If you understand art instantly, without strain, the artist is trying to sell you something. (You can trust me. That's been my trade for a long time.)
'Tis one thing to use a reckless little puppy unravelling a roll of toilet paper so show how soft and strong and long it is, but another to sell an ideology through such symbols.
Some readers might take issue. They point out that reckless use of toilet paper guts rainforests and clogs watercourses. Making it seem innocent, even playful, is insidious. Ever the more insidious, through its very subtlety.
That's an important discussion, but for another time. Let's talk about ideologies with big-time names. Look at the art of National Socialism, the Roman Catholic Church, or Communism. There's no doubt what they're selling.
Officially, the party line states that painting and sculpture should depict the world with utter fidelity, and in so doing, glorify the commonplace. The flip side: anything a citizen finds in official, state-sanctioned art is the truth. Not some destructive, unrealistic fantasy that diverts you from the path to progress; not, in Marx's words, an opiate.
The Soviet Army Memorial in Sofia toes the party line. At first glance, the main statue seems standard-issue propaganda. The pose of a victorious soldier, holding his weapon high, set atop an enormous pedestal, shouts strength and nobility. It commemorates the liberation of Bulgaria from the Nazis by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II.
The builders designed the grand plaza, one assumes, for military parades. Nowadays, it hosts events like the finals of the World Strongman's Champions League in June 2010, won handily by Serbian favourite Ervin Katona. You can see the Memorial in the background here and here.
(We were actually in Sofia that June to see yet another contest of strength. Bulgarians may eat goat, but they watch beef.)
When not hosting marches or meat sports, defecating dogs and skateboarders move in.
Sad, because the sculpture is extraordinary. The sculptor (whose name even the fiercest googling does not reveal) created several tableaux of soldiers being welcomed into a small village, both in high-relief and full 3D. Cast in 1954, it resists the modernism of later Soviet-era monuments, and lays on the folksy realism.
Common folk glorifying their military heroes is a theme in socialist art of the mid-20th century. In the interaction of civilians and men in uniform, we often see socialist naturalism at its most endearing.
Of course, it's equally endearing in the art of the west. As I stood that summer's morning in the middle of Bulgaria, what sprang to mind was none other than Norman Rockwell. Others have noticed the similarity, too.
I probably don't need to explain Rockwell to American readers. And even those abroad will recognise him as the high priest of Americana. His covers for The Saturday Evening Post and the scouting magazine Boy's Life are the stuff of legend. His art celebrated American life as one of community and abundance. Of course, in a time of depression and wartime sacrifice, this was a bald-faced lie for many.
Most think of Rockwell as the epitome of wholesomeness. But a queer eye can spot a trend.
Women, if present at all, are self-sacrificing pillars of virtue, or coquettes who claim men as smitten victims. (It's shouldn't surprise us that Rockwell's relationships with women were troubled.)
His most affectionate portraits of women showed girls as tomboys; Rockwell was credited with the first public appearance of the iconic character "Rosie the Riveter". His Rosie seems an awful lot more butch than her later incarnations.
Rockwell seems at home showing men in the fellowship of other men, especially when men in uniform assert quiet but friendly authority over their civilian counterparts. Men are desirable and sexy in his art—they show an unselfconscious masculinity and relaxed sense of humour; his women are highly stylised, and frankly, a bit uptight.
Do you detect just a little too much admiration for the male frame on both sides of the old Iron Curtain? The Superhero physique seems at home in Rockwell, as well as in socialist art.
So it shouldn't surprise us that the Soviet Army Memorial earned a simple (but no doubt time consuming) make-over earlier this year. The local English-language media reported on it, along with the graffiti-hounds at Bomb-It. Bomb-It lifted photos from the best available source. Ironically, that was the Voice of Russia. I followed suit, and that's where the photos below come from.
A Sofia blogger describes some of the background: Not surprisingly, many Bulgarians think that the Russians driving out the Nazis was rather a good move, and they still remember the event with gratitude. Many in the community saw this as simple vandalism, rather than noble self-expression.
Bulgarian culture minister Vedhzi Rashidov put it this way. "Never mind whether we like it or not, Bulgaria lived 50 years under the rule of Socialism and this is a part of our history. If any generation thinks this can be simply erased, it would be unnecessary. Germany did not remove the Russian tank from Berlin, Austria did not remove [its memorial]" In fact, the City of Berlin went so far as to restore its monument in 2004.
At the same time, crowds were delighted. This 360 degree view shows not only the painting in its full glory, but an enthusiastic audience lapping it up. Alas, they couldn't enjoy it for long, since the Memorial was cleaned as stealthily as it was painted.
It didn't take long for the artist (or group of artists, for surely this work took more than one set of hands) to be dubbed the Banksy of Bulgaria, especially by the British tabloids. Not sure about that one. Banksy, I think, is much more subtle. The Sophia artists left no room for ambiguity: below their work, they wrote the title Moving Forward with the Times.
If only the Bulgarian Banksies knew how traditional—even old fashioned—their work actually is.
In many ways, the commercial activity which surrounds the Memorial is a far greater insult to the principles for which so many Soviet soldiers died, is it not?
Frankly, even without its makeover, the memorial wouldn't seem out of place in a town square in the middle of America. OK, nowadays all those guns might be a problem. But what could be more American than kissing babies? True?
Copyright notice: Where not an original photo taken by the author, all photos link to source. I believe that the use of all images conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.