Soviet Art of the 1960s, Part 1
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Our retrospective history of the 20th century Russian art has come round to the artists of the 1960s. That was a very special decade for the Soviet Union. At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev dethroned Stalin, so to speak, by denouncing his ‘personality cult’. The foundations of the totalitarian regime were undermined. Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen next, but one thing was clear, the time of Stalin’s repressions was over. Now everything changed: politically, economically, socially and internationally. The short period that followed is now known by the name of Khrushchev’s Thaw. It lasted only a decade, but that decade was very creative for art.
1957 saw the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, which was perceived as being the first tangible breath of freedom. It gave people an insight into non-figurative art and the existence of various visual models of the world. The first solo retrospective display of Pablo Picasso in Moscow, held in 1956, caused a revolution in the minds of those who visited it. It is now traditional to consider the 1960s as a time of new hopes, burning eyes and naïve thinking. However, that time was as ambivalent as any other period in human history and its falsity became evident only too soon. In 1958 Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago and was immediately condemned by the authorities for having ties with the West. In 1962- 1964 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was published, which led to the author leaving for the West. The same happened to poet Josef Brodsky who was condemned for ‘parasitism’. Years later, both writers became Noble Prize winners. Those events marked very sharp border lines on the way to freedom, and gave birth to a whole generation of the so-called ‘underground artists of the 1960s-1970s’, who confronted the official art of socialist realism.
On December 10, 1962, Nikita Khrushchev visited an exhibition of modern artists at the Manezh exhibition hall near the Kremlin. His response to the exhibition of new Soviet modern art was quite severe: “This creativity is alien to our people.” After this ‘official’ statement, the artists who participated in the exhibition were forever after labelled ‘nonconformists’. This group of artists who chose to not conform led very different lives from each other. Some emigrated to the West and returned only after the fall of the Soviet Union; some continued working in the USSR. Those artists who stayed in this country went underground. Their works were not exhibited because they did not fit in with the officially approved art of the USSR. These are famous people now: Anatoly Zverev, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, Oscar Rabin, Vladimir Nemukhin, Lidia Masterkova, Evgeny Kropivnitsky and many others.
Unlike Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, who was a hermit and who stayed away from the art world creating his philosophic stilllifes in his small apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, or Anatoly Zverev, who never stayed at home, but was always with the people boozing and selling his works for a bottle of vodka, Oscar Rabin was not only an artist but also a social figure who grouped artists around his family. It was he who organized the famous exhibition of underground art in Belyaevo, Moscow, on September 15, 1974, known as the Bulldozer Exhibition. The authorities decided to send in bulldozers to crush the works displayed. In the Soviet Union there was always official art, which was very well paid for, and there was non-official art, very much frowned upon and suppressed. Now that art was called ‘another art’ or ‘a different art’. At the beginning of the Soviet rule the ‘different artists’ were Filonov, Malevich, Tyshler, and later Tselkov, Rabin, Plavinsky, Nemukhin, Kropivnitsky, Rukhin, Weisberg, Zverev and Yakovlev.
Oscar Rabin was born on January 2, 1928. He became an orphan at an early age. He did not live in an orphanage, though, but found his second home with the family of artist and poet Yevgeny Kropivnitsky. When he grew up, he married Kropivnitskay’s daughter Valentina, with whom he lived his whole life, both in Moscow and later in Paris. He went to the Riga Academy of Arts and to the Surikov Art Institute, but was mostly educated by the family that adopted him, a family where good artists, poets and musicians used to get together for the sake of art.
Rabin gathered around him free thinking artists who were living in or near his place of residence in Lianozovo, outside Moscow. This group was later known as the Lianozovo Group. Lianozovo was not just a name. It was a symbol, a sign, a definition of a different epoch, a different art opposing Soviet rule and the idiotism of the Komsomol (the Young Communist League). Rabin was the leader of the Moscow underground art at the time. After the Moscow Festival of Youth and Students in 1957 there was a lot of heated discussion about which way artists should go. Artists Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, Nikolai Vechtomov, Vladimir Nemukhin and his wife Lidia Masterkova plus poets Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov were the nucleus of the group and the focus of those discussions.
In 1968 Rabin completed a painting called A Still Life with a Fish and The Pravda Newspaper. In his book Three Lives he wrote that although he was blamed for being anything but a realist, he thought his painting was realistic: “I was reproached for my still-lifes, for vodka bottles and for a herring sitting on a newspaper. But haven’t you ever drunk vodka with a herring? At all the feasts, including the official ones, one drinks vodka. Nothing doing…”
From the point of view of the Communist Party, that piece of art was mocking the Central Party organs, comparing the party and Pravda with vodka and herrings, and marring heroic Soviet reality.
Underground art was brought about by the energy of resistance, non-conformism and opposition to the Soviet state. Almost each piece dating back to that period is a cry of protest, a satirical portrait of a pathological society. For example, Rabin’s painting Unexpected Joy is a portrayal of the Holy Virgin icon of the same name against the background of a winter landscape crossed by a high voltage wire. The feeling of unease and depression, the dominant mood of Brezhnev’s stagnation period, which followed the Thaw is rendered perfectly.
Foreign correspondents recorded events during the Bulldozer Exhibition, which soon became a world famous scandal. That episode made Soviet rule look so pathetic in the eyes of world public opinion that the authorities had to allow the nonconformists and other ‘formalists’ and ‘lefts’ organize another exhibition in Izmailovsky Park. It was quite a sight. Artists holding their works formed a line while above them on a hill stood rows of policemen and KGB agents. Of course, the authorities remembered that exhibition for a long time. It was their disgrace and defeat, and the victory of Rabin and his friends.
However, that victory came at a great price. At first Rabin was put under house arrest. Later he was sent to prison. He wrote: “I’m not afraid of prison. And I know for sure that I’ll never emigrate.” The poor artist did not know that the whole question about his leaving the country had already been settled behind closed doors. Rabin and his wife Valentina Kropivnitskaya were allowed to make a trip to the West. Half a year later they were stripped of Soviet citizenship, which was only restored in the 1990s. They were treated very similarly to the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya and cellist Mstislav Rostrapovich.
However, notwithstanding the hard struggle between underground art and official art, such events could have only happened at all during and after the Thaw. The very fact that the Bulldozer Exhibition followed by the Izmailovo exhibition did take place and was covered by the international media was only due to the fact that Stalin’s regime was gone.
To be continued in the next issue