Triumph of an Outsider

Triumph of an Outsider

The Irina Stolyarova Collection of Modern Russian Art

By Andrei Navrozov

In the land that seems to many in the West nowadays as remote and mythical as Atlantis – USSR, Ronald Reagan’s bugaboo and the Russia of my childhood idyll – painting was for outsiders. Some outsiders painted pictures; others admired or criticised them; still others, God bless them, accepted invitations to dinner and even the occasional marriage proposal from the authors of these works. Cosy, in short, was the life of artists and their fans in Soviet Russia, resembling in nearly every particular the daily routine of inmates in a psychiatric hospital.

Unlike literature or music, painting ranks low on a dictator’s roster of pastimes suitable for the propaganda of his regime abroad: it’s too arbitrary and, if you’re of a mind to do it, too easy to ridicule. Thus, Socialist Realism or no Socialist Realism, nobody in the West dared to laugh at Sholokhov or to belittle Shostakovich, while the endless and interchangeable workers and peasants on approved Soviet canvases earned the regime nothing but derision and scorn. While at home, apart from ceremonial likenesses of the dictator and his retinue, what use was there for oil and canvas? Stone mosaics were used in the Moscow Metro; marble and bronze yielded monumental sculpture, unless the dictator wished to show the world that he had a surfeit of stainless steel, such as was used for Mukhina’s 78-foot version of the Winged Victory of Samothrace exhibited at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair; and it was granite, as the days of the pharaohs, that signposted the way to imperial glory. And so the artists – whose skill, alas, lay in creating subtle shades upon insubstantial surfaces – were doomed to living as outsiders, hapless lunatics inhabiting a radiant world apart.

The paradox, of course, is that under conditions of political and cultural freedom such sequestration has been the artist’s lot since times immemorial, or at least since Somerset Maugham described his lunatic existence in The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Gauguin. In 1942, Camus made the psychotic worldview of his L’Etranger something a modern artist could embrace and endorse. All of a sudden, madness was all the rage. In 1948, Jean Dubuffet and André Breton set up their Compagnie de l’Art Brut – “Outsider Art” is the English term – to highlight the factors of mental illness, delusive behaviour, and existential isolation in the artist’s creative process, thereby launching the fashion for art psychopatologique that would prove immensely influential in straitlaced 1950’s America, where Abstract Impressionism was just coming into its own. The difference, in Russia, was that emotional and indeed physical apartheid was not a matter of intellectual fashion or individual inclination, but of external strictures imposed upon the artist by the totalitarian system on pain of deportation or torture.

The torture, appropriately enough, most often took the form of committal to the psychiatric ward, with “decelerated schizophrenia,” “reformist delusions” and “litigious paranoia” among the more common diagnoses. In Nazi Germany, where the psychiatrist’s term of choice had been “masked dementia,” the regime’s opponents suffered a similar fate. As one Russian writer has put it, “a totalitarian regime wants to pronounce insane all those who disagree with the madmen who have seized power,” and yet the plight of the artist in Soviet Russia was starker than that of the others who dissented. An outsider already in his own eyes, he was a natural for the role of madman in the eyes of the secret police. To speak of “art collectors” of this epoch, in any sense that would chime in with our recognition of figures like Henry Frick, or indeed of “art dealers” in any sense that might recall Lord Duveen, is of course all but impossible. Serious painters in Soviet Russia eked out a living by working as book and magazine illustrators, film animators and storyboard artists, graphic designers and, on occasion, janitors or plumbers, for the simple reason that the outsiders who admired these outsiders’ canvases were invariably as penniless as themselves. Apart from gifts to friends, or barter for such insanely exotic Western commodities as Winsor & Newton’s Siberian sable-tipped paint brushes, in a Russian artist’s lifetime his pictures rarely changed hands.

It is only in the last few decades, with a Russia that had swapped the old ruling junta for a new one – dramatically changing the regime’s latitudes and strictures as it did so – that the attics of Moscow and St Petersburg began to yield up their hoard to collectors and dealers at home and abroad. And both at home and abroad, it is almost needless to add, the sudden opening of this new art market – as unexpected as it was precipitous – produced a veritable flood of false values, false hierarchies, false history, false scholarship and false authentications. Probity and taste, more than great wealth or even formal connoisseurship, had become key qualifications for a collector of outsider art of the Soviet epoch.

Among the indubitable successes of the new generation of art collectors is a Moscow born, London resident blonde by the name of Irina Stolyarova. Now, as my enlightened and urbane reader will appreciate, Moscow born, London resident blondes are a dime a dozen these days, yet Mme. Stolyarova is a very different creature altogether. Suffice it to say that the splendidly illustrated monograph devoted to her collection, published this year in Italy, is entitled Flying in the Wake of Light, which is a line from an Osip Mandelstam poem I did not know. She is, in short, one of those scions of the Russian intelligentsia that, in every political climate, did their utmost to save, inspire and propel literary and artistic talent. And so, having been raised in a milieu sympathetic to the outsider, now that outsiders are in, Stolyarova is the consummate insider.

Stolyarova’s collection is not very large, some 40 works or so, collected during the last decade, and not all the Russian artists included are products of Soviet soil; many are émigrés or children of émigrés, like the formidable Pierre Dmitrienko (1925-1974), with a biographical background that is more Montparnasse than Arbat; yet the animating genius of the whole is none the less a distinctly Russian spirit that, as the Evangelist said, “bloweth where it listeth,” evidently, even in the desolation of the Soviet epoch. That cogency of purpose is what makes this small private collection remarkable; indeed, this is what makes it a private art collection – in the same qualitative, if not quantitative, sense as those built by the Fricks and the Mellons of yesteryear – rather than a selection of pictures decorating the walls of a private house.

The distinguished Russian art critic Alexander Rappaport, who has contributed one of the essays to Flying in the Wake of Light, has this to say of the new role of collections such as Stolyarova’s: I see at least three aspects that put a small private collection in an advantageous position vis-à-vis large scale projects and institutions. The first one concerns the new critical numbness in front of a work of art. In different instances the reasons for this silence could be different, but the silence itself seems very symptomatic. In the case of private collections such silence is incongruous, and here we have none of the deafening silence that accompanies portentous suggestiveness of major events. What we have instead are individual voices that we want to hear.

The second aspect is the convivial atmosphere that brings together people without any conceptual programme or ritual. Every painting is surrounded by others, they all seem to be close to each other in spirit, and the feeling is that people attracted to these paintings should also form a union of the likeminded, rather than remain an accidental crowd. Browsing through these paintings I recalled a chance encounter I had with the artist Leon Zak in the house of the famous St. Petersburg organist Isiah Braudo, and endless conversations with the artist Eduard Steinberg, and friendly meetings with Francisco Infante... All these people suddenly surfaced in my memory as if they were all sitting around the table. A wonderful phenomenon, not unlike déjà vu.

A third aspect is about the institutional future of these seemingly accidental collections, which are becoming an increasingly significant element of contemporary art life and an increasingly significant counter-balance to major museums, galleries and festivals. In other words, I see them as sprouts of a new, relatively independent and elitist art milieu.

Note that to Rappaport, unbound by the Western ideology of political correctness, “elitism” is more than simply a social tendency; it is a resurgent cultural trend that augurs manumission from the bondage of institutionalized art appreciation with its implied message of “culture for the people.” Who but a Russian of the Soviet epoch, forced since childhood to accept that slogan at face value, is free enough nowadays to draw such controversial conclusions from the mere existence of a private art collection like Stolyarova’s? Spiritual salvation, Rappaport argues, invariably lies outside the social mainstream; whether artists in totalitarian Russia or art collectors in the free West, it is invariably the outsiders who form cultural elites and make cultural discoveries that eventually benefit all society.

Stolyarova’s collection, writes Rappaport, is a painting community that demonstrates a new way of life for works of art. If the twentieth century was a time for imperial and state museum collections, this century may be the time for private collections. That is not to say that large collections will lose their significance and their value. No, they have nothing to fear. But having acquired a dominant monopoly role in the art world and the art market, they necessarily enter the domain of mass culture and inevitably become trivialized. Their fate is akin to the fate of other large institutions – huge supermarkets, famous hotels, fashionable resorts and the like. Universal fame and accessibility of major museums make them by definition commonplace and banal in spite of all the unrivalled masterpieces within their walls. And, on the contrary, small provincial museums, private collections, little known artists become the new heroes, a new environment for sudden discoveries at a remove from media and advertising.

It may be enough for the reader to take a close look at Pierre Dmitrienko’s Garden of Gethsemane, reproduced in these pages – emblematic, to my mind, of the outsider’s existential isolation which I have made my central theme here – to imagine the impact of Stolyarova’s whole collection, composed of works consonant with his. London is fortunate to be home to this and a host of other strictly private collections – not despite the fact they are not open to the public, but, if Rappaport is right, for that very reason.

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