Soviet “Severe Romanticism” at the 1962 Venice Biennale

The Case of Viktor Popkov

In: Experiment
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  • 1 Postdoctoral Fellow, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy
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With the Soviet Pavilion of the 1962 Venice Art Biennale, the Thaw era made its entrance onto the international art scene. Artists from different generations and Soviet republics were entrusted to illustrate “the deeply human dimension of Soviet art.” Among younger painters, one prominent figure was 30-year old artist Viktor Popkov. Along with the drawings and sketches produced during his travels in the virgin lands and building sites of Siberia, he presented the monumental painting The Builders of Bratsk (1960-61), an iconic artwork of the so-called “severe style.” The exhibition took place just a few months before the Moscow Manege Exhibition of December 1962, which prompted Khrushchev’s notoriously negative reaction and the first stop to Soviet cultural détente.

The present article explores the genesis of the canvas as the expression of a new “severe romanticism,” against the backdrop of the ongoing debate about romanticism in Soviet culture. It also analyzes the reception of Popkov’s work both in Italy—the country with the largest communist party in the West—and in the international press. On the basis of archival materials and press reviews, the article sheds light onto an artistic encounter between East and West in a divided Europe and discusses missed connections and unmet expectations of Western, mostly Italian, art critics.

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