This fall, reporter Daryl Mersom came to Kazakhstan to write about the recent spate of Soviet art "discoveries," and his article "Almaty spills its secrets: lost Soviet art discovered behind wall" is out today on Guardian Cities. The Guardian's Shaun Walker first wrote about Monumental Almaty in October 2017 for the piece "Missing murals: the lost Soviet art of the Stans." Bringing international attention to the existence and importance of Kazakhstan's monumental art is one of our main objectives, so these are encouraging developments!
In his article, Merson relates an interesting story about the effects of censorship on Soviet monumental art:
"While there is little incentive now to cover or remove Soviet-era artworks depicting folklore and natural landscapes, they were sometimes controversial in their day due to supposed hidden meanings.
Ekaterina Golovatyuk, curator of an exhibition on Soviet modernist architecture at the Tselinny, recounts an anecdote in which an architect and an artist worked together to create a mosaic for a cafe. It was a straightforward depiction of a lake with a tiger on one side and goats on the other. “The [local communist] party was asking them, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ They were saying, ‘Nothing, it’s just a natural landscape’ – but they couldn’t convince them that there was no hidden political message."
It's remarkable, actually, that in the course of my research I haven't heard more stories like this. In discussions of Soviet art, stories of censorship and strict criteria for state-supervised art are often at the forefront. Even today in Kazakhstan, artists know the value of self-censorship, and it seems likely that monumental artists in the Soviet period knew the bounds of what was suitable. The subject matter of most pieces consists of fairly straightforward images of allegorical Soviet citizens set against decorative backdrops - nothing that could raise suspicion. Indeed, monumental artworks are often criticized by "serious" art critics in Kazakhstan for being bland and repetitive, owing to this self-defensive strategy. On the other hand, this consistency to Soviet monumental imagery allows a clearer contrast between the styles employed by different artists, as a "steel worker" can look surprisingly different from one mosaic to the next. Have a look at our catalogs to see what I mean!
Thanks to Daryl and Shaun for the wonderful storytelling, and we always look forward to seeing more mosaic-hunters in Almaty!