An experiment with Moscow schoolchildren in the mid 1960s inspired art historian Igor Golomstock to see links between the socialist realist art of Stalinist Russia and that of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Maoist China.
It was a debate considered taboo in his native Russia, but led to his most famous book, Totalitarian Art (1990), the first serious study of artistic parallels between opposing regimes. Some 25 years earlier Igor Golomstock, who has died aged 88, discovered an illicit copy of a German art journal from the era of the Nazi-Soviet pact and noted a striking similarity between these art forms. He showed the illustrations to children at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art and asked them to name the artists. They easily rattled off the most prominent names of the Stalin period. Then he asked them to look at a portrait of Hitler within a painting of a German family listening to a wireless. They were stunned at the similarity of styles. Unsurprisingly Golomstock had to leave the museum shortly after, but it was enough to awaken in him the awareness of such polemic parallels. As he wrote in the preface to his book: “It arose from an intuitive sense of the strange closeness between two artistic systems that were – ideologically hostile to one another.”
Golomstock argued that totalitarian art was less an artistic genre than a propaganda tool with its own aesthetic and ideology. Its political inspiration may have differed but its so-called realism betrayed the same objectives; industrious families, idealistic soldiers and compassionate leaders.
Golomstock was born in the old Russian city of Tver, then Kalinin. His mother, Mary Smuilovna Golomstock, hailed from a Siberian Jewish family and trained as a neuropathologist. His engineer father Naum Yakovlevich Kodzhak was arrested in 1934 during Stalin’s first wave of terror, allegedly for “anti-Soviet propaganda” but in reality for belonging to a well-off Crimean-Karaite family. Golomstock then assumed his mother’s name. After his father’s arrest his mother remarried Yosif Lvovich Taubkin, a Party functionary. But the marriage failed and Mary left Moscow to work for two years as a doctor at the notorious Kolyma labour camp. She reasoned it was good money and a chance to retain her Moscow resident permit. So in the summer of 1939 Mary and the 10- year-old Igor set off for Vladivostock accompanied by her reconciled second husband. They remained there until 1943, but life in a labour camp run by the Soviet secret police traumatised Igor. The family returned to Moscow when Igor was 15 and he became a self- confessed “foul-mouthed barely educated child.”
However, everything changed when he discovered Dostoevsky, for whom he developed a life-long passion, balanced by his hatred of Tolstoy whom he regarded as – “the father of socialist realism.” In 1949 Igor qualified as an accountant then graduated in art history at Moscow University, working in restoration workshops and at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, where he accompanied travelling exhibitions.
In 1960 he married the biologist Nina Kazarovetz. The couple separated in the 1990s but never divorced.
Golomstock’s book on Pablo Picasso, co-authored with the Russian dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky was the first on the Spanish Cubist to be published in the Soviet Union. Further books on Cezanne, Hieronymous Bosch, and contemporary western art, were banned on ideological grounds. They were published abroad in the mid 70s under a pseudonym.
But in 1965 both Sinyavsky and the Soviet dissident Jewish poet Yuli Daniel were sent to the gulag for this very crime of publishing abroad. Igor was sentenced to six months forced labour for refusing to testify against Sinyavsky and also for his independent approach to art criticism. He was fortunate to get away with a fine.
When a brief window of opportunity opened for Jews to emigrate, Igor seized the moment and left for the UK in 1972, funded by friends who included Boris Pasternak’s son Yevgeny and the artist and critic Roland Penrose.
He taught at Oxford, Essex and St Andrews Universities, but spent the rest of his life in London, making radio programmes for the BBC’s Russian service. In 1977 he curated the first Western exhibition of unofficial art from the Soviet Union at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and several of his books on the subject were translated into English. His published works ranged from Hans Holbein to Damien Hirst and in 2011 a new edition of Totalitarian Art included material on Saddam Hussein. The same year saw the publication of his Memoirs of an Old Pessimist. An English translation is due out next year.
Igor is survived by his son Benjamin and his long-term companion, the archaeologist Flora Goldstein.
Igor Golomstock; born January 11, 1929. Died July 12, 2017