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by Matthew Bown
In 2007, Anatoly Osmolovsky won the inaugural Kandinsky Prize in Moscow, a €40,000 award designed to be Russia’s answer to the Turner Prize. The next year, in 2008, when the winner was announced at the award ceremony by the critic Boris Groys, Osmolovsky stood up in the audience and started shouting "Shame!" His friend, the artist Dmitry Gutov, called this one of Osmolovsky’s best performances. Maybe, maybe not, but it was certainly the one that has brought him the most attention.

This year’s prize-winner, Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt (b. 1965), whose winning series of paintings is titled "Motherland-Daughter," makes large canvases with the uncomplicated directness of duotone posters. They are heavy on gold-leaf and primary colors. Militaristic imagery is everywhere. He projects an imperialistic, revanchist view of the Russian future that draws heavily on symbols of the past. Super-human warriors issue from a traditional Russian fortress; an archer stands atop the Palace of the Soviets; "We Will Get Everything Back" is the slogan on one work. He aspires to what he calls a "grand style" that draws heavily on Stalinist Empire motifs. He acknowledges that the history of this grand style is bathed in blood, but says that this is the price that must be paid.

All this has political import, of course. Beliayev-Guintovt, a follower of the Eurasian political movement led by Alexander Dugin, which emphasizes a turning away from the West, is accused not merely of nationalism but of crypto-fascism, a charge which he denies. In any case, he wears his political and artistic sympathies plainly on his sleeve. Last August, for example, he took an exhibition to the disputed Caucasus territory of South Ossetia. The outbreak of war prevented the show, but Beliayev-Guintovt was warmly welcomed by President Eduard Kokoity. They discussed the reconstruction of the capital, Tskhinval, as a Stalinist City of the Sun.

That such an artist should win the Kandinsky Prize was unacceptable not just to Marxists such as Osmolovsky and Gutov but to many liberal minds in the Russian art world. The prize was devised by Shalva Breus, publisher of Art Chronika magazine, as a means of promoting Russian contemporary art within Russia and abroad (Breus himself is an important collector of Non-conformist and contemporary art); it is sponsored by Deutsche Bank. The first awards were made in 2007, and the prize instantly acquired pre-eminent status. The 2008 event, in the eyes of many, has put a question mark over the whole enterprise.

The negative reaction to the 2008 award was led by the critic Ekaterina Degot on the Open Space culture portal, where she is an editor. Before the ceremony she ran a highly disparaging collective discussion of Beliayev-Guintovt’s candidacy. Afterward, she accused the prize organizers, as well as what she called a new bourgeoisie attuned to contemporary art ("the VIP crowd"), of sharing Beliayev-Guintovt’s political views.

Additional opposition to Beliayev-Guintovt’s award came on artistic grounds, but one suspects that the esthetic complaints in fact veil political antipathy. Collector Igor Markin suggested that good artists would no longer participate in such a trashy competition, which he compared to the Eurovision song contest. Dealer Marat Guelman called Beliayev-Guintovt’s work pretentious rubbish.

But how did the prize come to be awarded? The jury of six had arrived at a short-list of three artists: Beliayev-Guintovt; the Moscow-based painter and conceptual artist Dmitry Gutov (b. 1960); and the Moscow-based sculptor Boris Orlov (b. 1941). The jury was composed of three Russians and three non-Russians: Alexander Borovsky, from the Russian Museum; Andrei Erofeev, recently sacked by the Tretyakov Gallery for curating a show of Sotsart in Paris that displeased the Minister of Culture; critic Ekaterina Bobrinskaya; Jean-Hubert Martin, the curator who is also commissar of the next Moscow Biennale; Valerie Hillings of the Guggenheim Museum; and Friedhelm Hutte, curator of the Deutsche Bank collection. In the end, Beliayev-Guintovt received votes from Bobrovsky, Bobrinskaya, Hillings and Hutte.

It has been suggested that some members of the jury were not aware of Beliayev-Guintovt’s political views, despite having plenty of opportunity to become acquainted with them. Mystery surrounds the views of Jean-Hubert Martin, who was too ill to attend the final deliberations and did not vote. In the earlier stage of the competition he gave Beliayev-Guintovt 9 out of 10; but after the prize was announced, he said, "I don’t understand how such uninteresting works, devoid of any innovation, could win such a prize."

There’s another side to the story, of course. No doubt the jury based its deliberations on the artistic merits of the work it had to judge. This is the position of Bobrinskaya, who stated that she hadn’t heard a single substantive objection to Beliayev-Guintovt’s work, merely objections to the quantity of gold leaf (the actual semantics of the gold are in dispute: is it religious? imperialistic? bourgeois?). One can follow them some of the way: a vote for Orlov would have been for an artist whose substantial innovations took place 30 years ago, and a vote for Gutov would have been for an artist who has been ubiquitous in recent years (he was included in both Documenta and the Venice Biennale) and, maybe, over-exposed. 

Beliayev-Guintovt has been defended by his dealer, Dima Khankin of the Triumph Gallery, who pointed out that the award is for art, not philosophy. The artist Yuri Albert also argued in Beliayev-Guintovt’s favor, noting that issues of Russian nationalism are quite topical. Indeed, similar criticism greeted Anselm Kiefer’ hypernationalistic German art work in the 1980s, and now Kiefer is considered an artist of major international importance.

Will the affair have any long-term fallout? Possibly, and I think it depends on what happens in Russia itself. As Degot put it, "If Russia were a free country we could allow ourselves to enjoy Beliayev-Guintovt a little." That’s a big "if" these days, and if existing freedoms in Russia diminish further, then the Kandinsky Prize could become an enduring symbol of venality, political reaction and, indeed, Western cluelessness.

MATTHEW BOWN is a former London art dealer who runs the Russian art blog