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Karl Marx forever? The Legacy of an Iconic Thinker in Art

The exhibition in Russian Museum, St Petersburg traces how we perceive the history of the 20th century through the figure of German philosopher.

A very interesting exhibition tracing the portrayal of Karl Marx in Russian and Soviet art from the beginning of the 20th century to the modern days has happened in Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Its timing in 2018 has been chosen as 5 May 2018 marks 200 years since the birth of the German economist and philosopher. It reflects the perception of one the major thinkers of the 19th century who, together with Friedrich Engels, came to be considered as one of the intellectual founding fathers of communism and subsequently of the Soviet system as such. And indeed, the exhibition effectively traces the changes occuring in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia through the process of artists treating the figure of Karl Marx.

Bust by Anna Golubkina, 1905

It starts with the first busts, statues and portraits of Marx made by sculptors and painters in Russia in the early 1900s. Thus, a bronze bust by Anna Golubkina made in 1905 is one of the earliest portraitures of Marx in Russia, and then was associated with the burgeoning European marxism and socialism. Georgy Alexeev’s bust of Marx (1907) served for many consequent monuments to the thinker in many Soviet cities. Then, as the Soviet state began to establish itself, it needed to increase the number of visual representations of Marx, and, following the official orders, many painters and sculptors of the late 1910s were making copies of Marx that were put in parks and squares of Soviet cities. Thus, Chagall once complained that he saw two statues of Marx put in Vitebsk one after another, and they were done by his pupils and were very ugly, but there was nothing he could do about it. And indeed, the first hall of the exhibition abounds in massive busts of Marx. The most famous portrait of that era that is shown on the exhibition is that of Nikolai Feshin made in 1918-1919, with Marx reclining on his writing table and looking at the viewer, with his huge library behind him.

Portrait by Nikolai Feshin, 1918-1919

The next busts and portraits made during the Soviet era were always made for propaganda purposes, and the exhibits presented at the Russian museum even have had the wooden labels removed, as in the Soviet era they were featuring in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels museum and various museums of the history of communism. The visualization of Karl Marx began to acquire some stable mythological features involving a big head, a large mane of hair and a beard that Herbert Wales, visiting Soviet Russia in the 1920s, swore he would cut sometimes. There was a demand for sitters looking ‘like Karl Marx’ at the time. Later on, in the 1930s, and then in the 1950s and 1960s (and even up to the 1980s), when Marx became ingrained in people’s perception of the Soviet and thus their own history, there appeared many paintings depicting various historical moments from Marx’s (and Engels’) lives in Germany and Britain. Usually, they are discussing something from what, evidently, their respective philosophies would emerge, or walking among the proletariat of Europe. Marx indeed had a very stormy life in London involving debts and violations of law, and thus his early opposition to capitalism and ruling classes could be romanticized in these paintings. Thus, on Simon Fiks’s painting (1939) Marx is walking in the poor working district of London, while Dmitry Min’kov and Mikhail Romanov portray Marx and Engels among the workers of London docks (1964). There are also scenes of them working in libraries or walking in the parks: thus, Yuri Pokhodaev’s painting (1980) makes two young thinkers look like Mikhail Vrubel’s Demons.

Through all the Soviet era postal marks, coins and porcelain cups and dishes with Marx were also produced in abundance, and surely now they have all become highly-valued collectible items. The exhibition also features a number of immediately recognizable posters and banners of various sizes featuring Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin on the red background – there is a work of Gustav Klutsis (1936) and the work of A.Kossov (1953), with red banners being part of both paintings, and the intellectual and real leaders of the country shown while benevolently contemplating the demonstrations of the people. Two works are virtually identical, as they were mass-produced in the epoch of Stalin rule. The historic descendance from Marx and Engels was important for Stalin’s regime and was continuously promoted. There were also all kinds of objects like standing clocks, tools for writing, vases, various decorative objects for rooms presented at this exhibition that were bought to be part of people’s interiors in the Soviet era. Probably they served to show the acquiescence of their owners and the support of the ruling regime. And again, Marx was a more distant figure compared to the real Soviet rulers, so having him at one’s home was always a safe bet.

And then there came a time in post-Soviet era when Karl Marx became an object of demystification and modernist play. He was taken down from the mythological high monument but not buried or stumbled upon. In fact, for many painters he became a symbol of opposition to burgeoning grasp of capitalism and monetization of existence. In fact, such newly established position of this figure is very much line with the new resurgence of marxism and socialism in Europe. Thus, Vladimir Kozin’s ‘Swings’ (2017) shows a swing with a porcelain figure of Marx on one side and a big wooden dollar sign on the other.

Sculpture by Leonid Sokov "Mikki and Marx", 2011

Similarly, Leonid Sokov’s ‘Mikki and Marx’ (2011) has Marx and Mikki watching each other with curiosity – they represent different worlds that hardly have any points of contact. There are also many paintings putting the figure of Marx inside the post-Soviet reality: Marx queueing for vodka with other Russians, Marx observing the Red Square queues for food, a new McDonald’s in Moscow and mass demonstrations of the 1990s. There is even a Marxism chapel made by the artists organization that works under a pseudonym ‘Nikolai Kopeykin’ that makes a mocking Christ out of Marx figure and creates a huge chapel representing various moments of Karl Marx’s life and important socialist thinkers and revolutionaries as his apostles.

Portrait by Nikolai Kopeykin

There are also many objects designed to satisfy the demands of mass market that were issued to mark the 200th anniversary of the German philosopher’s birth – a 200 Euro banknote with Marx, a vodka bottle with Marx, T-shirts with Marx and so on. Thus, the exhibition potently traces the curves of interpretation of this figure and proves that this figure is so embedded in the world’s history that its perception will always change with a new development of our world, but will never become irrelevant. Some will mock it, some will play with it, some will idolize it or use it as a means of intellectual opposition, and thus Marx will forever be the mirror for us to see our own reflection in.

"The Chapel of Maexism" by Nikolai Kopeykin

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