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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exhibit Shows Once-Doomed Art

Anneta Bass arrived in Samara on Aug. 16, 1953, just after inspectors from the Committee for Cultural Affairs had left. The inspectors, having picked their way through the collections of the Samara Art Museum, had compiled a list of 400 works that were "of no artistic value" and were therefore to be destroyed.

Luckily, as Bass, the museum's director, explained in a telephone interview, "Russia is a country where people don't hurry to do as they are ordered." The paintings in question were simply put away until the thaw of the late 1950s meant that they could once again be exhibited.

A good portion of the Samara Art Museum's avant-garde collection of paintings, many of which were marked for destruction, can now be seen at the Museum of the History of Moscow in an exhibition dramatically entitled "The Saved Avant-Garde." The show runs until May 10.

The exhibition's title conjures up visions of museum employees leaping into bonfires to pull out flaming works of art. This illusion was, however, soon dispelled: "I don't actually know of anywhere where paintings were destroyed," Bass said, producing a huge list of provincial towns where hordes of paintings remained unharmed.

"The fact is there were lots of lists -- lists of paintings to be destroyed, paintings to be sold -- but not many people acted on this," Bass said. She and others throughout the Soviet Union managed to get away with not carrying out such explicit orders, mostly due to Soviet disorganization.

"It was 1953. It was a time when no one could check up on you that quickly," said Bass.

"Besides, you know how big a country ours is," she added.

The Samara Art Museum received the body of its avant-garde collection in Au gust 1919, when the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment sent 35 works to the Volga River town. Formerly known as Kuibyshev, Samara lies one time zone and a 19-hour train journey east of Moscow.

In the years up to 1929, the museum continued to make substantial acquisitions in large part due to the opening of the local Higher Artistic and Technical Workshop, widely referred to as VKhuTeMas. The museum continued to acquire works gradually, and under the guidance of Bass, one by one purchased works by lesser-known local artists such as the founders of the local VKhuTeMas, Nikolai Popov and S. Adlivankin.

The exhibition that ran in Samara last year as part of the museum's centennial, was given its title for two reasons. "First, the paintings are 'saved' because they were to be destroyed and we kept them," Bass said. "Second, they have been saved because they have been restored," she said, referring to the restoration of many of the works that took place in the late 1980s.

The Samara museum's avant-garde collection is impressive in its own right, with works by Malevich, Rozanova, Vesnin and the futurist poet Burlyuk. There are also works by Konchalovsky, Lentulov and Menkov.

The museum's paintings have been included in a number of important exhibitions worldwide, including "The Great Utopia" in 1992, which toured many of the world's major art museums.

Bass acknowledged that funding is a problem for provincial museums. "We don't have much money," she said. "But given what is allowed for in the budget, our museum is relatively well-supported."

Bass added that she believed that "the provinces have a significant role to play in Russian culture," and "The Saved Avant-Garde" to a great extent bears this out.

The story of the exhibition is above all a profoundly Russian story.

There were undoubted acts of courage on the part of the museum staff, but the avant-garde works survived mainly because even the Soviet monolith, in all its power and menace, could not always impose its decisions across the vast distances of the territory it supposedly controlled.