Saturday, January 5, 2013

Breaking the ice: MOSCOW ART, 1960-80s

21 Nov 2012 - 24 Feb 2013 
Saatchi Gallery

The exhibition of the most prominent representatives of Russian underground art of 1960-80s is currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery. The exhibition gathered the works of such artists, as Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Francisco Infante, Oscar Rabin, Dmitry Prigov, Eric Bulatov and other important figures of Soviet alternative art movement. 

The collection focuses on the artists who worked within political topics, developing the ideological and aesthetic opposition to the ruling regime and at the same time reflecting the symbolic heritage of the Soviet Union. The bright examples are Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid who were the inventors of 'sots-art' style. They developed the conception of sots-art in surrealistic paintings depicting Stalin in paradoxical and impossible situations. One of the works in the exhibition, from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, shows Stalin in front of the red-wrapped mirror, admiring his own reflection, in a way that calls to mind Venus by Velasquez. This odd approach to cult of personality was something revolutionary for the art of the period.

Another nonconformist artist, Leonid Sokov in far 1990 arranged a meeting of Lenin's monument and a statue by Giacometti ('Lenin and Giacometti'). These two figures oppose each other in the situation of some absurd yet important dialogue. In other works it is possible to notice an enormous influence by Russian revolutionary avant-garde of 1920s and Western Dada and pop-art movements: pissoirs by Alexander Kosolapov with suprematist black squares and signature: 'Lenin', further can be found a variety of pop-art interpretations of the 'big three' of Soviet ideology: Lenin, Stalin and Marx. 

The works of Moscow Romantic conceptualist Ilya Kabakov presented in the exhibition as usually refer to the idea of creation of an alternative story that has an aim to confuse the viewer, lead him to the wrong path. At the same time, a viewer understands everything and accepts the rules of this intellectual game. Such is his ironically destructive installation that represents three paintings in a typical style of social realism. Once they were put under the glass, but now the glass is broken, the paintings are partly destroyed, and the 'place of accident' is surrounded with a fence. The story tells that the artist did this himself in a moment of madness and disappointment about his creation, and then one of the curators of the exhibition decided to leave this ruined work on the display. 

Oscar Rabin is another representative of Moscow art, is not so well-known in the Western art market. He was a participant of the Bulldozer exhibition in 1974, when the works of artists who organized an open-air unofficial exhibition in one of the parks of Moscow, were destroyed by bulldozers brought by the government forces. In his paintings Rabin explores the questions of identity and existence on the margins. One of his most famous works is 'Passport' which depicts the sacred paper of any Soviet person, the document that established the permanent registration of living as well nationality of a holder.

Photographs of land art installations of Francisco Infante were in made in completely another spirit. They do not carry any ideological expression, but instead they produce a strong visual statement. Infante experimented with the simple geometric shapes that he was integrating into the landscape in order to receive various abstract visual effects.

The works presented in the exhibition 'Breaking the Ice' are focused on the dialogue with the style of social realism, which dominated in the Soviet Union since the times of Stalin's regime. This monopoly of social realism was broken during Khrushchev's thaw, when new underground art started to emerge. However, the power of social realism was so strong that the artists needed to produce their work with a strong focus on the argument with aesthetics and ideology of official art in order to legitimize the existence of other points of view. 

The exhibition occupies the second floor of the Saatchi Gallery. But the feeling is that a viewer is present at a temporal display in the Tretyakov Gallery - so similar is the choice of artists and works. It is not surprising, as the exhibition is curated by Andrei Erofeev, who for a long time was the head of contemporary art section there. The heart of the exhibition is formed by the collection of the Tsukanov Family Foundation, and some works are brought from other private collections. This exhibition is not the first event taking place in London that is focused on Soviet alternative art, but it is especially interesting, because it gathered the most important representatives of Russian art scene.

The exhibition gives an excellent overview of the alternative artistic life in the Soviet Union, which claimed to be out of regulation of the socialist regime. At some moment these works received a good reception in the Western countries, while in Soviet Union they stayed in shadow until the final meltdown of the Soviet iceberg in 1991.

The exhibition 'Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s' is especially interesting in the context of another exhibition 'Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union'. The combination of these two exhibitions gives a clear sense of continuity of tradition in Russian art that prolongs its existence even despite revolutions and changes in the state organization. It would be a good idea to include to the display a selection of Russian avant-garde art of 1920s to have a wider perspective on the artistic processes in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. 

Komar &Melamid. Stalin in Front of the Mirror. Fragment. 1982-83.

Leonid Sokov. Lenin and Giacometti. 1990.

Installation view. Alexander Kosolapov. 

Installation view. Ilya Kabakov.

Installation view. Oscar Rabin. 

Installation view. Fransisco Infante and Oleg Tselkov (right)

Photos by Saatchi Gallery

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