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The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost

An appealing if rather breathless account of double discoveries: that of London-based American journalist Solomon, who goes to Gorbachev’s Moscow and finds a world of vicious deprivation and impenetrable strangeness; and that of the artists he meets along the way, whose long struggle against isolation and obscurity is rewarded with a sudden fame that brings its own disorientation. Solomon first visited the Soviet Union in 1988, when he was sent by a British magazine to cover Sotheby’s Sale of Contemporary and Avant-Garde Soviet Art. His expectations were initially modest — “I was determined to visit the U.S.S.R. and thought the Sotheby’s sale sounded an ideal opportunity” — but he managed to befriend quite a few of the artists involved, and followed their careers from London after his return. Eventually he helped them travel to Europe and America to exhibit their work, and in 1989 he went to stay with them for some months in Moscow as they prepared a giant exhibition of Soviet and German art. Solomon writes in a leisurely, anecdotal style that makes room for the many different stories comprising this tale: the larger portrait of the various movements and schools of postwar Soviet art, the political and historical forces (culminating in perestroika) that simultaneously resisted and engendered such art, and the (often horrendous) experiences of the artists themselves. The tone is compassionate and engaging throughout and manages to bring the opinions of the author into play without overwhelming the narrative. Thus the frequent digressions — on the nature of creativity, the Russian character, the experience of exile — serve to add depth rather than blur the focus. A good deal less attention might have been paid to the various fetes and soirées of the art world, but no doubt some will find them amusing. Timely and enjoyable: a rich collage of personality and adventure.