Weaving War in Afghanistan

The political instability that has blighted Afghanistan in recent decades was sparked in July 1973, when a coup d’état swept from power Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin who staged the plot, established himself as the first President of Afghanistan – ruling over the new republic until he, in turn, was overthrown during the Saur Revolution of April 1978.

During his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah had managed to maintain neutrality in a war-torn world, establishing friendly relations with East and West during the first three decades of the Cold War. But as competing political factions tore the country apart, Afghanistan’s strategic location between Soviet and US spheres of influence made the country increasingly vulnerable. Following the establishment of a pro-Soviet government in the late 1970s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began to covertly train and arm Afghanistan’s Islamist rebels. Today, the world is all too aware of the catastrophic results of that fateful decision. Fearing the collapse of the pro-Soviet government, under attack from the mujahideen insurgents, the USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, starting a brutal 10-year Cold War proxy war.

The ongoing turmoil has decimated many aspects of Afghan culture, including its once thriving handmade carpet industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, this centuries-old artistic tradition supported a fifth of the population. With their livelihoods under threat, Afghanistan’s weavers began to incorporate strange symbols into their intricate geometric designs. In place of flowers and birds, there appeared guns and grenades, missiles, tanks, battleships and helicopters. Likened to the Bayeux Tapestry and as a form of modern history painting, these intriguing and disquieting objects have become known as ‘war rugs’.

The inspiration behind the war rugs and their exact origins remain a mystery. Some have linked this phenomenon to a series of map textiles on the theme of the Six-Day War, commissioned from Afghan weavers in 1971 by the Italian conceptual artist, Alighieri Boetti. The creation of war rugs from the early 1980s has alternatively been defended as a cathartic response, expressing anger and defiance at the Soviet invasion; while some have viewed the carpets from the outset as tourist items, cynically produced to sell to the invaders. Indeed, priced between several hundred to thousands of US dollars, depending on quality and complexity, the war rugs are typically too expensive for the domestic market. As a result, the designs of the rugs have become increasingly commercial over the decades, developing from ‘hidden’ references to the apparatus of war, to explicit military images alongside English-language text.

The designs have also changed in response to the shifting history of conflict in Afghanistan. As Cold War moved to War on Terror, depictions of Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles gave way to images of American drones and F-16 fighter jets. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, carpet designers appeared to lift imagery from propaganda leaflets airdropped over the country by the Americans. Scenes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, offered as justification for the invasion, have often been weaved in refugee camps and sold back to Westerners. Indeed, this subject matter has proved particularly popular with overseas buyers and foreign aid workers.

Made from knotted wool and vegetable dye, the war rugs typically take between six and nine months to produce. Most are made by rural or displaced women, who risk damaged eyesight and back pain for little compensation. Yet for carpet dealers, the war rugs have becoming a small but vital part of an industry that still faces huge challenges.

Art of the East German Uprising

As Stalin grew ever more paranoid and unpredictable in the final months of his life, the ailing dictator demanded that Walter Ulbricht’s Communist government in the German Democratic Republic consolidate its control over the country by intensifying the process of Sovietization. In the summer of 1952, land confiscations, tax hikes, and a public pay freeze with a 10% increase in labour quotas were introduced, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy and a surge in political arrests.

Max Lingner, ‘Building of the Republic’ (‘Aufbau der Republik’), 1950–53. Photo: OTFW, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0. Click to view full image.

Sovietization also extended into the arts. On 3 January 1953, a 60-foot mosaic mural in classic Socialist Realist style was unveiled on the exterior wall of the House of Ministries in East Berlin, the seat of the GDR government. In an ironic twist, the mural replaced a Nazi-era frieze celebrating the eastward march of Wehrmacht soldiers. Having failed in their mission, the troops were replaced with depictions of the Communist working class, complete with Young Pioneers and the German People’s Police. Constructed from hundreds of Meissen porcelain tiles, the mural remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The artist behind this monumental work was Max Lingner, a painter and illustrator who in 1950 was a co-founder of the East Berlin Academy of Arts. Lingner was selected for the project in November 1950, after being one of six artists invited to compete for the commission. However, having spent the previous two decades living in France – where he had been a member of the Résistance – Lingner found himself under suspicion for possible bourgeois tendencies. The artist was compelled to revise his design on several occasions, in response to criticism from the authorities that his figures looked too “French” and that he had not accurately represented a tractor!

By the time it was completed, the vision of joyous East German workers sharply contrasted with the reality of life in the increasingly isolated state. A steady stream of East Germans had emigrated since the GDR was founded three years earlier, with an annual departure of around 180,000 citizens. The widespread alarm at increased Sovietization dramatically increased those numbers, and in the first half of 1953 alone, more than 226,000 East Germans fled to the West. Many of those who remained hoped that life would improve following Stalin’s death in March; and indeed, the new leaders in the Kremlin recommended that Ulbricht should curtail his plans, to stem the exodus. But by then, the people had had enough.

Workers protest in front of Max Lingner’s mural at the House of Ministries, Berlin, 17 June 1953.

On 16 June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin launched strike action, which quickly spread across the country. Calls for lower work quotas grew into protests demanding the resignation of the government. The next day, ten of thousands marched on the House of Ministries. There, in front of Lingner’s painting of a march under the banner of “Sozialismus”, real-life East German workers held up banners proclaiming “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”

socialism-leipziger-strasse-muralUlbricht turned to the Kremlin for help and on 17 June, Soviet tanks and some 20,000 soldiers marched into East Berlin, opening fire on the crowd. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 55 known victims to over 600, including those executed in the aftermath. In addition, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested, followed by lengthy sentences in penal camps. Taking back control of the country, the Communist party blamed the rebellion on the West and suggested that it had been covertly orchestrated by the CIA.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, the event was seen very differently.  From 1954 until reunification, 17 June was commemorated in the Federal Republic of Germany as the “Day of German Unity”. A week after the uprising, some 125,000 West Germans attended a funeral for the eight victims who had died in West Berlin hospitals, and on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre a monument was unveiled in their cemetery in the Wedding district of Berlin. Carved by sculptor Karl Wenke, the statue shows a man encased in stone, desperately trying to break free.

In contrast, it would take until 2000 for a formal memorial to be installed in what was East Germany. Berlin artist Wolfgang Rüppel’s powerful photographic reproduction under laminated glass, sunk into the square in front of what is now the Federal Ministry of Finance, is at first hidden from view. But from the right vantage point, the seemingly random etched dots converge to once again reveal the faces of the demonstrators. Set directly in front of Lingner’s mural, the two artworks provide a jarring juxtaposition, offsetting the promise of Communism with its harsh reality.

Filonov’s Ambiguous Portrait of Stalin

Cover of ‘Les Lettres Francaises’, featuring portrait of Stalin by Pablo Picasso, 12 March 1953.

Anyone who has watched the 2017 satirical movie The Death of Stalin will have a darkly humorous although roughly factual understanding of the events of 5 March 1953, when the Soviet dictator finally met his end. After 3 decades in which ‘Stalinism’ had increasingly dominated all aspects of political and cultural life in Russia and the wider Soviet Union, it would take the country many more years to adjust to life without this fearsome ruler.

The ever-popular Espionart post Stalin by Picasso (or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache) introduces readers to the equally ridiculous story of Picasso’s comically bad tribute to the newly-deceased tyrant. However, the painting of the leader that I find the most fascinating, due to its ambiguously perceptive portrayal of his menacing and mercurial character, is an oddly unrepresentative work by the Russian avant-garde painter, Pavel Filonov.

In the early 1910s, Filonov developed a unique painting style that he called Universal Flowering (Mirovoi rastsvet). Using fine brushes, Filonov meticulously crafted dense networks of line and colour, resembling the finest filigree or spider silk, that built up kaleidoscopic images from which the viewer can gradually distinguish layers of people and objects. He referred to these works as ‘formulas’. Filonov blended artistic inspiration from across Russian history with post-revolutionary experimentation, incorporating folk art, orthodox iconography, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and magical realism. While he was a contemporary of luminaries such as Malevich, Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and Mayakovsky, Filonov’s work has remained relatively unknown outside Russia due to his socialist principles. Refusing to sell his work to private collectors, even when he was left penniless and destitute, Filonov instead remained committed to his promise to leave his life works to the proletariat, hoping that they would eventually be housed in a dedicated museum in St Petersburg.

Filonov Formula

Pavel Filonov, ‘Formula of Spring and Acting Forces’, 1928–29. Oil on canvas, 250 x 285 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

However, as Stalin consolidated his authority and gradually reduced all opportunities for deviation from his all-encompassing vision for Soviet life, Filonov was one of many Russian artists whose commitment to the revolutionary cause was cruelly betrayed. Previously renowned as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Filonov was left struggling to survive after his work was condemned as bourgeois and his large retrospective exhibition was banned in 1929. After more than a decade eking out a living in this inhospitable environment, in 1941 Filonov became one of the first of an estimated 1.5 million Russians to starve to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Yet it would take over 40 more years for Filonov’s work to be made available to the general public, after his descendants were finally permitted to bring his paintings out of the storerooms of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg in the late 1980s.

Pavel Filonov, ‘Portrait of J. V. Stalin’, 1936. Oil on canvas, 99 X 67 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Sometimes lost of this dramatic biography is Filonov’s decision in 1936 to paint a large, sombre portrait of Stalin. That year, the period now known as the Great Terror or Great Purge was just getting started. Over the following years, political rivals, intellectuals and anyone else who Stalin saw as a potential threat to his total rule was condemned in a series of show trials or summarily arrested in the middle of night, tortured and executed. With little evidence to the contrary, Filonov’s portrait has been explained as an unsuccessful attempt to curry favour with Stalin’s regime by producing an official portrait of the ruler. But this haunting image, where Stalin appears to emerge out of the darkness, his eyes empty, black holes, his cold, hard stare unflinching and merciless, his face appearing more like a death mask than living flesh, instead suggests to me Filonov’s feelings of helplessness and inevitable tragedy in the face of the unforgiving Stalinlist machine.

St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

From Disintegration to Silence: Drawing the Hungarian Revolution

Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.

The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.
jozsef-stalin-dove

One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).

Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.

Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:

“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]

Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.

Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.

Exhibition: Dreamworlds and Catastrophes

Recommended by ESPIONART in 2015, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey is home to a vast collection of nonconformist Soviet art that was secretly amassed and brought to the United States by the late American economist, Norton Dodge. The latest exhibition at the museum focuses on fantastical and nightmarish scenes conjured up by Soviet artists at the height of the Cold War, inspired by the rapid technological developments in support of the Space Race and nuclear proliferation.

Sherstiuk Cosmonauts Dream

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and photographs produced between the 1960s and ’80s. The title is a nod to the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000), in which Susan Buck-Morss defines the collective Soviet experience as a “dreamworld,” where the constant barrage of utopian propaganda clashed with the realities of a struggling nation.

Mikhailov Sots ArtSimilarly, the Zimmerli exhibition compares unsettling imaginings of a brave new world on earth and beyond, as in the hyperrealist fantasy of The Cosmonaut’s Dream by Sergei Sherstiuk, with works such as Boris Mikhailov’s Sots Art photographs, which reveal the underlying paranoia of artists living in the shadow of the nuclear threat. The exhibition also includes examples of kinetic art by Valdis Celms and Francisco Infante-Arana that show an attempt by some Soviet artists to emulate and appropriate aspects of military and space technology.

Dreamworks and Catastrophes continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum until 31 July 2016, with admission free. And if you move quickly, you might be able to catch the special exhibition celebration planned for 14 April, to include a curator-led tour of the display and guest lectures on Cold War art and politics.

Images: Sergei Sherstiuk, The Cosmonaut’s Dream, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches; Boris Mikhailov, from the series Sots Art, 1975-90. Gelatin silver print handcolored with aniline dyes,  42 x 43.5 cm.

“Russ Chief Secretly Fancies Art”

“Russ chief secretly fancies art”! So screamed a headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel on 29 January 1983. The “Russ chief” in question was Soviet politician Yuri Andropov, who on 12 November 1982 succeeded Leonid Brezhnev to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and therefore leader of the USSR.

According to the newspaper report, which quoted the Times of London, Andropov had been covertly amassing a vast collection of abstract art, despite its low status behind the Iron Curtain. Similar claims were made in other major Western publications, including Time and the Washington Post, which also credited Andropov with an apparent love of jazz music and tango dancing. This news no doubt would have surprised many in Moscow. During his years as chairman of the KGB, and as a leading figure in the Soviet campaigns to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, Andropov had acquired a fearsome reputation as a hardliner and a ruthless suppressor of Soviet dissidents. The allegations also raised the suspicions of the New Republic magazine, which in February 1983 exposed them as fantastical rumours, conjured up by an alcoholic Soviet defector who may have never even met Andropov. While the reasons for the hoax are still unclear, it appears that the lack of factual information about the new leader had caused the rumour mill to go into overdrive.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had also declared that Andropov’s passion for modernist painting meant that soon “abstract art no longer would be labeled decadent by Communist Party ideologists.” Yet in the coming months, artists including cartoonist Vyacheslav Sysoyev (1937–2006) were jailed by the new regime. However, whatever the reality of Andropov’s aesthetic tastes, he didn’t have time to make much of a impact on the Soviet art scene one way or the other. Only 15 months after his election, on 9 February 1984, Andropov died of kidney failure, having spent most of his term confined to hospital.

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Image: Cartoon by Vyacheslav Sysoyev, 1987.