Soviet Art of the 1970s
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
(continued from the part one in the April issue of Passport)
In this issue we continue our observations about the Soviet artists of the 1970s, the so-called semidesyatniki. The young artists of this movement portrayed the bitter truth of real life in that decade through the vehicle of primitivism, but against the background of the sedate and established style of the time: socialist realism. Like any other movement, the semidesyatniki gave birth to superficial works, conceited manners, and at times, showy stylisations. But there was an essential grain of living truth inherent in works created by artists of this movement.
The leaders of the movement were somehow larger than their stylistic interests. Some inner necessity was growing, evolving, trying to reveal itself in their primitive images. However, their style cannot be understood without placing it in a historical perspective, although the attitude of those artists to the artistic heritage, to the stylistic tradition is extraordinary and paradoxical. On the one hand their choice of tradition was partly functional.
On the other hand, tradition was an independent subject of culture for many of them, a subject of admiration and a desirable foil. In this dialogue of equals going through many layers of the artistic archive of the past, those young artists continued learning the lessons of the famous artist Dmitry Zhilinsky. But they soon outgrew those lessons. They passionately strived to combine the incongruous.
Alongside with primitivism they were gravitating to ‘the museum’ of traditional art as well. Therefore the canvases of these artists reveal some blunt linearity alongside with earthliness and refinement. That is what we see in the paintings of Viktor Kalinin and Sattar Aitiev, Irina Mesheraykova and Irina Starzhenestkaya, Martyn Petrosyan and Inta Tselmini.
Their works attract us due to their spirituality, subtle psychology and complicated colour combinations. It was not by chance that this generation of artists turned to the masters of the past who taught them to understand the dramatic complexity of human nature and its existence. These artists appreciated aesthetic harmony and realized only too well how many contradictions it contains. The ‘museum rooms’ frequented by the artists of the 1970s were Quattrocento, the Renaissance in the North of Italy, masters on the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. By observing great art through the ages the young artists of the 1970s managed to create a new symbol of their own that fitted their own epoch and was understandable for their contemporaries.
In this respect one should pay tribute to Tatyana Nazarenko. She ascends from the brutal prose of the semi-genre, semilubok (a kind of art connected with folklore whose image is simple, direct and succinct) to a most intricate image in the portrait of I. Kupryashin (1974). She is using the primitivistic grotesque, but at the same time she manages to put across the moral aspect in ‘Rendezvous’ (1973) and ‘Drinking Tea in Polenovo’ (1973). Some masters of the 1920s and early 1930s who were close to the art group ‘Makovets’ cultivated a special school of contemplation: the aesthetics of ‘philosophic conditions’ in the spatial-colour image. But never before the 1970s had this type of contemplation attracted so many painters of different types and never before was there such variety as in the Soviet art of the 1970s.
In this connection, one should mention the Estonian artist P. Mudist. His paintings are full of lyricism, regardless of the topic. They are similar to the life of the human soul in a special space where two opposite sources of emission direct their rays: the natural essence of being, and modern civilization with its demands, temptations and losses.
Some of Nesterova’s motives echo those of Mudist, but she interprets the themes in her own way. The intricate relationship of the natural and the social evolves in the inner selves of her characters. Many people view her pictures as being rough and cartoon-like. You could think her faces are created arbitrarily. However, this painting manner testifies to an existence which strives towards, but can’t achieve, harmony. Usually the life of these characters occurs in the landscape. Nature seems to be full of silent sympathy to men who accept the pain of trying to solve the riddles of nature, but fail to do so.
The dramatic inclination towards spirituality and beauty is a source of constant tension in the paintings of Irina Mesheryakova. Her canvases reveal a light colour range which is full of rhythmic contrasts. They bear a kind of symbolic conflict. This conflict was brought about by the collision of spatial aspects, by the struggle of the palette-knife and the brush with the very essence of the paint. The artist uses all this to construct her painting, which is aimed at sensitive perception and rich imagination.
Irina Starzhenetskaya looked for a naive and subtle greatness in the life of the soul. At first her concept of colour influenced Mesheryakova. However, both women artists create their own worlds. Starzhenetskaya’s feelings are mostly idealistic, but in her world of imagery there is polemic meaning, a kind of a preaching. One can feel this as she makes comparisons between her world and everyday life.
To sum up the art of the 1970s, we can say that it reflected the epoch of stagnation during Brezhnev’s rule in a negative way, by way of painful contradictions. At the same time, the paintings present the currents of life in that period. The Soviet art culture of the 1970s created various cultural centres and fresh energy which foresaw and prepared the mentality of the people for the change that was to come. This happened not only in the fine arts, but in cinema and literature as well. As for the artists of that period they made their own contribution by creating a truthful picture of the Soviet life in the 1970s through their imagery.