Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russian Art: Caught in the Tumult Economic and Political Upheavals Paint Bleak Picture for a Once-Thriving Artistic Community

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russian Art: Caught in the Tumult Economic and Political Upheavals Paint Bleak Picture for a Once-Thriving Artistic Community

Article excerpt

The 20th century has rocked Russia probably more than any other country. It has been buffeted by two world wars, revolution, and counter-revolution, with a few destructive social and economic experiments thrown in. Yet despite it all, Russia has somehow produced remarkable artistic talents.

Especially in the early part of this century, periods of political and social upheaval proved, at the same time, to be epochs of exceptional intellectual vitality. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, provided the backdrop for an artistic explosion in Russia, giving rise to new art forms -- such as "Cubo-Futurism" -- that had worldwide impact.

But as the century draws to a close, all the chaos finally seems to be catching up with Russians, exacting a severe toll on the country's artistic community.

Once again, Russia finds itself embroiled in tumult, trying to undo the damage done by 70-plus years of communism. But unlike in previous bouts with instability, few people think the current turmoil will be

accompanied by a creative breakthrough.

Communism's legacy, combined with the economic pressures unleashed in the post-communist era, is proving an insurmountable barrier for most artists. Either the communist way of doing things deprived many artists of initiative, or the contemporary daily battle for survival is forcing those with potential to sell out to commercialism.

In the realm of the visual arts, some painters have made names for themselves in the West. In the early years of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Westerners were astonished by the variety and quality of Russian underground art. Dealers flocked to the former Soviet bloc.

"I was astounded by the range of styles and the subject matter," says Barbara Hazzard, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Russian art impresario.

But interest has since dropped dramatically. Critics agree that there is no person or art force coming out of the former Soviet bloc today that can match the talent of the Russian avant-garde around the 1920s.

"The international art market has shown there are no real stars in Russia now," says Konstantin Akinsha, a prominent Russian art historian who now lives in the German city of Cologne.

This creative vacuum may be a harbinger, Mr. Akinsha adds. It bodes ill for Russia's latest attempt to modernize, and catch up politically, economically, and socially with the West. "It's a sign of a complete bankruptcy of ideas," he says.

Communism can't entirely be blamed for the unfulfilled potential. In some ways, the present chaotic economic conditions in Russia have done more to restrain artistic potential than did the old political order.

"The creative impulse is suffering under economic hardship," Hazzard says. "A lot of them {Russian artists} are now turning out pot-boilers -- just trying to churn out something that will sell."

Among the artists themselves there is widespread pessimism about the lack of a home audience. "The atmosphere in Russia right now isn't receptive for art," says George Pusenkoff, an artist from Belarus who now lives in Cologne. "A person who is forced to think only about the most basic of things -- eating and earning money to live -- is not in a position to appreciate art."

After the 1917 Bolshevik coup, Russia's artistic community was immersed in politics, both in support of, or opposition to, the new regime. In contrast to the early Soviet era, however, few in the creative class these days show enthusiasm for politics. Amid the rough and tumble of communist deconstruction, most people are too preoccupied with self-preservation to worry about society.

"You must worry about so many things now that there is very little time for {artistic} work," Sergei Kovalsky, a painter from St. Petersburg, said at the opening of a recent exhibition in Berlin. …

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