Monday, December 8, 2014

John McVickar -- "We Struck a Strong Blow for the Cause"

One document John McVickar shared with me was a carbon copyof a memo he prepared for Embassy Moscow public affairs counselor Lee Brady, dated September 10, 1959.  Although assigned to the U.S. Embassy as a consul rather than in a cultural or press capacity, McVickar spent quite a bit of time at the Sokolniki exhibition that summer, not long after he first arrived at post.  He volunteered to help out, as did other Embassy officers, and ended up being assigned to the art show, one of the most heavily visited – and controversial – parts of the American Exhibition.

While he includes some of his recollections of Sokolniki in his 2001 “Remembered Vignettes” covering his entire tour in Moscow, McVickar’s memo to Brady represents his contemporaneous impressions immediately after the close of the exhibition.   He tells Brady he was present at the art exhibit about a dozen times.  At first, he reports, “the crowds seemed eager and friendly.”  “They were full of questions and often amazement at the abstractions, but were not particularly antagonistic,” McVickar writes.  “The first impression I had was of teeming masses of relatively untutored, friendly, curious people who were ready to listen, but just didn’t know what to make of abstract art,” he goes on, adding “probably not unlike most Americans would be who had never been exposed to it.”
Crowds viewing the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959.  Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

But then the atmosphere changed, McVickar reports:  “things began to get rougher.”  Antagonistic questions and comments became the norm rather than the exception.  “A number of people,” McVickar observed, “seem to have been sent on purpose to poke fun at the show and stir up trouble, others to have come to vent feelings in a place where they felt that antagonistic behavior was socially acceptable.”  After citing examples of the types of comments he had in mind – “It’s useless,” “A child could do that,” and so forth – McVickar mentions that the art show had to be closed down several times during the public hours “to protect the pictures.”  Among the materials he sent me was an August 1959 International Herald Tribune piece describing the cool reaction of the Soviet media and some visitors to works like Gaston Lachaise’s “Standing Nude.” 

Yet as time went on, this wave of antagonism also apparently cooled down.  McVickar lauds the contributions of the guides and especially Richard McLanathan, the art show's curator, who helped foster more balanced discussion with Soviet visitors through his lectures about the abstract art collection.

McVickar’s bottom line:  “It is my personal feeling that the show was a significant success from a political as much as from an artistic point of view.”  The art show, in his analysis, succeeded in challenging Soviet stereotypes about what constituted “world culture” and whether individuals had the right to freely express themselves, whether in conformity with the Party line or not.  In summing up his impressions for Lee Brady, McVickar concludes that “in this exhibit we struck a strong blow for the cause, helped not a little by the Soviets themselves who chose to make such a fuss about it in the local newspapers.  Yet it will probably take many such blows over a long period of time to start this enormous political dinosaur moving.”  How right he was.

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