Silent Witnesses in between
Combat Experience and Theater of War
World leaders were present in 1995 at the opening of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, site of remembrance, site of Katharina Gruzei’s photographic project. The president of the USA, Bill Clinton, reportedly said that the museum represents the one and only truth about the Soviet Army’s plight in World War Two. But the main exhibition space of the museum is neither fact nor fiction. It is a way of presenting war through a specific set of tropes. All the artists, stylistically different as they may appear, reproduce these tropes.
Even the eyewitness is seemingly deceived and deceiving. Victor Dmitrievsky, author of the panorama depicting the Battle of Dnieper in September 1943, one of the decisive attacks of the Soviet Army, was a soldier there. The museum guide says that Dmitrievsky remembered the river red with the blood of Nazis and Russians. For the panorama, however, he chose to forget: we see several splashes of purple, nothing more. The personal experience that was in fact shared with thousands of friends and enemies is edited out to present a heroic tableau. Even most of the bodies are whole, almost no severed limbs are in sight. It is as if all the action were a theater stage, a make-believe, a kid’s game where no one really dies. It has become customary, according to the French historian Pierre Nora, to distinguish between memory and history, one lived, one arranged posthumously. What, then, should we make of Dmitrievsky’s work?
The first answer that comes to mind has to do with the tradition of battle painting in the Grekov Studio, the Soviet Union’s main producer of war-related paintings, sculptures and dioramas. Officially recognized in 1934, but active a few years before that date, the Grekov Studio was and is commissioned to produce highly theatrical work on recent military conflicts. The main benefactor of the Studio has always been the Ministry of Defense, both as a government contractor and with a plethora of private commissioners eager to buy paintings about wars they have participated in. There has been no evolution of style since the Soviet times: One sees the same tropes of Socialist Realism in the most recent paintings. Dmitrievsky started working in the Studio in 1944, shortly after his stint in the actual war. The second answer lies in the museum’s concerns about its purported audience of school-children that have to be spared from the outright horrors of war. Their guide, however, knows better and draws the audience’s attention to the things you cannot see in the actual artwork – the actual memories of the artist. Dmitrievsky’s witnessing is a version of a Lacanian “real” that cannot be depicted in the highly symbolic space of a diorama. It has to be imparted through speech, as lived experience, and that is why the guide sports a soldier’s uniform. What Dmitrievsky depicted as an artist is neither memory nor history nor an individual vision of the events. The artist is a stand-in general, imagining a “theater of war”, a term from Carl von Clausewitz’s treatise “On War”, which was very popular with the Soviet commandership. It’s not art, it’s a variation of the strategic placement of forces from the standpoint of a leader.
Katharina Gruzei tries to reclaim this “real” through depictions of functional parts in the museum. She discovers cracks in the overall picture of the theater, needling her optics towards the not-so-hidden doors, benches, exhibition machinery and the like. When all these things take center stage, they become the silent representation of behaviors that are not depicted in the dioramas – like resting, hiding, and technology’s (rather than man’s) grip on the outcome of the conflict. Here, the “real” manifests itself through props that can represent fear (the door that leads away from the exhibition hall) or exhaustion (the bench). This way, the parts of the museum that look alien to the overall concept are revealed to be crucial: theater gives way to emotions that cannot be represented in the strategic onslaught on the senses.
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