Sculpture for Soviet ‘Domestic Enemy Number One’

For two weeks in November 1988, Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov visited the United States. It was a triumphant moment near the end of the life of a man who both pioneered nuclear technology and campaigned to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Drawing by John Alcorn, 1973.

From 1948, Andrei Sakharov had participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project, going on to mastermind the development of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. As he and his team tested and perfected the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov began to question the morality of his work. Realising the potential devastating repercussions of the technology he had created, Sakharov spoke out against politicians who threatened to use these weapons to escalate the Cold War. His principled stand brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities and attracted the hostile attention of the KGB. By the late 1960s, Sakharov’s activism resulted in him losing his security access, after which time he became more openly dissident, backing calls for nuclear disarmament as well as democratic government and the release of political prisoners. Denounced at home and fêted abroad, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, while the KGB described him as “Domestic Enemy Number One”.

Finally, Sakharov was arrested in 1980 after attending public protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the next six years he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. During this time, he was twice hospitalised and force fed after hunger strikes he undertook to secure medical treatment in the United States for his wife. In 1984, the US Congress sought to apply pressure on the Soviet government by voting to rename an area outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza. (Earlier this year, the move inspired activists to likewise install street signs outside the Russian Embassy renaming the area Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after the assassinated opposition leader.) Finally, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Soviet society, Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in 1986. Three years later, he died of natural causes.

Sculpture in Sakharov Square, Yerevan by Tigran Arzumanyan, 2001.

Andrei Sakharov is now commemorated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. In 2001, the first bust of Sakharov was installed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in a square renamed in his honour. The location was an expression of gratitude for Sakharov’s efforts to raise awareness about pogroms against Armenian communities in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1980s. Sakharov’s appearance in this neo-classical sculpture by Tigran Arzumanyan resembles a Greek philosopher or Roman senator.

Sculpture on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC by Peter Shapiro, 2002.

In contrast, a contemporaneous bronze bust of Sakharov in the US capital of Washington, DC shows Sakharov with closed eyes and head in hands. The sculpture is ambiguous in its portrayal, perhaps showing Sakharov the scientist, deep in thought on the edge of a breakthrough, or Sakharov the activist, ruminating on the threat of nuclear weapons or the many injustices about which he spoke out. With the hands entirely supporting his head, which appears disembodied, Sakharov becomes a ghostly figure, whose concerns remain just as valid in the present day. The statue was gifted to Russia House by Russian-American sculptor Peter Shapiro in April 2002, to celebrate Congress’s decision to posthumously honour Sakharov with citizenship of the United States. At the time on its dedication, Russia House was still the headquarters of a society for US-Russian cooperation, but Sakharov’s bust has remained in place since the building has been reimagined as a popular restaurant.

Sculpture in Academician Sakharov Square, St Petersburg by Levon Lazarev, 2003.

In 2003, the first monument to Sakharov was erected in his home country. Although born and living most of his life in Moscow, a square near St Petersburg State University, already renamed in his honour in 1996, was the site for this honour. The ten-and-a-half foot high sculpture is by Levon Lazarev, well-known for creating monuments around St Petersburg. However, the decision to erect the statue was criticised by the late Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow and a high-profile human rights activist in her own right. Bonner’s belief that Putin’s Russia had failed her husband proved to be prescient. In recent years the Sakharov Center in Moscow, founded by Bonner in 1996 to preserve his legacy, has been targeted by vigilantes for hosting events in support of LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, and fined for failing to declare itself a “foreign agent” after it provided the venue for the lying-in-state of Boris Nemtsov.

Sculpture in Muzeon Park of Arts, Moscow by Grigory Pototsky, 2008.

Despite the Moscow city authorities claiming since 2002 that the Russian capital would soon receive its own sculpture of the Nobel laureate, so far Sakharov is only honoured in his home town by a motorway renamed after him in 1990, which has become the site of opposition marches. However, in 2008, a statue of Sakharov by Russian sculptor Grigory Pototsky was placed in the Muzeon Park of Arts – formerly known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes to hold the toppled figures of the Soviet regime, and now a popular recreation area that has been augmented with a wider array of artworks. Sakharov’s effigy is placed opposite that of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who approved his exile. Yet the scientist does not look at him but rather sits back with his face towards the sky, with an expression both serene and defiant.

Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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Khrushchev in America and the Graphic Arts Workshop

On 15 September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. Over the course of 12 days, he travelled from Washington, DC to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose (to witness the birth of the computer age at IBM’s headquarters), Des Moines and Coon Rapids in Iowa, and Pittsburgh, ending his whistle-stop tour in a summit with President Eisenhower at Camp David. The visit followed hot on the heels of a summer of friendly competition between the two superpowers, where art became a major talking point at the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York and the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Coming soon after his infamous showdown with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow, Khrushchev appeared keen to use the visit as a chance to reclaim Soviet dominance in all fields. He made an opening volley soon after his arrival, greeting Eisenhower in the Oval Office with a replica of Lunik II. This space probe – the first man-made object on the moon – had successfully landed just one day earlier, symbolising the Soviets’ early lead in the Space Race.

Khrushchev then proceeded to express displeasure at much of what he saw in the United States: complaining that the pigs were too fat and the turkeys too small at a farm in Maryland; remarking upon his first glimpse of the Empire State Building that “if you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all”; and – despite enjoying a close-up of Shirley MacLaine’s legs – bemoaning with characteristic Soviet prudishness the bare flesh and innuendo on a Hollywood film set. His ire reached fever pitch when he discovered that Disneyland had been taken off his itinerary because of security concerns. Shaking his fist in front of a gala audience that included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev vented, “Do you have rocket launching pads there? … What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or plague there? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me? And I say I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. For me such a situation is inconceivable.”

However, Khrushchev finally found something that pleased him at an Iowan meat-packing factory. Upon trying his first hot dog, the Soviet leader declared, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.”

Upon leaving New York, Khrushchev had noted his regret that he had yet to meet “the producers of its wealth” – ordinary American workers. He would finally have a chance to come into contact with more ideologically appealing citizens in San Francisco, where he met union members and swapped caps with a dock worker. It is likely at one of these events that Khrushchev received three social realist prints by American artists affiliated with the Graphic Arts Workshop (GAW), a radical printmaking cooperative. Formed as an offshoot of the defunct California Labor School, GAW had a history of producing posters for Communist front groups and painting murals around San Francisco, on themes such as African American, Jewish and Mexican history, the role of women in the labour movement, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In keeping with Khrushchev’s appeal to see the “real” America, artists Richard Correll and Stanley Koppel gifted the Soviet premier artworks on the theme of blue-collar workers; while GAW chairman Irving Fromer presented the Soviet leader with a more controversial view, in a lithograph depicting child labour in the cotton fields. The prints are now held in the collections of Brown University, where Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, worked for many years and gifted his papers, including some of his father’s memorabilia.

 

While the Graphic Arts Workshop may not be well-known in the United States, during the late 1950s, the studio was feted in the USSR. The quixotic San Francisco sculptor, Beniamino Bufano, had taken a collection of prints by GAW members on his “one-man peace mission” to Moscow in 1957, where they were soon exhibited at the Moscow Artists’ Union and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The GAW prints would also be included in a larger exhibition of American realist art at the Pushkin Museum in late 1959, rapidly assembled by Soviet officials nervous at the attention paid to US modern art by the crowds at the American National Exhibition that summer.

For those keen find out more about Khrushchev’s tour of America, PBS has put together a handy overview of his itinerary, as a complement to their film, Cold War Roadshow. You can also find out more about the surviving Graphic Arts Workshop at their website.

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Images: Khrushchev meets Shirley MacLaine on his visit to Hollywood. Bettmann / CORBIS; Richard Correll, Railroaders, 1959; Irving Fromer, Child Picking Cotton, 1959; Stanley Koppel, Men Drinking at a Bar, 1959. Courtesy Brown University.

In the Silent Zone: An American Nuke in Mexico

As the Soviets dramatically stepped up their nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, the US government showed a willingness to take calculated risks with its atomic arsenal in order to maintain arms race superiority over its Cold War adversary. With some of America’s nuclear test sites situated close to the northern and southern borders, concerns were raised in classified documents that missiles could drift into neighbouring countries or even as far as Western Europe, risking an international incident. However, the authorities decided to proceed with the tests, confident that in that scenario, the American public would support them if persuaded the programme was in the interests of national security.

When a Pershing missile crashed just south of the Mexican border on September 1967, the misfire was downplayed and soon forgotten. Then on 11 July 1970, a far more serious overflight occurred. Early that morning, the US Air Force launched a rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah, aiming for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The weapon was what is known as a ‘salted bomb’, armed with a radioactive isotope that was designed to maximise the fallout of hazardous material. The rocket travelled hundreds of miles further than anticipated, eventually landing in the sparsely-populated Mapimi desert in Mexico. Although there are no known victims, the overflight resulted in a long and costly cleanup of contaminated soil, which is chronicled in detail on the Utah government website.


In a recently declassified memorandum, then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed gratitude for the patience of the Mexican government, noting a willingness “to grant clearances and assist in any search efforts”. Perhaps Mexico realised it was nothing personal, considering that by 1970 the United States had almost nuked itself on at least 11 occasions. The few inhabitants of the Mapimi region proved to be equally stoical, taking advantage of a road that was rapidly built into the desert to allow the US Air Force to deal with the fallout. Locals rechristened the decontaminated site the Mapimi Silent Zone, borrowing urban myths from the Bermuda Triangle to reimagine it as a tourist destination. The area still attracts visitors today with tales of strange magnetic forces and extraterrestrial activity.

One recent visitor was American artist Freya Powell. In March 2016, she travelled to the Mapimi Silent Zone to explore its strange history, responding to the theme of ‘silence’ to investigate the concealment of the clean-up operation and subsequent myth-making. The project was commissioned by the New York nonprofit Art in General, and her single-channel video, The Silence of the Unsaid, premiered there in 2017. The work intersperses panoramic views of the site, filmed using drone technology, with excerpts from interviews with locals. Through this juxtaposition, Powell deconstructs the language used to describe the area, teasing out the complex relationship between silence, history and accountability. You can watch an excerpt from the video on Powell’s website.

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Images: Freya Powell, The Silence of the Unsaid, 2017 (still and installation view). Courtesy the artist & Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.

Art and Diplomacy in Franco’s Spain

The Pact of Madrid, signed on 26 September 1953, brought the United States into a controversial alliance with Spain’s fascist government, ruled over by General Francisco Franco. Since the end of World War II, and the defeat of its Axis collaborators, Spain had been largely isolated from the international community and formally excluded in a UN resolution of 1946. But the deepening Cold War presented a glimmer of hope for Spain’s diplomatic future.

With the Soviet Union strengthening its influence over the Eastern Bloc, and the Marshall Plan barely containing the rise of Communism in failing European states, the United States began to see Francoist Spain as the lesser of two evils. In return for America giving Spain billions of dollars in military aid between 1954 and 1989, the United States was allowed to use Spanish territory to operate air and naval bases, a valuable deterrent to the USSR and a strategic preparation for the possible outbreak of World War III. The pact helped to ease international tensions and Spain was welcomed back into the United Nations in 1955.

The pact also transformed the fate of art in Spain. As recently shown in the exhibition Campo Cerrado: Spanish Art 1939–1953, at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, during Spain’s years of post-WW2 isolation, artists had grappled with how to conceive of their nation. After Picasso’s masterpiece of 1937, Guernica, had famously exposed the ruthlessness of Franco’s regime, and many artists had died or been exiled as a result of the Spanish Civil War, those who remained found themselves living in an artistic vacuum. Campo Cerrado explored how some artists submitted to Francoism, benefiting from the resurgence of academic art and propaganda, while others fell victim to repression and censorship. However, unlike other 20th-century European dictatorships – including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – which attempted to stamp out modern art, a variety of styles were allowed to develop in Spain, so long as the artists refrained from criticising the regime.

Franco’s tolerance of modern art presented a great opportunity for cultural diplomacy, when Spain entered into its anticommunist alliance with the United States, at the time seen as the centre of the modern art world. Keen to brush off its image as a poor and backward dictatorship, Spain put modern art at the forefront of its efforts to present the country internationally as sophisticated and progressive. In attempting to mirror America’s successful strategy of associating abstract art with the concept of freedom, the Spanish government was even willing to shamelessly appropriate the work of anti-Franco artists, such as Picasso and Joan Miró, to extend the international success of its diplomatic mission.

Not long after the US-Spain pact was signed, two exhibitions of modern US art were assembled by curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and presented in Spain: Modern Art in the United States in Barcelona in 1956; and The New American Painting in Madrid in 1958. In return, exhibitions of Spanish art were shown at MoMA and the Tate Gallery in London. In the midst of this cultural exchange, in December 1959, Eisenhower travelled to Madrid to meet Franco, marking the first official visit to Spain by a US president.

New Spanish Painting and Sculpture – which ran from 20 July to 28 September 1960 at MoMA and travelled to venues across the US over the next two years – was billed as “the first survey of avant-garde Spanish art to tour the United States”. And thanks to MoMA’s newly-digitised collection of exhibition documents and photos it is now open to visitors once more. Meanwhile, further stories of art in Cold War Spain can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía’s new display of works from its permanent collection, Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945–1968). You can also read more about Franco’s use of cultural diplomacy in Germán Páez’s essay on academia.edu.

Images: Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; Installation view of New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 20 July – 28 September 1960 at MoMA. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

The United States Air Force Art Collection

ESPIONART has previously reported on the art collections of some unlikely American institutions, including the NASA Art Program, the Navy Art Collection and the DIA Military Art Collection.

Another to add to that list is the United States Air Force Art Collection, which was created in 1950, just as the Cold War was beginning to heat up. Soon afterwards the USAF Art Program was also founded, arranging for selected artists to travel with the Air Force to locations around the world and record its activities. The artists were chosen from professional groups across the country and in particular the Society of Illustrators.

Today the collection, held in the Pentagon, contains nearly 9,000 works. While the majority of the paintings and drawings are aviation art, with detailed depictions of everything from bombers and missiles to gunships and cargo planes, there is also a large number of more general military scenes, portraits of noted Air Force personnel, images of civilians affected by warfare and original artwork for Air Force recruitment posters. Key events from the Cold War include the Berlin Airlift and the Fall of Saigon.

The United States Air Force Art Collection has been digitised and is now available to view online.

Images: Top – Emilio Arias, The Collapse of Viet Cong, n.d. (1975); Bottom – Gil Cohen, Berlin Airlift / Staying Power – Berlin, 1948–49. Courtesy United States Air Force Art Collection.