This winter’s offering from the Saatchi Gallery is a neat tandem of exhibitions tracing the development of contemporary Russian art from its unofficial first stirrings during the Communist period to the present day. The Soviet era section, entitled ‘Breaking the Ice’, spreads across the top floor, metaphorically opening the way for the artists exhibiting in the wide spaces below and physically inciting to iconoclasm. The post-breakage debris and the instrument of violence appear in a 1994 Ilya Kabakov installation where Socialist Realist canvases have been vandalised with an axe. Shards of glass litter the floor around gashed out paintings, but the perpetrator is absent. It is the artist, we are informed, who has destroyed his own works.
The violence is not always so literal. The first room of the exhibition focuses on the resurgence of abstract art in the 1960s. Works that to the western eye might appear old-fashioned were in fact quiet protests against the regime. As Rosalind Blakesley and Susan Reid have pointed out abstract art, even during the thaw, was seen to represent the ‘anti-human’ character of capitalist culture. Thus, the colourful abstractions of Lydia Masterkova or the brightly-lit kinetic sculpture of Francisco Infante act as rebellious tributes to the ‘bourgeois formalism’ of Goncharova or Rodchenko.
Looking to the past was also the technique employed by Oleg Tselkov and Oskar Rabin. Tselkov’s bloated, mask-like faces float about the canvas, recalling Pavel Filonov’s frighteningly dehumanised figures, now drenched in violent Fauvist colours. Rabin takes the Cubist still-life as inspiration and turns it into countless bleak representations of Moscow life. The newspaper fragment, that Cubist staple, becomes a powerful tool for protest through multi-layered world-plays: in the 1975 canvas ‘Nepravda’, the first syllable of ‘BEЧEPHЯЯ MOCKBA’ is obscured, grimly spelling out ‘black Moscow’.
The subtext of bleak repression can be found in the majority of the exhibits. Dmitri Krasnopevtsev paints a staircase that leads nowhere (‘The Staircase’, 1960) and a still life where even inanimate objects appear to be bound and gagged (‘Wrapped Objects’, 1963). Mikhail Roginsky’s take on Pop Art features a trompe l’oeil door that cannot open, while Erik Bulatov literally spells it out with his monumental ‘No Entrance’ canvas. Dmitri Prigov’s installations ‘Sky’ and ‘Window’ represent the world as a black void, in reference to Malevich no doubt, but also as an homage to Duchamp’s equally non-transparent ‘Fresh Widow’.
Other appropriations are more irreverent. Duchamp and Malevich meet again the Suprematist urinals of Alexander Kosolapov, cheekily entitled ‘Russian Revolutionary Porcelain’. Leonid Sokov remakes Lissitzky’s seminal ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ poster in wood and tin, with ‘Glasnost’ as the new label for the wedge.
Indeed it is Sokov who, it seems to me, makes the most direct representation of the exhibition’s concept. His sculpture of a spindly Giacometti figure advancing towards a sturdy classical depiction of Lenin directly pits the artist against the system, the avant-garde against the conventional and the weak against the strong. That, in effect, is what ‘Breaking the Ice’ is all about.
BREAKING THE ICE: MOSCOW ART, 1960-80s
The Saatchi Gallery, London
21 Nov 2012 – 24 Feb 2013