Wexler Katsnelson Ph.D. ’07, curator of the exhibition. “Artists who refused to comply faced dire consequences, ranging from poverty to imprisonment.”

Over the course of the 1960s and ’70s, under the guise of his continuing economic research, Dodge returned time and again to the Soviet Union, smuggling out nonconformist works, and in the process nearly single-handedly preserving Soviet nonconformist art.

The collection Dodge amassed is a “remarkable artistic record of the culture of dissent in the former Soviet Union,” says Timothy Colton, Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and director of the Davis Center. “We look forward to celebrating Norton Dodge’s courageous role in acquiring the art as well as the extraordinary collection itself.”

“Without Dodge’s intervention, some Russian nonconformist art may have been lost from history,” says Svetlana Boym, Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and professor of comparative literature, who has extensively studied nonconformist art and played a key role in bringing both the gift and the exhibition to the Davis Center.

This exhibition consists primarily of works on paper, along with six oil paintings. Many of the pieces are abstract, and the exhibition is arranged according to themes that showcase the diversity of artists represented.

While most nonconformist artists worked within in a gray zone between permitted and forbidden and did not consider their art explicitly political, their very existence flew in the face of authority, says Boym.

“I hope that this exhibit will draw attention to the relationship between art history and politics,” says Boym. “Building bridges between departments is a great aspect of centers, and the Davis Center was really terrific in figuring out very creative ways of collaborating between different areas of research. Housing the exhibit was a creative endeavor.”

The exhibition’s earliest works, which date from the 1950s, are by Boris Sveshnikov, who worked primarily with pen on paper while incarcerated as a political prisoner in the Gulag. “Almost no visual records of the Gulag have survived, making Sveshnikov’s art all the more important,” says Katsnelson. “While images documenting the Holocaust or the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima are immediately recognizable, no similar representation of the Gulag exists.”

Another artist whose work will be exhibited, Eugeny Rukhin, died in a fire in his studio at the age of 32. The cause of the fire is unknown, but it is suspected that the KGB played a role, reacting to Rukhin’s close ties to foreigners such as Dodge.

Many of the smuggled works date from the 1960s, during Khrushchev’s “thaw,” explains Katsnelson. At this time, Soviet artists were first exposed to recent Western art, as well as to Russian works from the early part of the 20th century, which had been previously banned in their own country.

Despite a softening of the political landscape, nonconformist artists’ work during this period was still illegal, and, if discovered, would have been destroyed. By buying this art directly from the artist, without a receipt so that there was no record of the transaction, Dodge offered the artists a possible audience for their work. Interest in nonconformist art has been relatively rare in the West, although recently it has gained more attention. Among the more prominent artists whose works will be on show at the Davis Center are Boris Mikhailov, Mikhail Chemiakin, and Ernst Neizvestny.

The exhibition is organized in conjunction with the Davis Center’s 60th anniversary, an occasion for reflecting on the past and anticipating the future of Russian and Eurasian studies. “In the Western world, freedom of expression is often taken for granted,” says Katsnelson. “We forget that art, although ephemeral, can speak truth to power.”