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Russia’s non-conformists find a new target

Review by Corinna Lotz

Work by Soviet non-conformist artists finally made it into public collections in Moscow and St Petersburg for the first time just a year ago. Now, thanks to the efforts of a small London gallery, we too can get a tantalising glimpse of a vast area of human creativity in the former Soviet Union.

Dulfan: City Street
Lucien Dulfan City Street, 1980s oil on canvas 67cm x 48cm

Under the paradoxical title Soviet Non-Conformist Art – Before and after the fall of the USSR, the Chambers Gallery next to Smithfields Market is showing paintings and prints by a group of artists hailing from the Odessa School, the Ukrainian Underground and Russia.

The term “non-conformism” generally embraces virtually all the art in the former Soviet Union which did not conform to the state dogma of Socialist Realism decreed by Stalin and ruthlessly enforced by the authorities. Although Stalin died in 1953, even after that time artists were still supposed to adhere to its portrayal of the Soviet Union as a socialist paradise and reject any other styles, particularly from the West.

Despite this, Soviet non-conformist art began after World War II and flourished underground, encouraged by the thaw that followed Nikita Khruschchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in his famous 20th Congress speech in 1956.

“It was considered to be a second Russian Avant-garde, for it continued the search for new forms in art and re-established the lost link between Russian Art and Western Modernism,”  Natalia Sidlina writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Malik: Old Timers
Alexei Malik Old Timers, 1996 oil on canvas 64cm x 65cm

Although the explosion of artistic styles and experimentation of the pre-war and early Soviet avant-garde was forbidden territory, that period continued to motivate and inspire subsequent generations of artists. Non-conformist artists organised an exhibition in an urban forest near Moscow in September 1974.

It was a time when Khruschchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, sought to reimpose a repressive cultural policy. In a notorious incident, the authorities used bulldozers, water cannons and dump trucks to destroy the art works.  Embarrassed by the bad publicity,  the state then gave permission for another open-air exhibition to take place.  The 1970s became known as the “Bulldozer Era” in the arts.

As a result of Gorbachev’s drive for glasnost and perestroika in the mid to late 1980s, political constraints on all forms of expression began to break down. Many thousands of victims of Stalinism were rehabilitated, including artists. The works of the early revolutionary period began to be hauled out of museum basements and private storage spaces.

Dulfan: Suzdal
Lucien Dulfan Suzdal, 1980s oil on canvas 25cm x 40cm

In 1988 a Museum of Non-Conformist Art was created in the Pushkinskaya 10 Art Centre in Leningrad to collect unofficial art from the 1950s to the 1980s. But outside the former Union and the United States, where Norton T Dodge amassed a huge collection, non-conformist art has remained almost entirely unseen – until now.

It is refreshing to see the diversity of these artists, both in theme and in style. To our 21st century eyes they don’t appear particularly shocking or even radical. And yet they are full of hidden messages which would have been eagerly sought out by viewers suffocated by the status quo. Sunny and even naïve-looking Odessa harbour scenes by Alexei Malik and Lucien Dulfan allude to the urge of members of the Soviet intelligentsia to escape. “The Odessa port provided the getaway for many generations of dissidents, long before the Soviet state was formed,” Sidlina explains.

Dulfan has a wonderful dexterity with the brush which he deploys whatever his subject matter, for example in Suzdal, a traditional view of an ancient church, which at first glance may seem “naturalist”. But on closer inspection there is a real freedom in the loosely abstract paint strokes and colours.

Khrushch: Green Figure
Valentyn Khrushch Green Figure (To Vika Forever)
1980 oil on canvas 58cm x 98cm

The Odessa artists were a close-knit group who dedicated paintings to each other, some of which are in this show. Sidlina writes that the Western spirit of competition and copyright protection was an alien concept to them. Volodimir Naumets, Volodimir Strelnikov, Yuri Yegorov and Oleg Voloshinov all share a confidence of spirit and relaxed, open feeling, which may be due to their sense of artistic fraternity.

Valentyn Khrushch and Ludmila Yastreb revisited the Cubo-Futurist innovators of the 1920s in their abstract compositions made during the 1970s and 1980s. Alexei Malik’s Figure of Colubien (1995) is a homage to the geometric colour compositions of Suprematist pioneer Casimir Malevich, best known for his Black Square. Khrushch is also at ease in a more figurative vein, creating ethereal and haunting images of people, such as Retired Soldier 1989 and Green Figure, To Vika Forever, which have an, iconic feeling to them.

In the Stalin era, graphic art became a medium for artists to introduce experimental ideas to a wider public by stealth since it was less heavily censored than painting. Works by Odessa artists, Vladimir Bakhtov and Grygory Palatnikov evoke storybook worlds in etching and lithograph. Perhaps the most poignant are a series of illustrations by Grigory Palatnikov for the novels of the famous Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Babel, author of the Red Cavalry stories, was executed by Stalin’s KGB in the Lubyanka prison in 1940.

Palatnikov: Family
Grygory Palatnikov Family, 1984 lithograph 54cm x 76cm

Norton Dodge, the best-known US collector of Soviet non-conformist art, introducing Nonconformist Art – The Soviet Experience gave an insight into the spy-thriller atmosphere of dodging state surveillance as he tracked down artists in the pre-glasnost era. So, what does it mean to be a non-conformist in Putin’s Russia or in an independent, impoverished Ukraine, convulsed by mass protests?

Today, new realities have brought new problems and new reasons to be in opposition to the authorities. Russia has turned into a stealth authoritarianism, with freedom of expression severely curtailed. Not long ago curators were forced to close an art exhibition under pressure from the Orthodox Church. Moscow City Council has just banned protests outside historic monuments as well as severely restricting the right of political assembly. Russia is now the most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Algeria and Iraq.

Savadov: Venus and...
Arsen Savadov Venus and..., 1999 oil on canvas

Andrey Khlobystin, in his Short Course in the History of Non-Conformism writes: “It turned out that creative individuality left to itself, which had been struggled for so long, felt quite uncomfortable facing the offensive of the new on-the-make ideology. In that situation the experience of the non-conformist movement of the second half of the 20th century and its spiritual achievements embodied in works of art became very relevant again.”

Thus, the seemingly anachronistic title of the Chambers show points to a contradiction in reality. Non-conformist art did not disappear with the fall of the Soviet Union. Although the pressure from the state is no longer there, artists today are in a new struggle against commercialism and the dictatorship of the market. Natalia Sidlina is surely right that Arsen Savadov’s strange Venus and…. is an ironic comment on the connection between Stalinist Socialist Realism and today’s market for the most vulgar kitsch.

5 April 2007

Soviet Non-Conformist Art – Before and after the fall of the USSR is at the Chambers Gallery,
23 Long Lane, EC1 until May 4. Free admission. Mon-Fri 10am-6pm. Saturdays by appointment.

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