Move over kitsch: this is Moscow. Socialist Realism makes room for avant-garde art

THE ticket line stretched around the corner of the Pushkin Museum and continued to lengthen, in spite of a cold drizzle. Those who, like me, were too impatient to wait and wormed their way past a militiaman at the main gate were disappointed. There were no shortcuts - even for foreign correspondents - into the Marc Chagall exhibition on the day after its opening. This was, after all, the first chance ever for Muscovites to see a major selection of the artist's work, and a rare occasion to study the evolution of an avant-garde artist's style. The gradual lifting of the formerly rigid censorship in the Soviet art world means that painters like Chagall - who was long considered too sentimental, too subjective for the worker's state - are being given their place in the pantheon of Russian artists.

But in spite of the crowds eager to see Chagall, there is no unanimity about the direction Soviet art should be heading. Another show opened almost simultaneously in the Pushkin's central exhibition hall. This is the all-Russian Artists' Union show, ``The Artist and Time,'' a huge production honoring the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. Here Socialist Realism is alive and well - not surprisingly, since it remains the dominant tendency in the official Artist's Union. As one Soviet press review of the exhibition put it, an ``active civic position'' is still a characteristic feature of contemporary Soviet art.

The works most prominently displayed in the exhibition depict solid peasants, handsome workers, and peaceful landscapes; these have that greeting-card quality that gives one an instinctive understanding of the word ``kitsch.'' Works hovering on the edge of abstraction, by contrast, are buried at the back of the hall, as are most pictures by women.

But one picture, painted by an otherwise orthodox painter, shows how the bounds of socially acceptable art are changing here. A small knot of people is permanently gathered around this large canvas by Dmitri Zhilinsky.

Born in 1927, Zhilinsky is described by a Soviet art encyclopedia as someone influenced by Russian icons and the early Renaissance, although he paints scenes of everyday life. Both aspects of the painter can be seen in the crowd-drawing canvas here. It shows a man in white pajamas, hands raised at his sides, being guarded by a secret policeman, as another security man goes through his papers. Two thin boys huddle near a bed in one corner, while two women in nightdresses look on grimly. The picture is dedicated to ``all the guiltless ones who perished at the time of the repression and lawlessness of 1937.'' At the bottom is attached the rehabilitation certificate of the artist's father, dated 1957. There is no mistaking the religious allusion of the victim's angelic pose and his white-clad purity.

As onlookers moved up close to read the certificate, a gray-haired man said to his companion, ``There's nothing there of what I call great art. It's purely illustrative.'' Despite years of censorship, Soviets seem remarkaby opinionated and ready to contest whatever is officially praised. Intellectual debate is, at some levels, becoming the order of the day.

The Soviet avant-garde, now quietly tolerated, has shown its head at a few small exhibitions, mainly in halls near the ends of metro lines, a half-hour ride from central Moscow. These artists pursue an earnest and mostly unlucrative search for new aesthetic criteria. A quality of pent-up adolescent revolt sets the tone at some of their showings (in the eyes of this non-expert observer). A living sculpture of bearded man with chamber pot over his head and a contraption featuring flies in glass jars are examples of the inanities that some rebels indulge in. Overall, though, the variety of styles, media, and themes adds color and motion to a capital that in the past has been overly prim.

Realism, as the picture of the midnight arrest shows, is still used to instruct and provoke. But some realistic works are probably too lacking in optimism to be called Socialist Realism. Take, for instance, the pencil drawings of Gennady Dobrov, some of which were recently on display at an exhibition titled ``Do the Russians Want War?'' at the Soviet Peace Committee on Prospect Mir.

Between 1974 and 1980 Dobrov drew 40 pictures of invalids from World War II, in boarding houses from Karelia to Sakhalin. Several of the drawings of amputees on display were so shocking as to be beyond the bounds of art. In fact, they had not been exhibited before on the grounds that they were ``unaesthetic.''

Visitors to the small show responded unequivocally in a book in which they were invited to write their remarks.

``This artist should be given all the highest honors and awards,'' wrote one. ``Why does no one know anything about these unfortunate people? Wrote another: ``War is a crime, but it is not a lesser evil to remain silent about these invalids.''

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