Lumen Magazine_Winter 2020

Murphy Institute

The Beauty That Saves


When Russian novelist and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave his Nobel lecture in 1970, he could have spoken on any topic he wanted. He could have shared his experiences of turmoil and perseverance living as an artist under Soviet censorship, but instead he spoke of the nature of art itself. He went to an extreme, selecting in his speech a quotation from Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”

novel In the First Circle , which features a motley array of intellectual characters exiled by the Soviet state. Together the characters write and study in a prison-like university, not unlike the philosophers in Dante’s first circle of the inferno. In the characters’ variety, color andmutual suffering, Solzhenitsyn captures more than just his own experiences as an artist in the most lenient tier of the gulags. He demonstrates something about the human spirit which speaks between the lines of censorship. My studies of Solzhenitsyn ledme to The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The current exhibit is “Leaders and the Masses: Mega Paintings from Soviet Ukraine.” The largest of the collection is an astonishing 12-by-19-foot canvas depicting Stalin stoically advancing in a proscenium theater packed with applauding civilians. The color-packedmassive scenes were intended for public

spaces. Sponsored, crafted and exhibited under Stalin’s communist dictatorship, their objective was to affirm state agendas. Though the Ukrainian painters bowed to the artistic mode Stalin demanded, that the creations should be “nationality-specific in form and socialist in content,” their scenes are unconvincing beyond a first glance. The paintings are not satirical. Rather, they are beautiful fantasies of a functioning state, which I think makes them unsuccessful as propaganda. The wonder of the museum’s exhibit is that, despite the limitations imposed on the artist, truth impresses in desolation. The lie on display dissolved under its own weightlessness, and the truth that the nation was suffering gurgled up in the negative space. In Soviet Russia the truth of daily human turmoil was a universal secret, evident even when cleverly framed. It is this truth that made the paintings beautiful.

The more I read of Solzhenitsyn’s literary genius in Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in theWest , edited by St. Thomas Catholic Studies professor David Deavel and former visiting professor Jessica HootenWilson, the more enchanted I was with Russian artistry.While American artistic and literary traditions have grappled with democracy, freedom and individuality, the Russian soul has never coalesced around a standard set of ideals. James Pontuso, a Solzhenitsyn and American Culture contributor, wrote, “To be Russian can mean a myriad of things … there has never been a consensus on what Russia should become. Does Russia venerate tsarism, the Orthodox Church, the Third Rome, communism, liberal democracy, or autocracy?While Americans make things simple and comprehensible, Russians look for complexity in the simplest of things.” Such can be seen, Pontuso goes on, in Solzhenitsyn’s

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