A fascinating opera that reflected the thinking of the time but also incurred the wrath of the Soviet regime, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is currently on the bill at the Opéra Bastille in a pro-duction by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov, the curator of the exhibition Red. Art and utopia Soviet country which runs from March 20 until July 1 2019 at the Grand Palais, sheds some light on the historical context of the work.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was first performed on January 22, 1934. Can you tell us something about the political context of that Premiere?
Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov: During the 1920s, a degree of cultural pluralism accompanied the power struggle that raged between the different factions of the party. Trotsky and Bukharin were among those who considered that it was not up to the party to impose one particular form of art over another. That situation changed after 1929. Joseph Stalin eliminated all opposition. He wanted to control and direct artistic creation. In 1932, artistic groups were dissolved in favour of professional unions. In 1934, a few months after the premiere of “Lady Macbeth”, one of Stalin’s henchmen, Andrei Zhdanov advanced the mantra of socialist realism, a doctrine that although still vague was destined to hold sway over all the arts. The extraordinary period of experimentation triggered by the Revolution came to a close.
What was Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet regime?
N. L.-G.: Shostakovich was one of the so-called “Leftist artists”, heirs to the avant-gardists whose work developed frenetically during the heady enthusiasm of the 1920s when the future seemed full of possibilities. He collaborated with numerous artists of note. As such, the play The Bedbug enabled the young composer, who was barely 23 years old, to collaborate with author Vladimir Mayakovsky, director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and stage designer Alexander Rodchenko. But a cruel fate awaited many of the Leftist artists: Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930 and Meyerhold was executed in 1940. For Shostakovich, like Rodchenko, it was now, for better or worse, a question of composing in accordance with the wishes of the authorities.
“Lady Macbeth” depicts the difficult social condition of a Russian woman. How does that theme sit with the political concerns of those times?
N. L.-G.: The years following the October Revolution saw a genuine relaxation in terms of customs and mores: divorce became widespread, conventional family structures were fragmenting, sexual freedom was asserting itself, and women were becoming emancipated. The Stalinist period, by contrast, were years of intense conservatism: the regime promoted the return of lifestyles that were ultimately more bourgeois. It celebrated the virtues of marriage and promoted the return of traditional family values. Shostakovich’s opera, composed during the first years of the Stalinist era, stands at the cusp of two epochs.
We know that after its initial success, performances of the work were banned for thirty years. How do you explain that about-turn?
N. L.-G.: On January 28, 1936, an article masterminded by Stalin appeared in Pravda, entitled “Chaos replaces Music”. It assailed “Lady Macbeth” both in terms of substance—a plot narrative deemed scandalous—and in terms of form—the work was dismissed as “formalistic”. At that time, the word had extremely negative connotations. Formalism was looked upon as a “bourgeois” sickness which gave rise to works that were incomprehensible to the masses. The article in Pravda unleashed an extremely virulent campaign that would touch all the artistic disciplines. It was only after Nikita Khrushchev came to power that the State’s grip would ease slightly and the scope for experimentation would reappear for artists, albeit in a limited way. The version of “Lady Macbeth” performed during this period was renamed Katerina Ismailova and toned down considerably.
Red… About the exhibition
The exhibition Red. Art and Utopia in the Land of Soviets presents a collection of over 400 works conceived in a specific social and political context. Its chronological timeline begins in 1917 with the October Revolution and ends in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death.
It explores the way in which Communist society spawned specific forms of art. From the 1920s, which were marked by a large number of avant-garde concepts, to the 1930s which saw the affirmation of an aesthetic dogma, the exhibition covers all genres of the visual arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, cinema, design, and the graphic arts with works that, for the most part, have never been previously displayed in France.
Through their works, artists such as Rodchenko, Malevich, and Klutsis wanted to help build socialism and contribute to the transformation of the lives of the masses. It is that history, its tensions, its fervour and its reversals which the exhibition presents by exploring the question of the potential politicisation of the arts.
Exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais and the Centre Pompidou Musée d’art moderne. Grand Palais, Galeries Nationales, from March 20 through July 1, 2019
Curator of the exhibition : Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov - scenography : Valentina Dodi and Nicolas Groult