Soviet artifacts intermingle with artistic expression to explore the perks and perils of preparing for the future

By Christina Campodonico

Martin Gale portrays an empty East German carnival in the oil painting “Der Gespenst” (“The Ghost”)

Martin Gale portrays an empty East German carnival in the oil painting “Der Gespenst” (“The Ghost”)

What do artists and the Soviet Union have in common? More than you might think — at least according to Bernhard Zünkeler and Joes Segal, curators of the El Segundo Museum of Art’s latest exhibition experience, PLAN, now on view through May 22.

From medals of valor made in anticipation of World War III to spontaneous contour drawings by famous artists, PLAN brings together artifacts from The Wende Museum’s Culver City-based Cold War archives and mixes in art pieces from ESMoA’s collection to juxtapose the divergent ways in which artists and administrators plan for the future.

“I wanted to show that there are fundamental differences between artists’ balanced way of planning and economic or administrative-controller ways,” Zünkeler, ESMoA’s chief curator, wrote in an email from Germany. “Artists do not shy away from openly showing erased lines or dirty backgrounds.”

Or improvising, he explains. To demonstrate this idea he cites Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele’s drawing of a reclining nude (“Female Nude with Stockings”) executed in one pencil stroke: “Schiele draws the whole complex body of a woman with just one line, feeling totally comfortable doing this within seconds, trusting his competence and knowing he would be able to make the right corrections if necessary.”

Madonna shows similar boldness in an unexpected exhibition appearance. Nude pre-stardom photos of the singer show a carefree young woman reveling in her voluptuous body, unworried of the impact such photos might have on her later life. She’s in the moment, enjoying the camera’s gaze upon her.

Such spontaneity, however, is not so apparent in the historical Soviet-era objects and artworks on display, says Segal, The Wende Museum’s chief curator.

“A lot of political life in Eastern Europe was planned — the five-year plans, the seven-year plans, etc. Everything was going to go according to plan,” he explains, pointing out an East German poster of a man in front of a field of cows that’s titled “Die Besten unserer Zeit” (“The Best of Our Time”). A yellow seven wreathed in garlands is emblazoned on the corner like a victory badge, signifying the bountiful plenty that arises when things go according to plan — except of course when they don’t.

“One of the major issues in the East Bloc was there was this paper reality on the one hand — how things should go — and then the actual reality on the other hand,” says Segal. “There was a big gap between them.”

For instance, a golden Blüher medallion on display was part of a series of medals commissioned in 1968 to honor military heroes for valor in the seemingly inevitable future war between the Cold War’s Eastern and Western power blocs.  Another item from the Eastern German secret service labeled “top secret” shows plans for an invasion of West Berlin.

Yet nuclear bombs didn’t drop; in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Some artists, such as Viktor Konstantinovich Dorokhov and Valentina Egorovna Dorokhova, used art to comment on the changing state of the Soviet Union. One image from 1990 (“To Each Family an Individual Apartment”) shows doorbells and nametags for an apartment building. Yet instead of family surnames on the plaques there are flags of the Soviet republics. But something more is askew.

“This was made in 1990, when Lithuania already declared independence. You see here, the Lithuania flag is falling off the hinge,” says Segal. “And the other Baltic States, Estonia and Latvia, are also considering breaking away, so they lost their hammer and sickle.”

In some cases, art was even corrected to look more like life, suggests Segal. Two nearly identical paintings in the exhibit show a girl being approved for admission into KomSoMol, the Soviet youth movement, but with one noticeable difference. The first, painted around 1949, shows a bust of Stalin watching the proceedings. In the second, painted after 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death), the fearsome leader of the USSR is absent, reflecting not only his exit from the times but fall from grace and history.

Yet PLAN does not simply focus on the decline of the Soviet Union; it also shines a light on how American capitalism is equally susceptible to the pitfalls of planning … or not.

“That’s not something that’s unique to Eastern Europe. We experience it here with the Wall Street crash and banks going down, etc.,” says Segal, referring to the 2008 financial meltdown and pointing out Lehman Brothers’ corporate sign. The large brushed-metal lettering is scattered throughout the gallery in syllabic chunks on the floor — LEH-MAN-BRO-THERS. Once a symbol of the invincible strength of American financial institutions, it’s now a relic of a bygone era in banking history, totally museum-i-fied.

While Soviet-era objects, modern art and capitalism may not immediately mesh, the theme that unites them all is that the future is always unknown.

“We were both very much interested in why people plan the future and what can go wrong and what are the surprising side effects of planning,” says Segal of his collaboration with Zünkeler and ESMoA.

If PLAN leaves us with any advice, it is this: As much as we try to plan ahead, we can never know the whims of fate.

PLAN is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (and by appointment Mondays through Thursdays) through May 22 at ESMoA, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Call (424) 277-1020 or visit