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Russia: Soviet-Era Artist Enjoyed Ability To Develop Original Themes

Of the artists to emerge from the obscurity of the Soviet underground movement, Grisha Bruskin has been one of the most successful. Known for works that de-mystified Soviet mythology, Bruskin now lives in New York and his works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bruskin talks to RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon about life in the Soviet system and his change in fortunes.

New York, 10 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Official Soviet censorship of the visual arts ended in dramatic fashion on a July day in 1988 when an auction by Sotheby's in Moscow was to put the work of underground artists onto the international market.

For conceptual artist Grisha Bruskin, it was the beginning of a new life. Records of the Sotheby's auction that day show Bruskin sold six paintings for a total of more than $800,000.

Bruskin moved to New York, was engaged by the Marlborough Gallery to show his work and his career flourished as the Soviet Union disintegrated. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, the 56-year-old Bruskin uses the term "miracle" to describe the events that unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

"Nobody thought that the communists could collapse one day. We thought that the Soviet army was so strong and the KGB was everywhere. We thought that [that would last] for another 1,000 years at least, like ancient Egypt, and all of the sudden, the communists collapsed. Nowadays, it [seems] like a miracle."

Bruskin's work frequently dealt with the myths and symbols of the Soviet system and their empty representation of a Soviet identity. Seen 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet system, they represent important statements from an artistic community that had no voice.

Bruskin's work usually figures in the exhibits of Soviet nonconformist art now appearing frequently in the United States. His 1987 sculpture "Birth of the Hero" was the opening display at the recent exhibit of Soviet-era art at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, not far from New York.

The 15 painted bronze sculptures address the creation of the ideal Soviet man. They depict various Soviet "heroes," including the pioneer, the sportswoman, the soldier, and the bureaucrat with a map. There are also angels and devils, an allusion to the communists' use of religion in building their myths. The last figure is a faceless man, representing the soulless state of man before the soul enters the body.

Bruskin says he was reacting to the profusion of heroic symbolism of the times:

"'The Birth of the Hero' is a collection of different Russian archetypes, the most popular Russian pop images of the time. The whole country, the Soviet Union, was filled by different sculptures. It was sculpture mania. The monumental propaganda sculptures were everywhere."

He still occasionally has opportunities to debunk Soviet mythology. The German government recently commissioned Bruskin to contribute to an art project in the renovated Reichstag building in Berlin. Bruskin created a triptych 14 meters long and six meters high depicting Soviet myths and alluding to their parallels with the Nazi mythology.

But while Bruskin loathed the Soviet system, he says he was grateful for his grounding in Russian culture. Socialist realism was the only officially sanctioned visual art form, but Bruskin says many of those who became underground artists received solid training in traditional art.

"It was a traditional method but very solid and very good, and the artists had the means to make good art because of that. This [tradition] is coming from the 19th century. It was not lost in the Soviet time. That's why, for instance, the official art, socialist realist art, some of them are very, very well done in terms of technique and other things."

But with little regular contact with the West, the Soviet nonconformist artists were isolated from leading contemporary artists. Bruskin said for artists inside the Soviet Union, there were competing urges: to try to be part of the international art scene, however difficult, or to find the sources and roots for their art in Russian life.

"Life was different. And to express this life and to create original art, that was the most important [thing]. And those artists who did that, now they are the most interesting artists of this period."

Bruskin, like others active in the underground art scene in the late Soviet era, declines to see himself or his peers as victims. He said that for himself, his days as a young artist in the former Soviet Union were a happy time.

"The time was heroic. For us we had a great time in this terrible country. On the one hand it was a terrible country. On the other hand it was always a great country because Russian culture was always there."

Appraising the art from this period today, Bruskin says there is very good art, very bad art, and mediocre art, like in any artistic movement. What he enjoys about the best Soviet-era art, he says, is the ability of the artists to develop original themes in isolation from world influences and outside the scrutiny of Soviet censors.