On December 1, 1962, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, infamous for his cultural ignorance, visited an exhibition of abstractionist painters devoted to the 30th anniversary of the Union of Artists. Exposed to unclear blurry images having little connection with the realistic, ideologically correct paintings he was used to, Khrushchev called this art “daub” -- alien to the Soviet people -- and banned abstractionism, condemning it to decades of illegal underground existence.
The exhibition was originally organized by a prominent art critic of the time, Eliy Belutin, with the permission of the Moscow unit of Komsomol, the Youth Communist Organization. Presented as a collection of amateur painters, exhibited in a small hall and practically not advertised at all, it still gathered the capital’s intelligentzia, who stood in line for hours to enjoy the pieces of art, while foreign media, invited to attend the event, immediately produced a documentary about it and presented it in their home countries.
The success of an “amateur” exhibition stunned the Soviet authorities, and days later, they contacted the organizers, asking them to hold an official exhibition in one of Moscow’s major exhibition halls, the Manezh. The night before the opening, the content of the exhibition was approved by certain members of Politburo and the then-Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva, and the artists were told that the Soviet government and Khrushchev in particular would be paying a visit the next day. The news made them hopeful that such a visit might give them a chance to finally obtain approval from the authorities and come out of the shadow.
When he first saw the paintings, Khrushchev seemed puzzled but not obviously angry. Besides, upholding the image of the initiator of the Destalinization program, he could have given the green light to the painters as another manifestation of his liberalism, but, because of his poor knowledge of art, Khrushchev was very easy to manipulate. His circle drew his attention away, pushing the idea that the art exhibited was not socialist and therefore had no right to exist in the Soviet Union. They feared that young alternative painters would shatter the Communist ideology by their insolent art.
“How can this be called fine art? Just take a look, Nikita Sergeevich, what a mess this is!” one of the pro-Soviet artists from Khrushchev’s circle argued about the painting “Naked” by Robert Falck. Khrushchev, having no true eye for art, agreed: “What’s that! Where are her eyes! She looks like she’s high on morphine!”
None of the artists from the exhibition had the power to change the opinion of the Soviet leader.
“This ‘art’ is alien to our people, they reject it,” Khrushchev concluded on seeing the exhibition. “This is what these people who call themselves artists should think about, when painting these ‘masterpieces.’ They make one wonder if they had been painted by a hand of a man or a tail of a donkey. They need to work on their mistakes and make their art people-friendly.”
Immediately following his statement, the freshly-published papers featuring the exhibition were disposed of, and stories about the exhibition disappeared from radio and TV. One of the issues of the “Soviet Union” journal illustrated by the young artists was withdrawn from the print shops and destroyed.
None of the requests to mitigate the repressions were satisfied, as the artists were politely informed that their art was not Soviet art and did not satisfy the needs of the Soviet population. Though such decision was a disaster, the young artists were happy to admit that thanks to the shower of harsh criticisms in all Soviet editions, they got wide publicity and became widely known, although from then on they were forced to publish their works under pseudonyms.
However, the tendencies for new forms of art only prospered; being oppositional, the new art became a lot more attractive to people.