Repression art

Wars have inspired many artists throughout the centuries to come up with art glorifying the victors or lamenting losses, or thinking of the ways wars make people stop being human. We talked about it here, in the War Art post.

Surprisingly, repressions against a country’s own people have largely failed to produce anything that would be similarly impressive. I can understand why. First, killing or imprisoning your own people for entertaining ideas the boss doesn’t approve of is a relatively new concept. Second, artists who have enough strength of spirit to come up with such art are usually repressed first. Unless, of course, they join the other side, but even that does not guarantee their safety.

Repression art done by the descendants of the repressed often turns out to be a trite repetition of the kind of war art that talks about the plight of the defeated, with truly unique insights very difficult to come by.

This a memorial to Stalin’s repressions in Moscow, that uses a statue of Stalin, a wall made of stones shaped as heads, and a small pyramid of the same head stones.


How is this, conceptually, different from Vereschagin’s Apotheosis of Death, made more than a hundred years before it? Especially if we add some etchings made during the reign of terror in France?


The French reign of terror produced mainly illustrations of executions, and the Death of Marat which is only interesting as a confirmation that an artist (David), however classic, can be a butcher. Arts do not make all people better.

So, here comes Russia again, with one of the most powerful contemplation of repressions to be made by an artist who was – on the outside – supporting Bolsheviks. He captured the horror of repressions in two seemingly innocuous paintings.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin named the first one “the Anxiety of 1919” for the authorities to think that he was depicting the time when counter-revolutionary gangs threatened supporters of the Revolution. But the clock on the wall shows 9:34, the real time when it is taking place and a clear reference to 1934, when he painted it.


The man looks out the window, and Petrov-Vodkin’s contemporaries would know why: the sound of a car engine in the night. A black car in the night was picking up dissidents, or enemies of the state. Once arrested, people were gone, and their families would often disappear too. There are no severed heads, but the bloody horror of the woman in the red skirt who fears for her husband, and her children is contagious.

Three years later Petrov-Vodkin came up with a merry celebration of moving into a new flat:


What can be ominous about it? Well, the pictures on the walls. The pictures belonged to the family that lived in this flat before the new arrivals. There’s a pre-Revolution chair in the left corner on which someone from the previous family used to sit. It stands empty now. The horror in this painting is in the knowledge that a whole family was “removed” from life and no one knows where and how. This was the kind of horror people had to live with daily.

It is difficult to keep scaring people with a guillotine or a pyramid of sculls, if possible at all. Such overused images get worn out with time. Conveying the ordinariness of everyday evil is the key. Everyday’s fear, lies, betrayals… Petrov-Vodkin could do it with Stalin’s censors breathing down his neck.

In the 1990s, when Russia came out of its socialist stupor and victims of political repressions were massively rehabilitated, each and every city would put up a monument to that dreadful epoch. As it often happens with hastily erected monuments, most of them are artistic failures. I wouldn’t want to illustrate my point by a gallery of semi-Christian crosses, roughly cut stones, barbed wire, and cell windows. Believe me, there is a multitude of them.

There is one monument, though, that is worth looking at. It was commissioned to Ernst Neizvestny, a dissident artist of the 1960s and 70s, who now lives in the US, in the late 1990s. Its name is the Mask of Grief.


There is a wind bell which irregular chimes provide the broken rhythm of the lives extinguished by the GULAG. The sculpture can be entered through the staircase leading to the left nostril. On the inside, it even has a replica solitary cell:

3VSN1153Its cold concrete sends across the awareness and pain of unstoppable, fatalistic brutality and oppression, which was a part of life for millions of people. I think it is a convincing argument for the scale of repressions, but it is not about the individual horror of it all.

It also doesn’t really address the issues faced by repressions’ survivors and next generations. I am surprised that for many years I couldn’t find an artwork that would address the consequences of Stalin’s repressions. Perhaps, no one believed that this kind of Russian history could repeat itself. Well, Russia is almost there now, again.

Surprisingly, I ultimately found an artwork like this, by Botagoz Tolesheva, an artist from Kazakhstan (a USSR republic that suffered just as much as the rest of the country at the time). It is a Kazakh carpet, with torn threads representing lives stamped out by repressions. The carpet has a huge hole because of it. The hole that can never be mended looms at the observers, making them think of not just how many lives were taken, but how much was cut out of their own present, and future.


Another artwork from the same exhibition, by Asel Kadyrkhanova, aptly named The Machine, shows a typewriter from the 1930s with red threads linking it to the typewritten verdicts on the wall.


I have not seen a better representation of a smoothly running repression machine producing everyday evil and death. For me, it is even more scary than the Mask of Grief by Neizvestny.

Today, most of art inspired by repressions is a mixture of protest and provocation, be it the Pussy Riot performance or Pavlensky’s nailing his scrotum to the Red Square.


Somehow, even with the massive media buzz they create, none of it infuses the observer with horror in the face of the returning reign of “limited terror”.

I am curious what comes next, even though I’d prefer not to witness it coming.


  1. I quite like the “Mask of Grief” even if it doesn’t inspire horror in me necessarily. Film and literature may do horror better because they have the advantage of giving much more context, and unfolding in time. They can use suspense and dread. Visual art is often — in the case of painting — more limited to depicting the horror of the instant, even if it implies so much more.

    “The Death of Marat” is an outstanding painting whatever the politics. I’d be interested in learning more why you refer to David as a “butcher”. I gather he supported the revolution.

    1. Hi, Eric – I like the Mask too, it is monumentally expressive) David was not just supporting the revolution, he was an active player in the Reign of Terror, voting for executions and charing some public safety committee. He was directly involved in it, not a bystander. And still he was one of the greatest artists in history.

      1. Interesting stuff about David. Something to ponder and process over time. “Monumentally express” is the quality that impressed me as well. I also love the staircase to the nostril.

  2. Very interesting post(as usual)! “The Machine” by Asel Kadyrkhanova strikes you , it is clever and powerful.
    I haven’t been around for a while and I am having fun reading some of your old posts, it is difficult to talk about art and being entertaining and interesting at the same time, but you sure succede at it!

  3. I must say this picture with the pussy riot bandits does infuse me with horror, honestly. Same as the french caricatures, same as lies on Malaysian plane, blood in Donbass etc. etc. We are being taught not to be offended by such things and accept them but at the same time we are shown the lesson of how to respect rights of LGBT. I’m not against the latter but I can’t catch the reason why it’s the only thing to be protected now. I’m in real horror as I’m afraid to see what’s next. And I exactly know what is next to me personally – tomorrow I meet my American ‘friends’ who will interrupt each other saying how awful my country is with NO any proof. Thanks God living with wolfs teaches how to defend yourself.
    Stalin’s repressions are our great shame, we’re to remember forever.

    1. While I totally disagree with your views, I don’t believe debating these issues now will do any good. There is one thing though that is very important to me: Stalin’s repressions. I do not think it is a shame, I am certain this is a tragedy, which fills me with pride for those people who went through this hell, and remained human, and also with sadness that it is not them or rather not their kind of people who define what Russia is today.

      1. That’s absolutely fine you don’t agree and I would never ask you to. What I sick is just think for a second the absolute Truth doesn’t belong to you even if it exists. imagine you’re wrong and automatically you’ll respect other people and opinions more, less conflicts will occur after that. This is what I say to you, to my narrow minded colleagues, geopolitical experts in facebook aged 20 and under, what I would say to the Ukrainian or manly US governments as well. That’s it. Works everywhere not in politics only. I know it’s a blog about art but if you step into politics from time to time I think your loyal readers can do this also in the comments. Cheers

        1. I don’t get it. I don’t get the emotional turmoil.
          I just said, for the record, that I totally disagree with your views, and that I didn’t intend to debate them. I didn’t object to your politicised commenting. It is simply important for me that any reader who ventures into the comments understands I do not support your views.

  4. Interesting. That Petro-Vodkin of 1934 is very powerful. The subject put me in mind of the way Aboriginal artists here in Australia deal with their repression. I wonder also about Chinese art post-Mao. You’ve opened up a can of thoughts as usual!

    1. Thank you, Colin – I would love to see any examples you may find of aboriginal and post-Mao art! I think aboriginal would be more about race than politics. I couldn’t find post-Mao anti-repression art, perhaps, for the very simple reason that the Chinese Government is still keeping Mao in the status of a great leader. I don’t think they’d allow any such art to appear.

  5. Very good comments about Kuzma Petro Vodkin , looks like Socialist Realism to me especially the glorification 0f Stalin, hope you read my Socialist Realism Article on my Art History Blog , some of the pictures here are remnscient of that period very good varied images

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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