Victory over the Sun
Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond
Unofficial Art in the Soviet Era
From the early 1930s until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the only artistic style sanctioned by the Communist Party was Socialist Realism. Its spirit dominated every aspect of Soviet culture. Nevertheless, in the mid-1950s, a few years after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev introduced a brief period of liberalization that became known as “the Thaw.” During this time, several presentations of international art took place, including a Picasso exhibition and a contemporary display in the American National Exhibition. Artists who were looking for new forms of expression discovered the latest trends in Western art – and in the process reconnected with memories of the Russian avant-garde, for several decades forgotten by everyone but a narrow circle of intellectuals.
In December 1962, however, Khrushchev toured the show The New Reality in Moscow’s Manege exhibition hall and was incensed by its display of works that ran counter to Socialist Realism. After that, the Communist Party reinstated rigid control over artistic expression. The state regulated the activities and purchases of museums, and those whose work did not adhere to Party standards were deprived of a basic income.
The 1962 exhibition with its outcome is regarded as the moment when unofficial art was born. Many artists began leading double lives – outwardly conforming to government dictates, they privately exhibited their work in homes, creating their own world within the Soviet state. Friends and peers became their audience, and conversations held in the kitchen were no less significant than discussions conducted on the official art scene. Although sharing a rejection of Socialist Realism and the regime’s ubiquitous ideological images, the work of the unofficial artists was stylistically diverse. Their art stirred interest in the West and began to be smuggled out. Dubbed “nonconformist” and “underground,” it became the focus of exhibitions and critical articles.
The Moscow Conceptualist School and its key exponent Ilya Kabakov dominated the unofficial art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. The movement’s name was later coined by cultural historian Boris Groys in a seminal article that analyzed its adherents’ intellectual bent and their synthesis of text and visual art, existential and metaphysical concerns. Conceptual art was the prevailing approach outside Russia at the time, but the isolation of the USSR and local circumstances led to a distinctive Moscow brand.
Merging image and text – one of the outstanding characteristics of the early avant-garde – the Moscow Conceptualists once again underscored the preeminence of literature in Russian culture. Despite a great variety of strategies and styles, artists shared a critical, ironic stance. While addressing social issues and such universal questions as personal freedom, the conflict between private and public identity, and utopian visions, their works often drew upon day-to-day life and visual culture in the Soviet Union.
Ilya Kabakov, Albums
A founder and leader of Moscow Conceptualism, Ilya Kabakov worked as an illustrator of children’s books while creating art underground. In 1987 he left the Soviet Union; he and his wife and artistic partner, Emilia Kabakov, now live and work in New York. Ten Characters, Kabakov’s series of albums from the 1970s, focused on the little man, through fictitious characters with hopeless dreams and absurd behaviors embodying different survival strategies in a constrictive reality. The texts that accompany the images are “commentaries” by the character’s relatives and friends, or by casual observers.
Sitting-in-the-Closet Primakov, the first album, tells the story of a boy who chooses to hide inside a dark closet, experiencing the world through its walls. Kabakov used black and white to illustrate Primakov’s progression from confinement to freedom. The black pages, alluding to Malevich’s Black Square, become increasingly lighter. The physical world is gradually replaced by a conceptual one in which things are represented by their names and visual depictions ultimately dissolve into white, symbolizing Primakov’s death. Kabakov thus uses the language of Suprematism to express the transformation of the material world into an abstract, metaphysical entity.
The sixth album, The Flying Komarov, shows a man stepping out for some fresh air after having an argument with his wife. Suddenly, he finds himself surrounded by floating people and objects – beds, cups, sofas – and he attempts to join them before finally dissolving into white.
The albums address central themes in Kabakov’s work – finding oneself “in the corner,” escape, and disappearance. Their scale was suitable to the limited space of the Moscow studio in which they were made and discreetly shown within his intimate circle. Combining image and text and resonating deeply with Russian literary tradition, the albums constituted a turning point in Kabakov’s career and inspired his later installations.
Ilya Kabakov, Installations
Following his move to New York in the late 1980s, Kabakov began collaborating with his wife, Emilia, and experimenting with a new genre – the large-scale installation. Their “total installations” were interactive, combining texts, objects, light, and sound to draw the viewer in and blur the boundaries between private and public space.
In the Soviet Union, the acute shortage of housing forced strangers to live together in communal apartments. Each family had its own room, but the hallways, kitchen, and bathroom were shared, and even the toilet could not guarantee privacy. The craving to escape the overcrowded communal flat is a recurring theme in Kabakov’s work.
Life in the Closet tempts viewers with the feeling of solitude to be found inside an old wooden cupboard. In Toilet in the Corner, an amateur rendering of Neapolitan songs is heard beyond the double doors and coarsely painted windows, indicating the presence of an unseen occupant.
“During childhood I especially liked to creep into a large wooden clothes closet and hide there. I sat there for a long time, alone, in my small, dark hiding place, protected from others but at the same time closely present: I heard everything that went on in the room – how my mother set the table for dinner, how she cut bread, how my father asked where I was, if I hadn’t gone to the neighbors’ . . . And the thought that they didn’t know where I was – this while in fact I was right next to them and could almost see them while remaining invisible – filled me with an unusual feeling, a mixture of secretiveness, safety, and fun. So I kept inside and hid not only in the closet, where I locked myself in for a long time, but also in our toilet in the corridor. And this was not at all harmless for me and my parents, since we lived in a communal apartment and everyone went to one toilet. They knocked and asked me to come out, but I didn’t open the door. What for? Here I was alone, in relative safety, and behind the wall raged the life of a communal apartment with the bustle and cry of twenty people; and in ‘our’ room (where five of us lived – my parents, my brother and I, and grandfather) I was always among others and suffered greatly because of this . . . Good heavens! How could I build and maintain a wall between myself and others, so that ‘they,’ those others, could only show themselves at the top of the wall but couldn’t jump inside to me in this space partitioned off from them? We would send each other happy smiles for a moment, and ‘they’ would again disappear behind the wall, to a strange world unknown to me and undesired . . .”
- Ilya Kabakov
A central member of Moscow’s unofficial art scene in the 1960s, Michail Grobman immigrated to Israel in 1971 and became known as a co-founder of the Leviathan group, which performed art actions in the 1970s. Grobman developed his own pictographic, semi-abstract language that was rooted in Jewish mystical ideas and animal symbolism. He saw this system, which he called “magical symbolism,” as the foundation for a new type of art, simultaneously Jewish and contemporary.
Grobman made a direct connection between Malevich’s idea of perpetual creation in the universe and the Jewish mysticism that inspired his own visual imagery. Earth-Aleph and Word, based on a combination of geometry and text, are filled with cosmic darkness. In Jerusalem Construction, a vertical white strip cuts through the picture’s background. Grobman constructed this strip out of the Hebrew letters in the verse “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3), thereby combining modern geometric abstraction with traditional micrography, in which minute text is arranged to produce a form or image.
Michail Grobman, Word; Earth-Aleph; Jerusalem Construction, 1978, The Michail Grobman Collection, Tel Aviv
Michail Grobman ©
The Michail Grobman Archive
Artist, poet, collector, and theorist Michail Grobman was an active member of the nonconformist community in Moscow in the 1960s. Even as a young man, Grobman perceived the historical significance of the unofficial art movement and decided to document its activities. The exhibition features examples from his extensive collection, works of art as well as such rare archival materials as the A-YA magazines, which were secretly edited in Moscow and printed in Paris. Also presented here are invitations to exhibitions of unofficial and avant-garde art, organized by the legendary collector Nikolai Khardzhiev at the Mayakovsky Museum – under the pretext that Mayakovsky, officially recognized as a great Soviet poet, had belonged to the Futurist circle at the beginning of his career. Other valuable ephemera from the nonconformist era, such as photographs and Grobman’s “visitors’ notebooks” with sketches and letters by his artist friends, add a personal, evocative dimension to our knowledge of life in those times.
Vladimir Yankilevsky – among the participants in the 1962 exhibition that so enraged Premier Nikita Khrushchev because of its “anti-Soviet” works – was an important member of the unofficial Moscow Conceptual movement.
The installation Door (Dedicated to the Parents of my Parents . . .), which the artist smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the 1970s, incorporates an actual door from a Moscow communal apartment. A figure of a man stands in the doorway, facing another, inner door. Behind him, affixed to the back of the outer door is a photograph of the artist’s grandparents (according to him, the three dots in the work’s title refer to the generational continuum, all the way back to Adam and Eve). When opened, the second door gives way to a third, which discloses a colorful horizon that contrasts dramatically with the installation’s darkness.
Door can be seen a metaphor for the human condition. The isolated hero exists simultaneously in two different realms: the constricted social space, represented by the door of the real apartment, and the endless space of imagination and artistic freedom, represented by the horizon. According to the artist, this dramatic tension between the finite and the infinite is the principal mystery of life.
Vladimir Yankilevsky, Door (Dedicated to the Parents of my Parents…), 1972, Mixed media, Private collection; courtesy galerie Dina Vierny, Paris, Vladimir Yankilevsky © ADAGP, Paris, 2018
One of the first nonconformist artists, Mikhail Roginsky often focused on trivial objects typical of communal life in the 1960s. His fondness for street, railway, and movie posters, which he believed expressed the essence of reality in the USSR, is also evident in his work.
In his much larger-than-life-size “Sniper Pavluchenko” Matchbox, Roginsky is clearly alluding (despite the slight difference of spelling) to the Red Army World War II hero Lyudmila Pavlichenko, considered the finest female sniper of all time. Mosgaz [Moscow gas] shows a colorless, overused gas stove – but the title probably also refers to the first officially recognized serial killer in the Soviet Union, who was known as Mosgaz because he entered his victims’ apartments by claiming that he worked for the gas company. Roginsky’s Door represents a new practice on the Russian art scene: the artist drew an interior door, and the work was then constructed by carpenters, after which an existing handle was attached to it.
Although there is an affinity between Roginsky’s spotlight on everyday objects and American Pop Art, the Russian artist used such objects to convey the dismal reality of life in the USSR. They act as portraits of a society in which material affluence signaled the despised bourgeois mentality – and yet was also considered a feature of the utopian Communist future.
Mikhail Roginsky, Mosgaz; “Sniper Pavluchenko” [sic] Matchbox; Door, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, © Mikhail Roginsky Foundation
Erik Bulatov, who left the USSR in 1989 and has lived in Paris since 1992, was a prominent figure on the early nonconformist art scene in Moscow. Bulatov integrated Soviet slogans and symbols into largescale hyperrealistic landscapes that might be taken for propaganda posters, highlighting the profound tension between reality and utopia under the restrictive Soviet regime.
In Red Horizon, a group of people walk toward the sea, their view of the horizon blocked by a red-and-gold striped band resembling a military decoration. Glory to the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] superimposes the most widespread Soviet slogan on an open expanse of sky, overwhelming it yet hinting at the existence of the great beyond. In both works, the visual barrier is also ideological, and the social reality remains an insurmountable obstacle to freedom.
Erik Bulatov, Left: Glory to the CPSU, 2003–05, Oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris, National Museum of Modern Art – Center for Industrial Creation, Gift of Ekaterina and Vladimir Semenikhin, 2016, Right: Red Horizon, 1971–72, Oil on canvas, Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery (MAGMA), Erik Bulatov © ADAGP, Paris, 2018
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid
In 1972, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid coined the term “Sots Art” to describe the fusion of Socialist Realism and American Pop Art that characterized their reaction to the dominant, officially sanctioned artistic style. While Pop Art played with symbols of mass media and consumer culture, Sots Art drew on the emblems of Soviet ideology. Using self-deprecation, irony, and paradox, Sots Art mocked government doctrine and propaganda, aiming to dethrone Soviet ideals.
Komar and Melamid met while studying art in Moscow. In 1974 they participated in the unofficial outdoor show that became known as the “Bulldozer Exhibition” following its destruction by the Soviet authorities. Expelled from the Moscow Union of Artists, they immigrated to Israel in 1977, moving to New York a year later.
In Ideal Slogan, white abstract rectangles replace the letters that would normally feature on a Soviet banner, but the red background and the exclamation mark typical of such banners have remained. The absence of text highlights the emptiness of clichéd Party slogans, which can be inferred even without actual words. In Double Self-Portrait, mimicking the pomposity of canonical depictions, the artists inserted their own pseudo-mosaic portraits into a familiar style of medallion portraying Lenin and Stalin.
Sculptor Boris Orlov was a key figure in the Sots Art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. He later shifted his focus to photography and installation, using these mediums to document the demise of the Soviet empire.
Bust in the Style of Rastrelli II (referencing a Russian baroque architect of Italian origin) abounds in ironic references while combining two antithetical approaches: avant-garde abstraction and Socialist Realism. Composed of Soviet military decorations and reminiscent of ancient totems, this sculpture relates to the imperial ambitions of the USSR. The artist mocks the so-called heraldry of pretentious Soviet officials as he merges Suprematist forms with Soviet emblems, taken out of context and twisted into sarcastic quotations.