Painted in 1988 by the 28-year-old Russian artist Andrei Roiter, the large picture looks rather like an emblem for a Soviet art exhibition. A stylized artist’s palette with three brushes is set off by a sprig of laurel, a white image against a red background, simple and graphic like a propaganda poster. On the palette is written a quotation in Cyrillic letters: "They are opening our eyes," with the credit, Lord Gowrie (president of Sotheby's). As students of Soviet-era art well know, the phrase marks both the end of an era, and the beginning of one.
On July 7, 1988, Sotheby’s organized the first major Western-style art auction in Moscow. The "Avant-Garde and Soviet Art" sale, as it was called, totalled more than £2,000,000, with only Westerners able to bid (the ruble was not considered an acceptable currency). The event confirmed the growing interest in Moscow’s art underground and the Sots-Art group, especially in what seemed to be a new era of openness in the Soviet Union. The initiative was short-lived, however, overtaken by the collapse of the USSR only a few years later.
The fall of Communism certainly helped spur the global art boom of the last decade, and Russian oligarchs have became major players in the auction rooms. New auction records have been set for a host of Soviet-era artists, and the post-Soviet art scene has grown in its own curious way. Still, the underground art of the Soviet era -- and most of the artists who made it -- are known largely to specialists.
In Germany, the Shirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt has organized a series of three exhibitions of Soviet-era art, with the most recent installment, "Total Enlightenment. Moscow Conceptual Art 1960-1990," curated by Boris Groys, coming only in 2008. Now, the London art world is being treated to its own survey of Soviet-era contemporary art, dubbed "Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s," presented by Haunch of Venison at its spacious quarters at the Royal Academy of Art.
Largely featuring works assembled by the Berlin art dealer Volker Diehl, who opened a Moscow branch of his gallery several years ago (other works are on loan), the exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, including essays by Ekaterina Degot, Joseph Backstein, Groys and others. The show also benefits from the magnificent ambience and flair of its setting.
The subtext to many of the works, of course, is their "nonconformist" character, as difficult as it may be to pin down today. This art was made and shown in opposition to the state and its art institutions, and draws much of its character and intensity from that air of adversity, defiance and resistance.
The collection includes key works by better-known artists (Alexander Brodsky, Erik Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Komar & Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov), as well as artists who are less familiar, like Ivan Chuikov, Andrei Filippov and the group "Medical Hermeneutics." Most popular in the West, certainly, are works that fall into the Sots-Art category, with its striking appearance and similarity to Pop Art.
By exaggerating official Soviet esthetics, Sots-Art could undermine its ideological impact -- and provide a kind of political cabaret with considerable entertainment value. Eduard Gorokhovsky's rasterized portrait of Stalin, for instance, is constituted by many tiny portraits of Lenin. During the ‘80s in the USSR, efforts to resist the dominant social ideology were far more varied than what we see now -- the London exhibition makes this absolutely clear.
Or perhaps not so clear. Under the Soviet system, Semyon Faibisovich's Photo-Realist paintings gain power by what seems ordinary to us today -- their refusal to provide a utopian, Socialist Realist representation of reality. His images of queues outside liquor shops received little sympathy from Soviet censors.
Other works express resistance metaphorically. In Pyotr Belenok’s wonderful collage from 1981, Appearance of an Object, a tiny man acts in a kind vacuum, while a strange, gigantic UFO-like object hovers above him -- a psychologically potent image in a closed society. Similarly, the seething contents of Olga Chernysheva's Cooking Pot lifts the container’s lid on a cushion of steam, while in Victor Skersis' Agitation Machine, voltage is forced with difficulty into a geometric quietness. A contradictory, labyrinthine language of opposition is being tested here, and in this labyrinth artists and viewers find a way back to a pattern-free, non-prefabricated language of art.
Now this great collection is for sale. Word is that major institutions are interested in the major works, which include Andrei Filippov's Last Supper (1989), a tableau that sets 13 white plates on a long red tablecloth, accompanied not by knives and forks but by sinister black hammers and sickles. The works in the show by Kabakov and Erik Bulatov are the most expensive, both priced at €1,000,000. Are there no oligarchs who might want to sweep this entire collection up and take it home? They would have for their trouble an art of choice and the joy of liberating laughter.
"Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s," Apr. 16-June 26, 2010, at Haunch of Venison, London.
Translated from the German by Rupert Goldsworthy.
ASTRID MANIA is senior editor of Artnet.de Magazine.