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Saturday, February 01, 2020

Moscow Museum Exhibits Soviet-era Masonic and Esoteric Art Through May

The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow just opened a new exhibit of esoteric artwork from the Soviet period between 1905 and 1969. 

Freemasonry was banned throughout the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and unknown numbers of Masons were imprisoned or murdered over their membership (real or alleged) all the way up into the 1970s at least. That makes this an especially fascinating (and poignant) exhibit of very rare artwork. The works on display largely came from Russians who fled to Central Asia and met and worked in secret.

The exhibition also features copies and originals of NKVD (the Soviet secret police who later became the KGB) cases against suspected Freemasons who disappeared into the gulags or were shot. Countless members of Masonic and other esoteric societies in the USSR that had existed since the 19th century didn't survive political persecution, and were frequently betrayed and turned in to the NKVD by fellow members. Theirs are not the fictional tales of spy novels or anti-Soviet propaganda. These arrests, persecutions and killings were very real under Stalin and his successors, and are largely unheard of by historians and researchers today. 

From the Garage Museum website notes on the exhibition:

"We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams." The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969 is the result of a major research project undertaken by the team at Garage together with art critic Alexey Ulko (Samarkand) and artist Alexandra Sukhareva (Moscow/Dubna).
The quote in the title is from Andrei Bely’s 1901 poem “To Sergey Solovyov.” Bringing together over 150 artworks, artefacts, and archive documents, the exhibition takes a close look at the creative projects of artists who were members of secret societies or constructed individual practices informed by their esoteric interests. Many among these bearers of “secret knowledge” fell victim to Stalin-era repressions: they were executed, sent to prison camps, abandoned their beliefs or lost their archives.

Reflecting on the ways in which “secret knowledge” is preserved and passed on, the structure of the exhibition follows the symbolic cycle of “golden age” and “exile:” from the blossoming of various esoteric practices before the Russian Revolution to the banishment and execution of artists in the 1930s and 1940s; from the spiritual revival of the 1920s in the Soviet East (where many representatives of the Soviet creative intelligentsia went to work, for various reasons) to the arrests that followed and a period of “quiet” creative work thereafter.

The art presented in the exhibition dwells on the periphery—far from the great victories of modernism and the radical Soviet avant-garde—and has remained largely secret and invisible (including to art historians) because it was produced not as an aesthetic experiment but as an artefact of spiritual revelation. The logic of documents has also played an important role in structuring the show: a two-year research project included work in public and private archives and as a result the team reconstructed—from criminal cases and police records of searches—several biographies that had seemed irretrievable, such as that of the artist and anthroposophist Rimma Nikolaeva...

I have been unable to find any photos or examples online of the works and artifacts on display in this new exhibition, but it just opened on Friday, January 31st. It will run through May 10th, 2020.

The Garage Museum is located in Moscow's Gorky Park. For more information, see their English language website at https://garagemca.org/en

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