Elvis vs. Lenin: a confrontation of superpowers on canvas

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BERLIN – For nearly 30 years, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, the grand main entrance to the Gropius Bau Museum faced the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall. Visitors came and went through a back door.

You now enter through the front, again, but the position of Gropius Bau on the edge of the East-West Divide – now just marked by a double row of cobblestones in the street, tracing the course of the wall – is appropriate for “The Cool and the Froid: painting in the USA and the USSR 1960-1990. Until January 9, 2022, this exhibition of 125 paintings from the private Ludwig collection explores the contrasts, but also the sometimes surprising confluences of the superpowers of the Cold War, seen through the work of over 80 artists.

The exhibition opens with an obvious juxtaposition: Andy Warhol’s iconic “Elvis Presley (Single Elvis)” from 1964, with the singer wielding a gun and dressed as a cowboy, hangs near an early 1980s portrait of Vladimir Lenin by Russian artist Dmitry Nalbandyan, which shows the Soviet leader in his library. Both are clichés, but they make viewers think about their own preconceptions.

Other old tropes run through the show as well: it pits Western pop art which prides itself in trade against Eastern propaganda in the service of communism and abstract expressionism against socialist realism. But despite these expected binaries, there is nuance and depth, and lesser-known works, especially from the Soviet Union, fill in the gaps in art history.

Vladimir Yankilevsky was part of the “Maverick Group” of artists who worked subversively against the censorship of Soviet art: he sometimes painted in an abstract style forged by the Russian avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, which been suppressed under Stalin and vilified by Khrushchev. His 1962 “Nuclear Station” is an abstract five-panel work whose irregular lines create vague topographies through bands of gray, yellow, brown and green. Hanging in the same room as a Jackson Pollock and the familiar shaded American flags of Jasper Johns at the Gropius Bau, “Nuclear Station” seems more akin to Western work than different.

There is a sharper disparity in the figurative paintings in the exhibition. Official, government-sanctioned Soviet artists like Boris Nemensky, a veteran of the Red Army, painted brutally straightforward images of the war and its aftermath: his “On the Height Without a Name” (1961) soberly depicts two fallen soldiers, and “After the War: The Fate of Women” shows four pale and distraught (presumably) rendered widows rendered in dark brown hues.

American grief, however, is filtered through mass media imagery: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Takka Takka” renders the destruction of war in the artist’s typical dotted comic style; Andy Warhol’s “Jackie III” is a collage of press photos taken directly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Contrasts in Eastern and Western attitudes towards leisure, work and everyday life are also woven through the spectacle, which is organized mainly chronologically. Aleksandr Ishin’s triptych “Sunday” shows accordion players entertaining a group of dancers in a Soviet village, while Tom Wesselmann’s 1965 “Landscape No. 4” shows a smiling couple in a sedan crossing a vast landscape. . Again and again – in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol of the United States, and Igor Popov, Sarkis Muradyan and Vladimir Mikita of the Soviet Union – the eastern world seems dark, brooding and woody; the western, shiny, colorful and made.

The similarities of the superpowers come out most clearly in a play devoted to the space race, the most visible soft power conflict of the Cold War. In Yuri Korolyov’s “Cosmonauts”, a group of space suit travelers beam with toothy smiles and bright faces in front of a flat pale blue sky: a prime example of the Communist PR space race. American artist Lowell Nesbitt, as 1970’s “Lift -Off”, show that the United States also used its artists for propaganda purposes. NASA has invited artists to attend rocket launches and landings and to interpret them in their works. The most striking work here, however, is abstract: Nancy Graves’ 10 bright and colorful dot panels showing moon landing sites foreshadow the data-based visualizations of the era of Internet.

Among the under-exhibited works at the time, many were by women, such as Natalya Nesterova and Galina Neledva from the Soviet Union and Jo Baer, ​​Lee Krasner and Lee Lozano from the United States. Curators may present a more complete picture due to the breadth of the collection: Peter and Irene Ludwig, a German couple whose 14,000 works are now in or on loan to 26 public institutions on three continents, were unusual among collectors of Western art from the Cold War era by collecting Soviet art alongside much more popular American works. They needed considerable diplomatic skills to purchase paintings from the East, and the copies of their correspondence with ministers and ambassadors in the exhibition catalog are a reminder of how opaque the Iron Curtain once was.

“The Cool and the Cold” could strike those who lived through the Cold War with waves of memory, even nostalgia, for an era whose geopolitics seemed binary; those who did not find it might find their ideas about the time and its art expanded and placed in a new context. In the final rooms of the exhibition, the two worlds begin to visually converge in a larger mix of styles: the street-inspired works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are there, but also the collage-type painting of Arman Grigoryan, mixing symbols, images and words. .

During the Cold War, art produced by Soviet artists outside official channels “was the West within the East”, as art critic and philosopher Boris Groys writes in an essay by exhibition catalog. Towards the end of the conflict, the lines blurred: the show’s final work, by Dmitry Prigov, covered a wall with the word “Glasnost” hand-engraved on the pages of Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper – a use and critique of the mass media prevalent much earlier in American art. Like the remains of the Berlin Wall outside the museum, it now appears to be a simple and powerful memorial to an ancient world order.


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