Art: Through the Ironic Curtain

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Sometimes a weird sort of yearning intrudes. As a child, Melamid lived on the Moscow street that Stalin's staff car reputedly took on its way from the Kremlin to his country dacha: If you look carefully, his elders told him, you might see him in the back of the car. Melamid never did, but a yearning for the ogre is commemorated in I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child: the red curtain in the rear window slides back, revealing the fleshy nose, the twinkling eye of the Dreadful Father. "To us," Melamid points out, "Stalin is a mythical figure. We are not trying to do a political show. This is nostalgia."

Well, up to a point. To suppose the work is only a satire on an obsolete propagandist style is to miss its deadlier thrust. What K & M are getting at is not just totalitarian art, but official art as such. Stalin and the Muses—showing Clio, muse of history, presenting a volume for revision to the mustachioed god in his transcendent white military greatcoat—is "objectively" a hilarious spoof, done in clumsily tight parody of the 17th century grand manner. But then, if these sleek pictorial tropes are I so absurd when lavished on Stalin, why should they be any less so when used on Louis XIV, Peter the Great or Sany other enlightened despot?

Seldom has a tyrant been so absolute or cruel that he could not find some major artist, a Rubens or a Titian, a Velasquez or a Bernini, to fawn on him for a suitable fee. It is the nature of carnivores to get power, at which point, having disposed of their enemies, they deploy the emollient powers of Great Art to make them look like herbivores. Stalinist socialist realism was merely the end of this process, carried out by hacks. After it, the more intelligent of the Beloved Leaders would want radio and TV, not painting, to be their cosmeticians. We must thank Melamid and Komar for reminding us what towering heights of awfulness the great lost tradition could reach in pre-electronic days. —By Robert Hughes

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