Exhibit of Cold War artifacts embraces multiple versions of the truth
By Christina Campodonico
With the rise of fake news online, the barriers between fact and fiction are becoming shaky.
Yet the Wende Museum’s ongoing exhibition “Questionable History” embraces the gray areas between hard fact and historical interpretation.
Joes Segal, The Wende’s chief curator, believes that the objects and information we encounter in museums are often presented through one viewpoint, when really a plethora of academic opinions may coexist with each other.
“It always struck me as weird when you work in academia and you study certain topics, you’re always confronted with different interpretations and disputes, etc. But when you enter an art historical exhibition you don’t see that,” says Segal. “It’s always a one-way narrative. It’s always one perspective. The text signs explain in a very clear and one-dimensional way what a visitor needs to know.”
Which led Segal to an idea: “What if you turn it around and actually give the visitor an experience of these disputes by putting up two or three different interpretations for each artwork?”
So Segal dug into the Culver City museum’s vast collection of Soviet Era artwork and artifacts from Eastern Europe to find items that could be analyzed and interpreted from a range of perspectives.
“That is why every item here has two or three text labels, and they’re all true,” explains Segal, showing me around the exhibition. “They’re all historically accurate, but they approach the work from different angles and sometimes present a completely different conclusion.”
For instance, a 1962 painting by artist György Kádár of workers going about their business in a Jetson-style factory of sorts could be interpreted as a radical piece of protest art or some sneaky sophistry in the wake of Hungarians’ unsuccessful rebellion against their Soviet-dominated government in 1956. Or maybe not.
“One interpretation is that by being inspired by cubism and other modern art forms, this was actually an artist breaking away from the social realist norm and finding his own expression and developing this more or less unofficial art,” explains Segal. “But then the counter interpretation is that after the 1956 uprising in Budapest, the Hungarian government combined political repression with cultural reforms and wanted the artists to be more experimental and more free. In that case, this would be the perfect expression of state-sponsored art, not unofficial at all.”
Alexei Pavlovich Solodovnikov’s 1955 painting “The Divorce (Drama in a Soviet Court)” also offers up similar ambiguities about Soviet attitudes toward marriage, family and a rural way of life. In it a dapper looking man, sporting a suit and tie like a city slicker, awaits the outcome of divorce proceedings, while a scornful woman wearing a babushka looks on. The man’s wife — a young woman — weeps into her palm as her toddler clings to her hand.
“[There was] this widespread campaign in the Soviet Union to modernize the countryside. You could argue if you look at this very modern figure with his tie and wristwatch and nice clothing that he represents modernism, that he wants to break away from his rural background, and that’s why he’s leaving behind his wife and daughter and going away,” explains Segal. “But then the other interpretation is that he’s actually more of a degenerate or cosmopolitan figure that denies his background, that he wants to make a career and wants to forget about all the basic human failures.”
Like a broken marriage.
Other pieces in the show not only delve into sociopolitical debates, but also art-historical mysteries.
“As you can see, something strange happened there,” says Segal, pointing to a 1958 painting titled “Speech in the Kremlin.”
Regarding the piece, you can make out the thin and faded outline of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Parts of his image have been erased; the crowd surrounding him looks like they’re applauding his ghost.
At first, Segal and his team thought that the anonymous artist had intended to simply strip the painting of Khrushchev’s image following his fall from favor in 1964, but perhaps had failed to finish the job.
“But then we had a restorer look at it very carefully with a special light, and she confirmed what we already started to suspect,” recounts Segal. “At first Khrushchev was painted here, then someone else painted the furniture and the background over the figure, and then again still later someone tried to resurrect him by scraping the second layer of paint off.”
Why the painting underwent these revisions remains unknown. Perhaps people were open to expressing the past again under the changed political climate during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, Segal suggests.
But “honestly speaking, we just don’t know.”
“Questionable History” continues through March 2017 at The Wende Museum, 5741 Buckingham Parkway, Culver City. The museum is open
from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, with guided tours at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., before going dark for the holidays until Jan. 2. Visit wendemuseum.org for more information.