Exhibition of Cold War art is relevant in today’s political climate

A visit to the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, NJ., is like a journey to the Duck and Cover era, when American and Soviet scientists competed in the race for nuclear weapons and children hid under school desks.

In Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection, on view through July 31, we learn about one of the dominant concerns of Soviets during the Cold War: the consequences of innovations in science, technology, mathematics, communications and design. This turbulent period was marked by the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a failed attempt at improving U.S.-Soviet relations.

“Although created in the Cold War era of the 1960s to the1980s, these works have a renewed relevance and immediacy as current global events have reignited American and Western European tensions with Russia,” say exhibition materials.

With subject matter reflecting the artists’ fascination with the space race and worldwide tensions around a nuclear arms deadlock, more than 20 artists from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia explore utopian fantasies and anxious realities of everyday Soviet life in the second half of the 20th century. Making their case in documentary photography and surrealistic abstraction, hyperrealist painting and kinetic sculpture, these artists were operating in underground circles—their work was not sanctioned by the Soviet regime, and offers a range of political perspectives and artistic experimentations.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The artwork has been drawn from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, developed by American economist Norton Dodge during frequent business trips to the Soviet Union. The Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art is the foremost collection of art by Soviet artists working in opposition to government-mandated subjects, styles and aesthetics.

“Norton began collecting Soviet ‘unofficial’ art during the Cold War, making his collection very much a product of that historical moment,” said curator Ksenia Nouril. “This exhibition is one way to tell the collection’s story, highlighting the role of its creator as a mediator between American capitalism and Soviet communism. At the same time, this subject is very timely. We see history repeating itself, as there is a connection between the official behaviors of the Cold War and today’s ongoing wars and political conflicts, and technology is playing an ever-increasing role in our everyday lives.”

The exhibition is organized into three sections: The first focuses on the tensions between the superpowers in the race for nuclear arms and to space. The second looks at how artists used abstraction, surrealism and even computer science to re-imagine earthly landscapes as well as the worlds beyond. In the third, artists who created space-agey works of kinetic art are explored.

A noxious green dominates a canvas by Estonian artist Jaan Elken, depicting an anonymous chemist at work in his lab wearing a gas mask, rubber gloves and protective suits. Nearby are hand-colored photographs by Boris Mikhailov of everyday Soviet existence from 1968-1986, in which human heads are transmogrified into alien creatures by gas masks.

Termed “Sots Art,” the social realism created irony and irreverence. We see two boys in school uniforms and neckties becoming absurd-looking creatures as they model gas masks for their teacher. Above them hangs a portrait of Vladimir Lenin—Big Brother is Watching.

In a small pastel, Alexander Kosolapov creates an absurd juxtaposition of two Soviet icons of pride: a cosmonaut (this one wearing a cod piece atop his space suit) dances with a ballerina. “The cosmonaut represents the strength and endurance of the Soviet people, while the ballerina represents their sophistication and appreciation for culture and beauty,” said curator Nouril. Behind the dancing figures are a red curtain, a symbol of the Communist Party, and a rising sun promising a bright future.

In the signature piece for this exhibit, “The Cosmonaut’s Dream” by Sergei Sherstiuk, a space traveler is seemingly asleep inside the glass bubble of his helmet. His dream is depicted behind him—a peaceful pastoral place on Planet Earth, with a farmhouse nestled under billowing clouds, the sun illuminating a riverbank. A hot air balloon, a pre-space age vehicle for exploring the heavens, rises into the brilliant blue sky. Nature is the dream, despite the attempts to obliterate it with war, and it takes a journey into space to realize that what we want—what we dream of—has been right here on Earth all along. There’s no place like home.

The Soviets sent the first human into space one month before the U.S. sent Alan Shepard. Yuri Gagarin, the son of a carpenter and milkmaid from a village east of Moscow, launched into space on April 12, 1961. In 1963, the Soviets sent the first woman into space—Valentina Tereshkova, a textile-factory assembly worker and amateur skydiver who went on to a career in politics, was selected from more than 400 applicants. These celebrated space heroes became icons of popular culture: on a postage stamp, magazine covers, lapel pins, even chocolate bars.

Well before space travel began, around the turn of the 20th century, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and others developed a philosophy known as cosmism, founded on the idea that humankind is meant to live in outer space, or the Kosmos. This philosophy, which included belief in reincarnation and rejection of material possessions, fit right in with the Communist Party’s ideas, rejecting Capitalism and promoting atheism. But during the Cold War, innovation in science and technology, programmable computers, radar rockets and space probes changed how people saw the world, according to Nouril. “Soviet artists, who could not travel outside their country, and yet were inspired by the potential of life in space, used their imagination to see beyond the confines of their immediate surroundings.”

There are kinetic sculptures in a glass vitrine that evoke the world of tomorrow, as seen from yesterday. Kinetic artists in Russia and Latvia often formed groups to work collectively on immersive installations that offered visitors glimpses into unknown futures.

“While technological advancements gave great hope,” said Nouril, “they also came at a steep price, taking their toll on the Soviet economy, environment and quality of life. In search of improvement, artists embraced the new worlds opened to them, reimagining or even escaping their earthly environments.”

On Tuesday, April 5, 6 p.m., curator Ksenia Nouril will lead a tour of the exhibition, and on Thursday, April 14, at 4 p.m., she will lead another tour, followed by a panel discussion.

Zimmerli Art Museum71 Hamilton StreetNew Brunswick, NJ08901


Tuesdays through Fridays: 10am to 4:30pmSaturdays and Sundays: Noon to 5pmFirst Tuesdays of the month: 10am to 9pmThe museum is closed Mondays, major holidays, and in August.


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts. 

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal