Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on December 4th, 2008
Picasso and Stalin at Cooper Union

Picasso and Stalin at Cooper Union.

I saw the two articles pop up a few weeks ago in which Valdas Adamkus asserted that someday Soviet and Nazi attrocities will be held at the same level. The occasion for his remarks was his address at an observance of the 75th anniversary of the Holodmor, the Stalin-era famine that killed a large portion of the Ukrainian population. I’m not historian enough to argue (nor am I even particularly interested in answering) whether the famine was a deliberate move to destroy the Ukrainian nation (that is, genocide), or a terrible consequence of both drought and terribly managed collectivization.

What I am interested in, however, is how easily Adamkus slides–apropos of what, I’m not sure–into making the case for equivalence between Nazi and Soviet attrocities. Apparently, it’s not enough to simply memorialize the Ukrainian dead. He has to also participate in the right-wing project of fascist recuperation that depends on this equivalence of régimes. But as I’ve explained (leaning heavily on Žižek), the hammer and sickle is not the swastika.

But the anniversary was weirdly commemorated (after a fashion) in the East Village, home to, among other things, the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church. This photo of the church I took last year was taken right before I took a photo of the nearby historic Cooper Union building, which recently agreed to display Lene Berg‘s exhibition “Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman With Mustache.” As this post shows, the exhibition includes a giant drawing of Stalin made by Picasso for a communist newspaper which was rejected because of how unflattering it was to Stalin. So the source material is, if not anti-communist, at least not pro-Stalinist.

Berg’s exhibit was originally supposed to coincide with the 55th anniversary of Stalin’s death, but after having it chased out of Norway, the exhibition landed in New York, where it no longer coincided with that anniversary, but, rather, now, with the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor. Kind of bad timing.

Still, that does not excuse what ended up happening. Following the obvious nationalist outcry, a Facebook group emerged, “Stalin Go Home.” Then, after only a few days of being up, the banners came down on orders of the city government. The NYCLU wants to know precisely what allowed the government to force the banners down. In the meantime, hiding behind the government, Cooper Union has argued that once they get the proper permits to hang the banners (which they had somehow forgotten to acquire), they’ll show the work again, although not so that it coincides with the Holodomor anniversary.

Triple Canopy, which is how (via Pete) I found out about this case, calls foul on this all. The work by Berg, after all, is about the relationship between politics and representation, and the stumbling fails of the various Ukrainian agitators show that they are missing something important about the work. That is, I don’t deny that they find it offensive, but their responses are peculiar and require a bit more consideration.

First, Jaroslaw Leshko, an art historian and president of the board of trustees at the NYC Ukrainian Museum, argues to the NYT that, though he is a “profound believer in creative freedom of expression,” he thinks that the “banner [sic] can still be viewed in another context, inside the building without an aggressive public face.” This, he feels, would be “an appropriate presentation.”

Mitya turns his back on Stalin and the NKVD. Click to enlarge.

Mitya turns his back on Stalin and the NKVD. Click to enlarge.

That’s ridiculous. Obviously the work’s political charge is from its being wicked huge and being outside. The large caricature of Stalin occupies the same out-of-bounds oppression as the wavering Stalin banner does at the end of Mikhalkov‘s 1994 film, Утомлённые солнцем (Burnt by the Sun). In that movie, the banner serves as a reminder of the ubiquitous nature of Stalin over everything that Mitya and the rest of the characters do. As the banner rises over the horizon, Mitya initially sarcastically salutes it, but then he turns his back. He has fulfilled his obligation to the NKVD and delivered Comrade Kotya. But in turning his back, he is also condemning himself to death by the state, as the NKVD car he enters drives off through (towards) that same banner. He just beats the state to the punch by trying to take his life first with Kotya’s revolver and next by slitting his wrists in an homage to the love he left behind.

But the point remains that it is the size and outside-ness of the banner in the movie, as well as in the Berg work, that gives it its chilling charge. Hanging inside the Cooper Union building would be exactly not the right move, and it’s puzzling that an art historian like Leshko can’t see it that way.

"Stalin Go Home" Facebook group.

"Stalin Go Home" Facebook group.

The second remaining piece to grapple with is the approach of the Facebook group, “Stalin Go Home.” On a purely semantic level, the group’s name makes no sense. To which home should Stalin go? Berg’s base in Berlin? Moscow? France (as the drawing was commissioned by a French weekly)? Georgia (Stalin’s home)? And in sending the work home, the community in Facebook is engaging in a banishment and exile. Banishment and exile are, of course, among the myriad charges dropped at Stalin’s feet. Instead of engaging with the art work–clumsy timing and all–the Facebook group argues that it can be simply disappeared. Sent back to somewhere else. Pushed out of mind.

But note the clumsy graphic of the group, too. It crosses out both images of Stalin–the photo and the insufficiently flattering Picasso drawing, but keeps Picasso’s face untouched. Yet without Picasso, there would be no giant drawing of Stalin for Berg to reproduce on such a scale. By keeping Picasso’s face unmarred, the Facebook group demonstrates that they are unable to see how the display interacts with questions of representation and politics. They see only the political, in which Stalin, as a terrible figure of history, is always already evil, and any representation of him must be the same. The terrifying irony of the exhibition simply went over the head of whoever MSPainted this graphic.

So again, I have no opinion on the causes of Holodomor, and I do think Cooper Union messed up with their timing. But between Adamkus and the City of New York and Facebook, we have a pile of examples of showing how totally deaf to nuance intensely felt historical pain continues to be.

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3 Responses to “Stalin, Adamkus, and… Picasso?”

  1. Testing Facebook Connect!

  2. President Adamkus was a Nazi collaborator and served in one of Lithuanian “auxiliary” battalions under German command. He fled with the Germans from the Red Army and was admitted to the United States under one of the programs to establish there anti-Soviet diasporas as a pool of ethnic cadres for subversive operations against the Soviet Union. This is what happened to Adamkus who was recruited by The US military intelligence and became active in the Republican “ethnic outreach” program under Reagan and Bush. When the Soviet Union was destroyed they installed their agent in Lithuania where he promptly began to promote the Lithuanian Nazi veterans. Facism and Nazism were never defeated, they just changed home countries.

  3. “Simpler than Any Painting, Flatter than Any Sculpture, Ruder than Any Kitsch – Joseph Stalin as an Object of Pablo Picasso’s Contemplation”

    Read an analysis of Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Joseph Stalin (1953)
    at:
    http://www.actingoutpolitics.com
    By victor

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