Questionable History

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November 14, 2021 – March 20, 2022



INTRODUCTION In a time of cultural debates over monuments and history education, Questionable History asks about the character of historical knowledge and the stories we tell about the past. When accepted truths are challenged from many sides, historical events are revisited and re-framed anew. This exhibition explores the boundaries and grey zones between objective facts and subjective interpretations and invites viewers to ask critical questions about reality and fiction.

Is history a story we tell? Do facts speak for themselves? Do we know what we (do not) know? Which filters shape our worldview? Do we understand the past through the present or the present through the past? Museums are educational institutions that share pertinent historical narratives, yet many visitors are unaware that such questions inform curatorial decision-making from the level of determining an exhibition’s concept down to writing a single object label. Questionable History includes viewers in this behind-the-scenes process. Instead of imposing a specific point of view, the exhibition offers a playful presentation of artworks and artifacts in five thought-provoking sections.

In Search of Truth displays artwork with contrasting labels that present different interpretations. What Do We Know? emphasizes what we do not know about the works on display. Theory uses the perspective of famous philosophers to interpret paintings, while The Presence of the Past highlights how our contemporary moment informs the ways we view history. (De)constructing Lenin explores how the reputation and representation of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution and the first Soviet leader, have evolved over time. Alongside items from the Wende collection, this section presents contemporary works from Jamison Chās Banks, Natalia Drobot, Raymond Minnen, Deimantas Narkevičius, and The Propeller Group that reinterpret the legacy of Lenin’s image and offer a case study in how history is written and rewritten.

Questionable History is organized by Joes Segal and Anna Rose Canzano, with support from Jane Friedman, Renske de Vries, Ashla Chavez Razzano, Shreya Dwibedy, and Emma Larson. Questionable History is generously supported by Janet Dreisen Rappaport, a member of the Wende Museum Board of Directors.

(De)constructing Lenin

Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924, born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) was a Marxist revolutionary who founded the Bolshevik Party that seized power during the 1917 Russian Revolution and replaced centuries of imperial rule with the world’s first communist state. He was the first leader of the Soviet Union, succeeded after his death by Joseph Stalin. Lenin became a worldwide symbol of socialist ideals and the center of a personality cult that lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This section juxtaposes historical and contemporary artworks that represent Lenin under radically different perspectives from fact to fantasy, from success to failure, and from propaganda to irony.

(De)constructing Lenin

(De)constructing Lenin

Tibor Zala, Lenin, 1972, ink and silkscreen on paper, Hungary

Boris Spornikov, Springtime, 1976, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

A.R. Penck [Ralf Winkler], Lenin on His Deathbed, 1991, color silkscreen on cardboard, Germany

Zsolnay Ceramic Factory, Lenin, n.d., glazed metal, Hungary

(De)constructing Lenin

Zsolnay Ceramic Factory, Lenin, 1983, glazed metal, Hungary

Lenin statuette, n.d., metal, Soviet Union

Lenin bust, n.d., plaster, Soviet Union

“Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live” Lenin bust, n.d., aluminum and wood, Hungary

(De)constructing Lenin

Winterling Porcelain Factory, Lenin plate with quote “Marxism is almighty because it is true,” n.d., porcelain, East Germany Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, painted porcelain, n.d., Soviet Union

Alexander Lozenko, The Monument, 1991, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

Lenin vase, 1960s, glass; ceramic; metal, Soviet Union

(De)constructing Lenin

Artist unknown, Vladimir Lenin and His Wife Nadezhda Krupskaya on a Bench, n.d., oil on canvas, Soviet Union

50th Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1967, textile, East Germany

Mikhail Rozhdestvin, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1991, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

Mikhail Rozhdestvin, Bright Path, 1990, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

(De)constructing Lenin

40th Anniversary Commemorative Vase Gifted to the Lithuanian Society for the Blind from the Ukrainian Society for the Blind, n.d., porcelain; paint, Latvia

Pavel Bondarenko, Lenin monument, 1954, bronze, Soviet Union

(De)constructing Lenin

The Propeller Group, Monumental Bling, 2013, archival pigment print, United States/Vietnam. Courtesy of the artists and James Cohan Gallery

The rise of communism in the twentieth century led to the erection of statues of Vladimir Lenin around the world, making him the most monumentalized individual in world history. Monumental Bling, a series of sculptures, architectural maquettes, and photo collages, reexamines the legacy of the revolutionary leader as the unraveling of the Eastern Bloc brought about the subsequent toppling of many of these monuments. This proposal for a public intervention aims to revive Lenin by rebranding his public image for the twenty-first century. The Propeller Group would acquire the head of one of the first dismantled monuments, removed in East Berlin in 1991. They would plate it in gold and hang it from an oversized Cuban link chain as a necklace from the 89-foot-tall statue of Lenin in Volgograd, Russia, the largest remaining one in the world. The gold pendant, amplified to a monumental scale, references various methods of portraying power throughout history—royal jewels, war medals, etc.—and the appropriation of these tactics through the ostentation and exaggeration of hip-hop culture. The group’s proposed intervention explores the border between identity and ornamentation, tracing the malleability of personality in the public sphere. The Propeller Group (2006–2018) was a Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles-based art collective led by founders Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam Thuc Ha, and Matt Lucero.

(De)constructing Lenin Jamison Chās Banks, Red Scare/Blue Venom, 2021, mixed media (vintage embroidered Lenin, felt, and denim), United States. Courtesy of the artist

The artist’s fascination with Soviet iconography and art developed through a friendship with a Russian exchange student during high school, shortly after the USSR dissolved. After a year in the U.S., the exchange student asked both his host family and Banks’s parents for several pairs of denim blue jeans prior to his return to Russia. Before departing, he gifted Banks most of his Soviet items, including his father’s officer’s hat, various denominations of rubles, and many other items that have come to represent this friendship for the artist. As a farewell gift, Banks gave him a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap, inspired by a close family friend who had played 15 seasons for the team. At the time, Banks did not realize the weighty significance of being in the center of direct exchange between the world’s dueling ideological systems. This work stands as a personal reflection of how those realities continue to resonate with the artist and inform his aesthetic intentions. Jamison Chās Banks is a Seneca-Cayuga and Cherokee artist based in Santa Fe.

Raymond Minnen, from the series Of Flesh and Blood, 2011, painted plaster, Belgium. Courtesy of the artist

The artist makes molds of everyday objects, assembles them together, and then paints and varnishes the final product. He captures the zeitgeist of certain time periods critically. At the heart of Minnen’s work is his subversion of objects, specifically targeting icons and ideological symbols. This sculpture is from a series of humorous variations that combine Lenin figurines with casts of various types of meat. The artist’s experiments stem from his understanding that history is constantly being written and rewritten by those in power. Raymond Minnen is a sculptor based in Mol, Belgium.

(De)constructing Lenin

Natalia Drobot, Lenin à Vie, 2015–18, porcelain, Belgium. Courtesy of the artist

After 1989, communist monuments of Vladimir Lenin became subject to several waves of destruction. In Ukraine, a second wave started in 2003. This phenomenon, dubbed “Leninopad” (Leninfall) by Ukrainians, began with the dismantling of statues of Lenin during a months-long mass protest in the center of Kyiv. Demonstrators against ongoing Russian influence in Ukraine used the statue of Lenin on Bessarabskaya Square as a symbol of their protest. Many subsequent demolitions and vandalizations of Lenin statues then took place throughout the country, some of which focused on transformation rather than destruction. Thus, Lenin took on new images as Superman or Darth Vader and acquired different meanings in each of his new guises. Inspired by these “art-attacks,” as she calls them, Drobot created a series of porcelain figurines of Lenin referencing the various reinterpretations. Her work is influenced by Svetlana Boym’s concept of reflective nostalgia, which grapples with the symbols of the past in order to reflect on the present. Natalia Drobot is a Belarusian artist and PhD student based in Hasselt, Belgium.

(De)constructing Lenin

Deimantas Narkevičius, Once in the XX Century, 2004, digitized Betacam SP video, 7:56 minutes, Lithuania. Courtesy of the artist and gb agency

Once in the XX Century is composed of footage from the removal of a monument to Vladimir Lenin in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991. The image of a Lenin statue hanging above the crowd was used widely by major media networks at the time and became a familiar symbol of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The artist sourced this video from a freelance reporter and the Lithuanian National Television archives, creating a multi-camera view of the event. Narkevičius reversed the footage so that it appears as if the crowd is celebrating while the sculpture is being erected, instead of removed, ironically commenting on the repetition of history. According to the artist, the work is not about nostalgia; rather, he points out that Soviet history is forgotten by a growing number of Eastern Europeans who now (re)consider state communism as an alternative to neoliberalism. Narkevičius notes the rise of populist leaders who deny recent history yet use rhetoric reminiscent of it. Deimantas Narkevičius works primarily in film and video and is based in Vilnius.

In Search of Truth

This section displays artworks with two labels presenting alternative and contradictory readings based on the same facts.

In Search of Truth Alexei Solodovnikov, The Divorce, 1955, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

Alexei Solodovnikov, The Divorce, 1955, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

A lone man sits in the center of the

A lone man sits in the center of the

painting as a despondent woman

painting as a despondent woman and

and the young child who comforts

the young child who comforts her

her are seen in the background.

are seen in the background. In this

The scene portrays the legal

work, Solodovnikov radically breaks

settlement of a divorce in the

with the principle of “conflictlessness”

countryside. In this work, the artist

that defined the visual arts under

criticizes the effects of “progress”

Stalin after World War II, according

and “modernization,” ideological

to which artists were expected to

catchwords in Soviet society.

refrain from showing real-world strife

With his posh clothes, expensive

and tensions. Two years after Stalin’s

wristwatch, and emotionless face,

death, however, the artist portrayed

the man depicted by Solodovnikov

the legal settlement of a divorce in

abandons his wife and daughter, in

the countryside. By highlighting the

search of new career possibilities.

modernity of the protagonist through

The locals who attend the hearing

his fine clothing and nice wristwatch,

look at him scornfully, while

this work suggests that progress can

expressing empathy for his

only be obtained through necessary

castoff family.

societal conflict.

Viktor Makrozhitsky, Growing Wheat – The Air Drop, 1977, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

Viktor Makrozhitsky, Growing Wheat – The Air Drop, 1977, oil on canvas Soviet Union

The figures in this painting stand

The figures in this painting stand

heroically in the foreground as

heroically in the foreground as

voluminous green fields behind

voluminous green fields behind them

them blow in the wind. An airplane

blow in the wind. Harvests in the

will soon pick up sacks of wheat.

mid-1970s were often poor due

A young woman seems to take

to bad weather, farm bureaucracy,

inventory, while the pilot of the

and structural mismanagement. The

plane asserts his presence proudly

Soviet leaders feared a shortfall in

in the middle of the picture. A

the amount of grain required to

hopeful young man seems to stare

sustain the population and agreed

into the future as he shades his eyes

to buy between 6 and 8 million tons

against the sun. With sentiments

of American grain over a five-year

of contentment and confidence

period beginning in 1975. The rich

pervading the scene, this work

harvests depicted in this painting

celebrates the joy of productive labor.

cover up the deficiencies of the Soviet agricultural system.

In Search of Truth

Heinz Drache, The PeopleSay “Yes” to the Peaceful Reconstruction, 1952, oil on canvas, East Germany

Heinz Drache, The PeopleSay “Yes” to the Peaceful Reconstruction, 1952, oil on canvas, East Germany

A cheerful group of workers is

A cheerful group of workers is

in the process of constructing

in the process of constructing

Stalinallee (later renamed Karl-

Stalinallee (later renamed Karl-

Marx-Allee) in East Berlin. Stalinallee

Marx-Allee) in East Berlin. In June

was the showpiece of postwar

1953, these workers started an

reconstruction in the GDR. Many

uprising to demand higher wages

apartments on the street would be

and lower work quotas. Their strike

made available to those contributing

was joined by others, and soon

to the reconstruction of the city. In

protests and rioting began across

Drache’s painting, the construction

hundreds of East German cities

workers envision the appearance

and towns. The Soviet occupation

of their “workers’ palaces” around

forces declared martial law and used

them as they share the joy of playing

military force to suppress the rioting.

a part in this prestigious project.

Consequently, Drache’s painting was stored away in a basement, where it remained hidden until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Search of Truth

Mária Túry, It Hurts a Lot!, 1980, oil on fiberboard, Hungary Simon Sarkantyú, József Attila, 1953, oil on canvas, Hungary

József Attila (1905–1937) is considered one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the twentieth century. From the 1950s onwards, he was posthumously celebrated as the “proletarian” poet.” On display are Simon Sarkantyú’s and Mária Túry’s portraits of Attila. Sarkantyú’s approach exemplifies how socialist realism often imitated classical styles. The colors are subdued, and the poet seems to emerge out of the darkness as he confronts the viewer with a self-assured pose and expression. The factory in the background connects Attila’s intellectual labor to industrial production. Mária Túry’s portrait presents a wholly different approach. With her vivid use of color and dynamic brushwork, Attila is depicted as frantic. The harsh glance of his eyes and the fragment of his famous poem “It Hurts a Lot” sticking out of the typewriter may refer to the poet’s documented struggles with depression and schizophrenia.

Mária Túry, It Hurts a Lot!, 1980, oil on fiberboard, Hungary Simon Sarkantyú, József Attila, 1953, oil on canvas, Hungary

József Attila (1905–1937) is considered one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the twentieth century. From the 1950s onwards, he was posthumously celebrated as the “proletarian” poet. On display are Simon Sarkantyú’s and Mária Túry’s portraits of Attila. Sarkantyú’s painting draws from the neoclassical tradition, whereas Túry’s portrait presents a colorful and abstracted impression of “the people’s poet” and his work. Behind their stylistic differences, each painter aims to glorify the great author. Both Túry’s lively depiction of the poet with his typewriter containing a fragment of the famous poem “It Hurts a Lot” and Sarkantyú’s proud, full-length rendering intend to immortalize Attila as one of the great Hungarian artists of the last century.

In Search of Truth

Ileana Radulescu, Landscape from Drumul Taberei, late 1960s, oil on canvas, Romania

Ileana Radulescu, Landscape from Drumul Taberei, late 1960s, oil on canvas, Romania

Radulescu depicts a leisurely scene

Radulescu depicts a leisurely scene

from daily life, as people stroll

from daily life, as people stroll

through a park in the Drumul Taberei

through a park in the Drumul Taberei

district of Bucharest, Romania. New

district of Bucharest, Romania. Like

housing complexes built in Eastern

many socialist realist works, the

Bloc countries such as this were in

painting obscures the gap between

great demand as they offered privacy

visual propaganda and everyday life.

and a high standard of comfort

New city quarters such as this were

for residents. In light hues of pink,

advertised as the realization of a

blue, and yellow-green, Matisse-like

dream world, but the reality usually

brushstrokes envision an idealized

was quite different. Promised urban

landscape, capturing the optimism

beautification programs hardly ever

and sense of relaxation offered to

materialized due to unforeseen

the residents through this carefully

circumstances and a lack of means.

planned urban space.

This fate befell many new city quarters both in the East and the West during the 1960s and 1970s.

Bela Lukacs, Summer Hotel at Balaton, 1960s, poster, Hungary

Bela Lukacs, Summer Hotel at Balaton, 1960s, poster, Hungary

A smiling, bikini-clad woman wades

A smiling, bikini-clad woman wades

through the water, with a bright

through the water, with a bright

and modern hotel behind her. Lake

and modern hotel behind her. Lake

Balaton was a popular vacation spot

Balaton was a popular vacation spot

for Hungarians and visitors from

for Hungarians and visitors from

other Eastern Bloc countries. The

other Eastern Bloc countries. The

reforms of “goulash communism” in

reforms of “goulash communism” in

the 1960s sought to create high-

the 1960s sought to create high-

quality living standards in Hungary

quality living standards in Hungary

with an emphasis on leisure and

with an emphasis on leisure and

consumption. Market socialism

consumption. The poster celebrates

introduced advertising techniques

a new phase in Hungarian Cold War

in common with capitalist countries

history, moving away from socialism

to celebrate a new phase in the

toward a capitalist-inspired model of

realization of socialist Utopia.


In Search of Truth

Janos Blaski, Demonstration, 1970s, tempera on board, Hungary

Janos Blaski, Demonstration, 1970s, tempera on board, Hungary

With vibrant colors and merging

With vibrant colors and merging

abstract shapes, Blaski captures the

abstract shapes, Blaski captures the

energy of a public demonstration,

energy of a festive demonstration,

possibly a reference to the Hungarian

the sea of waving banners and

uprising of 1956 that was ruthlessly

flags falling into colorful, geometric

suppressed by Soviet tanks. Although

patterns. The painting captures the

the uprising failed, the painting

energy and elation of a May Day

expresses the sense of elation by

celebration, otherwise known as

people with a sense of agency who, if

International Workers’ Day. The

only for a brief period, took their fate

modern, experimental pictorial

into their own hands. The abstract

language reinforces the sense of joy

style, a conscious deviation from

and community experienced by many

officially sanctioned socialist realism,

during the festivities.

underscores a sense of political and creative freedom, an echo from the past as a promise for the future.

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Star Coca-Cola, 1988, oil and silkscreen on canvas, Hungary

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Star Coca-Cola, 1988, oil and silkscreen on canvas, Hungary

Across the familiar outline of the

Across the familiar outline of the

vibrant red star of communism

vibrant red star of communism we

we recognize fragments of its

recognize fragments of its capitalist

capitalist counterpart, the Coca-

counterpart, the Coca-Cola logo.

Cola logo. In the late 1980s, irony

The artist suggests in this highly

became a favorite strategy of artistic

ambiguous work that capitalism

discontent all over Eastern Europe.

and communism have more in

By superimposing multiple Coca-

common than is often understood.

Cola logos over the star, Pinczehelyi

Both systems use iconic images and

implies that communism is no longer

symbols to impose their ideology

presenting a viable alternative to

upon the viewer.

Western capitalism.

What Do We Know?

Most museums share their knowledge with the public through exhibition labels. In this section, the curators share their doubts, uncertainties, and questions.

What Do We Know?

Alexei Solodovnikov, Agricultural Worker, 1957, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

A tall, ruddy-faced man stands confidently in the foreground of a crop field with a plow and a tractor. Did he actually work in these fields, or did the artist simply select a good-looking model to represent a strong and healthy Soviet citizen? The gold watch on his left wrist identifies him as a Hero of Labor—workers who exceeded the quotas expected from communal farms and factories were sometimes recognized with special gifts. The date of this painting coincides with the “Virgin Lands” program, which brought huge increases in agricultural production in the Soviet Union between 1954 and 1958 under Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev. Was this work intended to celebrate the model’s individual accomplishments or to communicate the success of Khrushchev’s economic program?

Evgeni Zaitsev, By the Spring, 1985–86, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

In a flat field, populated by a few wildflowers and distant, rural houses, three young women stand before the viewer, their stately presence taking up the full height of the painting. In their posture, they seem to reference the three graces of Antiquity. Did the artist transform a common village scene into a bucolic fantasy in an attempt to elevate the everyday life of a village to mythological proportions?

What Do We Know?

Béla Czene, Dibbling at the State Farm of Fertõd, 1969, oil on board, Hungary

A group of women is shown dibbling seeds or bulbs in the fields. A horizon is missing from the tightly cropped image that features patterned, prominent brushstrokes. These stylistic choices distance the work from the conventional constraints of socialist realism. Is the artist depicting the community ideal of agricultural work as envisioned by the Hungarian land collectivization campaigns of the 1960s, or is Czene highlighting the adverse consequences of these campaigns through the worn expressions of the women’s faces?

Jozsef Dobroszlav, Subway Construction, watercolor on paper, 1976

With his image of subway construction in Budapest, the artist projects us deep into space along the subway tracks. The dazzling contrast between dark and light creates a circular halo at the tunnel’s end. Why did Dobroszlav choose to elevate such a mundane subject? Did he want to celebrate the reputation of the city as a progressive hub of technology and economic progress? Why are the heroic workers who typically populate socialist realist artwork absent? Might the tunnel be interpreted as a return of the repressed, a metaphor for a state that carefully keeps the dark out of sight in its official visual culture?

What Do We Know?

Antal Béla Ádám, from the series Utopias after the War (1953–83), 1953, ink and watercolor on paper, Hungary

These three drawings are part of a collection of 33 ink and watercolor images of city life in Budapest after World War II. The drawings include the rebuilding of Liberty Bridge, the flooding of the Danube in 1965, and various scenes set at the city’s public baths. Each could have been observed from daily life with these three as notable exceptions. These drawings, dated 1953, are labelled with the word “Brazilia.” This is not a reference to the modernist city of Brasilia, which was not planned until 1956. However, a capital in the center of the country had been dreamt of since the early nineteenth century. An astronomer named Luís Cruls led an 1892 expedition in the heartland of the country to determine a suitable site for a future capital city. The handwritten text that roughly translates as, “An alter ego of the 13 hypnotizers and the marvelous secret identical twins . . . Controllable atmospheric balloon, the Astronomy class’s experimental and hypnosis pavilion . . .” adds more mystery. Did Ádám reference Cruls’s expedition with these words?

What Do We Know?

Sergei Sukharev, If, If Not, 1992, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

Rendered under the words, “If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no need for tinkers’ hands,” an idiomatic expression used to describe the futility of wishing for useless things, we see a fantastical image rich in detail. The central scene shows a levitating man and a doghouse-like shack. Amidst the chaos of the snow-covered landscape, a cat stands alert on the roof of the house—the word “Fazenda” is scrawled beneath, indicating a colonial plantation in Brazil. Across the bottom of the painting is written in Russian, “Drawing from nature Sukhareva Serezhi 37 years Moscow,” a farcical statement in view of the surreal nature of the composition. Painted the year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, what does this image, fraught with UFOs, floating household objects, and an eerily lit sky, say about the artist’s take on Soviet communism or post-Soviet capitalism?

Éva Gera, In October 1956, 1956, oil on canvas, Hungary

Captured in dark hues and broad brushstrokes, a woman bows her head before an open newspaper, seemingly in despair, as a man behind her cautiously pulls aside a curtain to peer out of a window. The painting suggests a possible connection between the contents of the newspaper, which remain illegible for the viewer, and the scene viewed outside through the window by the man. One might find a clue in the painting’s title, as the Hungarian uprising, which started on October 23, 1956, holds great significance as a time of nationwide anticommunist resistance and subsequent suppression by the Soviet military. However, the Soviet tanks did not arrive until November 4. Does the woman’s facial expression reference her premonition about the outcome, or does she resent the violent demonstrations against her communist fatherland?

What Do We Know?

Laszlo Óvári, On Top of the World, n.d., oil on cardboard, Hungary

In this chilling image a couple lazes together atop a hill as they watch what appears in the distance as both a nuclear explosion and a rocket launch towering over a city. Óvári was a decorated Hungarian painter whose work was regularly exhibited during the Cold War period. This curious painting is notably different from the artist’s more mainstream work. Does it reference the Space Race or the artist’s fear of a nuclear Armageddon? Why do the figures in the foreground seem so unfazed? Was this work intended for public viewing or was it a personal reflection by the artist that was never supposed to leave his studio?

Meissen Porcelain Factory, Adolf Hennecke, 1950s, porcelain, East Germany

This remarkable sculpture of a miner was produced at the Meissen porcelain factory close to Dresden, one of Europe’s finest producers of porcelain objects since the early eighteenth century. The figure has been identified previously as Adolf Hennecke, an East German miner who exceeded his daily quota by nearly 400% on October 13, 1948. This earned him the designation of a Hero of Labor and launched his subsequent political career. But is it really Adolf Hennecke? Comparing historical photographs, it could as well be Alexey Stakhanov, the famous Soviet miner who exceeded his daily quota by 1400% in 1935 and would become a model for socialist workers all over the Eastern Bloc.

What Do We Know?

Zsolnay Ceramic Factory, Pair of Workers’ Militians, glazed porcelain, n.d., Hungary Zsolnay Ceramic Factory, Lovers, glazed porcelain, n.d., Hungary

Zsolnay Ceramic Factory, Mother with Child, glazed porcelain, n.d., Hungary

These three sculptures were produced at the Zsolnay ceramic factory in Pecs, Hungary, which is famous for its iridescent and colorful surfaces resulting from a secret glazing technique that was developed in the early 1890s. While the Workers sculpture conveys the house style of socialist realism, the works Lover and Mother with Child are sculpted in a much more modern and abstract style, officially rejected as “bourgeois-decadent.” How is it possible that the same factory produced such different objects with radically different political connotations?


How is our interpretation of the world filtered by preconceptions? This section presents artwork as seen through the lens of famous historical thinkers.


Sergei Grigoriev, Candidate for the Komsomol, ca. 1949, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

History has no inherent meaning. The historian is like an artist who takes references and facts and molds them into a coherent narrative. Great historians do not retell history, they produce it. Along the same lines, artists do not represent historical reality, they shape it according to their vision, or the vision of their time. We can see this mechanism at work in the two versions of Grigoriev’s painting, one with a Stalin bust in the corner and one without. A seemingly innocuous detail radically changes the meaning of the painting and the story it conveys. Is the young girl joining the Soviet youth movement (Komsomol) to honor and serve Stalin and his vision of the world, or is she joining a youth organization without ideological overtones? The two versions of the painting, depicting the same scene, refer to radically different societies through the vision of the artist.

Sergei Grigoriev, Candidate for the Komsomol, ca. 1949, modified after 1953, oil on canvas, Soviet Union


Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002)

Simon Sarkantyú, Ideological Education at the Studio, 1952, oil on canvas, Hungary

People’s status and success rests on the three pillars of economic, social, and cultural capital: how much money you can spend; how many influential people you know; and your ability to converse comfortably and fluently about art and culture. While there is no inherent “worth” in an artwork other than the materials used and the artist’s pay, artistic value is a social construct that can be taught in its variations from culture to culture and from era to era. Sarkantyú’s painting illustrates the social importance of knowing how to talk about art.


Michel Foucault (1926–1984)

Stanislav Molodykh, The Asylum, 1982–95, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

What is madness but a social construct based on the principles of knowledge in a particular place and time? What we accept as true or false, as beautiful or ugly, as good or bad, as sane or insane, is the product of power structures intent on self-preservation. In that sense, “truth” is nothing but the confirmation of the dominant values we have come to internalize. Molodykh’s painting confronts us with the inmates of a mental institution in Leningrad (present-day Saint Petersburg). Are the two men with crosses around their necks mentally ill because they believe in a Christian God while living in an atheist society? Has the man with the beard and the guitar been labelled insane because he looks like a hippie instead of a typical hero of industrial labor? Has the man reading been committed because he is reading the wrong book? Madness is in the eye of the politically and socially powerful beholder.


Donna Haraway (b. 1944)

György Kádár, Automation, 1962, oil on fiberboard, Hungary

We are all cyborgs: simultaneously animal and machine. By the late twentieth century, due to the rise of industry and technology, dualities have broken down the boundaries between human– animal, animal–machine, and natural–artificial. We are each a collection of networks, connected to everything in the world. A vibrant matrix of lines and monitors makes up György Kádár’s Automation. The painting is composed of natural colors, with sunlight beaming into the factory. The two figures, hard at work, are both consumed by and coexisting with the machine, itself part of a hybrid network.


Michel de Certeau (1925–1986)

Orshi Drozdik, Individual Mythology: Walking Up, 1977, Hungary

Through intelligence and creativity we claim agency. One of the most effective strategies of agency is appropriation: using the reality around us while infusing it with different meaning through reinterpretation or subversion. Many critical artists in the socialist countries of the Cold War period were masters of appropriation. Here, Drozdik takes the ritualized mythology of state ideology, reinforced by mass parades and public spectacles, and turns it on its head by adding herself to the image as a hovering goddess, making the ritual subservient to her own individual agenda.

The Presence of the Past

The questions we ask about the past are informed by the present. This section looks at historical artworks from the perspective of today.

Presence of the Past

Unknown, Party Congress at the Kremlin, ca. 1958, oil on canvas, Soviet Union

In this anonymous painting, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev makes a televised speech to the Soviet parliament at the Kremlin, where a version of this work subsequently was on display. After Khrushchev fell out of favor in 1964, much of his image was erased from the painting, leaving behind a ghost-like figure. History is as much about what we collectively forget as what we remember. Which documents are left out of archives? Which artworks are ignored by museums? Which aspects of history are left untaught at school? What are the power structures behind such omissions?

Presence of the Past

Maks Velo, The Cell; Two Inmates; Torture; Inside the Prison, ink on paper, 1991

Painter, architect, and journalist Maks Velo was sentenced to ten years in a prison camp for “agitation and propaganda” in Albania under communist leader Enver Hoxha. Among other things, Velo was accused of “executing artworks inspired by Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso,” contravening the state-sanctioned style of socialist realism. These four drawings are from a series Velo created about his experiences in prison, made after his release in 1991. Worldwide, countless people are imprisoned because of their political convictions, religious beliefs, or artistic expressions. Arbitrary convictions, unfair trials, and secret detentions, sometimes with torture, can be found in all parts of the world under all political systems. The fight for justice is a never-ending struggle.

Presence of the Past

Artist unknown, Will the Swans Return?, late 1980s, poster, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

As a consequence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies in the 1980s, environmental concerns could be expressed in the Soviet Union more or less freely. In this poster, a once snowy white swan is drenched in black oil. The captions surrounding the image urge viewers to heed the work’s warning and think about the ways in which we are all implicated in environmental destruction. More than three decades later, in August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a sobering assessment of the Earth’s future. The report emphasized that the planet is undergoing unprecedented changes and that strong reductions are necessary in the emission of greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change, pollution, and other sustainability issues increasingly confront us with existential crisis.

Vera Sibirtseva, The Fresh Winds of Change?, 1989, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

The woman in this painting takes on unpaid child-rearing and housekeeping duties—groceries, laundry, cleaning, cooking, childcare—in addition to her paid job outside of the home. Sibirtseva shows that increased career opportunities under socialism did not decrease a woman’s workload. Instead, women were forced to multitask by the hour, as represented by the endlessly spinning blades of the windmill. The gendered division of labor in both household and workplace continues to hinder progress towards equal rights today, irrespective of the political system.

Presence of the Past

Alexei Rezaev, AIDS – No, 1991, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

In this painting from 1991, Rezaev uses the wellknown image of Vera Mukhina’s monumental sculpture, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, but with the figures holding condoms in their hands. The HIV/AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s while powerful governments neglected it, from the Reagan administration’s silence and victim shaming to the Soviet Union’s denial and blaming of other countries for creating it. Today, the HIV/ AIDS epidemic is growing in Russia, in part due to religious conservatism and misinformation. There is a striking parallel with the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, where political brinkmanship and conspiracy theories have prevented people from acting responsibly.

I. Linnik and A. Krent, Every Family by the Year 2000, poster, ca. 1990, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

This poster takes a pessimistic view of the Soviet housing shortage. A concrete city wall is depicted with layers of tattered paper notices posted by families looking for rooms and apartments. The chalk drawing of a house indicates a dream of domestic comfort that was unattainable for most citizens. The poster title cynically refers to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s slogan in the 1950s: “Every family their own apartment.” This slogan echoes the traditional American Dream of single-family homeownership. The National LowIncome Housing Coalition estimated that there is a shortage of 2.3 million affordable rental homes in California. In March 2021, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted no less than 66,463 homeless people in Los Angeles County alone. What is needed to solve the housing crisis beyond political and ideological divisions?

Presence of the Past

Viktor Dorokhov and Valentina Dorokhova, Untitled, poster, 1989–90, Soviet Union. The Ferris Russian Collection, Donated by Tom and Jeri Ferris

This painting conveys the changing relationship that largely defined the geopolitics of the twentieth century. Three sets of hands reach out to each other: the top ones make a gesture known in Russia as the “fig sign,” considered mildly obscene; the middle ones are outstretched and almost touching; and the bottom ones finally connect and shake, revealing the American and Soviet flags on the shirt cuffs. But where are we presently? United States–Russia relations have reached a new low point in the past decade, and tensions between the U.S. and China have rapidly escalated into what some call a new Cold War.

Frank Ruddigkeit, Porgy and Bess, poster, 1972, East Germany

The poster advertises a performance of George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, about a segregated African American community in Charleston, South Carolina, that took place at the Leipzig Opera House in 1972. The production was supported by the United States Information Agency as part of a wide-ranging attempt to win over the hearts and minds of communists through American culture. However, from its Broadway premiere in 1935 to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 staging, Porgy and Bess has continued to raise contentious issues about authorship and cultural gatekeeping. Does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes that uphold racist systems? The opera was written by an all-white team for an all-Black cast. James Baldwin called it a “white man’s version” of Black life. Today, questions about representation remain as relevant as ever.

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