This is my favorite painting at the Chazen Museum in Madison, Wisconsin. It is called the Cable Factory. It is a large painting (80″ by 53″) that was created by Nikolai Alexandrovich Ionin. It was painted in 1935 in Soviet Russia under the Soviet Socialist Realism edict. At this time, all art must be accessible to the people and represent the great work of the people. You get paintings and sculptures of potato farmers and worker revolts during this period.
And, you get this one of strong men making wire cable in the glow of fires and machine lights.
When you first approach it, you should take it in from far away across the gallery. Stand there and take in the color and composition. The structure. The elegance of the wire spools – you know them as tables from college days. The rolled cuffs on the workers – their strong bare arms, muscles bulging from years of hard labor for the good of the country. Their clean shaven faces – showing that they are good men. The light pours in the back from an open door or skylight. There is a bright sheen on the new wire cable and there is hot fire in the gauging / winding machine. The workers seem calm and capable. You can almost smell the hot metal and hear the mechanical whirl of all of it. The ironwork that holds the upper floor looks touchable.
But then walk up. Walk up close. [This is what we miss by not having museums open -the presence of art. The changing and morphing perceptions of art as we approach it and get close.]
When you are close, then look at the background in this painting – study the detail in the ceiling and machines.
Here is a painter playing with cubism – with abstract art. Think about what is happening in art in Europe and America in the 1930s. Mondrian is painting color block squares and rectangles. Freda Kahlo is painting her provocative nudes.
Joan Miró has gone full-on psychoanalysis-driven surrealist.
But, Nikolai is here, in the Soviet era, painting men making wire. And yet, he is also exploring the wild and abstract painting styles of 1930. Here in these rafters, he has found a way to explore cubism and abstract art. Even under the dire constraints and the threat of Siberia, Nikolai has found a creative outlet and a way to explore new ideas and new boundaries.
I hope that we can get creative under these new constraints and boundaries of COVID-19. I hope we can new ways to express our visions and creations. Let us celebrate the hard workers who are keeping us fed and alive. And, let us also explore the new ideas and ways of creating even under the dire constraints that wrap our everyday lives.
Stay well. Be well. Create.