Soviet art of the 1960s, part II
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
The cultural life of the 1960s Moscow underground artistic elite was a unique home-grown phenomenon. In the language of the belle époque, it was a kind of ‘art salon’, opposed to official art. The creators of this samizdat art could not count on mass audiences. Apart from homes, the then cultural centres, they could only display their art in students’ clubs or hostels. Poets would recite to friends while artists organised exhibitions in their flats, in rooms of only ten 10 square metres, even. The circle of organisers was restricted, its priority being just to support the artists and their art and show it at least to somebody. The pioneers were poet-translator V. Bugaevsky, composer A. Volkonsky, pianist S. Richter, literary critic L. Pinsky, actor A. Rumnev and art critic Tsirlin.
Such closet activity of course goaded the repressive authorities and soon Tsirlin, the head of the arts department at the Institute of Cinematography, was fired. He died in the prime of life. New figures appeared, starting with collector, Georgy Kostaki. He had already acquired works by Mark Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky, whose fame was coming back to their motherland from the West. Kostaki was a Greek born in Russia and working for the Canadian Embassy. He was one of the first collectors and purchasers of the new Soviet art, followed by younger collectors Evgeny Nutovich, Alexander Gleiser and Leonid Talochkin. A very strange art life evolved, self-sufficient in the manner of a medieval village.
Having quite different aesthetic credos, the creative energy of these enforced loners multiplied by the lack of interest on the part of the arts establishment, the freedom of the renegade, gave birth to a unique phenomenon, the Moscow underground school of the 1960s-1970s. The inevitable confrontation with the authorities came in 1967, four years after Khrushchev’s visit to the famous display at the Manezh exhibition hall. The showdown started with the exhibition by 12 artists at the Druzhba (Friendship) Club on Shosse Entusiastov. Until the Moscow Union of Artists (MOSKH) delivered the first blows at the underground it had been quite idyllic. The leaders of the so-called left MOSKH, N. Andronov, P. Nikonov and V. Polyakov created a Group of 8 inside MOSKH. They opposed academicism, being adherents of the French school of painting, Russian Cézannism . It was they who were Khrushchev’s targets at the Manezh. Later on they lost their ideology and dissolved into the official MOSKH.
Something similar happened to the first Studio of Abstract Art led by E. Belyutin at the Polygraphic Institute. This talented and inspired teacher opened new vistas for his students, criticising academic art and the socialist realism taught at the official art schools. After the bull Khrushchev visited the Manezh china shop both the Group of 8 and the First Studio of Abstract Art were smashed. After the wreck in the Manezh, Belyutin’s students sought refuge in design and polygraphy. They introduced their fresh vision into the applied arts and enriched the general cultural perception of the arts. Thus Belyutin’s lessons were not in vain. However, only B. Zhutovsky, who is still true to the traditions of abstract art today, kept ties with Moscow’s underground movement. The leaders of the Group of 8 and Belyutin’s students hoped to adapt their work to the mainstream of official art. Their favourite book was About Realism Without Shores by the French communist Roger Garaudy. They connected their social dreams for the arts with a book published for scientific libraries.
Another tight circle of artists, connected with the Manezh, had their own ideas and hoped for change: Ernst Neizvestny, Yulo Sooster, Yuri Sobolev, Vladimir Yankilevsky. These very different artists were united by their absolute faith in positive knowledge. Art for them was a form of cognition of material existence, similar to science. As the popularity of new ideas in nuclear physics, genetics and cybernetics was growing, so did their influence on the artistic habitat of these artists. Their faith in science had coincided with the faith in progress encouraged by Khrushchev’s thaw. All of them also fell victim to Khrushchev’s tantrum at the Manezh. However, they went on working and gradually became underground artists. Sooster died at the beginning of the 1970s and Neizvestny emigrated but Yankilevsky stayed in the Soviet Union and perfected his system.
Underground artistic life made several nests. One of them was the so-called Lianozovo group (see Passport, July 2010). Lianozovo was a train station near Moscow. There in a onestorey cabin lived Oscar Rabin with his family. The members of the group were his relatives and friends: poet and artist E. Kropivnitsky, artist O. Potapova (Rabin’s wife Valentina’s parents), L. Kropivnitsky (her brother), Nikolai Vechtomov, Valdimir Nemukhin and his wife Lidia Masterkova as well as poets Igor Kholin, Genrich Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov. The poets considered themselves to be students of E. L. Kropivnitsky. These artists and poets did not share a common vision, although the creativity of Rabin and Kholin was moulded by the poetry of the absurd, the so-called poetry of obscurity. Both Rabin and Kholin were barrack-room mythologists. Their art is an opposition, the other side of the medal, to the art of socialist realism. The expressive world of an army base at night covered by snow, surrounded by rubbish dumps and hungry cats, was portrayed by Oscar Rabin as well as the laconic poetry of Igor Kholin.
On the other hand L. Kropivnitsky, Lidia Masterkova, Vladimir Nemukhin and O.A. Potapova were trying to break beyond the boundaries of everyday reality. They were one of the first to rediscover abstract art at that time.
On Sundays they organised displays of Rabin’s paintings, lyrical meditative compositions by Potapova, expressive abstractions by L. Kropivnitsky, rhythmic and colourist works by Masterkova and Nemukhin. Lianozovo was at once the apex of sharp social criticism of so-called reality, and the central core of avant-garde thinking.
At that time there was nothing more disgraceful than abstractionism in the eyes of official society. The pluralism of Lianozovo made it a special cultural underground shrine, and attracted not only underground artists. Lianozovo was frequented by writer Ilya Erenburg, pianist Svyatoslav Richter and poet Boris Slutsky as well as the world famous publisher A. Skira. Artists of different groups and specialism cross-fertilised with each other in Lianozovo.