The Rouge exhibition of Soviet artwork, films, and sound documents is currently showing in the Grand Palace in Paris. With some mild critique, the show is mostly a romanticised vision of one of the most suppressive and murderous regimes in the history of humankind.
Representatives of the Lithuanian community in France wrote a letter of protest to the director of the Grand Palace, drawing attention to the scars that the regime left on the world and calling for sensitivity to its victims in many parts of the world. The director's response was defensive at best.
There is some idealised fascination in France with everything Russia. In the French capital, numerous streets and places are named after locations in Russia, like the Rue de Léningrad in one of the suburbs. Seeing the exhibition, one cannot help but wonder what the French public would think if this was an exhibit of Nazi propaganda art?
Similarities between the two regimes that co-existed during the 1930s and 1940s, when both exercised cruelty and systematic murder of opponents, are obvious. There are even many similarities in the ‘art’ depictions. More people died from the Soviet brutality, particularly during Stalin's reign of terror, than in murderous Nazi Germany.
There is a strange feeling of nostalgia at this exhibition for a regime that reigned in an atmosphere of terror and suppression and imploded under a combination of economic mismanagement and crushing corruption. Putting the legacy of politicised art in its proper context is largely missing at Rouge.
Rouge does show how the vicious regimes of Lenin and Stalin changed the artistic landscape and output.
Most artists complied in support of the government and contributed to the ‘new society’. Shortly after the 1917 revolution, there were still various opinions as to how that art should look like in the ‘new society’. By the late 1920s, Stalin's brutal regime ensured that there was no deviation from the official line. The official doctrine was glorifying workers and displaying forms of ‘socialist realism’.
Not limited to Russia, this style and output motivated socialist artists in Western Europe (and parts of Asia), inspired by a romantic vision of socialism, putting workers at the centre of their works. In Rouge, the work of the Belgian socialist engraver Frans Marsereel and the pro-communist posters of the German Alex Kai show how close they were to their Russian counterparts.
The exhibition shows a regime-induced form of art, often glorifying a murderous dictator. The exhibition ends with a veneration of the personal cult of that ugliest of autocrats, Stalin.
The book and souvenir shop plays up to the idealised dream as few can. If only most visitors knew the nightmare of the reality. However, at the suggestion of the Lithuanian community representatives, ‘Haikus of Siberia’, a graphic novel about Stalinist mass deportations, was added to the bookshop at the end of the exhibition.
Rouge in the Grand Palace in Paris until 1 July 2019.