July 01, 2010

The Tractor Drivers' Supper

nineteen fifty-one was not a good year in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” was in full swing; a group of Mingrelian Communists was falsely charged with conspiring with the West; and the crackpot agronomist Trofim Lysenko reigned supreme, promulgating his theory of the heritability of acquired traits in plants and setting Soviet biology back a good half-century. The government celebrated Lysenko as a man of the people more closely rooted to Mother Russia than such highly educated (and hence suspect) geneticists as Nikolai Vavilov. Lysenko provided an exemplar of Soviet opportunity: only in the Soviet Union could someone from his modest background be discovered and nurtured. Against this backdrop we can better understand the appeal of Arkady Plastov’s 1951 painting Tractor Drivers’ Supper.

Plastov’s painting, now in the collection of the Irkutsk Regional Art Museum, exemplifies the Socialist Realist style, meant to imbue viewers with positive emotion – whether for the beauty of the Russian landscape, the dedication of the country’s workers, the nation’s great historical exploits, or the simple pleasures of everyday life. Because Socialist Realist figures had to be shown in constructive roles, their depictions were more often akin to a romantic than a realist vision. Plastov was best known for his lyrical depictions of the rhythms of Soviet agricultural life. Tractor Drivers’ Supper conveys Russia’s expanse, her endless fields that stretch to the horizon, suggesting timelessness, even eternity. The values Plastov portrays are simple and pure; he hints at transcendence in the trinity of figures and the heavenly suffusion of light.

Like Alexei Venetsianov’s idealized portraits of the peasantry (see Russian Life May/June 2010), Plastov’s painting depicts laborers at rest. But his work strongly communicates Soviet values. The clean-shaven tractor driver is distinctly modern – he has shed the symbolic beard of the past and wears a vivid red shirt whose color indicates loyalty to Revolutionary ideals. Yet for contemporaneous Soviet viewers the driver remains recognizably connected to his Russian heritage and to the land. By slicing the large round karavai, the loaf of black bread, towards himself, he keeps this most iconic of foodstuffs near to his heart. Despite its sentimental appeal, Tractor Drivers’ Supper celebrates industrialized labor: while the tractor driver takes a break for supper, his tractor is not idle. It steams endlessly, ready at a moment’s notice to continue the grand transformation of the Soviet countryside. The vast tilled fields in the painting’s background display the extent of the tractor’s progress – the mechanized labor that was lauded from the moment the first tractors appeared in the late 1920s, many of them exported by Henry Ford & Co. under the Fordson brand.

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