AG: “The way of the grave straightens a hunchback” – this is a Russian proverb actually – “Only a grave can straighten a hunchback” – which the late Nikita S Khrushchev made internationally famous – [to Student] – Do you know about that, Ivana [sic]? – by quoting it to the assembled writers and artists at the Manege Exhibit in 1961 (1962) – Does anybody know about that scene? – Khruschev went to an exhibition of modern Soviet painting in 1962. In nineteen-fifty..what is it? – fifty-three – 1956, he denounced Stalin.
AG: Fifty-six. Then there was a thaw. Then everything was opening up, and then the artists were.. nobody knew where the authority was, everybody started painting up a storm and the Futurists came back and the Constructivists came back and the Acmeists came back and (Kazimir) Malevich was shown again for the first time, and abstract painters were shown.
And then there was a large exhibition in the exhibition hall called “the Manege”, which was part of the.. I think that’s in Moscow. It’s a large hall that was used maybe originally as a stable by the Czar and then turned into an exhibition hall for posters, paintings, and so forth, and there are always giant exhibitions there (just as in the Louvre in Paris – in the back, they have great garden houses, which are used for special exhibits of (Claude) Monet and the Impressionists). The Manege is right near the Kremlin. I’ve been there. It’s on a square near the Kremlin and you go in there and you get to see big shows – the show of the month. So there was this new show of modern Russian painting in 1961, and Khruschev, slightly drunk as usual, came in and visited it, and freaked out when he saw the sculpture of a guy named (Ernst) Neizvestny (Neizvestny, a friend of (the Russian poet, Andrei) Voznesensky and (Bella) Akhmadulina and (Yevgeny) Yevtushenko – and Voluta Ackeljova? [sic?] , a modern folk-singing poet)
So Khruschev gave a big speech saying (that) this was not Soviet art, this was not Russian art, he wouldn’t stand for it (but, actually, it was like something out of Sinclair Lewis, out of a small town, coming and seeing an exhibition of (Pablo) Picasso and Futurism and Cubism, saying he doesn’t understand it, “What’s this all about? This ain’t good art”. He prefers to see some… well.. who was the last person (who) said that in America.. the guy who liked Andrew Wyeth and didn’t like any other kind of painting? (President Richard) Nixon had Andrew Wyeth’s painting in The White House. However, he wasn’t as intolerant).
Anyway, Khruschev denounced these artists and, really, in such no uncertain terms, and said they were creeps and (that) they were hunchbacks, and then said – “And only a grave can straighten out a hunchback” (which is an old Russian proverb). And so all these artists shuddered because they thought maybe this was a return to State control (and it was, to some extent, because Neizvestny now has got a loft in downtown New York (and lives as) an emigre. He had to leave (Russia in), about (the) mid ‘Sixties, and start all over again – a big, heavy, bear-like drinking man (like a real Russian!), constantly (clutching) giant bottles of vodka, lifted in the air for any visitor who comes by. I went to see him with Voznesensky when Voznesensky was in New York). So he was the object of Khruschev’s attack. It’s an interesting shot. His [Mandelstam‘s] was – “the way the grave straightens/a hunchback”. (1937).
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirty-eight minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-two minutes in ]