Second Russian Avant-garde

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E. Mountyan

Writer and art collector Elena Muntyan gave a lecture about Soviet underground artists at the first lecture of ‘Understanding Russian Culture’ held at the Chekhov Library. The following is a summary of her lecture (Editor).

In the late 1950s a few artists in the USSR began to work in an alternative style – and ‘unofficial art’ was born. The ideas and works by Oscar Rabin, Vladimir Nemukhin, Boris Sveshnikov, Ernst Neizvestny, Vadim Sidur and others came to the forefront of artistic life, albeit deep in the underground. Eventually they broke through, the dominating Soviet official mold of Art. The paintings of the most talented of this group are now highly prized on the international market and continue to be sold at international auctions.

What gave rise to this fresh view of the world and of society? In the mid 1950s, after Stalin’s death, Soviet society was still very closed, and the official art form was Socialist Realism. Then the International Festival of Youth and Students took place in the summer of 1957. Today it is difficult to imagine what impression this had on young Soviets – they had never seen foreigners and many had never even heard a foreign language. It was a real culture shock.

For the artists, of course, the most important thing was to absorb information about contemporary foreign culture. In Gorky Park during the Festival there was an exhibition of contemporary art with some paintings by Jackson Pollock as well as other contemporary western artists.

At about this time, groups of artists, poets and intellectuals, who wanted to work differently from the official style began to materialise. The most famous was the so-called ‘Lianozov’ group, which included the artists Rabin and Nemukhin.

Oscar Rabin was the unofficial leader of this group. He became an orphan at the age of 13 at the beginning of WWII. The boy survived to study painting and drawing, earning a living by unloading railway wagons. In the late 1950s, he organized the art group ‘Lianozovo,’ named after the village near Moscow where he lived at that time. Rabin’s house became a centre of the artistic movement that was known in the West as the ‘second Russian avant-garde.’ Young Rabin was a very brave person, he became the leader of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition,’ an out doors exhibition in Moscow in 1974 which was literally bulldozered down by the authorities. In 1978 Rabin was deprived of his Soviet citizenship and he emigrated to Paris with his family. He still lives there.

Rabin’s works, including his still lifes were painted in dull tones. They were a blend of ‘black’ grotesque and intimate sad lyricism; a mix of classic images that he took from the Renaissance, mixed with Soviet reality, and painted in a semi expressionist manner. His paintings had clear political messages such as in his painting ‘Passport.’

Vladimir Nemukhin, another leader and organizer of the Bulldozer Exhibition, was expelled from the Soviet Art Institute for varying from the socialist realist style. For some time, Nemukhin painted abstract paintings and then found his special technique – playing cards. The most common motif in his paintings is that life is a game. Now the artist is considered as a classic of the second Russian avant-garde. Both Rabin and Nemukhin, are alive and have been very successful for the last twenty years.

During the 1974 Bulldozer Exhibition, people came who were mostly friends of the artists. Fortunately for the artists, foreign correspondents also attended. As soon as the artists started holding up their paintings to show them to the public, the KGB charged in, grabbed their works and threw them to the ground. The artists jumped under the trucks to save their paintings being physically destroyed. It was a true theatre of the absurd. Some artists were arrested, including Oscar Rabin. But soon all were released – because word had got out, and the Soviet government did not want to spoil its image.

But not all of the most talented artists belonged to groups. These were gifted loners who simply went their own way and their path is very special. These were Zverev and Sveshnikov.

Anatoly Zverev was born in 1931 in Moscow and spent all his life in this city until he died in 1986. Zverev never knew where he would spend the next night, he looked like a vagabond, always wore shabby clothing and was often drunk. But he had an ability to surround himself with a small group of friends who supported him. His language was metaphorical, his manner was sometimes provocative and he suffered from mental instability. Zverev was absolutely indifferent to money. ‘I’ll paint lots of masterpieces, I’ll immortalize all of you guys, and, if you become rich, I’ll be happy, too!’ –Zverev said to his friends. The artist himself needed just 3 roubles to buy a bottle of vodka, a fact known by a lot of people who exploited his talent.

Despite his image and life style, collectors noticed his paintings, and many came to respect him. George Costakis, the most famous Soviet art collector said that Anatoly was “one of the most talented artists in Soviet Russia… A unique phenomenon.” In 1965, Igor Markevitch, the French conductor and composer, organized Zverev’s first exhibition abroad in the Galerie Motte in Paris. But that didn’t change the way Zverev lived at all.

Once in the 60s Zverev’s self-portrait was printed in Life magazine, beside a portrait of Vladimir Lenin by the Soviet artist Serov. This publication showed the contrast between underground and official art. Nikita Khruschev found out about this publication, and Zverev was fired from the Sokolniky park where he worked, because the director saw him using a mop for painting with.

Zverev had a very free and expressive manner of drawing. He used not only a brush, but his fingers, a wooden stick, a palette knife to paint with. Zverev never turned completely to abstract painting, in his pictures we can always see a human figure or face. It’s amazing how Zverev could express the character of a person with barely noticeable details.

He left many pictures and drawings after him (about 30 thousand) because he simply couldn’t stop. Now we can see some of his works and films about his life in the Zverev Museum near the Metro Station Mayakovskaya.

On the 9th of February 1946 Boris Sveshnikov, a nineteen-year old student, left his parents’ house in Moscow. He went to buy something in the shop next door and returned home ten years later. Sveshnikov was arrested for ‘participation in a terrorist group’ that supposedly plotted an attempt on Stalin’s life. Sure, the young man had never heard about such a group, but he was from a noble family, so potentially he could have been the enemy of the Soviet power. He was sentenced to 10 years in the camps.

His arrest became a tragic point in his career, his camp drawings are something unique in the history of world art, the story of their creation is highly unusual, the reality reflected in them is extraordinary. Drawn in pen and ink, very occasionally in brush, on ordinary paper, they represent a fantastic world where the Northern tundra becomes the landscape of eternity, and where nightmares become everyday life.

Sveshnikov had been drawing since he could remember. He spent 3 years in the Moscow Institute of Decorative Art, where there was an all-embracing atmosphere of Soviet Socialist Realism. His true teachers were old masters, and his school was the Pushkin Museum of fine Art in Moscow. It was the world of his dreams and art for him was like a magic crystal ball through which he looked at the real world. Sveshnikov carried this crystal ball with him to prison, then to camps and after that back to freedom.

Sveshnikov said that those years were ‘a period of completely free creativity. I received my daily ration of bread and I drew what I wanted. No one was in charge of me. No one showed the least bit of interest in me.’ The only exception were his ‘clients,’ fellow prisoners who asked him to draw their portraits on little scraps of paper so that they could send them home to their families. In January 1954 Sveshnikov returned to Moscow.

Sveshnikov always used a thin layer of paint in his paintings, he avoided bright colours, and liked mixing different ages and styles of art in strange combinations. Characters from the 18th century appeared in the reality of Stalin’s camps. Later he lived in the small town Tarusa, then in Moscow where he worked as an illustrator for publishing houses, choosing books and authors whose spirit was close to his own: Goffman, Goethe, Dickens. When the works of the unofficial artist began to attract attention of collectors they began to buy his works. After his death in 1998 many drawings and oil pictures remained in his flat. I know the gallery owner who began to sell Sveshnikov’s work. A few years after his death, the price of his works went up a hundred times.

Ernst Neizvestny is a sculptor, an artist and a philosopher, and has a unique creative personality. In the USSR, Neizvestny received a classical art education, but in 1941 he became a soldier. Having returned to work after the war, he began searching for a new expressive artistic language. By the end of the 1950s Neizvestny had created monumental sculptures around the world and had become one of the most prominent figures in the artistic life of the USSR .

In 1962 he participated in the exhibition in the Central Manege hall in Moscow. The works of young artists, especially sculptors, were not liked by the head of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev. Ernst Neizvestny was the only artist who dared to argue with Khrushchev, which led to the sculptor being exiled in 1976. Despite that, Khrushchev’s family asked Neizvestny to create a monument for Khrushchev’s tomb, he agreed, and today the monument stands in the Novodevichye cemetery.

Away from home, Neizvestny created many masterpieces. His monuments and sculptures were established in many cities around the world, in Geneva, Stockholm, Moscow, Perm, Magadan, at the Kennedy Center in Washington and in New York, where the master lives and works. Neizvestny likes to create very large compositions in sculpture, such as the Tree of Life and the Mask of Sorrow established in Magadan. His works are in museum collections and important private collections worldwide, including the collection of the Vatican. Today, despite his age, Neizvestny continues to create and there is now a large exhibition of Ernst Neizvestny in the Manege Hall in Moscow.

Vadim Sidur, a sculptor was a disabled veteran of the War and expressed pain, suffering and tragedy in his work. Vadim Sidur is one of the most significant Russian sculptors. During thirty years of working in his basement studio, Sidur has created more than 500 sculptures and over 1,000 prints. His monumental works have been erected in many German cities and in the USA. The English playwright S. Beckett saw in 1975 the sculpture ‘Disabled,’ and wrote: ‘a powerful and moving work, the silence of anger and compassion.’ Human bodies in his works are crippled and we realize that the souls of those people also suffered. The Vadim Sidurs Museum was established in Moscow in 1989. It is the only Moscow state museum devoted to modern sculpture.

Andrey Mountyan, an artist of next generation, had the same reactions against soviet anti-aesthetics reality as these other artists, but he expressed it in another way. When he paints his canvases or draws his graphic works, he uses the achievements of traditional European style art. But when he creates icons he expresses shapes of spirits with old byzantine techniques, so his work is a very rare example of a synthesis of both eastern and western style art.

Where can you see these artists’ works?

Anatoly Zverev

At Zverev’s Museum near the Metro Station Mayakovskaja. In Tretjakov Gallery on Krymsky Val in the only permanent exhibition of 20th century Russian art in the country.

Vadim Sidurs

In The Vadim Sidurs Museum near Metro Station Perovo.

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