Initially, I was not all that impressed with Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011) but after reading a couple of online reviews of the book, and an online obituary for the book’s author Igor Golomstock, I am more impressed – impressed enough, that is, that I have made a point of reading the book from start two finish, rather than stopping half-way through.
The reviews argue that there are aspects of the book that are highly valuable, and other aspects that appear to be off the mark.
In a previous post, I shared my original overview of the book:
The full title of the study is: Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China (1990, 2018).
I found the following book reviews of interest; the first one stopped me in my tracks, as I note at a subsequent post, for which you can find a link at the end of the current post.
A May/June 2011 Foreign Affairs review essay is entitled: “What Is Totalitarian Art?: Cultural Kitsch From Stalin to Saddam.”
An excerpt reads:
Unfortunately, in making this ideological connection between some avant-garde artists and the total realists, Golomstock has lost sight of the initial experience in the 1950s that brought him to all the important insights of this book. If he were to place works by such giants of early modernism as Umberto Boccioni and Wassily Kandinsky side by side with works by such total realists as Yakovlev and Heinrich Knirr, he would find that the children he had taught in the 1950s would have no trouble at all telling them apart. (The children would, of course, not know the names of the modernists, because these had been erased from art history books, just as their works had been removed from museums.) The stylistic gap between the two groups is so large that it is senseless to claim that evolving ideologies somehow connect them. Contrary to Golomstock’s reasoning, an artist should not qualify as the progenitor of totalitarian art simply because he or she hailed fascism and revolution in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century.
A June 25, 2011 Wall Street Journal book review by Andrew Stuttaford is entitled: “Masters of the Dark Arts.”
An excerpt reads:
The extraordinary artistic innovation of the early Soviet years was rapidly replaced, however, by the stodgy conservatism of high Stalinist culture. The revolutionary past was sanitized, then mythologized. The hardscrabble present was transformed into a time of abundance by what Mr. Golomstock marvelously calls the “magic mirror” of Socialist Realism. The didactic, neo-Victorian paintings, the monumental if clumsily neoclassical architecture and, after 1941, the numerous evocations of martial valor and national pride, were all manifestations of an ersatz traditionalism that resonated with a people exhausted by decades of upheaval and were, of course, perfectly suited to the maintenance of a tightly controlled, rigidly hierarchical new order.
An Aug. 17, 2018 Guardian article is entitled: “Igor Golomstock obituary: Cultural historian who explored the use of similar art to promote differing totalitarian regimes.”
The obituary is by Robert Chandler, who translated Totalitarian Art (1990, 20111) from the Russian. The reference to Kolyma brings to mind Kolyma Stories (2018) by Varlam Shalamov. I have read an earlier edition of the book; I recommend it highly, for any person with an interest in world history. A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website for the 2018 edition reads:
A masterpiece of Gulag literature, the complete Kolyma Stories is a thousand-page epic composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov’s fifteen years in the Gulag. He spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast region of the USSR and one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on earth, before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his six-volume prose account of life in Kolyma after Stalin’s death in 1953 and continued until his own physical and mental decline in the late 1970s. Kolyma Stories comprises the first three volumes of Shalamov’s tales. The line between autobiography and fiction is indistinct – everything in these stories was experienced or witnessed by Shalamov. His work records the real names of prisoners and their oppressors; he himself appears simply as “I” or “Shalamov,” or at times, under a pseudonym, such as Andreyev or Krist. These collected stories form the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and, because the stories have more than documentary value, a literary work of creative power and conviction.
I happened to read the above-noted reviews and obituary on my iPhone while sitting in the passenger seat during a drive on the 401 between Stratford and Toronto. I’m really pleased I decided to read these articles. They have served to underline that I have much to learn from other people whose understanding of some of the topics, that I’m reading about, exceeds my own.
A subsequent post, in which I underline what I have learned from the above-noted Foreign Affairs review essay, is entitled: