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Russia: U.S. Exhibitions Increasingly Interested In Soviet-Era Art

  • Robert McMahon

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissident art produced under communism is attracting growing interest in the West, particularly in the United States. Museum curators and other art fans see it not just as an important Soviet-era cultural legacy but as a true contribution to late 20th-century contemporary art. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the popularity of this once forbidden art.

New York, 10 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Though still little known at home, underground art produced during the last decades of the Soviet Union is gaining increased exposure and appreciation in the West.

Hundreds of pieces, including paintings, sculptures, and photographs, have been featured in traveling exhibits in Western Europe and the United States in recent years. The largest collection of this art -- at the Zimmerli Museum in New Jersey -- continues to grow, with more than 20,000 pieces accumulated so far. And a number of the surviving artists have launched thriving careers in New York.

A recent exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, featured more than 70 works by mostly Russian nonconformist artists. The pieces were provided by Yuri Traisman, a major Russian collector of art from this period who now lives in the United States.

Traisman says the Greenwich exhibition was the sixth show in the past two years featuring Soviet-era works from his collection. He tells RFE/RL he has long admired the work of the nonconformist artists under communism.

"I felt it was quality work, very creative, but it also had that Russian flavor to it because of the characters they [the artists] used. Most of it was figurative."

The only officially sanctioned art during much of the Soviet period was painted in a style known as socialist realism, which emphasized narrative, heroic subjects and classical composition. But despite this, Traisman and other experts say Soviet-era artists still received training in the rich traditions of Russian art. Many were able to produce official art while in secret exploring new styles.

At the Bruce Museum exhibit earlier this summer, for example, there was Anatoly Slepyshev's "Sunset in Siberia," a lonely landscape done in expressionist style. "Head with Hand" by Vladimir Yakovlev featured a merging of expressionism and cubism.

Andrei Grostisky's "Tea Kettle Against the Sky" was a depiction of a grotesque human figure against a blank sky, reminiscent of the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte.

Socialist realism was on display in Dmitry Zhilinsky's "Man With a Slain Dog," but the main character, a pale, forlorn self-portrait, is lacking in any heroic symbolism.

Robin Garr, curator of education at the Bruce Museum, says that while U.S. artists progressed gradually from surrealism to abstract art to pop art, artists in the Soviet Union were being exposed to new forms almost simultaneously. The Bruce Museum exhibit, which includes works from the 1950s to the 1990s, features a hodgepodge of 20th-century styles. Garr explains:

"You see artists taking off in all directions at once, artists working in cubistic styles or impressionistic styles or abstract styles simultaneously rather than sort of a natural progression. That progression was stopped in 1923 when Lenin died and the avant-garde movement came to an abrupt end."

But although they were isolated, art experts say, the late Soviet-era artists were somehow able to carry on the rich tradition of early Russian avant-gardists like Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky. Natalya Kariaeva of Ukraine works as a curatorial assistant on Russian and Soviet nonconformist art at the Zimmerli Museum, located at New Jersey's Rutgers University.

She tells RFE/RL that Soviet nonconformist art provides a connection with Western aesthetic trends as well as with pre-Stalinist Russian artists. She says this art has aesthetic value as well as sociopolitical and historical importance:

"I believe this movement is also a link between the early 20th-century avant-garde, before the Stalinist repressions, and the contemporary art as it develops in Russia and in the former Soviet Union today. If there was not this link, probably the contemporary state of art would be different."

Regina Khidekel, an art historian and curator based in New York, also sees a clear link between the best work produced by Soviet artists and their Western contemporary counterparts.

Khidekel organized an exhibit this spring in Brooklyn that featured both modern American and Russian artists to showcase similarities. She also wants Russian art produced at the end of the Soviet period to be included in the canon of mainstream international art for the last quarter of the 20th century.

Today, former nonconformist artists like Grisha Bruskin can command tens of thousands of dollars for their work. But Khidekel, a St. Petersburg native, calls the work of the underground Soviet artists "sincere" and created without consideration of an art market.

"This art was done not in a prison but in a certain isolation, let's say. It was done inside the art studios, inside their apartments. It was done without any hope to be publicly shown right away. So because of that, they didn't think about the market. They didn't think about the buyers. They didn't think about the galleries."

One style Khidekel is especially interested in exhibiting is so-called "sots art," a style which emerged in the 1970s and combines elements of socialist realism and American pop art. But whereas pop art was concerned with consumerism -- for example, Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup can prints -- sots art used the symbols of Soviet ideology to comment on government propaganda. Khidekel sees the sots art movement as an important Russian-American blending of cultures.

New Jersey's Zimmerli Museum and its Norton and Nancy Dodge collection of Soviet-era art have this year been planning a series of exhibits to demonstrate that nonconformist art was not limited to Moscow and Leningrad.

The museum last month held an exhibition featuring work from artists in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan collected during the past two years with the help of Jane Sharp, research curator of the Dodge Collection.

Sharp tells RFE/RL that there are direct connections between Russian modernism from early in the 20th century and Central Asian avant-garde art.

She says a number of Russian artists exiled to Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s had studied with artists who were part of the pre-revolutionary avant-garde.

But the museum's exhibit last month also highlighted the work of artists in the 1950s through the 1970s, who were interested in expressing distinct cultural and ethnic identities for Uzbeks and Kazakhs. Sharp says artists from that period, such as Shaimardan Sariev and Abdrashid Sydykhanov were merging modernist tendencies, using bright colors, abstract styles, and a focus on individuality.

Sharp says that access to foreign art and art education was far more limited in Central Asia than in Russia, so there is not as much of this period art to be found. But she says that what was produced was very sophisticated.

"It's not as dense, I would say, there's not as much of it, but what there is is exceedingly good. I would say the quality of painting and production, even conceptual art, recent conceptual art, is very high, so it's quite intense. What there is is quite rich and quite intense, but it's not easy to find."

Sharp says Kazakh museums and galleries have begun collecting nonconformist art from the Soviet period and Kazakh authorities are eager to see this art displayed abroad. She says that part of the reason for this is that is such displays can play a role in establishing the identity of the Central Asian states. Sharp sees further value in the spread of awareness about this art.

"I think it would have tremendous value simply as part of this ongoing move to generate or to build a civil society in Kazakhstan, which includes a more open attitude toward creative work -- that creative work doesn't necessarily have to exist purely as a function of a contract between state and artist or patron and artist. [In other words,] that artists express themselves individually, they have other reasons, a variety of reasons for doing the art that they do."

The Zimmerli museum will continue to feature segments of Soviet-era art in special exhibits through the end of the year. From September to November, the museum will showcase the work of female nonconformist artists in the Soviet Union. And from December until March, the museum will hold the first major exhibit on the development of modernist art in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia during the postwar Soviet period.

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