I'm late to this--some 40 years late--but John Berger's Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny And the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R (1969) is a must-read for anyone seriously exploring Russian nonconformist Art of the post-Stalin or so-called Thaw period. I can't recommend it enough. The publisher’s (Vintage) own description for the book’s 1998 reissue on Amazon puts it about right:
In this prescient and beautifully written book, John Berger examines the life and work of Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian sculptor whose exclusion from the ranks of officially approved Soviet artists left him laboring in enforced obscurity to realize his monumental and very public vision of art. But Berger's impassioned account goes well beyond the specific dilemma of the pre-glasnost Russian artist to illuminate the very meaning of revolutionary art. In his struggle against official orthodoxy--which involved a face-to-face confrontation with Khrushchev himself--Neizvestny was fighting not for a merely personal or aesthetic vision, but for a recognition of the true social role of art. His sculptures earn a place in the world by reflecting the courage of a whole people, by commemorating, in an age of mass suffering, the resistance and endurance of millions.
That said, this is a case that proves the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” If the reader was drawn to Art and Revolution based solely upon the pairing of the book's title and cover--I was not--he might be sorely disappointed. Now, I read it on my smartphone, so the "cover" of my edition was really nothing more than an icon. Nevertheless, the tiny image managed to give me pause: Two shadowy figures in trenchcoats leaning in as though one is disclosing a secret in the ear of other. The image is purposefully murky, nearly obscured, but the figures appear to be standing on a train platform in Paris (a portion of sign in the background reads "Quai." Another, below it says "Evian"). There is a whiff of political intrigue and no small suggestion of cloak and dagger espionage. The scene screams "Cold War" or probably more accurately, sometime earlier, during the French Resistance or even in the years just before the German occupation. It really could be the cover of a spy novel by Alan Furst, which are almost always set in those early years of Hitler's rise, in the late 1930s. At the very least, one expects spies. The original 1969 cover design is more true to the spirit of the book: a bold 1960s-style abstract rendering of an example of Neizvestny’s monumental work.
Ernst Neizvestny was no man of the shadows, as the 1998 cover suggests. To be sure, as an artist not officially recognized by the Soviet authorities, some discretion was in order. The sculptor could not obtain his supplies through official channels and so had to resort to the black market and, owing to his unrecognized status, had to make do in a tiny studio woefully inadequate for the monumental sculptures he aspired to create. Those artists recognized by the state received studios to produce their work; to work outside recognized channels was a crime--parasitism--but hardly espionage. This isn't meant to belittle the artist's efforts and work. Neizestny's struggles as an artist were nothing short of heroic. And this is exactly where the 1998 cover design goes wrong.
When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his crimes at a secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the relatively relaxed policies of his Thaw gave more freedom to create work not previously sanctioned by the State without fear of reprisal. However, the Soviet premier soon had a change of heart. In 1962, Khrushchev--in the company of KGB chief Aleksandr Shelepin and conservative artists like Sergei Gerasimov and Boris Ioganson--attended the now-infamous Manege exhibition at which several nonconformist artists were exhibiting. The Soviet leader, who had finally received an eyeful of this new art, got into a argument with Neizvestny regarding the function of art in society. Khrushchev derided Neizvestny’s works as “dog shit” and asked him, “Why do you disfigure the faces of Soviet people?”
Outraged by this crude assessment of his work, Neizvestny, a decorated war veteran, pulled off his shirt and showed Khrushchev the scars covering his back, embarrassing Khrushchev. The unusually candid and public argument between the leader of one of the world’s most repressive regimes and a lowly artist who worked out of a closet of a studio artist lasted an hour. Neizvestny spoke so frankly to Khrushchev, that Shelepin promised him a stint in a Siberian uranium mine. But that didn’t happen. In fact, Khrushchev came away with some grudging respect for Neizvestny. Eventually, it was to Neizvestny--not the likes of Gerasimov and Ioganson--that Khrushchev’s family turned to design the premier’s memorial following his death in 1971.
Dramatic? Yes, but hardly the stuff of spy thrillers. Rather, a lone artist speaking truth to power. So the least one would expect from the publisher of a book about such a heroic and public artist is to not misrepresent him on the cover of the first book about him--or perhaps to have simply reread John Berger’s magnificent book before demeaning it (and its readers) with such a tacky and misleading cover.