When the world is in turmoil, sometimes the most courageous people are artists.
Cases in point: Edward Steichen weathering World War II's Pacific theater to photograph planes and explosions, and Ivan Vladimirov braving Bolshevik wrath to paint his darker view of the Russian Revolution. The bombs drop and the gulag guards storm, and the artists relive it every time they pick up their brushes and pens to depict what they went through.
These artists and their cohorts are the heroes of an exhibit now at Stanford's Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion. "Art and History: Treasures from the Hoover Library and Archives" takes visitors from Russia to China to World War II's Pacific theater and back to California again, offering artistic insight into historic moments. Other artists include political cartoonist Jack Chen and painter Thomas Sgovio.
It's a broad theme, and curator Nicholas Siekierski had a world of artworks and artifacts to choose from. The library and archives contain some 50 million original documents, 900,000 rare books and 120,000 political posters, for starters. Major focuses are Russia, China, Central and Eastern Europe, and political movements in the United States and the West.
"We've been collecting since 1919, so naturally we've accumulated a huge amount of stuff," said Siekierski, who is assistant archivist for exhibits and outreach.
An art exhibit is unusual for the organization, which concentrates its collecting on historic, political and economic materials. Exhibits in the pavilion next to the Hoover Tower often center on historic events and go up on the anniversaries of said events, such as the show on the 1956 Hungarian revolution that was displayed in 2006.
This time around, the organization decided to plan an exhibit complementing Stanford's recent amped-up focus on the arts, which includes new buildings such as the Bing Concert Hall and the new art-department building scheduled for a 2015 opening, Siekierski said.
It was also an opportunity to show off the Hoover's artworks that don't get seen as often. In fact, the institution's first curator of Russian objects, Frank Golder, is responsible for some of the art in the current exhibit both collecting and commissioning it.
According to an exhibit card, the Harvard-trained historian started working for what was then called the Hoover War Library in 1920. He went to Russia in 1921 both to collect materials for the library and to help with Herbert Hoover's American Relief Administration. After seeing friends suffering and hungry under the new Communist regime, he encountered Ivan Vladimirov and was struck by his dual career: While publicly creating paintings that glorified the revolution, the artist was also secretly documenting the poverty and persecution of "class enemies" such as landowners and religious men.
Golder commissioned several paintings in the latter group, and then "made careful arrangements for trusted couriers to bring the paintings out of the county," the card reads. "Many were lost in transport."
Today, several Vladimirov paintings are on display in the pavilion. They depict revolutionary soldiers destroying art in the Winter Palace in Petrograd, formerly wealthy people huddled in rags, workmen breaking down wooden houses for much-needed fuel.
Some of the Vladimirov paintings originally had pieces of paper pasted over the artist's signature. "He was worried that if these paintings were shown in the West, he would face persecution," Siekierski said.
Other striking images in the exhibit come from Edward Steichen, a onetime fashion photographer who also captured World War I and II like few others. Siekierski chose images taken between 1942 and 1945 in the Pacific theater. Many capture dramatic moments of battle, like the picture of a Japanese freighter being attacked by American carrier-based planes. Huge geysers of water erupt around the ship.
A lighter Steichen photo shows enlisted men engaging in some necessary down time, putting on an informal band concert on board an auxiliary ship. The high quality of the images gives clear views of the men's smiling, shining faces. Siekierski likes to think of that photo as allowing visitors to cut through the "fog" of history and connect with their fellow man from 70 years ago.
Another exhibit case immerses visitors in darkness through the drawn faces and despairing eyes of men imprisoned in the Soviet gulag system. Done by artist Thomas Sgovio in the 1960s, these paintings are gloomy, lonely recollections of his 15 years in Siberian labor camps.
A New York native, Sgovio went to Russia for art school in the mid-'30s, an exhibit card reads. His life took a dramatic turn when he applied for a visa at the U.S. Embassy and was arrested by the secret police and sent to the gulag. He was released only after the 1953 death of Stalin. After living in Italy and working in advertising and design, Sgovio returned with his wife to America, where he relived his gulag experience through painting and lecturing.
"Often when people go through traumatic experiences they want to keep them to themselves," Siekierski said. Sgovio chose a different path.
Other cases in the exhibit include political cartoons by Chinese artist Jack Chen, whose writing and art made statements on the Cultural Revolution, Japanese aggression and the Chinese immigrant experience in America; and illustrated thank-you letters from Polish schoolchildren who got humanitarian aid after the first world war. Audio and video recordings feature a Czech Radio Free Europe interview with Louis Armstrong, and a 1974 TV conversation between William F. Buckley and Canadian literary critic Hugh Kenner on "The Political Responsibility of Artists." It's a very full exhibit hall.
This show runs through Dec. 20, and Siekierski is already looking ahead to August 2014, when the pavilion will mark an important milestone: 100 years after the start of World War I. An anniversary exhibit is expected to focus on the first year of the war and include posters, photos, leaflets and proclamations.
What: "Art and History: Treasures from the Hoover Library and Archives," an exhibit of paintings, photography, political cartoons and other artwork
Where: Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, next to the Hoover Tower, Stanford University
When: Through Dec. 20. The exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: Go to hoover.org or call 650-723-3563.