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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Arts All Around: Art & Politics Recommended for Summer Reading

By Barbara-lyn Morris | June 25, 2008

In this year of "extreme" politics, the spring book group at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) focused on art and politics of three time periods: 1490s in Paris and Brussels; 1860s and early 1870s in Paris; and the 1950s through 1980s in the Soviet Union — all extreme times for art and politics.

The 1490s is the context for The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton, 2004), a book I have previously suggested. This selection is a quick and easy read in the tradition of Chevalier's popular Girl with a Pearl Earring.

While rereading the unicorn tapestries story, I was intrigued with the varied understandings of the function of art, as presented by the story's main characters. For example, Nicolas des Innocents, the artist hired to design a series of tapestries, argues the function of art is "to make things more beautiful than they are." Claude Le Viste, the rebellious daughter of Nicolas' patron, maintains that art is intended "to imitate life." And so the debate goes on.

Reading Chevalier's work through the lens of art's function adds depth; however, the other two books are considerably more challenging: The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism by Ross King (Walker, 2006) is a 464-page detailed account of the conditions in the Parisian art/political world during the decade between 1863-1874, a chaotic time that led to the establishment of alternative art spaces and the birth of Impressionism. The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994) is just 180 pages but tells a tedious account of an American who almost single-handedly saved the work of two generations of dissident Soviet artists.

The Soviet Union promoted only art known as Socialist Realism, that is, socialist in content and realistic in form. Defined by Stalin's mandate that all creative endeavors must be under state control, the arts were viewed as instruments of social change aimed at building the ideal socialist society. Unacceptable art included anything considered political, religious, or erotic. Also banned were the art movements of abstract, expressionist, and conceptual art. The result was a public art of grand scale and sanctioned political commentary; underground was a secret movement of rebellion against all that was dictated.

McPhee recounts a tale of an economics professor, Norton Townshend Dodge (born 1927), who acquired the largest and broadest collection (more than 9,000 works) of Soviet dissident or non-conformist art in the world. As an academic researcher studying Soviet farming and the role of women in Soviet politics, Dodge traveled throughout the Soviet Union between 1956 and 1986. Along the way, he began to associate with underground artists who were considered by the state to be criminals and subject to KGB (Soviet secret police) surveillance, harassment, and arrest. Some died mysteriously; many were incarcerated or institutionalized.

Not answered in the book are questions about how Dodge got away with moving from professor to smuggler extraordinaire. Was he a spy for the CIA? Who provided him with the three million dollars he spent on art and assistance to artists? Was he working for the KGB? Was he a double agent? Whatever the answer(s), Dodge amassed an amazing collection of art from the likes of Evgeny Rukhin (1943-1975), who died mysteriously in a studio fire, and Oscar Rabin (born 1928), who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1978 and continues to produce art in Paris.

Reading King's The Judgment of Paris from cover to cover takes commitment. However, attention to chapters 1-3, 9, 18-23, 29 and Epilogue will provide the critical points for discussion of the paradigm shift that took place in Paris in a mere decade. King compares and contrasts the careers, working methods, and posthumous reputations of two painters: Ernest Meissonier (1851-1891), the most popular and best-selling classical French painter and sculptor of his day, and Edouard Manet (1832-1883), the outsider fighting to be recognized. While Manet neither considered himself an Impressionist nor exhibited with them, he, nevertheless, is considered the father of Impressionism and is a giant in the world of modern art history. Few know the name Meissonier.

An important variable to keep in mind while reading King's tome is that viewing art at the official Salons was THE thing to do in Paris in the 1850s and 60s. King documents average attendance at the official exhibits to be as many as 23,000 people daily, with established artists having the celebrity status of today's film stars! (Blockbuster museum exhibits today may draw up to 6,000 daily as a packed crowd.)

For summer creek-side reading at my home in Damascus, I have set aside back issues of the quarterly journal Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. The Spring 2008, Number 57 issue is representative of the scope and quality of Image. This issue includes critiques with beautiful images of the sculpture of American artist Richard Serra and English artist Oliver Barratt; poetry by seven poets; two short stories; two essays, one by Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright; a review of Annie Dillard's The Maytrees (HarperCollins, 2007); and an interview with novelist Ron Hansen. His recently released Exiles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), investigates issues of history, faith, and poetry in the story of a shipwreck in which five young nuns die and an obscure Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, writes a long memorial. Have put Exiles on my summer list. More about Image at, or 866-481-0688.

Ironically, the subject of the summer VMFA book club selection is another notorious shipwreck, one which inspired French painter Theodore G?ricault to create his masterpiece "The Raft of the Medusa" in 1819. Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Disaster of the 19th Century by Jonathan Miles (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007) is a definite read. Won't you join me in reading about the arts and politics of another age, asking in what ways are they related? Are there implications for our 24/7 political obsession? And, most significantly, what is the function of the arts in our society today?

John McPhee's "The Ransom of Russian Art" and Ron Hansen's "Exiles" make good summer reading.