Kristian Handberg: Cosmonaut Paintings as Contemporary Art. The Soviet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 1924-1977 as a Presentation of Socialist Modernity


The history of the exhibitions in the Soviet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is an overlooked aspect of the transnational history of modern art and its crossroads of different modernities. The Soviet Union reopened its pavilion in 1964, making a remarkable counter position to the American pop art, which was presented the same year. The Soviet art promoted a stylistic expression different from the Western abstract art and neo-avant-garde and different from the strictly dictated socialist realism of Stalinism, that Khrushchev had declared a break from in the architecture in 1955. The exhibitions of Soviet art at the Venice Biennale were subject to discussion and criticism, in the Soviet as well as in the Western reception. It was not easy to find a modern expression in tune with Soviet ideology, and it was difficult to give a Soviet reply to the Global Contemporary, which were settling and consciously promoted at the Biennale. A spectacular attempt was the 1968 exhibition of paintings by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (1934-) with motifs from outer space - The same year that the Western-European 1968 revolts turned the Venice Biennale into a stage of massive protests and actions. In 1977 the Soviet Union became the object of protests as the Biennale set a special focus on oppressed art and became known as the “Biennale of Dissent”, not least through the exhibition “New Soviet Art. A Non-Official Prospective”: An act, which provoked the Soviet Union to close its pavilion.
The presence of the Soviet Union at the Venice Biennale was characterized by tensions, problems, and contradictions, but also of new connections and cross-cultural dialogues at the primary international venue of contemporary art. Where art historical research has emphasized the role of the American Cold War cultural policies carried out at the Venice Biennale (Guilbaut 1985, Castelli 2010, Ikegami 2010), the parallel perspective of the Soviet presence is totally overlooked and largely unknown. Based on recent research in the historical archives of the Venice Biennale the presentation unfolds the spectacular exhibition history of the Soviet Pavillion 1964-1977 in a critical assessment of the attempt to make the Soviet Union and its conception of modernity commensurable with contemporary art in postwar Europe.