Norton Townshend Dodge (June 15, 1927 – November 5, 2011) was an American economist who amassed one of the largest Soviet-era art collections outside of the Soviet Union.
Dodge, who was a Sovietologist, first traveled to the USSR in 1955 and smuggled into the West the works of dissident artists, painters, and sculptors in the former Soviet Union. He continued to acquire art and meet clandestinely with artists, often at great personal risk, till the death of dissident artist Evgeny Rukhin and the coming of perestroika. He managed to smuggle nearly 10,000 works of art from the USSR to the United States during the height of the Cold War.
The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art was donated to Rutgers University in the mid-1990s, where it is on permanent display at the university’s Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. The Dodge Collection is the largest collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art in existence. More than 20,000 works, by close to 1,000 artists, reveal a culture that defied the politically imposed conventions of Socialist Realism. This encyclopedic array of nonconformist art extends from about 1956 to 1986, spanning a period from the beginning of Khrushchev’s cultural “thaw” to the advent of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. The collection includes art made in Russia, as well as many examples of nonconformist art produced in the Soviet republics, including Central Asian countries. (Wikipedia)
The Zimmerli Art Museum is one of the largest and most distinguished university-based museums in the United States. It collects, preserves, researches, and exhibits world-class works of art, providing the university community and its diverse regional, national, international audiences an intimate experience with the visual art.
Founded in 1966 as the Rutgers University Art Gallery, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum was established in 1983, due to the growth of the permanent collection.
‘”Nonconformism,” as a trend, was a characteristic phenomenon of Soviet art and emerged as a reverse reaction following the rejection of the ideological attitudes pertaining to socialist realism, which had become an obsolete dogma in the Soviet art.
While Russian nonconformist artists are relatively known, less is written about their compatriots from the Soviet Central Asian republics.
As the Norton and Nancy Dodge collection was largely amassed in the second half of the 20th century, it acquired its pieces from Central Asia in the early 2000s. Right after, the Zimmerli Museum opened an exhibition of artists from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, including representatives of several generations, which showed the prominence of their art schools that combined Central Asian artistic traditions and the Russian avant-garde with the oriental flavor and touch of the Western modernism.
When selecting works from Central Asia to replenish the collection of Norton Dodge, Jane Sharp, a curator from Rutgers University, included the post-war, pre-perestroika and nonconformist (unofficial) art of Kazakhstan. Among them were artists who worked during the “Soviet thaw.” This generation has reassessed their creative heritage vis-a-vis the backdrop of socialist realism.
As Jane Sharp herself commented on the composition of the Central Asian collection*:
“Despite my attempts at impartiality, the weight of this exhibition decisively tilted in favor of Kazakhstan. It was primarily a logistics solution. For political and practical reasons, there are now more opportunities for acquiring and studying Soviet art from Kazakhstan than from other former Central Asian republics. It was more difficult to establish contacts with artists in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan”.
The art of Central Asia acquired national identification only in the twentieth century, as a result of Russian, and then Soviet, colonization, and the emergence of the nation-states. This was all before peoples of the steppe were identified through their ties with various linguistic groups, local administrative centers, and hereditary affiliation. In Central Asian art, particularly in its alternative forms to the socialist realism, such categories as “official” and “unofficial”, “state” and “private” had been ambiguous.
Such obvious contradictions were the norm for many artists of Central Asia, where the slogan “national in form, socialist in content” was widely applied. For example, the works of Kazakh artists Abdrashid Sydykhanov or Zhanatay Shardenov encompass both acceptable picturesque national landscapes, and “unacceptable”, highly individualistic expressive and formalistic works. That is, the generation of Kazakh and Uzbek artists of the sixties and seventies combined their work for official structures with those for free creativity, which challenged the canonical dogmas of Soviet ideology. The American collection includes such artists of the sixties as Shaimardan Sariev, Abdrashit Sydykhanov, and Zhanatay Shardenov, who was nicknamed the “Kazakh Van Gogh.”
As they pursued clearly classic forms, the connection with their native culture and land remained, giving their work a unique aspect of oriental flavor. Salikhitdin Aitbaev, a very powerful and bright artist, who also boldly and interestingly experimented with form and color, did not get into the collection. But the collection includes the now almost forgotten name of Boris Chuvylko, an artist who specialized in book graphics and monumental art. He was born in Tashkent, but lived and worked in Alma-Ata.
In the collection of Norton Dodge, great attention is paid to such epoch-making masters from Kazakhstan, such as Sergey Kalmykov, Pavel Zaltsman, Evgeny Sidorkin, who were the successors of the Russian avant-garde and the powerful academic school, who, by the will of fate, linked their life and work with Kazakhstan. If Kalmykov created the aesthetics of fantastic images and was a lone genius who had nothing to do with Soviet reality, then Sidorkin, on the contrary, updated the classics. He illustrated Saltykov Shchedrin’s “The History of a City,” keeping a satirical and grotesque tone of the author.
Jane Sharp clearly notes that art schools of Central Asia benefitted from an immense cultural exchange that was forced upon the region during Stalin’s repressions that sent thousands of exiled to the region and World War II evacuation of Russian artists to the region. “The forced resettlement of the entire population during the Soviet period and the introduction of agriculture in the form of collective farm collectives had a destructive effect on the nomadic population, their way of life, and material culture. Nevertheless, in the process of colonization and after, assimilation moved in both directions. Urban cultural centers were created, and with them, the “national schools” of painting “- writes Jane in the catalog for the exhibition. “So the artist and writer Pyotr Yakovlevich Zaltsman (1912-1985) combined in his pictorial artistic style the Filonov analytical school (the very work of his teacher’s legacy was prohibited in the USSR until 1967), which included Asian landscapes and similar images”.
Read more: Kazakh Graphic Illustrations of Evgeny Sidorkin
To understand the origins of the unofficial line in official Soviet Central Asian art, Sharp draws attention to what literature and visual information was available at that time to the artists of the sixties and seventies. Sharp writes: “It was possible to learn about Guttuso, but not about Italian futurists; information about Rockwell Kent was available, but not about Andy Warhol; Matisse, but not Duchamp.” Even in the late 1980s, artists in Central Asia would engage in dialogue with European modernists of the early twentieth century as a gesture of national defiance and cultural independence.
Architect and artist Almas Ordabaev and artist Vadim Sidorkin, who witnessed that era, note that artists subscribed to the most detachable art magazines from Poland’s Projekt and Przeglad Artistyczny, the Romanian magazine Arta, and the German Democratic Republic’s Bilden mit Kunst. Thus, we see that in the sixties, the exchange between Soviet artists and their colleagues from the countries in the socialist camp went on, despite the “iron curtain”. But in 1962 Khrushchev lashed out at the nonconformists at an anniversary art exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Artists’ Union” at Moscow Manege where he famously spoke about “filth, decadence and sexual deviations”. This has been described as the beginning of the end of the cultural thaw in the Soviet Union.
Among Uzbek paintings, the Dodge collection includes works by Alexander Kedrin, brothers Alexander and Valery Volkovs. Although Valery was born in Skobelev (Fergana), and Alexander Volkov in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and both were educated by their Moscow artist father Alexander Volkov. They mostly lived and worked in Tashkent and Moscow; it is clear that they identify with both cultures.
“Early migrants from urban Moscow and St. Petersburg to Samarkand, Tashkent, Bukhara, Almaty were motivated by the desire to experience the exotic cultures of the region. By the first decade of the twentieth century, a tradition of oriental studies had developed in Russia. The increased Russian influence on border areas through exhibitions, ethnographic publications, and travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was clearly an important incentive for artists” – says Jane Sharp.
The exhibition “Crossroads”, which was organized in 1989 at the Directorate of Art Exhibitions in Alma-Ata, brought together all unofficial artists of the city from surrealism to abstractionism and naive, including such artists as R. Khalfin, S. Maslov, Shai-Ziya, G. Tryakin-Bukharova, E. Vorobyova, art groups “Night tram”, “Green triangle “,” Asia-Art “and many others. It was a landmark exhibition that marked the transition to another post-Soviet era. Many names that this exhibition had discovered ended up in the Dodge collection.
The junction between the official and unofficial culture is complicated as witnessed by the works of artists in the underground Alma-Ata group “Green Triangle”, which had no analogs in the Central Asian region in the late 1980s. They initially positioned themselves as an independent group from various artistic councils, art organizations, and other structures.
In 1992, the Dodge generously donated their collection to the Zimmerli Museum, and in 1995, the collection entered the permanent exhibition of this museum. Nancy and Norton agreed that the essence of their collection is to demonstrate what the possibilities of creative expression were in the Procrustean bed of Soviet ideology.
The term Soviet Nonconformist Art refers to Soviet art produced in the former Soviet Union from 1953 to 1986 (after the death of Joseph Stalin until the advent of Perestroika and Glasnost) outside of the rubric of Socialist Realism.
*Based on author’s interview with Jane Sharp in 2000