The revolution led many artists (Malevich, Kandinsky, Lisitsky, Rodchenko, and many others) to believe that they got a chance to use their art to change the world. Art for the new kind of people. Art for the new kind of society, which was expected to be just, democratic, looking forward, and properly rewarding the Man of Labour (and, let’s be frank about it, the Man of Arts as well).
The Bolshevik leaders of the new society were very fast to realise that the semi-literate masses of workers and peasants needed neither abstraction in the form nor truth in the content. The Masses needed propagandistic pieces that would be nice to look at, easy to understand, and impossible to misinterpret. Dreamers like Kandinsky had to either emigrate or be content to wither away in obscurity, doing small jobs in book illustration or newspaper design.
Art critique in the Soviet Russia was not something an artist could dismiss with “beauty is in the art of the beholder”. A negative review in the Pravda newspaper could see the artist thrown out of artistic societies and accused of counter-revolutionary propaganda, and that meant something other than just “doing time”. It meant doing an impossible job in a prison camp for, say, ten years. Few intellectuals could survive that. So, unless you were certain you were going to be loved by the Communist Party leaders, you wouldn’t dare to raise your artistic head full of revolutionary artistic ideas.
Brodsky turned out to be a perfect candidate for the communist court painter. He finally could fully realise his desire to be loved, and he had all the tools. Nice colour conflicts (Ciągliński), emotions blown out of proportions (art nouveau), ability to construct complex, story-telling compositions with easy-to-navigate psychological depth (Repin) – he had it all.
The gallery of Brodsky’s post-1917 works has rather acrimonious commentaries to each of the paintings. But the moment you click on it, you’d see for yourself how far Brodsky was prepared to go along the road of beautification of reality, also known as explicit propaganda:
I am sure you’ve registered how banal and repetitive Brodsky appears in these works. The European joie de vivre is gone, replaced by cheap pathos for the artistically illiterate.
In this rare photograph, Brodsky is sketching Lenin at an international communist conference.
In 1930 (six years after Lenin’s death) Brodsky used the sketches to produce one of the most intimate paintings of Lenin:
This image was reproduced millions of times in the Soviet Union. My grand-parents had a copy. Lenin here is so human, so concerned about the future of the young state of workers and pesants you can’t believe he was a blood-thirsty monster on a mission. It is, I guess, the best of propaganda art produced in the Soviet Union. Because, finally, it is 100% believable. It is the summit of Brodsky, as an artist. A lone (and false) summit in a vast sea of crap he was producing, after he sold his talent to Communist rulers. It was, I guess, a fair deal for him, at least it seemed quite fair at the time.
Brodsky wanted Repin (who emigrated to Finland) to return to the Soviet Russia, but Repin wouldn’t even hear of it, and, after a few years in emigration, he wouldn’t want to see his formerly favourite student at all.
A contemporary of Brodsky described his studio as a painting factory with dozens of underpaid dogsbodies churning out copies of Brodsky’s “revolutionary” paintings, which the Master would sign and sell to governmental offices all across the country. Is anyone suddenly reminded of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons workshops?
Brodsky stopped being a true artist, and went into the deceit business. Propaganda. Copies. Lies. He was also rumoured to had developed incredible “apparatchik” skills, which allowed him to not just survive the dark times of Stalin’s terror, but to improve his topmost position in the artistic hierarchy.
In exchange for his services, Brodsky was given the post of the President of the Arts Academy, a large flat in Leningrad (formerly St.Petersburg/Petrograd), a fat food ration, and permission to collect paintings.
Brodsky’s collection had grown to more than a thousand paintings from top Russian artists. Some of it was given over to galleries, but a lot remains in the flat which is now a public museum in the centre of St.Petersburg.
Around 11 thousand people visit it annually. It is less than a half of the number of people who have visited this blog in its first year of existence.
Could Brodsky’s life go in a different direction? What would happen to his talent, had he emigrated from Russia? Would he become known as an artistic genius, a name as household as Kandinsky or Malevich? We know that his choice to become a propaganda artist destroyed his talent, but would his talent grow if he had been free to express himself, especially given his propensity to flatter public taste?
He failed to hold on to his talent, but was it a tragedy that he hadn’t tried to keep it? We’ll never know.
Many Russian intellectuals emigrated in search of a place where they could freely express themselves. Many intellectuals decided to stay in Russia. The “Ideal” Man of Labour from Repin’s “Barge Haulers” (who had only existed in the collective mind of intellectuals) seized some of them by the scruff of the neck and thrashed the art out of them, leaving them artistically lifeless, in exchange for loyalty perks of course. Others, who witnessed the thrashing transformation of those talents, decided to become politically neutral artists, which, in its turn gave rise to a number of great apolitical schools of landscape and still life painting.
There was one achievement for which the global art community should respect Brodsky, not, perhaps, as an artist, but as a bureaucrat. He was behind the revival of the Arts Academy that has helped to educate a fair share of good painters and sculptors. Perhaps, it was his act of redemption.