Russia’s New Avant-Garde
In studios, galleries, and smoke-filled bohemian nightclubs around Moscow, Russian art is on the verge of a new revolution.
by Alex Osipovich
About a hundred years ago, Russia was at the forefront of modern art. With names like Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, and Vassily Kandinsky, the Russian avantgarde took the world by storm. For a brief period, it seemed like Russia had dethroned France as the artistic capital of the world – in fact, immediately after the Revolution, many artists believed that Lenin’s new social order would create the ideal conditions for artistic innovation. Of course, their hopes were soon dashed. As the Bolshevik experiment descended into totalitarianism, Russia entered a long, dull period of creative stagnation.
Moscow artist Andrei Bartenyev hanging his latest collage at Fine Art Gallery last month.
But today, Russian art is on the verge of a new revolution. In studios, galleries, and smoke-filled bohemian nightclubs throughout Moscow, a small vanguard of cutting-edge artists is finding new outlets for creative expression. They draw on many sources for inspiration – from the classical traditions of Russian culture, to the chaos and contradictions of post-Soviet Russia. And the world, once again, is paying attention.
Notes from the Underground
On paper, the Soviet Union was a great place to be an artist. The state-controlled Artists’ Union gave generous subsidies to its members, providing studios and commissioning works to be placed in factories, theaters and museums. But artists had to adhere to the official ideology of Socialist Realism. The Union frowned upon experimentation, rejecting anything that was abstract or even impressionistic. And of course, artists had to conform to Soviet dogma — happy workers and dignified Party leaders were the preferred subjects.
Artists who didn’t accept this devil’s bargain were forced into the underground. Irina Filatova and Marina Obraztsova are respectively the curator and director of Fine Art Gallery, one of Moscow’s first private galleries, which today is still tucked away in a basement behind the Pekin Hotel. Filatova collected the works of unofficial painters during the 1960s and 1970s. “In those days, cultural life in Moscow took place in two parallel, non-intersecting spaces,” says Filatova. “The part that was connected with world culture was, of course, underground art.”
Underground art penetrated the Iron Curtain with the help of foreign visitors and diplomats who secretly purchased paintings and smuggled them out in their luggage. The same foreigners brought Western art to the USSR, in the form of albums, which became precious commodities passed from one artist to another. Unable to display their work in public, underground artists held exhibitions in their apartments. Initially, these exhibitions were tiny, attracting small groups of the artists’ friends. But gradually, the “apartment art” movement grew in size. Filatova recalls an exhibition at the home of painter Oskar Rabin, which was announced on the Voice of America and which attracted 13,000 people in a single day.
The authorities were hostile to underground art. In 1974, the KGB demolished an outdoor exhibition staged by dissident artists near the Belyayevo metro station. The event went down in history as the “Bulldozer Exhibition.” Artists were subject to harassment, especially if they broke the cardinal rule of talking to foreigners. In 1984, after being reviewed in a Paris art magazine, painter Konstantin Zvezdochyotov was abruptly called up for army duty. It was his 26th birthday. He spent the next eighteen months in a construction brigade on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka.
Marina Obraztsova, director of Fine Art Gallery, with another of the duo’s ‘eternal’ paintings at the opening of a recent exhibit.
When perestroika came, dissident artists could finally show their work freely. They also gained much better access to the West. In 1988, the Sotheby’s auction house in London held a sale of Soviet art. The result was sensational. Paintings by underground artists such as Ilya Kabakov sold for as much as $200,000. Meanwhile, paintings by official artists — such as Dmitry Nalbandyan, the “court painter” for Stalin and Brezhnev—weren’t even on the auction block. The effect on the Soviet art world was cataclysmic.
“Realistically, the Artists’ Union ended in 1988,” says gallery owner Marat Guelman. “Up until 1988, the Union was a very formidable machine, politically and ideologically. The art market played a very important role in smashing the old machine.”
Following the Sotheby’s auction, Soviet art enjoyed a short-lived boom. Western collectors descended on the USSR, buying up the works of underground painters. According to Guelman, the boom also inspired various unknown and unprofessional pseudo-artists to hawk their works, because for a while, it seemed like any modernist-looking canvas with a tinge of anti-Soviet politics could find a Western buyer. But the boom ran its course by the early 1990s. The market for Russian art has never reached the same heights again.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia entered a profound economic crisis. Impoverished artists found that there was little interest in their work.
And Russian art experienced an identity crisis. Paradoxically, this came about because of artists’ new-found freedom — without the backdrop of the relentless conflict between the Artists’ Union and the underground, artists were forced to search for new directions. As a movement, Socialist Realism had long been dead (or at least kept on life support by government funding). But now, the values of underground art also seemed outdated in the new, capitalist Russia. “Freedom had a very bad effect on Russian art,” says Zvezdochyotov, who lives and works in Moscow. “Our freedom is a chimera. Now we have the dictatorship of money. Artists have to follow the taste of the public.”
Zvezdochyotov explains that during Soviet times, underground artists created art for the appreciation of their friends. Since there was no market, and since most of them had undemanding jobs with stable salaries, they were free from commercial pressures. In this environment, they tended to produce art that was intellectual and rich with ironic references to the Soviet context. Perhaps the pinnacle of this tendency was the Moscow Conceptualist school. In one conceptualist exhibition, organized by a circle of artists including Zvezdochyotov called “Champions of the World,” visitors came expecting to see a series of paintings. But instead of paintings, the exhibit consisted of typewritten orders (from some entity akin to the Artists’ Union) commissioning each nonexistent painting, and describing its content in minute detail.
Collector Pierre Brochet has bought many of the most controversial works of new Russian art, including Damir Muratov’s ‘West Is Dead.’
By the 1990s, Moscow Conceptualism had ended, and many former underground artists had emigrated to the West. Russian art was desperately in need of new voices and ideas.
One Russian artist found a unique way to break into the art world: by getting on his knees and barking like a dog.
Oleg Kulik is a photographic and performance artist, originally from Kiev, who now lives and works in Moscow. When he emerged onto the art scene in the mid-1990s, Kulik scandalized Moscow with his outrageous performances, where he crawled naked on the floor, smeared with mud and snow, biting visitors on the legs. His message was loud and clear — with the triumph of the mafia and the decline of the intelligentsia, Russian society had reverted to a brutal, animalistic state of nature. This crushing condition of despair was so pervasive that it could not be conveyed through normal means of artistic communication: the only way to reach audiences was through shock tactics.
Audiences were divided on Kulik. Some hailed him as a genius, while others disdained his crudeness and blatant pursuit of controversy. His photographs poured fuel on the fire by profaning the symbols of Russian and Soviet civilization. In one of them, he stands naked before a row of apartment buildings, waving a red flag, while slobbering dogs mount his legs.
Despite his mixed reception in Russia, Kulik was a hit with Western collectors. His work has been shown at the Tate Modern Gallery in London and at the prestigious Venice Biennale; some of his pieces have sold for as much as $30,000. Critics have argued that Kulik’s art is made for export to the West. By turning himself into an animal, they say, he caters to Western perceptions that Russia is a barbaric country on the Asian steppe. Yet at the same time, Kulik seems to have an ironic attitude toward this imperialist stereotype.
More recently, the Blue Noses have mimicked Kulik’s success by trumpeting their Russian naivete and lack of sophistication. Led by Vyacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov, the Blue Noses are a group of video, photographic and performance artists from Siberia. Mizin and Shaburov have a simple credo: they are provincial and proud of it. In one series of photographs, they pose as homeless but happy tramps in front of the symbols of Russian capitalism — Mercedes-Benz cars and billboards for Versace handbags.
The duo are rising stars in the Russian art world. After several shows at Marat Guelman’s gallery on Malaya Polyanka, they participated in last year’s Venice Biennale. But unlike Kulik, the Blue Noses mix a healthy dose of humor into their work. In 1995, Shaburov decided on a new theory of art: it is the artist’s responsibility to make art out of everyday happenings. He even won an art grant from the Soros Foundation to pay for his dentist appointment. Since then, he has listed “The Teeth Filling and Fitting” as one of his major artistic accomplishments.
The New Classicism
Radical artists like Oleg Kulik rejected history and culture. But other artists found that it wasn’t so easy to escape tradition. After all, Russia is deeply conservative when it comes to culture; because of the static nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Russian art institutes teach almost the same curriculum today that they taught in the late 19th century. As in literature and philosophy, Russian artists live in the shadow of the classics. So it wasn’t surprising that in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, some artists looked backwards for inspiration.
Painter Valery Koshlyakov is one of those artists. For the past decade, Koshlyakov’s dominant theme has been ruins — in his soft, brown paintings, which are often monumental in size, one sees the crumbling pillars of Gothic and ancient architecture. The paint is faded and partially etched away, like in an old photograph. The effect is a powerful sense of nostalgia. “Everything is in ruins. Our empire, our government, our culture,” says Koshlyakov. He is also pessimistic about the state of contemporary art: “There are no tendencies, no groups, nothing. There is nothing going on right now. Our youth is disoriented... I consider myself retrograde. A mammoth.”
Critics consider Koshlyakov a classicist. The phrase “the new classicism,” however, is most often associated with St. Petersburg artist Timur Novikov. Like Koshlyakov’s paintings, Novikov’s collages are deeply aesthetic, with an instantly recognizable individual style. All of them consist of large velvet canvases, with some small object, sometimes an old photograph, situated precisely in the middle. The photo graph is often a historical allusion; it could show a Russian Orthodox patriarch, or Oscar Wilde. There is always something puzzling about Novikov’s velvet collages, but they clearly seem to convey a set of premodern values.
Novikov died prematurely in 2002. Before his death, he was tremendously influential — in addition to being an artist, he was an ideological guru who wrote manifestos and attracted followers, especially among St. Petersburgers. But after the guru’s death, his followers dispersed. Novikov’s “new classicism” did not outlive its founder.
Gallery owner Marat Guelman says he’s leaving politics to return to art.
What’s In A Name
It takes a certain panache to open a gallery under one’s own name. First of all, it means splashing that name all over advertisements and art journals. But it also means something else — turning one’s name into a brand, and possibly even a school of thought, in the art world.
Marat Guelman and Leonid Shishkin are two Moscow art dealers who run eponymous galleries. But as anyone who has visited both the Marat Guelman Gallery and the Leonid Shishkin Gallery could attest, the two owners could hardly be more different in their approach to art. While Guelman promotes the works of contemporary artists, often in provocative, scandal-creating exhibitions, Shishkin hearkens back to the past, selling antique paintings by 19th century Russian masters, along with the best works of Soviet realism.
Perhaps Guelman has the more unusual resume. In addition to running two galleries in Moscow and Kiev for the past decade, he is a political “spin doctor” who has worked for Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. In fact, some newspapers accused him of playing “dirty tricks” to undermine Yeltsin’s Communist rival during the 1996 presidential campaign. But Guelman has few regrets about his role in the Yeltsin PR machine. He is a committed anti-Communist with close ties to the reformist, liberal side of Russian politics.
During the 2004 campaign, Guelman helped direct the news department of the state-controlled TV network Channel 1. Many observers believed that he was scripting the news to support Putin’s re-election campaign. But Guelman resigned a month before the vote, saying that Putin so thoroughly dominated Russian politics that his job had become pointless. He promised to return to his original love — art.
In his gallery, Guelman favors art with a political edge. One of his exhibitions, “New Money,” stirred controversy by showing an artist’s conception of how Russian money should look, just when the government was about to introduce new bills. It was perhaps the only art exhibition ever condemned by the Central Bank.
“I believe that the artist should always create provocations,” says Guelman. “It is his main function in society.”
Leonid Shishkin caters to a different end of the art market; his gallery sells antique paintings by realist masters from the 19th and 20th centuries. But Shishkin is no philistine when it comes to modern art. While working as a journalist in the 1980s, many of his friends were underground artists, and he got his start in the art-dealing world by organizing a show of unofficial Soviet art in Prague in 1988. But simultaneously, he had been studying the works of official Soviet painters from the 1950s. The experience led to an epiphany.
“I compared these Soviet masters of painting to my friends who worked in unofficial art,” says Shishkin, “and I saw that this older generation — because of its education, expertise, and spirituality — produced works of much, much higher quality than my nonconformist, informal artist friends.”
Thus, the bulk of Shishkin’s collection consists of Soviet art, but he also features landscapes by 19th century masters like Ivan Aivazovsky, Isaac Levitan, and Ivan Shishkin. Coincidentally, Shishkin-the-painter is a distant relative of Shishkin-the-gallery-owner; Leonid Shishkin concedes that the family name provides a nice benefit for his brand.
At one point in the 1990s, it seemed like painting was a dying art form. In the world of contemporary art, old-fashioned oil paints and canvases seemed to have been supplanted by trendier media, including video, photography, and digital technology.
This seemed doubly true — and doubly frustrating — for graduates of the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, Russia’s top school for realist painting. Without a doubt, the Surikov Institute was still one of the world’s best places to study realist painting; its professors included the third-generation heirs of Russia’s 19th century masters, such as Ilya Repin. But with the collapse of the USSR, the demand for Socialist Realism vanished, and graduates were ill-prepared to find their way in the contemporary art market.
In 1994, Vladimir Dubosarsky and Alexander Vinogradov, two graduates of the Surikov Institute, decided to unite as a painting duo. Trained in realist painting, they disliked movements such as Moscow Conceptualism, where worthless objects — a cigarette lighter glued to a wall, for instance — could be considered art. Instead, they wanted to create art that was understandable, aesthetically pleasing, and monumental.
Dubosarsky and Vinogradov began to paint large canvases in a style that was reminiscent of Socialist Realism. But instead of painting factory workers, they chose motifs from popular culture. Elvis, Barbie, and Pokemon have all appeared in their epic paintings. Sometimes, Dubosarsky and Vinogradov mix Russian and Western culture in comic ways—in one of their pictures, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pushkin are riding together in a Cadillac. As a rule, everything is presented in a happy, carefree way that is completely free of irony.
The pictures seem to exist in the best of all possible worlds.“Every picture we do is like a movie poster,” says Dubosarsky, “where it shows the best parts of the film. And the film is something that will make the viewer happy. The purpse of our project is to create a sort of heaven.”
Initially, the duo’s paintings received a mixed reaction. Viewers didn’t know what to make of them. Were they some sort of parody of consumer society? Or were they just commercial kitsch? Ultimately, the art-going public accepted Dubosarsky and Vinogradov as the creators of a new, uniquely Russian style of painting. The two have continued to create what they call their “eternal painting.” It is eternal because many of the canvases fit together, if placed side by side, and the overarching theme is heaven. The project has over 100 canvases so far.
Today, a large painting by Dubosarsky and Vinogradov can fetch $15,000 — twice the value two years ago. The recent jump in price reflects the growing prestige of the painters. Not only have they been shown at galleries around the world, but museums, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, are beginning to purchase their works.
State of The Art
Dubosarsky and Vinogradov belong to the lucky handful of Russian artists who have emerged onto the world stage in the past ten years. But in general, Russia produces very few new artists, given its size and great cultural legacy. Some say the problem lies in the minuscule dimensions of the Russian contemporary art market. Marat Guelman claims there are only 15 proper private collectors of contemporary art in the entire country, plus two museums – the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum. With little support, and few opportunities to show their work, Russian artists face very difficult conditions.
“Artists just live like misfits,” says Pierre Brochet, a French businessman who has collected Russian art since 1989. “They are the poorest people you could imagine.”
Brochet has made it his personal mission to change the status quo. By purchasing the work of many struggling artists, this turtleneck- clad Frenchman — who publishes the La Petit Fute series of travel books — has become a central figure in the Moscow art scene. In fact, Brochet has encouraged others to join his cause. Two years ago, he started the Contemporary Art Collectors’ Club, an association of private citizens who collect the works of Russian artists. In establishing the group, Brochet’s goal was to educate the Russian elite about contemporary art. Ultimately, he hopes to inspire more people to become collectors like himself.
This is not an easy task. While there are many wealthy Russians, especially in Moscow, few of them are interested in contemporary art. Most prefer to buy antique art instead. “They understand antique art better,” says Guelman. “But all the art dealers say that the antique market is overpriced in Russia. They bring in pieces from Paris and London, because prices here are higher than world prices. In contrast, the market for contemporary art is underpriced.”
The development of Russian art is also hampered by the lack of state support. In other countries, governments support artists by handing out commissions and grants, offering tax breaks to galleries, and helping promote international exhibitions. In Russia, this type of support is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, some government officials, like Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, detest and actively undermine most contemporary art. Luzhkov gives lavish subsidies to “court artists” like sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the creator of the 94-meter-high Peter the Great monument that towers over the Moscow River, which is widely despised by art critics and many city residents. In addition, Luzhkov gives free gallery space to painter Alexander Shilov, a strict realist who dismisses all modern painting starting with Picasso. The mayor’s attitude infuriates Brochet. “If you ask people on the street who the biggest artists are,” says Brochet, “they will say Shilov, Tsereteli, Safronov. Nobody would say the Blue Noses, Zvezdochyotov, or Koshlyakov. Because almost all the orders go to these people. The fact is, Russia is the last country where this happens. It’s probably only the same in North Korea and China.”
Thus, despite the immense creativity of Russia’s artists, contemporary art is not quite ready to take its rightful place in Russian society. It could take a generation or more for attitudes to change in both the public and the private sector. But in the meantime, Pierre Brochet will continue his enthusiastic support of Russian art.
“It’s my commitment,” muses the veteran collector. “I don’t want to die and think, ‘Gosh, what have I done with my life?’ I have two children. I started this collection, I’ve helped artists. One day, they will be proud of me.”
GALLERIES FOR CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN ART
Aidan Gallery. Fashionable gallery that sells works from the “New Classicism” school. 22 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ul., 3rd Floor, 251 3734.
Artgentum Gallery. 5 Petrovka, New gallery exhibiting mostly artists from outside Moscow. Berlin House, 2nd floor, 796 6751.
Fine Art Gallery. Has maintained its underground-art ambience since the early 1990s. 3 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ul., Bldg. 10, 251 7649.
Krokin Gallery. Impressive variety of contemporary artists, both Russian and foreign. 15 Ul. Bolshaya Polyanka, 959 0141.
Marat Guelman Gallery. New and interesting young artists, frequently scandalous exhibits. 7/7 Ul. Malaya Polyanka, Bldg. 5, 238 8492/2783.
Regina Gallery. Many renowned Russian artists have shown there work here, including Oleg Kulik. 22 1st Tverskaya- Yamskaya Ul., 4th Floor, 250 8571.
XL Gallery. Specializes in experimental art: lots of installations, video and photography. Vinogradov and Dubosarsky exhibit here. 16/2 Podkolokolny Per., 916 8235.
OTHER CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERIES
Central House of Artists. Rotating exhibitions from different artists, wildly varying in quality. 10 Krymsky Val, 238- 9634.
Escape. Non-commercial gallery featuring independent, nonprofit artists. 23 Nagornaya Ul., Bldg. 2, 127-0919.
Lumiere Brothers Gallery. Contemporary photography inside the Central House of Artists. 10 Krymsky Val, 795- 1755.
Reflex Gallery. More contemporary photography. 12 Frunzenskaya Nab., 245-2850.
Stella Art Gallery. Pricey gallery featuring expensive non-Russian artists. 7 Skaryatinsky Per., 291- 3403/2675.