22 setembro 2004

Gulag Art

Nikolai Getman, who produced a unique record of life in Stalin's forced-labor camps, died last month at his home in Orel, Russia.

Born in 1917, he was by profession a painter, though his studies at the Kharkov Art College were cut short when he was drafted into the Red Army. After serving in World War II, he was arrested in 1946 and spent nearly eight years in the Gulag, much of it in one of the worst zones--Kolyma. Following his release in 1953, he was eventually reintegrated into Soviet artistic circles, becoming a member of the Artists' Union. But alongside his official duties he secretly painted--and much later succeeded in sending to the West--a number of paintings, mainly oil on canvas, based on his deep-set, unforgettable camp memories. His collection is now housed by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington (www.jamestown.org).

There is, of course, an enormous amount of first-hand testimony, of fiction, even of poetry, deriving from the Gulag experience. In the first years of glasnost there were many striking illustrations of some of the worst of Stalinist killings and torture. But as a full expression of the plastic arts, Mr. Getman is virtually unique. His work is strongly based on that of Ilya Repin (1844-1930), the Russian master of historical and genre scenes, and this is particularly suited to his subjects. He is able to bring home the whole perspective of the Gulag in a series of depictions of a particular level of human experience, seen in chosen faces and contexts.

Many even of his hidden pictures from the period are not directly connected with the Gulag itself. There are vast arctic landscapes in which the camps are just visible; there are views of columns of Japanese prisoners of war; there are sympathetic pictures of the local Chukchi tribesmen. Nor is every view autobiographical. We see the notorious women's camps, the harbors that held the penal ships of the Okhotsk Sea. But there is only one picture not associated with the lethal Far Eastern Arctic--a portrayal of a prisoner being led to execution in a metropolitan underground passage--probably based on the fate of Mr. Getman's elder brother Aleksandr.

From direct experience there are starving convicts put to hard labor in and above the gold mines, and the more central message comes to us in the faces and bodies of the prisoners: inside their compounds, trying to get fair shares of the inadequate rations, trying not to eat too fast, lined up in fives awaiting execution.

And, dreadful as the Gulag was, it was of course surpassed in horror by the torture chambers of the secret police--now seen in the immense documentation of interrogation reports that have emerged. In the Gulag prisoners were beaten up, shot by the thousands, but there were many survivors. "Lucky" ones like Mr. Getman--who had served seven years for being present while another artist had drawn a cartoon of Stalin on some cigarette paper.

Knowledge of the Gulag has a different record in Russia than in the West. In the 1930s, it is true, a major attempt was made to inculcate the official Soviet distortion both at home and abroad. The first really large-scale Gulag operation, the Baltic-White Sea Canal, was made the subject of a Soviet book sponsored by leading Moscow creative writers, including Maxim Gorky. It reported the claimed results, in antisocial cases, of human "corrective labor." The book appeared in English too, in New York and London--but had to be withdrawn after a few years when some of the writers had been shot, together with its main hero, Camp Chief Firin. Copies can still be found in our libraries.

This particular deception was not again practiced, but the Gulag remained mythologized in the U.S.S.R. itself until the publication by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in 1962--after which, as the great Russian singer Galina Vyshnevskaya tells us in her memoirs, "The Soviet government had let the genie out of the bottle, and however hard they tried later, they couldn't put it back." Still, they did try, and the full story took almost another generation to emerge.

The West had meanwhile, for over half a century, seen myriads of firsthand accounts, and many scholarly analyses. But there was, in some circles, reluctance to face such realities. We may feel, paradoxically, there was a good deal of Gulag denial, or at least compulsive Gulag ignorance, until quite recently--perhaps not yet fully abated.

Mr. Getman's death comes soon after that of Czeslaw Milosz, with whom I had warm, though not close, relations. He too, though stressing that his own experiences in Communist Poland were not at the Kolyma level, was very concerned that the Westerners he encountered should understand, should really understand, the extreme negativity of the Communist phenomenon. The implication was that the Western vision was still blurred. Mr. Getman has added what one would hope to be a final touch to our understanding. But of course, to the last, Mr. Getman was more concerned with his own country. He feared that "Russia is still looking for another way today"; and he dedicated his collection "to the memory of those who survived the Gulag and to those who did not. Light a candle in memory. The living are in need of it more than the dead. Bow your heads."

More about Getman and his paintings in Art Ukraine

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