Pushkin House’s new show explores the legacy of the 1950-60s period through the history of Moscow’s legendary and internationally renowned theatre Sovremennik, or ‘Contemporary’, now marking its’ 60th anniversary.

The exhibition features works by Erik Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, Oleg Vassilev, Pavel Pepperstein, Olga Chernysheva, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and others, along with newly commissioned art work by multimedia artist and 2013 Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost.

The major part of the exhibition at Pushkin House draws on Sovremennik’s archival collection of photographs and video footage, representing events in the early history and life of the theatre, its buildings, audience, as well as actual productions.

Sovremennik has an extraordinary history that reflects the greater history of Russia. It was founded in 1956, during the period in Soviet history known as “The Thaw”, which commenced with the death of Stalin in 1953 and lasted until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. This was a period of unprecedented social, cultural and economic transformation in the Soviet Union: the country needed a new message, a new art and a new theatre. A group of actors: Oleg Yefremov, Galina Volchek, Igor Kvasha, Liliya Tolmachova, Yevgeny Yevstigneyev, Oleg Tabakov and others gathered together to create it. Their aspiration was to demonstrate the resilience of psychological theatre, showing the inner world of real people – their day-to-day problems and desires, as opposed to the wooden heroes of the watered-down plays that dominated the stages of Moscow theatres at the time. This aspiration was embraced by their audience from the first night-time performance of “Eternally Alive” (by Victor Rozov) on April 15, 1956. Soon Sovremennik became the favourite theatre of the younger generation.

The repertoire of the early Sovremennik was based on works by contemporary authors, which included plays written especially for the theatre, as well as modern Western dramas, which managed to get into the USSR through the iron curtain. Despite the Thaw, censorship interfered severely with theatre life.

“Matrosskaya Tishina” by Alexander Galich and “Incident at Vichy” by Arthur Miller were forbidden to be performed at the last minute. Other works, even the most innocent, only received approval after up to as many as fifteen views by censors, whose comments either had to be taken on board or subtly circumvented. Similar levels of censorship applied to the visual arts during the Thaw period, when, along with the officially supported Socialist Realism style, Soviet Non-conformist Art appeared. For artists this period ended in 1962, when Khrushchev became apoplectic during an exhibition in Moscow at which several works by nonconformists were exhibited. This incident led to a nation-wide campaign against them. Artists were driven ‘underground’ and began to hold exhibitions at private flats, giving rise to the term ’Kvartirnaya Vystavka’, which literally means “Apartment Exhibition”.

Curator Olga Jürgenson says: ‘It’s a great privilege to curate an exhibition exploring the rich history around the iconic theatre Moscow’s Sovremennik – which is literally a beacon of ‘contemporary’ creativity. ’Kvartirnaya Vystavka’ at Pushkin House is an installation within the show. In the diverse, eclectic and democratic spirit of ‘the contemporary’, I have arranged works by artists of the Thaw period alongside those of younger international artists’.

This exhibition highlights the fact that the 1950-60s revolution in art and culture manifested itself in different ways throughout the world, and designates the start of a period which we define as ‘Contemporary’: Contemporary arts are the art and culture of today, produced by artists who are living now, in the twenty first century.’ Pushkin House Director Clem Cecil says: ‘We are honoured to be hosting this exhibition, exploring the history and cultural context of Moscow’s Sovremennik theatre. We have devised an interesting and lively programme of events to accompany the exhibition including a talk with Michael Frayn on May 16th and an evening with the associate artistic director of the theatre on May 8th.’

The exhibition is generously supported by Blavatnik Family Foundation.

Sovremennik will be performing at Piccadilly Theatre between 3rd and 13th of May. See this link for more details. Special thanks to: Lyuba Galkina, Irina Stolyarova and Igor Tsukanov for the loan of art works.

Thanks to: Isabel Bingley, Tomas Cramerotti, Lyuba Galkina, Kateryna Kashintseva, Oliver King, Eugenia Kuznetsova, Ludmila Perlova, Tatiana Prasolova.

Events accompanying the show include the following:

2nd May: An Evening of Songs from the Thaw with Young Actors from Sovremennik Theatre. In Russian.

8th May: A history of the Sovremennik with Yevgeniya Kusnetsova, associate artistic director of the Theatre. In Russian with English Translation.

16th May: In Conversation with Michael Frayn conducted by Moscow correspondent for the Economist, Arkady Ostrovsky. In English.

20th May: Screening of documentary: Sovremennik: The First 50 Years. In Russian with English surtitles.

Open 11am – 5pm; Monday – Saturday, most days

Please call in advance to check or if you would like to see the exhibition outside these hours.