New Russian art: Accusing misery, celebrating resilience

Mike Belbin reviews the art exhibition 'Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union: new art from Russia' at Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 ; admission free, ends May 5 2013

Sergi Vasillev (photographer) criminal tatoos

At first glance, this new art from the Russian Federation could be taken as presenting ‘Russia as ruin’ - a society of the homeless, the depressed, the tortured; one either recovering painfully from the Soviet period or very far gone in a post-Putin wasteland; a vision in painting, photography and sculpture inviting either pity or despair.

An obvious contrast is with socialist realism, the official art of the USSR. This art was called ‘socialist’, but it was more Heroic and Optimistic than Marxist: the portrayal (in image and print) of a people - soldiers, builders, leaders - overcoming difficult conditions or coming out the other side into a full utopian morning.

In The total art of Stalinism Boris Groys commented: “The slogan of the age was ‘Nothing is impossible for a Bolshevik.’ Any reference to facts, technical realities or objective limits was treated as ‘cowardice’ and ‘unbelief’ unworthy of a true Stalinist. It was thought that will-power alone could overcome anything that the bureaucratic, formalistic eye perceived as an insurmountable obstacle.”1

As Paul Flewers recently observed, following the failure of an international revolution, the Soviet republics retrenched into “a profound process of indigenous modernisation”, the new elite committing themselves to “a programme of intense national economic and social development, in a country in which a state apparatus under a forceful leadership takes the place of a non-existent or failed bourgeoisie”.2 No wonder their state-sponsored art was required to be optimistic.

Optimistic art, of course, was not the preserve of the USSR. Models can be found in the work of the renaissance, romantic and high Victorian periods. In fact it was part of the socialist realist aesthetic to re-use rather than reject the past, unlike their rivals in the avant-garde and Proletkult. For example, compare Millais’s 1882 portrait of Disraeli. It shows a British parliamentary politician standing, arms folded, as if ready to reply to an opponent in the house. He may not be about to lead a charge or fix a tractor, but neither is he represented sitting down at home privately posing for the artist (like Churchill in Graham Sutherland’s portrait).

With this in mind (or even without it), the colour photos of Boris Mikhailov’s Case history at the Saatchi could strike you as far from optimistic. In a series of large blow-ups, they depict citizens, bruised, half-naked and in the snow, ragged and tattooed. Whether young or old, they are hardly tourist posters. These are in fact a few prints from his project photographing the Moscow homeless, 500 pictures in all, representing his critique of the ‘mask of beauty’ in the new capitalist republic. The temptation here, if not to pass on quickly, would be to conclude that these are simply pathetic wrecks of post-Sovietism. But take another look and there is something about the subjects which is jaunty, not fallen or passive.

Many pose consciously and upright, show off their bodies defiantly, hug each other affectionately. You certainly would not describe them as merry or pretty - no airbrushed fashion layout here - but just because someone is down it does not mean they are out. A friend of mine suggested a parallel with the work of 60s New York photographer Diane Arbus. Except that these subjects, more damaged though they be, are not on the margin of the norm (like Arbus’s strippers, dwarves, nudists): they are at the ‘bottom’ of it, resembling a version of all citizens, of ourselves, gone out into the cold.

The figures in the photos of Vikenti Nilin’s Neighbours series would be closer to an implication of despair. The pictures show different kinds of people - some could be artists, some porters - but all in the same position: poised on window ledges and balconies in a tenement, legs dangling over a high drop. They wait, on the edge, as if to decide what to do next in the face of the void. They may provoke anyone to ask whether these images could be the result of Photoshop, so precariously balanced are some of the sitters, or in what impossible space the photographer could have been standing.

Irina Korina has another concern. Her Capital (2012) is a two-metre sheet-metal column, topped by a small canopy of plastic bags - bags which may have once been used for shopping, but are now sagging with rubbish. ‘Capital’ here, of course, being a play on words - in particular, the term from classical architecture meaning the style of the top or joint of a column which defines the specific ‘order’ involved: Ionic, Doric, Corinthian. This then can be read as both a reference to the classical style favoured everywhere by empire-builders, whether Napoleon, Stalin or the White House, and as a proposal as to the style of today, the new ‘order’ of shopping and rubbish.

Further reference to the state comes in Gosha Ostretsov’s sculpture/construction, Criminal government, a life-size box of separate cells, through the open doors of which we glimpse man-like creatures with ‘Martian-alien’ or carnival heads, blood streaking their shirts and ties and with limbs missing. Some have suggested these figures might be KGB men getting their come-uppance, but they could equally be a fantasy about Putin ministers or oligarchs. The figures are like outer-space emissaries who have been discovered, arrested and tortured. Choose your analogy.

Turning from recent works, visitors may take the lift to the galleries on the top floor. Here is a retrospective exhibition of the in-between period of modern Russian art. In Breaking the ice: Moscow art 1960s-80s (ends February 24 2013), we first have the post-Khrushchev thaw, the work of those relaxing into imitations of cubism, surrealism and metaphysical art. Windows and doors to nowhere, homely stairs up into a corner, shimmering op art - a practising of modernist gestures by the formerly cut off.

Accompanying these in the second gallery is the more impactful work of the 1980s and Russia’s contribution to postmodernism: namely, sots art. ‘Sots art’ being the Russian abbreviation for ‘socialist art’ - termed ironically, and in the west dubbed ‘Soviet pop art’. Its most famous practitioners, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, had once been official painters who designed for such organisations as the Soviet Young Pioneers. From 1972, they began to play around with the style of this iconography, substituting their own friends and relatives for party heroes and teasing the likenesses of well-known leaders. Later they came up with darkly varnished productions of their own, like the one of Stalin alongside Spielberg’s ET, shown on the cover of Groys’ book. At the Saatchi we have their portraits of politburo members, a solitary seated bear and the image of a resplendently unfurling red flag, which nevertheless has lost any evident hammer and sickle.

In another part of the same gallery, there are pastiche constructions of western advertising signs, such as for Marlboro and McDonald’s. In the latter work though, Alexander Kosolapov places under the golden arches a familiar iconic head from Bolshevik history, adding the legend McLenin’s. This need not be read as just cynicism, but simply a satire on the manager-bureaucracies’ favourite brand. The party may in fact have believed sincerely that they were the inheritors of that writer and activist and simply saw his cult as necessary to inspire national pride and modernisation. They were not the only ones to believe in socialism as statism and statism as the remedy. Elsewhere it was called the new deal or the third Reich or the welfare state - with the difference that in those the point, of course, was to assist private property and the law of value rather than starting from their abolition.

Downstairs again, surplus value is back with a vengeance. In Dasha Shishkin’s Not sad, just sighing (2012) we find something very like members of the luxury classes: pastel, Matisse-like panoramas, skinny female figures, naked or in Dior dresses, their noses like tentacles, their heads bald as skulls. They crowd a hotel restaurant or shopping mall. Outside the open doors is a landscape of bare earth, rock and a stub of shrubbery - half desert, half unplanted garden. If these are the Russian elite, they could belong to any country (or planet).

Finally, Valery Koshlyakov’s super-large paintings on cardboard of stadia and opera houses (some in Paris, some in Moscow) - images not bright and whole, but pieced together, like jigsaws of streaking paint on sections of old boxes. The paintings seem to be made from a vagrant’s point of view, the cardboard suggesting refuse and sleeping quarters under flyovers. Their form is rough, but confident, intimidated by neither the grand past of the personality cult nor the grandiose present of superstar celebrity. It is said that if the artist has no storage room for one of his works he simply destroys it.

As usual the white walls of the Saatchi are hardly broken by any explaining text. Profiles of the artists though have a separate wall space. Of course, in other art galleries there is now a profusion of explanatory material on the walls. This can be stifling. At Tate Britain a panel next to Francis Bacon’s Triptych of three figures at the base of a crucifixion declared that all the figures are “screaming” - a debatable generalisation from one open mouth and Bacon’s other picture of a screaming pope. But material supplying context can complement works rather than overpower them, as in recent London shows on Degas and photography or Gauguin and traditional societies, offering not what to think, but some things to think about.

Whether text-supported or blank-walled, art galleries need not embalm art as something separate from the world. Exhibitions too can be contributions, like the art itself, whether critical or utopian, connecting us to a world in process. There is no going back, but no stopping either. Marx’s Capital makes the desires of the proletariat (for sustenance and satisfaction) not just the fuel of capitalism, but the spark for revolution. The demands created by capitalist progress are the basis for greater progress beyond capitalism. As Mikhailov’s photos accuse misery, they also celebrate resilience. Other works here mock and satirise, but they presume a confidence in opposition.

There is no overcoming yet; no transcendence, no positive utopia. But there is a pushing back.



1. B Groys The total art of Stalinism London 2011, p60.

2. ‘Sticking with old dogmas that have failed time and againWeekly Worker November 29.

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