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Venice 1977: (counter)celebrations of the October Revolution.


In Venice, the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution were anticipated almost a year earlier with the retrospective exhibition Soviet Graphics from 1920 to Today, which opened in mid-December 1976 in the so-called Napoleonic Wing overlooking St Mark's square. The exhibition was promoted from the Italian side by the municipality of Venice, the Union of Venetian Engravers and the local Italy-USSR Association, and from Soviet side by the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Although the show was not planned as an official contribution to the anniversary celebrations, it presented a wide selection of works on revolutionary subjects. (1) The director of the Pushkin Museum, the legendary Irina Antonova, celebrated the tribute to the Great October in Soviet graphic works as an art medium 'able to get in direct contact with revolutionary mass movements, and to address an audience of millions'. (2)

At a national level, the exhibition must be ascribed to the activity of the Soviet embassy in Italy, and at this time the Soviet cultural attache in Rome was undertaking several initiatives to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries. By the beginning of 1977, one of his main assignments was, specifically, to counteract the 'anti-Soviet conjectures [domysli]' which he said now abounded in the Italian press. This, he added, was 'of particular importance right now, on the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution'. (3)

The concerns expressed by the Soviet diplomat were not entirely without foundation. In January 1977, the president of the Venice Biennale, the socialist Carlo Ripa di Meana, announced in the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera the main Biennale programme for that year, with its focus on cultural dissent in the Soviet Union and in socialist Eastern Europe. (4) The theme of alternative thinking and it consequences was to be investigated through a framework of scientific symposiums and conferences, while the different art forms were to be illustrated through theatre, dance and music performances, literature events and art exhibitions. On his appointment as the Biennale's president in 1974, Ripa di Meana had introduced the practice of thematic and politically orientated events that were organised alongside the international biennial art exhibitions. The first of these was held in 1974, the year following the Pinochet putsch, and entitled Freedom for Chile. The second one, held the year after Franco's death in 1976, was devoted to Spain and had the title and Avant-garde Art and Society from 1936 up to 1976, thus building a bridge between the arts of the civil war period and those of contemporary democratic Spain. While both these themes met with a unanimous consensus, the programme announced for 1977 provoked an unprecedented debate, with an immediate impact on Italy's domestic and foreign policy and a wide resonance through both national and international media. (5)


The first Soviet reaction appeared promptly in the newspaper Izvestiia, which criticised the Biennale initiative as a 'poorly camouflaged attempt at ideological sabotage'. As the article reported, Ripa di Meana had acknowledged that the Biennale programme 'might create difficulties with countries with which we, Italians, have official relations'. However, Ripa di Meana had added that the Biennale was not the Farnesina, i.e. the Italian ministry of foreign affairs. (6) The attack from Izvestiia was briefly reported the following day by L'Unita, the daily newspaper of the Italian communist party (Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI), alongside an article citing declarations from Pravda regarding the necessity of restoring a policy of international detente. (7) The position of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was clearly stated in a top-secret communication to the Soviet embassy in Rome:
The established initiatives represent an attempt to undermine the
massive ideological and political influence on large social areas of the
West occasioned by the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the
Great Socialist October Revolution ... It is evident that this time
imperialist propaganda has decided to set its anti-Soviet and
anti-socialist campaign in Italy. It is clear that these initiatives are
organised with the political and material support of the Italian
government. But what concerns us most is the fact that militants of the
Italian Communist Party take part in this event. (8)

The 'friendly fire' between comrades that was denounced here can be ascribed to the perceived general mistrust of the Kremlin towards Italian communists, who were often regarded as unreliable allies, especially after the Eurocommunist path initiated by the PCI's general secretary Enrico Berlinguer. In his speech held at the Kremlin during the official celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of October, Berlinguer would explicitly call for a 'non-interference in internal affairs' among communist parties, stating that 'uniformity is as dangerous as isolation'. (9) As a matter of fact, the PCI did not on this occasion take any official position towards the CPSU or the Biennale.

As a first official Soviet response, the Soviet ambassador in Rome, Nikita Ryzhov, issued a protest against the objective of the Biennale to the Italian ministry of foreign affairs, maintaining that a culture which was not recognised within the USSR should not be presented as Soviet culture abroad, hence bypassing state institutions. (10) This proven interference offered an immediate argument for use by anti-Soviet and more broadly anti-communist forces, which denounced the Soviet diktat in sessions devoted to the issue of both the Italian parliament in Rome and the Veneto Regional Council. (11) Besides these inter-party disputes, the main object of the parliamentary debate was the pending budget of the Biennale, which mainly depended on public funding and had to be agreed by a political majority. As a result, the Biennial of Cultural Dissent, originally scheduled for the summer of 1977, was eventually put back towards the end of the year. The hope and expectation of both Italian and Soviet bodies was that these heated debates would, by this time, be, if not completely forgotten, at least on the wane.


The deferring of the controversial Biennale gave the Soviet authorities time to invest in countermeasures aimed at diverting public opinion from this animated exchange of view and the faux pas of the initial Soviet response. (12) At first, a counter-information campaign was planned, but never carried through. This would have included the involvement of numerous participants, such as the Italians, painter Renato Guttuso and sculptor Giacomo Manzu--both recipients of the Lenin Peace Prize-as well as Soviet art professionals with personal contacts to Italy, such as the painter Il'ia Glazunov, the caricaturists collectively known as Kukriniksy and the art historian Mikhail Alpatov. An institutional intervention in Venice was also contemplated, and instructions were given to the commissar of the Soviet pavilion, Vladimir Goriainov--an art professional familiar with the Italian art scene--to launch an official protest against the Biennale leadership, as well as planning the exhibition Art in Revolution, to be hosted in the pavilion with agit-prop posters. (13)

The most conspicuous efforts were to be concentrated in a wide-ranging cultural programme expected to have an high impact on Italian society and to reaffirm Soviet soft-power in the West European country with the largest communist party. (14) As press officers from both the Italian and the Soviet sides never tired of repeating, most of the Soviet cultural events had already been planned by the end of 1976 as a tribute to the coming celebration of the Great Socialist Revolution. (15) However, following the Biennale casus belli, the Soviet programme was to be extensively implemented with new objects and challenges: for while it was originally planned as a cultural action to celebrate the achievements of 'real' or 'actually existing' socialism, it now had to avoid the counterrevolutionary plans of the demonised 'Anti-communist International'. (16)

The planned initiatives were intended to be a celebration of a genuine popular spirit: they consisted of circus, theatre and dance performances, as well as film screenings and folk festivals, mostly organised in partnership with the associations Italy-USSR and USSR-Italy. The events were held not only in the so-called 'Red Belt'--the communist-led regions and municipalities of central Italy such as Rome, Florence and Bologna--but also in one of the country's most conservative areas and a stronghold of Christian Democracy, the so-called 'White Veneto'. The new cultural Ostpolitik was fostered by the city administration of the region's capital, Venice. Despite its proximity to the iron curtain, north-eastern Italy had no Soviet diplomatic or cultural institution on its territory, and, as a consequence, no tradition in bilateral cultural initiatives. This was despite the fact that commercial exchanges were already a reality in the area: for example, the recent trade agreements between the Soviet state and the shipyards in Porto Marghera, the harbour on the mainland of the lagoon city. At an economic, political and social level, this industrial partnership thus underpinned the relations between the proletarian hinterland of Venice and the homeland of the October Revolution, and the time had come to start some form of cultural co-operation. This new partnership would not only involve the city of Venice, which promoted it and which was traditionally open to leftist forces. It would also involve the rest of Veneto, including smaller cities and rural areas in bilateral initiatives and exchanges in various fields, from agriculture to medicine. In this new climate of conciliation, the Venice administration declared that the cultural programme was based on 'a shared consensus and mutual participation' between the parties. (17) The vice-president of the regional council praised Veneto as 'a land of relations and connections' whose main task was to initiate and consolidate international partnerships in any direction, even eastwards. (18)

The programme in the visual arts contemplated various initiatives spread throughout the city and the lagoon, such as an exhibition of Armenian medieval miniatures and decorative arts, to be held on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, as well as a documentation on 'Soviet City Planning', to be hosted in the halls of the International Gallery of Modern Art at Ca' Pesaro. (19) The highlight of the art programme was the historical show 'Scythian Gold', which opened in the presence of the president of the Italian senate--the republic's second highest state position --at the Doge's Palace on 3 September as the inaugural event of the entire Italian-Soviet Friendship Week. (20) This exhibition showcased a wide selection of artefacts, mostly of precious metals, from the collections of the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. The show had an immediate public success and within the first five days attracted almost 10.000 people. (21) The closing day, originally scheduled for the end of September, had to be put back several times in view of the increasing number of visitors. (22) By the time it did finally close, the exhibition had attracted more than 220.000 visitors, of whom almost half were students who could benefit from free admission. (23) The show had a wide resonance and received outstanding press reviews. Scythian culture and arts, according to one in L'Unita, were celebrated as 'the deepest integration in the aesthetic, iconographic and even symbolic field between East and West'. (24) As a result, the mayor of Venice proclaimed the host city as the descendant of the Scythians in modern times. (25)

The national press praised the mission, undertaken by Soviet museums under the leadership of the Hermitage, to preserve this unique and mostly unknown heritage, which had become accessible to a Soviet public only after the October Revolution, and more recently had reached a western audience through massive exhibitions held abroad. (26) One journalist credited this colossal undertaking with an evident 'cultural and patriotic message'. (27) The politically independent press remarked upon and thereby exacerbated the background conflict between the Biennale action and the Soviet counteraction. The weekly news magazine L'Europeo stressed the mediating role of the city of Venice in keeping an equidistance between the two parties; while the daily Il Secolo XIX stated that, while the Scythians could be considered a good and 'unproblematic' case of East-West dialogue from the past, troubles did exist at the present time. (28) A conservative local newspaper warned: 'We can close one eye, but not two', while the Rome paper Il tempo sarcastically recalled that gold had never caused trouble, but on the contrary had always been a safe investment, both in prosperous and in difficult times. (29) The left-wing press, in praising the pragmatic policy of Veneto region, thus avoided any reference to the Biennale affair. Finally, satirical magazines ridiculed this unprecedented showcase of Soviet power and splendour in the lagoon.

As a reinforcement to the Soviet exhibition, a second blockbuster show was organised at St Mark's Square, in the already mentioned Napoleonic Wing. The exhibition 'Classic and Romantic German Painters' displayed paintings and works on paper from 1750 to 1850, collected for the first time for an exhibition abroad by a network of state museums from the German Democratic Republic. (30) The main Italian partner was the Thomas Mann Centre in Rome, founded in 1957 with the mission of promoting cultural relations between the GDR and Italy. (31)

In the show's promotion and advertisement, as well as in the catalogue, extensive coverage and exposure was given to allegorical images of the ancestral relations between Germany and Italy, depicted long before their existence as independent states. (32) Little consideration was given to the circumstance that these works were copies, replicas or adaptations from original artworks, either missing at the time or held in West German museums. This fact brought into question the interrelation between copy and original, which was a relevant issue both in neoclassicism --to which tradition most of the works on display belonged--and in socialist realism, for which the value of an artwork did not reside in the mastery of the original, but rather in its potential reproducibility and dissemination. As already mentioned, the subject-matter was the most persistent leitmotiv in the works that were advertised: in other words, the German fascination with, not to say love for, Italy. These artworks were consequently easy to adapt to the socialist rhetoric of mutual Freundschaft (friendship), thus providing further 'ground for a consent' through bilateral and multilateral art relations. The significance of this exhibition as a tool of international cultural diplomacy was sustained in the catalogue by two extensive essays, contributed respectively by the philosopher Massimo Cacciari--at this time a communist member of the Italian parliament, and later mayor of Venice--and by the art historian Giulio Carlo Argan. The latter was the newly elected mayor of Rome, where he had stood as an independent candidate but with the indispensable support of the communists. That same year Argan had also produced one of the most quoted statements on the Biennial of Cultural Dissent, branded as 'a sort of odd Solzhenitsyn-parade' inspired by a 'Red-Cross-nurse-like fervour'. (33)

As a result, the Italian-Soviet Friendship Week received a positive response, representing the first relevant cultural event ever organized by Moscow in the Veneto region. Its main events were attended neither by Ambassador Ryzhov, nicknamed by the Italian press the net-man, nor by Biennale president Ripa di Meana, in accordance with their dispute and thereby underlining the persistence of the institutional conflict. Their no-show, in fact, contributed to the affirmative and constructive char acter of the Friendship Week, and this was soon labelled by the national press the 'Biennial of Consent'. (34)


In the late summer of 1977, the art critic Enrico Crispolti was invited to join the first appointee as curator of the Biennale art programme, Gabriella Moncada, who was a Russian-speaking art historian with contacts with Soviet artists both in Moscow and in the emigre milieu. Already in 1965, Crispolti had curated in L'Aquila the group show 'Alternative Attuali II', which had marked the Italian debut of Soviet underground art, presented not as an exotic extension of western art, but as an equal expression of 'current' and 'alternative' global art trends.

Crispolti's appointment was welcomed from different sides a sound strategic decision through which his non-dogmatic communist commitment could provide a counterbalancing effect to the Bienniale diatribes. In critically framing the Venice group show, Crispolti distanced himself from the ambiguous label of 'dissent', which he regarded as a 'sensationalistic formula, that lends itself to various forms of speculation, and that, from a cultural point of view, is not consistent'. To him, therefore, dissent was 'not a cultural category: it's a practical problem', and he also referred to it as a 'bureaucratic circumstance'. (35) By qualifying the artists on display in Venice as 'unofficial', Crispolti stressed their social status as citizens whose activity was not formally recognised or supported by state institutions. Despite these significant steps towards a less mystifying interpretation of their works, forty-three Soviet artists signed a letter published in the Literaturnaia Gazeta, in which they protested against their unwilling inclusion in the Venice group show:
We, artists of the Collective, feel neither rejected nor hurt. If the
Italian public wishes to find out about our works, we are ready to
display them within the framework of a cultural exchange. The character
of the 1977 Venice Biennale does not encourage the development of
freedom of art. We refuse to let our works be exploited for political
and speculative purposes within an exhibition that has an anti-Soviet
bias. (36)

It is likely that some of the artists may have not known about the inclusion of their artworks, which were already located in western collections. At the same time, it is evident that their petition was motivated by the necessity of protecting themselves and preventing any form of retaliation from the Soviet authorities. Called to account, Crispolti publicly defended his action on the second page of L'Unita:
The works are presented with the sole aim of outlining an objective,
openly 'unofficial' perspective on new Soviet art in its multiple
tendencies and emerging personalities ... the Venetian experience paved
the way to a wider exploration of the underlying, de facto pluralist
reality of new Soviet art, based precisely on the kind of dialogue which
the exhibition sought to advocate. If the exhibition is openly critical
towards the official line of the current cultural policies of the Soviet
regime, it is so within the hypothesis of a dialogue and not in a
stupidly anti-Soviet sense. (37)

He concluded his act of defence by strategically quoting his mentor, and influential party intellectual, Antonello Trombadori, on the need to 'disarm anti-Soviet feeling precisely in adopting an attitude of free and open criticism towards Soviet reality'. (38) This statement perfectly epitomised a common opinion among pro-communist art critics regarding the possibility of a shared and open dialogue on--and with--Soviet art institutions. In his earlier writings, Crispolti had even felt confident about the possibility of a group show of non-official artists to be held within the Soviet pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (39)

These issues were particularly relevant in respect to the artist Lev Nusberg, founder and promoter of the kinetic collective Dvizhenie [Movement]. In 1967 Nusberg had curated public events in Leningrad, including street installations and the decoration of buildings, for the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. His involvement in this and similar state-commissioned projects had led to him being accused of collaborationism. (40) In this way his status as an 'unofficial' artist was brought into question, and thus de facto the legitimacy of his taking part in the Venice show. A controversial personality in Soviet art, Nusberg represents a particularly significant case of contamination and interac tion between official and non-official art worlds. Upon emigration in 1976, Nusberg had consolidated his practices in reanimating utopian projects from the early Soviet avant-garde, in key art venues such as Paris and Dusseldorf (1976) and in London and the Documenta contemporary art exhibition in Kassel (1977).

For the Venice Biennale, Nusberg planned a massive installation by the water: in this project he adapted the early Soviet monumental propaganda for public spaces into the contemporary format of site-specific installations. In doing so, he referred to revolutionary imagery (he called the project 'torches'), using cheap yet up-to-date material such as plastic and nylon. Like the projects he referred back to, such as Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Nusberg's project was never realised, and remaining on paper in the Biennale archives it thus echoed the so-called Soviet 'paper architecture' and unaccomplished public projects of the 1920s and 1930s. (41)

Nusberg's projects were included within the brand of the 'Second Russian avant-garde' or 'Russian neo-avant-garde' which appeared in the German-speaking countries to promote the emerging phenomenon of unofficial contemporary Soviet art through its associations with the historical, 'first' avant-garde. Since the Thaw of the Khrushchev years, the latter had been an object of increasing interest, nourished by the progressive disclosure of archives and collections preserving the artistic heritage of the first decades of the twentieth century. Ripa di Meana himself had visited Moscow in 1975 with the intention of bringing to Venice an exhibition on Rodchenko and his school. (42) In its correspondence with the Soviet ministry of culture, the Biennale proclaimed the importance of an international show on early Soviet design, whose essential pioneering contribution had not yet been properly acknowledged in the West. (43)

In 1977, references to the imagery of the Russian and early Soviet avant-garde were ubiquitous in the Italian mass-media coverage recalling the October Revolution. The November 1977 special issue of Il Contemporaneo--the cultural supplement to the communist weekly Rinascita-was entitled 'October and us' and featured on the cover a photo-collage of mass demonstrations inscribed within two intersecting geometrical forms. (44) This cover layout was evidently an adaptation of Rodchenko's photo reportages and El Lissitsky's posters, like Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, while the whole issue was illustrated throughout with drawings and sketches by Sergei Eisenstein. Such revitalisations of early Soviet applied arts and design reveal how the October Revolution was figured, perceived or simply imagined by Italy's contemporary intelligentsia, and also how it was communicated.

In the Venice art show, expectations of a re-emergence of utopian projects of the 'Second Russian avant-garde' were soon disappointed. It was evident that most of the contemporary artists on display, instead of looking forward, were looking back; instead of collective utopias, they conveyed individual emotions. They were therefore not revolutionary, but on the contrary turned out to be romantic. The Flash art issue from July-August 1977, which provided an extensive documentation of the Moscow art scene, was followed in the autumn by a special issue on contemporary global art trends, the Soviet Union included, which were qualified as 'Post Conceptual Romanticism'. (45) In the same issue, the Czechoslovakian art critic Jindrich Chalupecky asserted of the Soviet contemporary unofficial artists: 'One feels that one has landed in the middle of the Romantic Germany of 1800, so frequently do they converse about the great mysteries of art and life.' (46) Finally, in the first issue of the tamizdat art-journal A-Ja, the philosopher Boris Groys published the famous manifesto 'Moscow Romantic Conceptualism' (1979). (47)

All these tendencies were represented at the Venice art show La nuova arte sovietica: una prospettiva non ufficiale (The New Soviet Art: An Unofficial Perspective), which was inaugurated on 15 November, together with the entire Biennial of Cultural Dissent. Nobody seemed to notice or care about the near coincidence with the anniversary of the October revolution, which had been officially celebrated only a week earlier. Indeed, a series of actions and manifestations were held beyond the Iron Curtain in solidarity with the Venice events. Among them, a tribute from a collective of Leningrad underground artists described their motivations as follows:
The Venice Art festival will feature for the first time an exhaustive
presentation of unofficial art. This is an event to be celebrated by
artists worldwide, a celebration of Art. To us, the Festival is of
topical importance, and we welcome it with joy. At the same time as this
event, another exhibition will open in Leningrad upon the initiative of
the [Unofficial] Museum [of Contemporary Painting] and of the
artists. (48)

Still on 15 November, Angelo Pezzana, an Italian militant from the Radical Party and FUORI (acronym for Homosexual Italian Revolutionary United Front) improvised a short protest and held a press conference for foreign journalists in a Moscow hostel to condemn the persecutions of homosexuals in the USSR. In doing this, he made explicit reference to the notorious case of film-director Sergei Paradzhanov, to whom the Biennale was devoting an international conference. (49) Both solidarity actions were widely reported by the Biennale press office, as a clear demonstration of the legitimacy and urgency of the Venetian initiatives and how they touched upon universal issues such as human rights that were supposedly guaranteed on both sides of the Iron Curtain by the Final Accords of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (1975). (50) As a result, the civil and political campaign provoked by the Biennial of Cultural Dissent overshadowed to a great extent the cultural--not to say artistic--events included, as was proved by the recurrent omission in the media of the qualifying adjective 'cultural'. The New Soviet Art show was generally criticised for the out-dated and disparate character of the artworks, which had apparently been brought together according to somewhat random criteria. (51) L'Unita labelled the overall one-month-event as 'much ado about nothing'. (52)


The controversy about the Biennale was, in many respects, highly productive. As historians have demonstrated, the Biennial of Cultural Dissent was originally motivated by domestic politics. Its organisation fitted organically into the strategy adopted by the Socialist Party--to which Ripa di Meana belonged--for preventing the achievement of the 'historic compromise' between Christian Democracy and the communists as the two main political forces in Italy. It thus also aimed at subverting the traditional balance of power within the Italian left and hence undermining the cultural and political supremacy which the communists had exercised since the 1940s. In this sense, the delicate issue of dissent undeniably had a functional rationale in providing a unique opportunity to lay bare the constraints to which the PCI was also subjected on an international scale given its prominence both in the international communist movement and in the recent eurocommunist experiment. (53) The results, however, went far beyond an initial embarrassment within the PCI. The debate on cultural dissent occupied the front pages of the media throughout the year, from the first announcement in late January up to the end of the Biennial in mid-December. (54) This was an unprecedented, vivid debate within Italian society and culture, rich in diverse and multi-layered opinions and confrontations going far beyond a priori Cold-War positions on one side or the other. This was also in line with the ground-breaking reforms that the maitre-provocateur Ripa di Meana had introduced into the Biennale, giving it a new orientation that was socially and politically engaged, open to society at large, and multidisciplinary. (55) Looking back, Ripa di Meana's conception of the 1977 Biennial can be regarded as a sort of testament of his four-year-presidency:
The programme that I am presenting is the result of many contributions:
it does not presume to be a conclusion, but rather only a beginning. For
the first time, cultural dissent in Eastern Europe will meet beyond any
ideological boundaries. In this way, it will be possible to measure the
extent of the problem and its enormous variety. For the first time, all
of this will be presented through a comparative approach, which will
make it possible to see the huge differences between different cases,
between different countries. Starting from our work, a series of more
specifically targeted and specialised initiatives can be developed and
pursued. (56)

Retrospectively, it is evident that the Soviet authorities overestimated the potential impact of the Biennale and, by announcing extreme countermeasures, ultimately played Ripa De Meana's game and generated a massive publicity for the Biennale initiative. The boycott proclaimed from Moscow was, finally, limited to the Biennale itself, where the Soviet pavilion was closed for the following four years, reopening only in 1982. This state decision was not new in the geo-politics of the Venice Biennale. Already in 1936 world powers such as the USA, Britain and the USSR had refused to exhibit in their national pavilions, in response to the Italian war in Abyssinia and adoption of sanctions by the League of Nations. More recently, in 1976, Spain had deserted the Venice exhibition in protest at the unilateral retrospective show on the arts under Franco regime. (57)

Finally, the group show 'The New Soviet Art. An Unofficial Perspective' had opened the gates in the West to more selective art shows of Soviet non-aligned art, and contributed to a richer critical approach within a trans-European perspective: 'It was the first time the issue of East European art appeared programmatically in the Cold War period.' (58) It thus represented a first platform for transcultural and transnational encounters, especially for Soviet emigre artists, who now had the unique chance to submit directly their own artworks to be displayed, and to present them in situ. As a collateral event of the visual arts programme, a two-day conference was held on the subject 'Avant-gardes and Neo-avant-gardes in Eastern Europe'. Among the speakers, the Biennale chronicles report the names of Soviet emigre artists Mikhail Koulakov, Aleksandr Leonov, Aleksandr Melamid, Ernst Neizvestnii, Lev Nusberg and Eduard Zelenin, activist Aleksandr Glezer and art historian Igor Golomstock. (59) For the Italian art world, a direct acquaintance with these personalities helped to debunk old myths, such as the perception of a united unofficial art scene, and to discern different approaches and views, as well as contrasts and rivalries among the artists. In respect of style, approach and modus operandi, all the Soviet artists on display were analysed and classified by Crispolti in the seven critical categories which he outlined in the catalogue under the common label of Soviet 'unofficial' artists. The first appearance of the latter in art history must therefore be ascribed to this episode, and not, as one might have imagined, to the first issue of the magazine A-Ja, published only in 1979 with the subheading 'Unofficial Russian Art Revue'. (60)

On the other hand, the so-called 'Biennial of Consent' absorbed and reinforced the various tributes to the celebrations of the October Revolution, thus leaving Venice with the precedent of for high-quality exhibitions commissioned by Soviet institutions. For innovation and relevance, media coverage and public attendance, 'Scythian Gold' equalled similar blockbuster shows held in European capital cities. Similarly, the exhibition introduced the Soviet Union into the Venice clique of art nations with a long tradition of national showcases, such as France, Great Britain, West Germany, the USA and Switzerland. (61) The show turned out to be profitable for the overall image of the Soviet Union in Italy, and from 1977 on similar exhibitions were also organised outside state celebrations and anniversaries. Domestic visitors and art professionals did not therefore have to wait another decade, for the next of the ten-year anniversaries of the October Revolution, to attend their next Soviet art show.


1. See for example the linocut The Time has Come, People Rose up! by Konstantin Chebotarev from the series Revolution (1921), which was reproduced on the catalogue cover, or the much-cited wood-cut October 1917 (1928) by the master of Soviet xylography, Vladimir Favorskii.

2. Irina Antonova, Grafica sovietica dal 1920 ad oggi, exh. cat. (Venice, Napoleonic Wing, 18 December 1976-12 January 1977), Venice: Stamperia di Venezia, 1976. Due to the large public attendance, the show was extended to the end of January, and later transferred to the city of Pordenone (Centro Iniziative Culturali, 19 February-15 March 1977). The municipality of Verona also requested to host it, but by then the temporary import of the artworks was about the expire. Vladimir Goriainov to Bruno Trentin, 14 February 1977, Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), fond Soyuz khudozhnikov (2082), opis' 6, edinitsa khraneniia 2188, list 74.

3. Samokhvalov, Short report on the meetings and contact information held from 10 to 14 January 1977, 4 February 1077, RGALI, f. 2082, op. 6, ed. khr. 2188, l. 4.

4. 'Ripa di Meana anticipa: Sul dissenso dell'est la Biennale '77', in Il Corriere della Sera, 25 January 1977.

5. On the reactions provoked by the three politically oriented exhibitions organized by the Biennale, see Antonin Liehm, 'La Biennale del dissenso culturale', in Esamizdat, VIII, 2010-2011, pp311-315.

6. V. Ardatovsky, 'Venetian Metamorphosis', in Izvestiia, 5 February 1977, reported in The Current Digest of the Russian Press, 42, vol. 29, 16 November 1977, p4. Izvestiia attacked the 'Venetian metamorphosis', from the originally 'promised contribution to the cultural cooperation of West and East' to the final 'search for renegades in various socialist countries'. See also, Daniela Pasti, 'Ma la Biennale non e la Farnesina', in La Repubblica, 27 January 1977.

7. 'Critiche delle "Izviestia" al presidente della Biennale'; Carlo Benedetti, 'Mosca riafferma l'esigenza di dare impulso alla distensione', in L'Unita, 6 February 1977, p12.

8. CPSU to the Soviet Embassy in Rome, 27 September 1977, cit. in Carlo Ripa di Meana, Gabriella Mecucci, L'ordine di Mosca. Fermate la Biennale del Dissenso, Roma: Liberal edizioni, 2007, pp212-213.

9. Enrico Berlinguer, 'Il movimento socialista e il cammino del PCI', in L'Unita, 3 November 1977, p1.

10. See Matteo Bertele, Sandra Frimmel, 'Einfuhrung', in La nuova arte sovietica: una prospettiva non ufficiale/ZKK Rereading: Die Dissens-Biennale 1977 in Venedig, eds. Matteo Bertele, Sandra Frimmel, Zurich: Edition Schublade, 2014, pp9-11.

11. 'Interrogazioni riguardanti la Biennale di Venezia presentate alla camera dei deputati e al senato della Repubblica nella VII legislatura'; 'Mozioni riguardanti la Biennale di Venezia presentate al consiglio regionale del Veneto', in Annuario 1978: Eventi del 1976-77, Venezia: La Biennale di Venezia, 1979, pp1065-84; pp1089-90.

12. For a concise account of the counter-events organized by the Soviet satellite countries in Eastern-Europe, see Edit Sasvari, 'Eastern Europe Under Western Eyes. The "Dissident Biennale", Venice, 1997', in Doing culture under State-Socialism: Actors, Events, ant Interconnections, ed. Beata Hock, Comparativ, 4, XXIV, 2914, pp12-22.

13. Proposals in connection with the Biennale, 6 October 1977, RGALI, fond Ministerstvo kul'tury SSSR (2329), op. 29, ed. khr. 737, l. 22.

14. In the last political elections (1976), the Italian communists had collected more than 34% of the votes, achieving the highest percentage in its whole history.

15. 'Fanfani inaugura l'Oro degli Sciti', in Il popolo, 4 September 1977; 'Fanfani inaugura a Venezia la mostra "L'oro degli Sciti"', in Il progresso italo-americano, 5 September 1977.

16. See the concise report by Franco Miracco, at the time supervisor of the cultural activity at the city administration of Venice, and as a such, part of the 'ideological front' who opposed the 1977 Biennial: Franco Miracco, '1977: l'ordine regna a Venezia', in Russie! Memoria, mistificazione, immaginario, exh. cat. (Venice, Ca' Foscari Esposizioni, 22 April - 25 July 2010), eds Giuseppe Barbieri, Silvia Burini, Crocetta del Montello: Terra Ferma, 2010, pp235-8.

17. 'Programma delle attivita culturali e artistiche del Comune di Venezia per il 1977', in Documentazione stampa sulla mostra 'L'oro degli sciti' e su alcune iniziative collaterali, Museo Correr, Venezia, coll. 0243.13.

18. Marino Cortese, 'Fanfani inaugura a Venezia la mostra "L'oro degli Sciti"', in Il progresso italo-americano, 5 September 1977.

19. Manoscritti armeni; Arte popolare decorativa armena (Venice, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, September-October 1977); Urbanistica sovietica (Venice, Galleria d'arte moderna, Ca' Pesaro, 3 September-November 1977).

20. L'oro degli Sciti (Venice, Palazzo Ducale, September-October 1977).

21. 'Incontri della delegazione sovietica. Stasera alla Fenice danze classiche', in L'Unita, 9 September 1977.

22. 'Fanfani inaugura a Venezia la mostra "L'oro degli Sciti"', in Il progresso italo-americano, 5 September 1977.

23. 'Oltre duecentomila i visitatori dell'Oro degli Sciti', in Il Resto del Carlino, 16 November 1977.

24. Dario Micacchi, 'Storia e leggenda negli ori degli Sciti', in L'Unita, 10 September 1977, p3.

25. Mario Rigo cit. in 'Fanfani inaugura a Venezia la mostra "L'oro degli Sciti"', in Il progresso italo-americano, 5 September 1977.

26. In 1975 extensive exhibitions, with a wider selection of artworks than in Venice, were held in France and in the United States: Or des Scythes. Tresors des musees sovietiques (Paris, Grand Palais, 8 October-21 December 1975); From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C.-100 B.C. (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

27. Guido Arato, 'Dietro l'oro degli Sciti luccica il dissenso', in Il secolo XIX, 7 September 1977.

28. 'Venezia coltiva con cura l'equidistanza', in L'Europeo, 9 September 1977; Guido Arato, 'Dietro l'oro degli Sciti luccica il dissenso', in Il secolo XIX, 7 September 1977.

29. 'Veneto--Urss: la quiete dopo la tempesta' in Gente Veneta, 17 September 1977 ; Piero Accolti, 'Venezia: il consenso precede la "Biennale del dissenso"' in Il Tempo, 22 September 1977.

30. 'Introduction', in Classici e romantici tedeschi in Italia, exh. cat. (Venice, Napoleonic Wing, 10 September-13 November 1977), Venezia: Alfieri, 1977. See also 'Gli appuntamenti culturali dell'autunno veneziano', in Avanti, 30 August 1977.

31. The show crowned a series of bilateral initiatives, like the exhibition of Goethe's Italian drawings, held at Fondazione Cini in Venice, as well as meetings, conferences and film screenings on neoclassic and romantic German culture, organized in Italy in partnership with the Thomas Mann Centre.

32. The artworks here intended are: Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Heinrich Mayer, Georg Schutz and Friedrich Bury (1787, National Foschungs- und Gedenkstatte der klassischen deutschen Literatur, today Goethe Nationalmuseum, Weimar), a watercolour apres of the well-known homonymous painting by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1787, Staedel Museum, Frankfurt am Main); Durer and Raphael Before the Throne of Art (1812, Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden), an etching by Carl Hoff after a missing drawing on the same subject by Franz Pforr; Italia und Germania (1828, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden) by Friedrich Overbeck, an author's (?) replica from the famous original version at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

33. Giulio Carlo Argan, 'E' una Biennale o un mercato?', in L'Espresso, 27 February 1977, pp65-7.

34. R.B., 'Settembre con la "biennale del Consenso"', in La Repubblica, 23 June 1977.

35. Enrico Crispolti, 'Il Dissenso di Crispolti', in Segno, 5, October 1977, p28; Crispolti, 'Dissenso sul Dissenso', in Spazio Arte, 10-11, IV, July-October 1977, p28.

36. Sergei Bleze et. al, 'Neblagovidnaia zateia', in Literaturnaia Gazeta, 16 November 1977.

37. Enrico Crispolti, 'Lettera di Crispolti sulla pittura sovietica alla Biennale di Venezia', in L'Unita, 21 November 1977, p2. Similarly, Rosario Villari, a communist member of the parliament, had to justify his presence at the Conference on Post-Revolutionary Society, held in Venice in the same days of the Biennial of Cultural Dissent. Villari concluded his defence on L'Unita, recalling that any a priori approach to cultural issues is as dangerous as anti-communist and anti-Soviet agitation policy. 'Dichiarazione di Villari sul convegno di Venezia', in L'Unita, 15 November 1977, p2.

38. Antonello Trombadori, 'Sull'Unione Sovietica voglio dire la verita', in La Repubblica, 13 November 1977. In his letter on L'Unita, Crispolti erroneously reports 14 November as the issue date of the interview to Trombadori.

39. Enrico Crispolti, 'I primi documenti sull'attuale avanguardia pittorica e plastica nell'URSS', in Uomini e Idee, 1, January-February 1966, pp106-113. The article, Crispolti's first text on Soviet art, was later republished in Marcatre, 19-20-21-22, April 1966, pp418-421; in Ricerche dopo l' informale, Roma: Officina, 1968, pp271-279.

40. Franco Miele, 'Artisti russi d'oggi', ed. Silvia Burini, in eSamizdat, 1, VI, 2008, pp199-206.

41. Nusberg's Project, 1977, Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC), La Biennale di Venezia, fondo storico, serie arti visive, busta 268.

42. Correspondence between the Biennale, the Ministry of Culture of the USSR and the Italian Embassy in Moscow, April-May 1975, ASAC, f. storico, s. arti visive, b. 257, fascioli URSS.

43. Vittorio Gregotti, Director of the Visual Arts department within the Biennale, to the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, attached to a letter to Vladimir Goriainov, 12 August 1975, ASAC, f. storico, s. arti visive, b. 257, fasc. URSS.

44. 'L'Ottobre e noi', in Il contemporaneo, supplement to Rinascita, 43, XXXIV, 4 November 1977, pp11-37. Il Contemporaneo was founded as a cultural weekly magazine in 1954 by communist intellectuals and artists, such as Antonello Trombadori and Renato Guttuso. In 1965 it was absorbed as a monthly supplement to Rinascita, the weekly magazine founded by Palmiro Togliatti in 1944.

45. Ilaria Bignamini, 'From the U.S.S.R.', in Flash Art, 76-77, July-August 1977, pp9-19. The extensive reportage by Bignamini provided an up-to-date documentation for the Venice art show. Helena Kontova, Giancarlo Politi, 'Post Conceptual Romanticism', in Flash Art, 78-79, November-December 1977, pp23-36.

46. Jindrich Chalupecky, 'Moscow 1977', in Flash Art, 18-19, February-April 1978, pp16-17. Chalupecky's memoirs are followed in the same Flash Art issue by a selection of letters sent from unofficial artists to the journal director, Giancarlo Politi, and collected under the prosaic title 'From Russia with Love', pp18-19.

47. Boris Groys, 'Moscow Romantic Conceptualism', in A-Ja, 1, 1979, pp3-11.

48. Evgenii Esaulenko, Anatolii Putilin to Aleksandr Leonov, Leningrad, 13 November 1977, ASAC, f. storico, s. arti visive, b. 275, fasc. Alexsandr Leonov.

49. 'Manifesta a Mosca per gli omosessuali', in Il Tempo, 16 November 1977; 'Protesta del FUORI a Mosca', in L'Unita, 16 November 1977.

50. See the press release 'Aperta a Leningrado una mostra d'arte in omaggio alla Biennale', in Annuario 1978: Eventi del 1976-77, Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1979, op.cit. p873. The Biennale also reported about two other art exhibitions organized in private apartments in solidarity to the Venice initiative: the first held in Leningrad on 26 November, and the second in Moscow on 2 December, after its first opening, scheduled on 27 November, had been banned by the police ('Aperta a Leningrado una seconda mostra d'arte'; 'Impedita a Mosca l'apertura di una mostra d'arte non ufficiale'; 'Mostra degli artisti "non conformisti" a Mosca', pp874-5).

51. A. Del Guercio, 'Biennale: Est-Est-Est-Ovest', in Rinascita, 47, 2 December 1977, p36. For an overview on the Italian lukewarm critical reception of the exhibition see Valentina Parisi, 'Zwischen Unstimmigkeit und Andersdenken. Inoffizielle sowjetische Kunst auf der Biennale di Venezia 1977', in Kursschwankungen. Russische Kunst im Wertesystem der europaischen Moderne, eds. Ada Raev, Isabel Wunsche, Berlin: Lukas Verlag, 2007, pp166-171.

52. Dario Micacchi, 'Novita e limiti dell'arte "non ufficiale"', in L'Unita, 16 November 1977.

53. Francesco Caccamo, 'La Biennale del 1977 e il dibattito sul dissenso', in Nuova Storia Contemporanea, 4, XII, July-August 2008, pp119-132; Valentine Lomellini, L'appuntamento mancato. La sinistra italiana e il dissenso nei regimi comunisti (1968-1989), Firenze: Le Monnier, 2010, pp130-140.

54. The last j'accuse by Ripa di Meana consists in his personal recollections of the events occurred in 1977, published in the 30 th anniversary of the controversial Biennale. Ripa di Meana, Mecucci, L'ordine di Mosca. op.cit.

55. For a detailed account on the history of the Venice Biennale in the Seventies, especially under the presidency of Ripa Di Meana, see Federica Martini, Vittoria Martini, Just Another Exhibition, Storie e politiche delle biennali-Histories & Politics of the Biennials, Milano: Postmedia, 2011, especially the second chapter by Vittoria Martini 'The evolution of an exhibition model: Venice Biennale as an entity in time', which is based on her PhD thesis, 'La Biennale di Venezia 1968-1978: la rivoluzione incompiuta', Universita Ca' Foscari Venezia, 2011.

56. Carlo Ripa di Meana, Introduction, Venice, 1977, ASAC, f. storico, s. arti visive, b. 271, fasc. Programma della Biennale di Venezia 1977 'Dissenso culturale'.

57. Matteo Bertele, '1936', in Russian Artists at the Venice Biennale (1895-2013), ed. Nikolay Molok, Moskva: Stella Art Foundation, pp302-307; 'Dalla natura all'arte, dall'arte alla natura. Esposizione internazionale nei padiglioni dei Giardini di Castello', in Annuario 1979: Eventi del 1978, Venezia: La Biennale di Venezia, p164.

58. Sasvari, 'Eastern Europe Under Western Eyes. op.cit.

59. G. C., 'Avanguardie e neoavanguardie nell'est europeo', in Annuario 1978: Eventi del 1976-77, Venezia: La Biennale di Venezia, 1979, pp538-542.

60. Ekaterina Degot, 'Zwischen Massenreproduktion und Einzigartigkeit: offizielle und inoffizielle Kunst in der UdSSR', in Berlin/Moskva-Moskau/Berlin, exh. cat. (Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, 28 September 2003-5 January 2004), Berlin: Nikolaj, 2003, pp133-7.

61. Nantas Salvalaggio, 'I sovietici sbarcano in laguna', in Il Giorno, 1 September 1977, p5.
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Author:Bertele, Matteo
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
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Date:Jul 1, 2017
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