Utah's famous collection of Soviet art

May 17, 2013

One of the biggest museum collections of Russian art in the United States is found right here in Utah, and its curator will soon become a recipient of one of Russia’s most prestigious fine art awards.

Vern Swanson is a leading expert on Soviet-era impressionist paintings. He’s visited Russia 36 times, written several books and articles on the topic and was director of the Springville Museum of Art in Utah County for 32 years.

Later this year, Swanson will receive the Plastov International Prize, awarded by the Russian government for his continued work in promoting this unique era of art. We spoke with him over the phone from his home in Springville.

Swanson began travelling to Russia in the 1980s when he first encountered Soviet art.

“I saw the art and it struck a chord with me," he said. "The Russians hated it because it had been shoved down their throats – it was the official art of the regime. The more I saw, the more I loved and I subsequently wrote four books on the topic. Particularly, my strength would be the middle period of socialist realist art – what we call working-class impressionism. That would be the late ‘40s; the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

He says he sorted through tens of thousands of paintings which, at the time, were mostly considered junk by the Russian people.

“The Russian art of this period that we’re talking about was being burned and thrown away," he added. "This art was of the old regime and they just threw it out. And so when we went and started to buy this art and pay real money for it, they stopped burning it. Every painting that I bought saved 10… 20…”

In all, it’s estimated Swanson, and the art dealers he worked with, brought 22,000 impressionist paintings from a country that didn’t want them. The collection in Springville, he says, is important for two reasons. One it shows Americans the faces of a people depicted through decades of Cold War rhetoric.

“This was the visual fine art of a culture that held America by the throat. Everything we did, half of the money we spent was to tamp down that threat. So here are the people that we never got to see. And I’ll tell ya, I got to meet them and I interviewed hundreds of artists.”

Swanson says the collection also helps influence Utah artists.

“Utah is a landscape-based school of art," he said. "I’m not saying we don’t do other work, I’m just saying on the base level that is the strongest strength of Utah art. Russian art was figuratively based and issue based – Issues of family, issues of the farm and of labor and the war and the struggle. Russian art of the Soviet era at the Springville museum kicks Utah artists in the pants – in the best way. It has an ambitiousness to it, a strength, as well as a sensitivity that is influential on our Utah school in the most positive, sanguine way. That’s what I think the takeaway for the artists is. They’re learning about being more ambitious – playing chess, not checkers.”

The Springville Museum of Art attracts Russian art fans from around the country. Last year, film director Steven Spielberg made a stop to see the galleries and TV personality Glenn Beck has scheduled an upcoming trip. Swanson’s award is one of only three bestowed on an American by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

“I was thrilled and totally excited about the award because I was nominated by the Plastov family," he added. "While I didn’t know Arkady Plastov because he died in 1972, I knew his son and knew his grandson and I had written glowingly about their father and grandfather. That was smart of me wasn’t it?”

You can read more about Swanson and see a slideshow of Soviet-era realism paintings from the Springville Museum of Art on our website, www.UPR.org. For Utah Public Radio, I’m Matt Jensen.

Vasilev, Aleksei Aleksandrovich - "They are Writing about Us in Pravda" (1951) SOCIAL REALISM. OIL ON CANVAS
Credit Springville Museum of Art

Vern Swanson, former director of the Springville Museum of Art, has been named as one of the 2013 honorees of the prestigious 'Plastov International Prize.' The accolade is awarded by the Russian government.