The discussion between Khrushchev and Neizvestny in the Manège building should not be forgotten. It sets an example for the relationship between the State and art.
After an astonishingly successful few days, the exhibiton of the work of Bilyutin's students, Neizvestny, and some other young artists recommended by Neizvestny, held under the auspices of the Moscow City Council, was closed down and the artists were told that they must bring their works to the Manège building next to the Kremlin, so that all the problems raised by their work could be considered by the government and the Central Committee. John Berger records the events that followed in Art and Revolution:
Bilyutin suggested to the artists that they should leave their more extreme works behind and only take the more conventional ones. Neizvestny opposed this on the grounds that it would deceive nobody; also because here was an opportunity for having at least the existence of their work officially recognized.
The artists hung their own works in the Manège building. Several of them worked through the night. Then they waited. The building was cordoned off by security men. The gallery was searched. The windows and curtains were checked.
The entourage of about seventy men entered the building. Khrushchev had no sooner reached the top of the stairs than he began to shout. ‘Dog shit! Filth! Disgrace! Who is responsible for this? Who is the leader?’
A man stepped forward.
‘Who are you?’
The voice of the man was scarcely audible. ‘Bilyutin,’ he said.
‘Who?’ shouted Khrushchev.
Somebody in the government ranks said: ‘He’s not the real leader. We don’t want him. That’s the real leader!’ and pointed to Neizvestny.
Khrushchev began to shout again. But this time Neizvestny shouted back: ‘You may be Premier and Chairman but not here in front of my works. Here I am Premier and we shall discuss as equals.’
To many of his friends this reply of Neizvestny’s seemed more dangerous than Khrushchev’s anger.
A minister by the side of Khrushchev: ‘Who are you talking to? This is the Prime Minister. As for you, we are going to have you sent to the uranium mines.’
Two security men seized Neizvestny’s arms. He ignored the minister and spoke straight to Khrushchev. They are both short men of about equal height.
‘You are talking to a man who is perfectly capable of killing himself at any moment. Your threats mean nothing to me.’
The formality of the statement made it entirely convincing.
At a sign from the same person in the entourage who had instructed the security men to seize Neizvestny’s arms, they now released them.
Feeling his arms freed, Neizvestny slowly turned his back and began to walk towards his works. For a moment nobody moved. He knew that for the second time in his life he was very near to being lost. What happened next would be decisive. He continued walking, straining his ears. The artists and onlookers were absolutely silent. At least he heard heavy, slow breathing behind him. Khrushchev was following.
The two men began to argue about the works on view, after raising their voices. Neizvestny was frequently interrupted by those who had now reassembled around the Prime Minister.
The head of the Security Police. ‘Look at the coat you’re wearing - it’s a beatnik coat.’
Neizvestny: ‘I have been working all night preparing this exhibition. Your men wouldn’t allow my wife in this morning to bring me a clean shirt. You should be ashamed of yourself, in a society which honours labour, to make such a remark.’
When Neizvestny referred to the work of his artist friends, he was accused of being a homosexual. He replied by again speaking directly to Khrushchev.
‘In such matters, Nikita Sergeyevich, it is awkward to bear testimony on one’s own behalf. But if you could find a girl here and now - I think I should be able to show you.’
Khrushchev laughed. Then, on the next occasion when Neizvestny contradicted him, he suddenly demanded: ‘Where do you get your bronze from?’
Neizvestny: ‘I steal it.’
A minister: ‘He’s mixed up in the black market and other rackets too.’
Neizvestny: ‘Those are very grave charges made by a government head and I demand the fullest possible investigation. Pending the results of this investigation I should like to say that I do not steal in the way that has been implied. The material I use is scrap. But, in order to go on working at all, I have to come by it legally.’
Gradually the talk between the two men became less tense. And the subject was no longer exclusively the work on view.
Khrushchev: ‘What do you think of the art produced under Stalin?’
Neizvestny:‘I think it was rotten and the same kind of artists are still deceiving you.’
Khrushchev: ‘The methods Stalin used were wrong, but the art itself was not.’
Neizvestny:‘I do not know how, as Marxists, we can think like that. The methods Stalin used served the cult of personality and this became the content of the art he allowed. Therefore the art was rotten too.’
So it went on for about an hour. The room was very hot. Everyone had to remain standing. The tension was high. One or two people had fainted. Yet nobody dared to interrupt Khrushchev. The dialogue could only be brought to a close via Neizvestny. ‘Better wind it up now,’ he heard somebody in the government ranks say from behind his ear. Obediently he held out his hand to Khrushchev and said he thought that perhaps they should stop now.
The entourage moved across to the doorway on to the staircase. Khrushchev turned around: ‘You are the kind of man I like. But there’s an angel and a devil in you,’ he said. ‘If the angel wins, we can get along together. If it’s the devil who wins, we shall destroy you.’
Neizvestny left the building expecting to be arrested before he reached the corner of Gorky Street. He was not arrested.
John Berger, Art and Revolution, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, London, 1969, p.82 – 85.
Neizvestny at work