Pop Goes the Perestroika: In the Final Years of the Soviet Union, Artists Who Had Been Driven Underground by Censorship Began to Display a New-Found Confidence
Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
In July 1988, when the revolutions of 1989 were still unimaginable, a remarkable event took place in Moscow. Sotheby's held an art auction. It was the first occasion since Stalin's purges of the 1930s when "unofficial" Russian artists were able to sell their work openly in the capital city. The dealers at Sotheby's had managed to gain access to the attics and cellars where these "nonconformist" artists had their studios and selected 29 of them, to put forward pieces. The fact of the event, as much as the quality of the 119 lots on sale, was further proof that the ice of Soviet censorship was finally melting. Foreign buyers were attracted by curiosity and by the relative cheapness of the pieces on offer. At the end of the sale, it was reported, applause broke out spontaneously, a standing ovation that recognised a cultural wall coming down.
For the artists, although the event was something they had long dreamed of, the arrival of the market in Moscow brought unexpected consequences. They reportedly looked on unbelievingly as western buyers bid hard currency for paintings that had been hidden for years. The critic Andrew Solomon, who wrote a book on the subject, was present to see the sale bring in nearly $2.Im, 60 per cent of which went to the artists, "along with the feeling that their whole world had caved in, and they could not imagine what would arise to replace it ... Formerly members of a relatively cohesive and staunchly noncommercial group, they had now been split into two rival camps: those who sold, and those who didn't."
To commemorate the event, Igor Makarevich, one of the most celebrated of the artists on show, created a painting the colour of a dollar bill that mimicked the lettering on the front of a Soviet bank, and called it Sotheby 's.
Twenty-two years on, a few of the artists who featured in that Sotheby's show--along with several contemporaries who did not make the auctioneers' cut--are gathered again in a sharply curated reappraisal of the late Soviet period at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London. Their work is locked in a moment between repression and its release, and though not all the exhibits stand the test of time, historical context gives them a compelling charge. The conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, a powerful influence on this group, has recalled that "fear, as a state of mind, persisted in every second of our life, in every action". Yet it is not fear that you see here; it is rather defiance--an often playful kind of bravery.
In the years before the 1918 revolution, Kazimir Malevich and the Russian futurists imagined an artistic Utopia independent of dealers and prices; they might have been careful what they wished for. After Stalin, only one kind of art was allowed in the Soviet Union--stark social realism. In a decree of 1932, all "religious, pornographic and formalistic art" was outlawed. "Formalistic art" included cubism, constructivism, surrealism and all forms of abstraction. This censorship was enforced until a brief period in the 1950s, early in Khrushchev's era, when a short-lived "thaw" allowed Picasso, Matisse and others to show in Moscow. After attending a show of Russian abstraction in 1962, however, Khrushchev smelled dissent, and the wall of censorship came down once more.
One of the lessons of the underground movements that followed was that there are always ways of making the visual a challenge to the established order. Many of the artists on show were inspired by the example of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who were the first to see the possibilities of combining Soviet realism with pop art--to add an edge of irony to what had been conceived in state-sanctioned earnest. One of the effects of their "Sots" (socialist) art, was to make Stalinist realism seem a style like any other, the implication being that all fashions eventually become absurd and the out. …