Deceits of Surface: Artists the Irina Stoliarova Collection

As the USSR passes into remote history, so its cultural achievements also assume a mythical dimension, regenerating very basic questions as to how Soviet art, literature and music were created, controlled and promoted. What was Socialist Realism? What exactly were the criteria of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, the Academy of Arts of the USSR and the Union of Artists of the USSR, for example? Who occupied the Pantheon of Soviet culture – and who did not? If, for example, Aleksandr Gerasimov, Dmitrii Nalbandian, and Fedor Reshetnikov were among the pillars of the artistic establishment, then who were the dissidents and how did they diverge in their aesthetic assumptions as they proceeded to create another, subterranean culture? The painters represented in the collection of Irina Stoliarova document that alternative tradition, reminding us of the forthright vision, moral courage and artistic integrity of that counter-movement – and of the fact that, in order for any culture to withstand and survive the verdict of ages, it must retain intrinsic values which transcend the immediate social and political perimeters of its particular time and place. The spontaneity, artistry and mystery of this pictorial polyphony demonstrate that its creators possessed these constant values and that they did, indeed, move beyond their Soviet roots to become an organic part of the contemporary global process. In this respect, the Stoliarova collection is not merely a casual assemblage of various artifacts, but a single celebration of private initiative and the total freedom of aesthetic expression — “Freedom is freedom”, as the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov wrote.[1] In other words, if, at first glance, the Stoliarova collection produces the impression of diversity and versatility, closer scrutiny reveals a common denominator of purpose, mission and message. [1] From an untitled poem by Vsevolod Nekrasov: beginning “nado tebe byt’” (1964) in L. Talochkin et al.: Drugoe iskusstvo. Moscow: Moskovskaia kollektsiia, 1991, Vol. 1, p. 271. An especially patent and earnest statement in the Stoliarova collection is the picture Zenith of Zen which Serge Charchoune (Sergei Sharshun) painted in 1951, one of his many gestures towards the absolute condition of Zen or Nirvana. Embarking upon his professional career as a Cubist and then Dadaist, Charchoune discovered an occult presence which he went on to represent in his paintings and drawings of the 1920s onwards. Whether the goal was to make manifest a cosmic consciousness in general or a Chinese philosophical tenet in particular, Charchoune used his métier as a refractive medium between the material world (subsumed in the technical elements of paint, brush and canvas) and the wonderland beyond the looking-glass – a Mystical Temple to cite the title of one of his pictures of 1950. Both André Lanskoy and Léon Zack, both of Charchoune’s generation, also pursued this path, eliciting moods, sensibilities and allusions constituting semaphores towards a noble and divine condition. Informed by Theosophy, Spiritualism and other occult faiths, their abstract compositions are like individual frames extracted from a film, as it were, brief and tantalizing glimpses of Genesis — an omnipotent universe of light and darkness, silence and sound, form and color. This ability to recognize the natural or divine chaos beyond the false order of civilization is a salient characteristic of the other, later artists in the Stoliarova collection and forms a vital link between the mystical abstractions of Charchoune, Landskoy and Zack and the Soviet non-conformists. Yurii Kuperman’s timid Aspidistra, for example, reminds us of the first botanical forms of life which followed the pristine flux of Genesis, while in his Aspiration Higher (1988) Dmitrii Plavinsky reminds us of the gigantic seismic and volcanic shifts which accompanied the creation of the world and of the natural time of prehistory and the false time of history. Plavinsky’s powerful compositions seem to register the pathetic traces of our brittle material culture within the shifting sands of eternity. Many of the artists in the Stoliarova collection follow this cosmic trajectory, partaking of its mystery and delineating metaphors which elicit the omnipotence of Alfa and Omega. Composition (1965) by Lev Kropivnitsky and Abstraction by Isaak Pailis are shining examples of this tendency, reminding us that, by and large, the art of the Soviet non-conformists was rarely a mere play of device, but an affront on Positivist reality and the scientific data – convenient, strategic and false — which construct the outer lie of any land. Kropivnitsky, who, like Charchoune, engaged in Buddhism and Oriental philosophy and Petr Dmitrienko with his Path (1957) and Gethsemane (1956), informed by the Biblical story, pointed to other territories, umbrageous, oblique and often ominous. Lidiia Masterkova, too, seemed to follow a spiritual path through the mystical cosmos that Kazimir Malevich had created with his Suprematist geometries. The apparent equilibrium suggested by her restrained colors and forms and the pregnant silence of her compositions as in Composition with Fabrics (1970) generate the same evocative force as prayers offered to a distant deity, unidentifiable yet omnipresent. Obviously, for Masterkova, as for Malevich, non-figurative painting, which she began to investigate in the early 1960s, is a vehicle of spiritual engagement with a higher harmony, a painted liturgy that invites the spectator to commune with her art in reverent solitude. Dmitrienko, Kropivnitsky and Masterkova made up a philosophical, if not, religious, reconnaissance, an avant-garde at the border between the pervasive “here” of the Soviet state and the “there” of private dream. True, there were a few émigrés of the first wave such as Léopold Survage who preferred a more direct and constructive kind of art, one which, for example, anticipated the more formal exercises of Vladimir Nemukhin or Evgenii Rukhin. As we see from his compositions, in the 1910s onwards Survage found an artistic and ethnic license which enabled him to develop his peculiar theory of «colored rhythms» which, along with Vasilii Kandinsky’s Improvisations and Sonia Delaunay’s Simultanism, were among the first exercises in non-objective painting. Open to the forces of Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism, Survage preferred a representational art (landscapes, portraits, stage designs), tinged concurrently with a mild Surrrealism and a Neue Sachlichkeit: «In working directly after nature», Survage stated, «we obey our eye which represents the world not as it is, but deforms it according to the laws immanent to us.»[1] [1] L. Survage: «Notes pour les entretiens d’atelier» (undated) in H. Seyrès: Survage. Ecrits sur la peinture, Paris: l’Archipel, 1992, pp. 105, 106 The presence of works by Charchoune, Lanskoy, Survage and Zack in the Stoliarova collection is important, because they reconnect the younger artists with a distant artistic legacy which, in Soviet Russia of the 1960s and 1970s, was hardly known. Even if most of the dissidents would not have been aware of the émigré contribution to the Ecole de Paris, it is striking that, intuitively, they maintained and enhanced those traditions, the occult tendency being one such denominator. Looking back to the last years of the Soviet regime and placing the Stoliarova artists within that timeframe, we remember that, however idiosyncratic each creative personality, they were united by an unrelenting resistance to the premises of Marxism and Dialectical Materialism. As Soviet citizens, their primary misdemeanor lay precisely in their recognition and representation of alternatives and, consequently, they were hounded for their contrary commitments. But what is especially striking about this counterpoint is that its composers rarely protested against ideological imposition in a documentary or Realist manner and, instead of maintaining the narrative and didactic function of art (as the Socialist Realists were doing), tended to express their ideas via the forbidden fruits of non-figurative painting, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Conceptualism. At the same time, few of those early dissidents engaged with alternative media such as photography, body art and mail art, a circumspection which continued throughout glasnost’ and perestroika and which to this day can still be associated, for example, with the powerful visual commentaries of Natal’ia Arendt (Chicken God, 2012) and Maksim Kantor (Sheet, 2002; Left-overs, 2009). True, some artists such as Rimma and Valerii Gerlovin and Andrei Monastyrsky did investigate found art, land art and visual poetry, helping to establish a vivacious Moscow Conceptualism, even if, at that time, they rarely used that rubric to describe their actions. Incidentally, not all painters and poets back then considered the intervals of détente and perestroika to be propitious or potential, assuming that the new alliance between the Soviet and Western political systems was temporary and unreliable, nourished perhaps more by dreams of commercial opportunity than by mutual understanding of philosophical ideologies. Three decades later a new wave of artists has come forth, who disregard and discount that interval, wheeling and dealing in the limelight of the brave new Russian Capitalism and eager to experiment with performance, electronic media, installations and many other forms of expression. In the late 1950s and 1960s, on the threshold of the dissident movement, isms such as Abstract Expressionism constituted an artistic limbo banned or, at least, suspended from Soviet cultural discourse – and to explore such styles was to enter into conflict with the aesthetic canon. Aware of the political consequences of such action, these prodigal sons put their professional lives on the line in order to solicit the right to personal choice. Some such as Oscar Rabin were forced into exile (cf. London, 1965), some such as Boris Sveshnikov were imprisoned (cf. his Thunder of 1970 and View from the Window of 1974), some such as Vladimir Yakovlev were incarcerated in mental hospitals, some such as Rukhin died under mysterious circumstances, some fell silent, very few compromised. Surely, it was dedication to the creative process and the private Muse rather than outright political protest which provided the non-conformist movement with its strength and resilience. It was, after all,a movement of artists who still believed inexorably in the sacred power of the work of art, supporting the Romantic idea that the artist was elected and preordained to pursue his special calling. Artists such as Nemukhin were totally committed to the artistic process, persuaded of their manifest destiny and of the rightness of their visions, an idealist attitude, by the way, which, in emigration, clashed violently with the pragmatism of the Western art market and often led to isolation and disillusionment. True, Nemukhin has never compromised, even if he has long lived abroad, and has continued to paint his pictures of playing cards (Starry Fire) as if to declare that art and life are a game of chance, a trick of fate and that the real instruments of progress or regress are coincidence, risk and sleight of hand, irrespective of ideological, religious or even individual persuasions. The wide repertoire of styles in the visual culture of the 1960- 80s, identifiable with the microcosm of the Stoliarova collection, contrasts sharply with the autocratic conventions of Soviet culture under Leonid Brezhnev. During that era the oil painting and the monumental sculpture, like the epic novel and the symphony, were the accepted media, each work informed by pre-established canons, an omnipresent hierarchy which might explain why some of the early non-conformists also resorted to the same media in order to broadcast their messages. So, if alternative sources of information were difficult to come by, how did the dissident artists promote other states of mind, old and new, Western and Russian, including abstract painting, Pop, Conceptualism, Sots-Art and samizdat art, especially if Socialist Realism dominated the aesthetic menu? In order to answer that question we should recall that the Brezhnev era was not altogether impervious to alien ideas. Obviously, the practice of Soviet art, literature and music was informed and manipulated by the doctrine of Socialist Realism, although modern Soviet culture, even under Brezhnev, was never a single and impervious block: by the time Brezhnev assumed power in 1964, Socialist Realism had lost much of the rigorous protocol formulated at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 whereby the artist had been obliged to “depict reality in its revolutionary development….and create works with a high level of craftsmanship, with high ideological and artistic content”.[1] [1] From Andrei Zhdanov’s speech at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, Moscow, 1934. English translation in J. Bowlt, ed.: Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. Theory and Criticism, 1902-34, London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, pp. 292, 293. In the 1960s-80s the premise of Socialist Realism had assumed an elasticity – and an indeterminateness – which, on the one hand, diluted interpretations, but, which, on the other, led to the invention of a dense rhetoric verbiage, still bearing the ideological references to Marx, Engels and Lenin, but hardly reinforcing the relevance of Socialist Realism to contemporary culture. All this is to say that there were philosophical and aesthetic nuances and deviations, gestures of adjustment and compromise, weird alliances between conservative and liberal and not one radical faction, but many – just as there had been not just one Russian avant-garde in the 1910s, but several. Furthermore, some of the artists who today are acknowledged to be heroes of Soviet non-conformism such as Erik Bulatov, Il’ia Kabakov, Ernst Neizvestny, Nemukhin, Eduard Shteinberg and Vladimir Yankilevsky had been members of the Union of Artists of the USSR, participating in official exhibitions and sometimes even fulfilling government commissions. Bulatov and Kabakov, for example, were frequent illustrators of Soviet children’s books, while Frantsisko Infante and Lev Nusberg, members of the Movement group, worked as designers for trade fairs and political festivals. Il’ia Glazunov, once a bold illustrator of Fedor Dostoevsky and apologist of the Orthodox Church in the 1950s, is now a venerable, arch-conservative and xenophobic protagonist of tradition with his own art school and museum in Moscow. If, essentially, the Soviet cultural mechanism was dictatorial, albeit with varying degrees of duress and rigor, depending on the regime (for example, Nikita Khrushchev’s political thaw facilitated a cultural easement, culminating in the “Exhibition of American Art” in 1959, showing works by Jackson Pollock, and the Manège “XXX Years of the Moscow Union of Artists” of 1962, showing works by Neizvestny, whereas Brezhnev called for greater watchfulness), there was still an influential interchange of ideas, albeit limited and distorted — sporadic encounters with contemporary Western culture through exhibitions of contemporary American and European art in Moscow, meetings with Western diplomats, journalists and scholars, and surreptitious access to Western art magazines, the slow but sure rediscovery of the avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s and the activities of enlightened collectors such as George Costakis and Leonid Talochkin, art historians such as Dmitrii Sarab’ianov and scientists such as Abram Chudnovsky. Indeed, scientists and cyberneticists often patronized solo and group exhibitions, e.g., of Mikhail Grobman (at the Moscow Energy Institute in 1965), the Movement group (at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in 1966) and Kropivnitsky, Nemukhin, Plavinsky, Rabin and Sveshnikov (at the Institute of World Economics and International Relations in 1969). This tendency to link scientific experiment with artistic deviation continued throughout the 1970s-80s — as late as 1989 the Moscow House of Artists organized the exhibition “Scientific and Technological Progress and the Visual Arts” which included works by Infante and, as a matter of fact, selections from the Costakis collection were first shown publicly at the House of Culture of the Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow in 1972. In any case, before entering the humanistic disciplines a number of the dissident artists trained as scientists, especially in geology such as, for example, Rukhin in Leningrad. However complex these conditions, they informed much of the dissident output, especially the various schools of abstract art to which many dissidents turned as a means of expression, often in response to the earlier avant-gardists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The general assumption today is that under Soviet rule the public was denied access to the work of such artists and that, as “idealist reactionaries”, Kandinsky and Malevich, for example, had been removed from Soviet cultural history. To a considerable extent, this was so, but it is not the whole story, because numerous exhibitions, publications and scholarly conferences did promote the avant-garde, even during the bleakest years of zastoi. For example, the Picture Gallery of the Siberian Department of the USSR Academy of Arts in Novosibiirsk organized an exhibition of Pavel Filonov in 1967, radical names and artworks were offered to the public under the rubrics of “design” or of “propaganda” and “agitational” art, and essays on the avant-garde in Czech, East German, Estonian, Hungarian, Polish, and Estonian books and periodicals were readily available in Russia.[1] There were also “legal” channels of distribution of “illegal” images such as official condemnations of Western art in Soviet publications — which often carried reproductions of the objects of abuse.[2] Furthermore, it was at the apex of Brezhnev’s reign that the pioneering exhibitions of Russian and French Modernism, “Paris-Moscou” (1979, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and then “Moscow-Paris” (1981, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow) were staged – so that, on the one hand, abstract art now enjoyed a glamorous public reception with the display of master works by Kandinsky, Malevich and Rodchenko, while it was still being condemned by the Academy of Arts and the Union of Artists of the USSR — one of the many cultural paradoxes of that era. [1] See, for example, J. Kříž: “Pavel Nikolajevič Filonov” in Vỷtvarná pracé, Prague, 1963, No. III; Vỷtvarné uméni, Prague, 1967, No. 8-9 (entire issue devoted to the Russian avant-garde); G. Karginov: Rodcsenko, Budapest: Corvina, 1975; L. Shadowa: Suche und Experiment. Russische und sowjetische Kunst 1910 bis 1930. Dresden: VEB Kunst, 1978. [2] See, for example, V. Kemenov: Protiv abstraktsionizma v sporakh o realizme, Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1969, which carries numerous reproductions of abstract and “decadent” art; and N. Malakhov: Sotsialisticheskii realizm i modernizm, Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1970, which carries the reproduction of a Malevich Suprematist painting between pp. 192-93. As late as 1985 Valentina Kriuchkova maintained the same arguments in her book Antiiskusstvo. Teoriia i praktika avangardistskikh dvizhenii, Moscow: Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo, 1985. Perhaps, after all, the strongest merit of the Stoliarova collection lies in the concentration on abstract painters, whose techniques, essentially, can be divided into two kinds or categories — the work of art as a loose configuration of diaphanous, interfusing colored forms, identifiable with the painting of Kropivnitsky, Masterkova and Yulias Pinkas (Jules Paskin); and the work of art as a measured, innate structure, a metaphor for the absolute geometry of the firmament, identifiable with the artifacts of Vil’iam Brui (Abstraction, 1972), Infante (The Beginning of Restlessness, 1965, and White in White, 1965), Pivovarov (Blue Composition, 1974) and Shteinberg (Composition, 1972), in particular. The more Romantic tendency pays homage to what Kandinsky described as the “Spiritual in Art”, while the more geometric one recalls the linear reductions of Suprematism and Constructivism, although some artists such as Rukhin, with his collages reminiscent of Jasper Johns (cf. Composition with Wooden Box, Icon Reliefs and Red Line, 1975), or Oleg Tselkov (cf. Package Person, 1979), resist either category. As a primary champion of the Constructivist or geometric tradition, Infante deserves particular commendation, even though, unlike El Lissitzky or Rodchenko, his work is still indebted to the mystical or celestial dimension and to a reverence for the natural world. In his paintings and installations, Infante undermines the conventional notions of “here” and “there” or “beginning” and “end”, establishing a discourse between the natural landscape, the artist, and the spectator which treats of the entire issue of ambiguity, veracity and artificiality. For Infante, the artist is mediator between nature and the artifact, between the “geometric object introduced and the natural environment” [1] — affirming at once that nature has no boundaries and that elemental, artificial forms in paint, metal and photography can also assume a natural character. Infante often uses the spiral, conventional symbol of the infinite, as a metaphor for this boundlessness. [1] F. Infante: “Nature and Art” in The Structurist, Saskatoon, 1983-84, No. 23-24, p. 95. Yankilevksy, on the other hand, traces boundaries and perimeters as he manipulates written and spoken language, for his principal aim is to locate a more intimate coincidence between external denotation and the inner resonance of things. As he illustrates in his genetic reconstitutions such as Space of Experiences (1983), Yankilevsky is contending that the “function of objects does not coincide with their titles…In a certain sense, my Mutants are ‘demons’ and their language is ‘neo-speak’”[1]. As if applying an X-ray device, Yankilevsky traces a more permanent structure below the surface so that, while retaining the contours of outward appearances, he enters a more essential, visceral condition. His course of action, incidentally, brings to mind the tense and searing gestures of Nikolai Vechtomov’s often Apocalyptic painting, the heroes of his Sunset (1983), for example, inhabiting a cosmic, not calendar, time. [1] V. Yankilevsky: untitled statement in Talochkin, Drugoe iskusstvo, Vol. 1, p. 189. The artists in the Stolirarova collection, disparate in aesthetic solutions, are united in their resistance to conformity and, in choosing different vocabularies to voice their responses, offer commentaries on the universal questions of political infliction, cultural identity and existential loneliness. Their paintings, spanning many decades, many styles and many subjects, now constitute a noble monument not only to the supreme power of individual creative expression, but also to the victory of artistic eternity over ideological transience. Перевела с английского Ирина Меньшова

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