Oafish state-sponsored art

by Dan

The New York Times profile of David Černy that Krafty posted does a nice job of framing our understanding of Cerny’s crazy-ass work as a reaction against the state-sponsored propaganda-style public art that was commonplace under socialism. I was interested to find out that there was direct link between the two: a traumatizing experience Cerny had as a child when he unwittingly repeated a negative comment his father made about a new Lenin statue to his schoolmates and wound up getting labeled as a young subversive by school authorities. As an homage to What David Cerny Hated, let’s look at a few notably oafish, condescending or poorly-conceived examples of socialist public art:

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1. Soviet Liberation Statue

Location: Prague, in seedy park by main train station.

Status: still exists, minus explanatory plaque that’s been torn off

Defining characteristics: patronizing, vaguely sexually undermining

This was built to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Prague, which is all well and good. It depicts a Czech solider joyously hugging a Russian soldier as the latter victoriously stomps into Prague, which is… a bit more questionable in terms of good taste, but still acceptable.  The problem is that the Czech solider is outrageously girly and limp-wristed, whereas the Russian solider is a solid hunk of manliness. At some point, the statue’s plaque was torn off, leaving it in a decontextualized condition where it reads like a celebration of gay love in the military.

(photo credit: my former Prague College co-instructor Rory Wilmer).

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2. Stalin’s Monument

Location: looming over Prague from Letna park.

Status: dynamited to smithereens in 1962

Defining characteristics: ill-conceived; giant, politically awkward eyesore; drove its creator to suicide; generally bad mojo all around

The Czech government spent over 5 years building the world’s largest statue of Stalin and unveiled it to the public in May, 1955. They had about nine months to enjoy their work before Kruschev promptly revealed the crimes of Stalin in the 20th Congress in February of 1956. Oops. Meanwhile, the sculptor, Otakar Švec, who had been receiving threats from the secret police on one side and hate mail from disgusted Czech citizens on the other, decided to call it quits and killed himself three weeks after the unveiling. 1n 1962, the Czech authorities finally blew up the statue, which has since been replaced by a giant metronome that is both quite cool-looking and symbolically mysterious.

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3. Soviet War Memorial

Location: Treptow Park, Berlin

Status: still exists as mirthful tourist attraction

Defining characteristics: megalomaniacal, overconfident

After the Red Army reached Berlin and effectively ended WWII in Europe, the Soviet authorities – never the most subtle of propagandists – decided to build  a massive memorial in the conquered German capital basically celebrating their own kicking-of-Nazi-ass and winning-of-the-War. Which is pretty much as unsubtle as you can get, although you have to appreciate the sheer chest-beating chutzpah of the decision. One of my favorite weirdo things in Berlin, the memorial is executed in the massive, symmetrical power-art style typical of Soviet public art and concludes with a giant statue of a Soviet solider stomping on a shattered swastika. Fuck yeah! There’s actually something a bit touching about the place, when you consider that the authorities in charge no doubt felt that Soviet-style socialism was just getting started and would easily reign for a few more centuries. Instead, their commemoration of Communism-over-Fascism has already become a tourist curiosity for snickering Western tourists a scant 45 years later.

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