Paintings, service sets and a satellite: The Thaw exhibition opens at the Tretyakov Gallery

Paintings, service sets and a satellite: The Thaw exhibition opens at the Tretyakov Gallery
The exhibition features paintings, sculptures, photographs, film footage, service sets, fabric samples and even a sewing machine. The exhibits show the Khrushchev Thaw as a time of hope, achievements and booming creativity, as well as problems, conflicts and disappointment.

A new exhibition, The Thaw, at the Tretyakov Gallery, is dedicated to a 20th-century utopia, an era that lasted about 15 years. About 500 exhibits from 23 museums and 11 private collections are on display in two halls on Krymsky Val Street. They include paintings, graphic art, sculptures, decorative and applied art, household items, photographs, archival documents and film footage.

“The exhibition is an example of a quiet, very serious and systemic analysis of that time as we look back on it with the benefit of hindsight,” said Zelfira Tregulova, General Director of the Tretyakov Gallery. This is an attempt to look at the Khrushchev Thaw and its achievements and problems through the eyes of today’s youth. It is no accident that curators of the exhibition are young and are unable to remember that time.

Paintings and film footage show city residents looking into shop windows, as well as a Volga car’s bumper, people queuing at a newspaper stall and caricatures of abstract artists. Exhibited behind a glass case are a sewing machine manufactured at the Podolsk Engineering Works and a collection of fabrics. “There was no hierarchy at the time of the Thaw,” said Kirill Svetlyakov, a curator of the exhibition. “Any type of human activity – not only art – was perceived as creative work.” There are no peripheral exhibits on display, as each of them conveys an important message, and by collecting these messages visitors can develop a concept of that time.  

The design of the exhibition resembles the city: it is arranged around a so-called Mayakovsky Square: a large white circle with a bust of the poet at the centre. Ms Tregulova explained the message inherent in the design as follows: “This is an altogether special place where visitors can meet, have discussions and heated debates and speak out. It’s at the centre of the exhibition, which is dedicated to a time when all of these things had become possible and when, to feel the pulse of the city’s social, artistic and intellectual life, one had to go to squares, universities, with their large lecture halls, and research institutions.”

Leading to the “square” is the first section of the exhibition, Talking with Father, which is a dialogue between generations in the postwar Soviet country. Two subjects heat up the conversation: truth about the war and truth about the labour camps. Alexander Kryukov’s film Auschwitz, models of the Broken Ring Memorial by Konstantin Simun and of a monument to people killed in bombing attacks by Vadim Sidur, and a portrait of Varlam Shalamov by Boris Berger – all of them are holding a silent conversation with visitors. “The modernist language has become a tool to bring up these issues, which people were not only prohibited from discussing – indeed, this was prohibited – but which, anyway, they found emotionally difficult to talk about,” Mr Svetlyakov said.  

Another section of the exhibition is entitled The Best City on Earth. This is a place where the private meets the public and where people do not retreat to their small flats, sharing their thoughts with friends in the kitchen the way they will do during the years of stagnation in the 1970s. This part of the exhibition features a photograph by Viktor Akhlomov, The Dawn. Young People Outside GUM; etchings by Vladimir Volkov from his In the Street series and the painting A Wedding in Tomorrow’s Street by Yury Pimenov. Mr Pimenov dedicated a series of paintings, New Districts, to housing construction.

The International Relations section tells the story of confrontation between the USSR and the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Visitors can see the UN building in a painting by Yakov Romas, a bronze bust of Fidel Castro by Nikolai Shtamm, a bearded guardsman from the Cuba series by painter Viktor Ivanov and a poster for the film I Am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov.   

The New Ways of Life section illustrates a programme to create comfortable conditions of everyday life. Exhibits include Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s drawings for his fashion collections targeting fashion-conscious women in rural areas, as well as dress-length pieces offabrics and items from service sets. Exhibits from the Exploration section tend to romanticise journeys to distant locations and make everyday work look heroic; back then young people were encouraged to leave home full of enthusiasm for developing virgin lands while artists and poets followed them to glorify their hard work. Visitors can see paintings, such as Builders of Bratsk by Viktor Popkov, Rafters by Nikolai Andronov and Design Engineers by Ivan Stepanov, and a sculpture by Yury Chernov, Millwrights.

The Atom – Space section is devoted to students and scientists who were the true heroes of the Thaw. The atom and space, which represent the smallest and largest magnitudes, shaped the cosmic dimension of people’s thinking in 1960s Russia. In addition to two paintings – one by Vladimir Nesterov, The Earth Is Listening, and the other by Francisco Infante-Arana, The Spiral of Infinity – visitors can see a fancy glass wine set resembling a flask and a ceramic composition depicting staffers from the Institute of Physical Problems and the members of Pyotr Kapitsa’s family, as well as the models of a mobile nuclear power plant and a satellite (sputnik).

The exhibits of the last section, Towards Communism!, seem to hover above the others: they are displayed on the second floor, which has a ramp leading to it. Visitors are invited to see a large painting by Ely Belyutin, Requiem, a timetable up to the year 2100 by Arthur Clarke, Profiles of the Future, a satirical animated film about happiness, The Key, and an animation about the realm of lies, I Drew a Little Man. 

The Tretyakov Gallery will run the exhibition until 11 June. It will be the first in an exhibition trilogy. Two other exhibitions are planned to showcase art from the stagnation period and the time of perestroika. The current event also features lectures, films and poetry readings. Famous actors will read poems by Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, Joseph Brodsky and Gennady Shpalikov. Artur Smolyaninov will open the readings on 17 February and Chulpan Khamatova will wind them up on 21 April.

Other events include a screening of the films, A Coach to Vienna and Killers Are Among Us, and a series of lectures about postwar art, Overstepping the Borders. Senior students from high schools are invited to test their knowledge of 20th-century art by taking part in a competition. Part of this programme is included in an intra-museum festival, The Thaw: Looking Toward the Future.