Seeing Red

Courtesy of the Smart Museum

Sounds of South African resistance–songs, chants, and speeches–resonate from corner to corner of the Smart Museum, before an exhibition of striking images opens before the viewer. The exhibition, “Vision and Communism,” is a part of the Soviet Arts Experience, a citywide retrospective marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the USSR and explores the work of Soviet propaganda artist Viktor Koretsky. Koretsky’s innovative, confrontational style is grounded in experimental techniques and emotionally charged imagery. Its bold assertion of a universal vision for mankind–a world free from racism and capitalist oppression–marks a departure from the patriotic classicism characterized by the Socialist Realist art of Koretsky’s contemporaries.

His posters, photographs, and sketches are riveting, thrumming with visceral necessity that invite the audience to share in the suffering of the oppressed working class. A black and white photograph, titled “If this is the land of the free, then what do you call a prison?” shows the Statue of Liberty atop a pedestal made of a distorted American flag. Rather than stars in the corner, there is a dollar sign; rather than stripes, the bars of a prison hold back an interracial mass of workers. In Koretsky’s work, capitalism is shown to be “an alternative cosmos, characterized by degradation, warmongering, and indifference,” according to the exhibit brochure. Christopher Heuer of the Princeton University Art Department says that the art “sought to unite viewers with an immediate, ongoing, global struggle.”

In addition to imagery representing the evils of capitalism, Koretsky’s work also offers a picture of racial cooperation–a  joint struggle against the forces of the free market and of the West. One poster shows a black man breaking free from chains. The text emblazoned across the image reads, “Africa fights! Africa will win!” Another poster depicts a pair of sunglasses. Reflected in one lens is an image of a black man suffering from an attack of police brutality, and in the other a group of white soldiers killing an Asian man. Its title is appropriately acerbic: “American Policy (Internal/External).”

Walking farther into the exhibition, the viewer becomes progressively more engaged with the work, with its hallucinatory and horrific images. The posters make manifest the pain and suffering of their subjects, which become increasingly intimate for the viewer. Koretsky pulls the viewer out of his or her world to identify with a larger picture of suffering. According to the curators, the “situations and emotions that populate the exhibition feel as if they are intensely ‘ours,’ while their accompanying indictments and solutions remain absolutely alien.” He draws a picture of private pain, to help one mass of people identify with another.

Koretsky’s art has an element of didacticism, equating capitalism with slavery and Communism with liberty. The spectacular glitz and glam of American culture permeated the world, even crossing the Iron Curtain into the Soviet Union. The sex and death imagery that dominated Western pop culture during the Cold War had an alluring shock value. Koretsky aimed to channel this compelling visuality without enticing the viewer to it.

When Koretsky was working, large banners representing humming industry and agricultural advancements were typical for Soviet art, but his posters and photographs explore the unfamiliar. They do not focus on current events: rather, they depict pervasive conditions of suffering and an imminent (yet invisible) future in which Communism has triumphed.

Koretsky’s art is, the curators say in their booklet, a kind of “advertising for a future that didn’t come.” In providing an alternative to the brazen, sexy advertisements of capitalism, Koretsky offered a world of shared sacrifice and cooperation. “Vision and Communism” brings the contemporary Western viewer into an alien world as well, one in which capitalism is a vicious engine, a world in which the aims of art are entirely new. You identify with the hyperbolic imagery that evokes sex and death, and you are confronted with something that is both familiar and foreign. This exhibition compels you to reflect, to examine your national and ideological roots; Koretsky’s powerful vision begs the question.

Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through January 22. Tuesday, Wednesday, & Friday, 10am-4pm; Thursday, 10am-8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. Free. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu