Reframing Russian Art and Culture

Article excerpt

Margarita Tupitsyn. The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.198 pp.; 25 color ills., 140 b/w. $40.00

Svetlana Boym. Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. 356 pp.; 23 b/w ills. $22.95 paper

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s opened the doors to archives for Russian and Western scholars alike. Thus, primary sources formerly accessible only to a few privileged art historians are now part of the public domain. The vast artistic production of the Soviet avant-garde, for years dormant in the storerooms of Soviet museums, has finally been made available for exhibitions and for public scrutiny.

As if anticipating further political changes in the former Soviet Union, studies of twentiethcentury Russian and Soviet art and culture have grown quantitatively and qualitatively with impressive speed since the 1980s. Extending beyond an initial focus on the avant-garde, current scholarship reaches into the later decades of the century, including Socialist Realist production previously labeled by such formalist critics as Clement Greenberg as ideologically charged kitsch.' More recently, a growing number of scholars have begun to examine Soviet Conceptualism of the 1970s and 1980s, including works by artists such as Ilya Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, and Eric Bulatov, interpreting this movement as a stylistic formation that brought back to Soviet art the originality of the early twentieth-century avant-garde.

Today, studies of Russian and Soviet artistic production are a collective effort of Russian and Western scholars liberated from the bureaucratic constraints imposed by the Soviet system.2 However, while the gap between methodological approaches favored (or imposed) in Russia and the West-a one-partyline-formalism versus adversarial pluralismseems to narrow, the "ideological" departure point for the critical evaluation of Soviet avantgarde practice, in particular, in large part remains diametrically opposed to the one embraced in the West. The Russian writer and philosopher Boris Groys illuminates this dichotomy: "It deserves to be noted that Soviet attitudes toward the avant-garde continue even today to reflect its dual isolation from both the state and the opposition. In the context of the Western museum, the Russian avant-garde may be highly regarded as one original artistic phenomenon among others, but in the Soviet Union its claims to exclusiveness and its almost realized ambitions to destroy traditional cultural values have not been forgotten." In other words, Groys suggests that for Russians, in contrast to Westerners, the early twentieth-century avant-garde has been generally viewed as closely allied with Communism-turned-Stalinism. He concludes: "Aside from a few enthusiasts gravitating towards the West and Western scholarly notions, therefore, even today the resurrection of the avant-garde is universally regarded as unnecessary and undesirable?

Margarita Tupitsyn and Svetlana Boym belong to the small, but growing, number of Russian "enthusiasts" who endorse the major significance of their native art and culture, while approaching it from a multicultural perspective. As Russian-born, Western-trained scholars (Tupitsyn teaches at Rutgers, Boym at Harvard), their cross-cultural work combines extensive familiarity with current Western critical discourse and firsthand knowledge of the connections between art and life in both the former Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Their writings serve as self-reflective mirrors of historical data, critically evaluated in the extended context of direct Soviet and Russian experience. As a major study of Soviet photography in the 1920s and 1930s, the importance of Tupitsyn's The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937 cannot be overestimated. The book, the end product of the author's doctoral investigations, provides a close analysis of a variety of works of art and an intriguing discussion of criticism from the period. …