BImages of war: since the Russian troops invaded Ukraine, we have seen them every day, raw, close, often unbearable. They show bombed buildings in Kharkiv, mass graves in Bucha, smoke rising from a rocket attack in kyiv and the ruins of residential buildings in Mariupol. We have seen images of people seeking protection in metro stations, people fleeing and injured, soldiers dead and civilians massacred, a Ukrainian president in an olive-colored T-shirt and a leader of Russian war posing as the head of a “special operation” grotesquely humiliating his long table counterparts.
In Putin’s Russia, one cannot speak of war – at least not in connection with Ukraine. Far away, however, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where holidaymakers from all over the world as well as Russian oligarchs enjoyed the Mediterranean lifestyle, Russia presents itself to all as a deeply warlike nation that owes its existence and size to the constant struggle. The State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg has a branch in Malaga and has been presenting a now highly controversial exhibition there for a year. “War and Peace in Russian Art” is the title of the exhibition, which brings together images different from those that dominate our news.
Large format battle paintings
The route of the exhibition is conceived as a glorious march in history, as a story of the geopolitical expansion of an empire in which changes in the political system are rather a footnote. The mural texts anticipate the historical horizon of interpretation. Landmarks: Russia, born Christian in the form of Kievan Rus, defeats the Tatars in the east, gains access to the Baltic Sea in the Baltics, defends itself against Napoleon, defeats the aggression of National Socialist Germany, becomes a superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union following democratic reforms is hastily reported in three sentences. This anticlimax remains invisible in the exhibition. The last painting shows an idyll on “Victory Day”, painted in oil in 1975 by Gleb Sávinov, an artist of the Leningrad school. In the style of socialist realism steeped in the heritage of the European avant-garde, his genre work depicts a peasant family at an open-air meal – an image of peace. This is followed by large format military history paintings in half a dozen rooms.
The canonized national heroes follow one another in action, imagined retrospectively for the purpose of patriotic reassurance: Alexander Nevsky after repelling the Teutonic Knights, painted by Vladimir Serov in 1945; Ivan the Terrible, first tsar and conqueror of the Mongols, also painted during the Stalin era as King Arthur by Pavel Sokolov-Skalya. The naval battles of the Northern War, the war against the Grand Army (without burning down Moscow), the Russo-Ottoman War and the Crimean War are invoked as well as the ecstatic assaults of the First World War.
Collected are works of art commissioned by the court and Soviet propaganda, but also images of Wassily Wereshtschagin with a pacifist touch and ambiguous images like Kazimir Malevich’s “Red Cavalry” from 1932 – this seems true to the line , but let the revolutionaries gallop in the abstract nowhere. However: the war as father of all that is Russian, it is celebrated here without making think of Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and the annexation of Crimea. The exhibits were also appropriate to illustrate Putin’s understanding of history.
How is it possible ? Malaga’s longtime conservative mayor, Francisco de la Torre, ensured that the Russian Museum opened a branch in Andalucia in 2015. Since then, it has housed a former city-owned tobacco factory with temporary exhibits from the Petersburg inventory. Prestige, promotion of tourism, a gift for wealthy Russians in Marbella – this was probably the calculation, and as a thank you, de la Torre personally accepted the Pushkin Medal for the Promotion of Russian Culture from the hands of Putin. After the invasion of Ukraine, however, the case was clear: no cooperation with Russian government agencies.
But de la Torre has been debating for weeks whether the war and peace show at the “Museo Ruso” or the whole museum should be closed or whether a bridge should be built – until the city council these these days at least end the exhibition has decided . A provincial farce, one might think, but instructive. Anyone with eyes to see might have noticed before the attack on Ukraine what a dubious message the state museum was sending with the exhibition in Malaga. It ends on May 3. Until then, admission is free.