New controversial exhibition NOTFOREVER mounted by the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and focusing on the art of the Soviet Stagnation Era, is, perhaps, the most discussed and debated art show in Russia. NOTFOREVER boldly aspires to provide an insight into the artistic atmosphere between 1968-1985 and features about 450 items from 34 museum and private collections, including paintings, sculpture, mosaics, graphic works, film posters, archives, performance documentation and film footage (including the extracts from Mirror and Solaris by Andrey Tarkovsky, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Tatyana Lioznova, rare First Russians (Pervorossiyane) by Yevgeny Shiffers, Siberiade by Andrey Konchalovsky, Assa by Sergey Soloviev). So, get ready for a new, if somewhat overwhelming, art experience with discoveries on the way. Irene Kukota gives an overview of the highlights.

Eric Bulatov, Artist En Plein Air, 1967-1968, courtesy @The Tretyakov Gallery

As such, NOTFOREVER is the second part of the exhibition trilogy, dedicated to the Russian Post-War art of the Thaw, Stagnation and Perestroika years. In 2017 it was preceded by the Thaw – the highly acclaimed show that focussed on the late 1950s-1960s, marking the end of the modernist era in Soviet art.

Unlike the Thaw, the challenge of NOTFOREVER lies in the fact that this is the first comprehensive exhibition seeking to re-evaluate and reconsider the art of the so-called Soviet Era of Stagnation on a major institutional level and in the light of postmodernist theory. Most typically, the Era of Stagnation is associated with the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), relative prosperity and stability, easing of ideological pressure, further bureaucratisation of the Soviet system and gradual departure from the Soviet ideology (everyone paid lip service to it, but very few believed and even fewer followed it). Brezhnev’s 18-year term in power as the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party was second only to Joseph Stalin’s in its duration. Obviously, the one who “has eyes to see” would instantly recognise parallels with today’s Russia and discover that many artworks and their contexts are still relevant.

POSTMODERNISM IN THE LATE USSR?

Two mosaic panels by Nadia Léger with portraits of Yekaterina Furtseva (Minister of Culture) and Leonid Brezhnev, 1981 @Irene Kukota

As the Director General of the Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova, summed it up, the curators made “the first attempt at exploring this era by abandoning all stereotypes and preconceptions. The exhibition is an effort to bring together, engage into dialogue or debate various points of view… Our goal was to make the viewers aware of the fact that the Stagnation Era was not solely the time of considerable restrictions, but also of very intense intellectual and spiritual life, of the so-called inner immigration into the world of ideas, philosophy, spirituality, art, music and literature. It is the time when the most important ideas and practices of contemporary Russian art took shape, be that Moscow conceptualism, Sots Art or total installations by Ilya Kabakov that  later took their place among the leading art trends of the 1980s-1990s”.

Ritual and Power. View of the Exhibition. @Irene Kukota

Indeed, the exhibition has already sparked multiple heated discussions and arguments in the Russian art world, as in critical art publications, so in multiple private social media accounts of art critics, curators and artists alike. The fact that the exhibition curators Kirill Svetlyakov, Yulia Vorotyntseva and Anastasia Kurlyandtseva have undertaken the first serious attempt to embrace diverse artistic practices, — or, in the opinions of some artists and art-critics, two parallel art histories, — of the Stagnation Era by showcasing both official (approved by the Soviet system) and unofficial (or underground, “anti-Soviet”) art, provoked both interest and protest, as many protagonists of that artistic era are still alive and kicking the curators for levelling everything up.

Sots Art room, view of the exhibition. @Irene Kukota

Nevertheless, the curators seem to have navigated this minefield with some degree of success. Apparently, NOTFOREVER has hit a raw nerve with the public and will become a milestone project in the history of the Post-War Russian art. Even some shortcomings of the exhibition may be forgiven, as it only initiates the process of re-appraising the art of that not-so-distant past in the light of Bild-Anthropologie (Anthropology of Images) theory. The exposition is also arranged into certain visual and thematical patterns. While Western art of the same period has been thoroughly studied and researched inside out, the same cannot be said about the late Soviet art. There are stars like Kabakov, Bulatov, Moscow conceptualists etc., who have been recently receiving significant attention, but many other lesser known artists remained in the shadow.

Overall, the exposition is arranged into eight visual and thematical patterns, each corresponding to the key components in the Stagnation Era art (both, official and unofficial): “Ritual and Power”, “Sots Art”, “Religious Mysticism”, “Village Life”, “History and Time at a Standstill”, “Childhood”, “Communities”, “Disappearances”. Step by step, one gains an insight into the collective unconscious of that period which, in the words of Kirill Svetlyakov, is shaped by:

  • general loss of purpose, sense of direction and, consequently, time (the great pathos of the utopian “building Communism” exhausted itself); time at a standstill;
  • general ideological vacuum; worn out quotations, cliched speeches, official propaganda culture no longer corresponded to the issues that engaged Soviet people’s minds; interior bureaucratisation and disintegration of the Soviet regime; bureaucratic institutions imitated activity and the majority of people imitated support of the ruling party;
  • double life;
  • as a result, dissociation from reality, inner immigration, escapism; a strong wish to live in the world of dreams, mystical visions, nostalgia; an attempt to focus on philosophy, scientific research or other intellectual pursuits;
  • “split” (artistic) personalities; loss of identity and search for the new invented one
  • former monolithic egalitarian Soviet society split into myriad of communities and intellectual circles, many of them growing more and more elitist. Aristocratisation of culture. Strong narcissistic components within many of these elitist groups;
  • neurotic fears, the fear of eternity being one of them (perhaps, Kabakov’s concern of “not everyone being taken into the future” is most representative of these fears);
  • historization of artistic discourse; an attempt at engaging in dialogue with the whole, rather than only contemporary, history of art (both in official and non-official art);
  • polystylism (Soviet art stops being monolithic) and eclecticism;

Gnezdo group, Iron Curtain, 1976 @The Tretyakov Gallery

Komar&Melamid, Gnezdo Group, Moscow-Jerusalem action (Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn relief), 1977

To sum up the main idea of the exhibition (in my understanding), the USSR of 1970s shared in the global process of industrial development. As a result, many cultural and artistic phenomena ran parallel to or overlapped with those in the West. This means that the era of postmodernism arrived in the USSR at approximately the same time as in the West. Postmodernist strains were borrowed from the West or were part of the natural evolution of the Soviet art but have not yet been properly reflected upon. As stated by the curators, “whilst certain Postmodernist symptoms ran in the Soviet culture, they did not get proper theoretical base, and it can be argued that eventually the USSR did not survive the transition to the Post-industrial culture”. The exhibition opens avenues and offers some tools to further research and exploration of this era.

Overall, it was a strange era, when the pathos of building the Future Communism gradually gave way to nostalgic yearnings for the pre-Revolutionary past, which seemed ideal, Romantic and artistically accomplished. Early Soviet egalitarian culture gave way to elitism that led to aristocratisation of culture. Soviet education and life provided access to refined types of leisure. As a result, the descendants of former peasants, workers and Soviet intelligentsia increasingly preferred to picture themselves as old Russian nobles or Renaissance aristocrats. Partly, this signalled fulfilment of the Soviet dream (to provide workers with the same living conditions and leisure as the privileged pre-Revolutionary classes), partly turned to be escapism from the Soviet present with its state control in the illusionary cosy romanticised past; to a degree, it was also indicative of the wish to reinvent oneself. The roots of this nostalgia sprang in 1970s and have grown to grotesque proportions in today’s Russia, as this retro-sentiment became part of the new state ideology.

Tatiana Fyodorova, Evening in Peterhof , 1981 @Irene Kukota

OFFICIAL AND UNOFFICIAL ART

Remarkably, the exhibition helps to establish certain points of convergence between the official and unofficial artists, usually presented as irreconcilable ideological and aesthetic antagonists (an unofficial artist would never have shaken hands with the official one). Clearly, having been born and educated in the USSR, both groups shared the same background, history, reference points, concepts and values, such as the 19th century pre-modernist attitude to culture (i.e. notions of high culture and low culture; Art with a capital A, a romantic view of an artist and artistic brotherhood, notions of masterpiece, a certain critique of the West and capitalist art-market, with its lack of substance and values). Predictably, the unofficial artists (interested in the Western practices, outspoken, open-minded, ready to work in new media, independent, openly in opposition to the Soviet ideology) mostly deny that they could have shared anything in common with more opportunist, traditionalist official art, loyal to the Soviet system (sticking to easel painting, dependent on state handouts and commissions, looking for loopholes in the official ideology but never speaking against it). It is fair to acknowledge that official and unofficial artists pursued different artistic directions but their mentality had more in common than they would be ready to admit, as NOTFOREVER has recently made clear. To be fair, the message of unofficial art becomes clearer (especially to the Western viewer) when set against the background of official art. To a certain degree, they are co-dependent.

Tellingly, a dispute regarding the exhibition revolved around the issue if the curators had any moral right to exhibit “bad” art (i.e. official Soviet art) or the art which could not be defined as Art (I wonder, how they would have taken the proverbial E. Gombrich’s maxim “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists”; and what is Art in the opinion of the contemporary art critic) – quite indicative of the late 1970s Soviet mindset at work, with its uncompromising maximalism and factionism.

Alexander Schwartzmann, Absolution, 1982 @Irene Kukota

Room with Religious Art @Irene Kukota

As Kirill Svetlyakov, promptly pointed out, the exhibition is more anthropological in its scope, exploring the anthropology of images and seeking to understand how various types of art define and portray the Era of Stagnation when viewed through the post-modernist lens. In this context, “bad” official art can tell as much about its time as “good” underground/contemporary art, as long as they are representative of their era. Personally, I found that it was quite interesting to rediscover now forgotten “official” artists (unlike their underground contemporaries who were, after all, “taken into the future”). Surprisingly, the spectrum of the “official” art turns out to be quite diverse, even more than one would expect. Some of it is so magnificently neurotic and out of touch, it borders on phantasmagorical. And even if you have to go past some kitschy images, like in many mystery religions, you have to go through hell before experiencing a cathartic revelation at the very end of the exhibition – the electrifying final scene from the cult film Assa that features Viktor Tsoy’s (late 1980s-early 1990s rock-star) singing his Changes, the unofficial hymn of the Perestroika.

WALKING THROUGH THE EXHIBITION: FEARS, OBSESSIONS, IRONY, NARCISSISM, DREAMS AND NOSTALGIA.

Conveniently, the first point of departure will be the “Ritual and Power” section – the simulated reality of the public life in the Soviet era. As you enter the first room, you find yourself in an improvised temple. You will see processional relief figures, paintings and mosaics, — all converging towards the image of “our dear Leonid Ilyich” by A. Korolev, hovering in the centre high above. The experience is close to religious, as the images of  Brezhnev form a triade: Brezhnev, the politician, on my left (mosaic panel by Nadia Léger, second wife of French artist Fernand Léger, a communist), Brezhnev, the writer, on my right (Tair Salakhov’s Portrait of Brezhnev Writing his Memoirs (1981), eerily echoing Serov’s Girl with Peaches) and timeless Brezhnev in front of me.

However, behind this self-congratulatory façade of the regime surfaces a strong subconscious fear of the nuclear war, so characteristic of the Cold War period. It is visible in the Negotiation table (1985) by Sergey Ovsepyan and Carnival (1984) by Nikolay Eryshev – both painted in the new aesthetics of photorealism that only adds to their nightmarish and hallucinatory character. Do not miss Eryshev’s Mickey Mouse dancing against the background of exploding missile, set off by the Boschian carnevalesque phantasmagoria. I am sure, psychoanalysts will love this painting.

Nikolay Eryshev, Carnival, 1984. @Irene Kukota

Nikolay Eryshev, Carnival, 1984, detail (Mickey Mouse) @Irene Kukota

As one moves towards a more optimistic and tongue-in-cheek Sots Art section (the term coined by artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid by analogy with American Pop Art), one has to walk past the footage from popular Soviet television series Seventeen Moments of Spring, which also came to epitomise the double life in the USSR. The main protagonist, Colonel Isaev, also known as SS-Standartenführer Stierlitz fights a covert war, serving as a spy in the capital of the Third Reich. This story inspired multiple layers of folklore and humorous anecdotes about Stierlitz/Isaev, as well as the idiom “like Stierlitz in rear of the enemy’s position”, meaning that someone maintains double identity, in order to survive. The whole pantheon of Soviet anecdotal semi-folkloric heroes also features in Sots Art section, epitomised by Boris Orlov’s Iconostasis (1974-1975), with its hero sailors, tractor drivers, Chapaev and Venus-like Anka. It clearly parodies Soviet heroic narrative by referring to quite irreverent popular anecdotes. The Double Self-portrait (1984) by Komar and Melamid jokingly echoes similar portraits of Marx and Lenin that could be seen everywhere. Other pieces, mocking the Soviet propaganda, are Komar and Melamid’s You Feel Good (1972) and Leonid Lamm’s  Da, Da, Da – Ad, Ad, Ad (i.e. Yes, Yes, Yes – Hell, Hell, Hell; 1971), thus, visually demonstrating how Soviet “universal approval” turns into common hell.

Boris Orlov, Iconostasis, 1974-1975, @Irene Kukota

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, “You Feel Good”, 1972, and Leonid Lamm, “Da, Da, Da – Ad, Ad, Ad”, 1971, @Irene Kukota

It is at this stage that the viewer gets introduced to the artistic group Gnezdo (Nest) that was founded by three young art students of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid: Gennady Donskoy, Mikhail Roshal and Viktor Skersis. They are the authors of the Iron Curtain (1976) and joint performance with Komar and Melamid Moscow-Jerusalem (1977). Do not miss the photos of Mikhail Roshal’s plasticine-support portraits of two famous Russian dissidents Andrey Sakharov (“sakhar” is sugar in Russian) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (“sol’” is salt), made of sugar and salt respectively. This corresponds to Komar and Melamid’s portraying of an imaginary Meeting of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Heinrich Böll at Mstislav Rostropovich’s Dacha (1972).

Another famous action performed by Komar and Melamid is The First Duty-Free Trade Between the USA and the USSR. We buy and sell souls (1979). In 1979, in New York, Komar and Melamid launched the new project that parodied the fixation of the Russian culture on the soul and American obsession with selling everything. Within the framework of this project, artists “bought” several hundreds of American souls. On February 6, 1979, Komar and Melamid met Andy Warhol, who willingly sold his soul to them for $0. In the same year, the receipts reached Moscow through the diplomatic channel, and were handed over to the members of the Gnezdo group at the USA embassy. Gnezdo members organized the first “auction of American souls” in Mikhail Odnoralov’s (a fellow artist) studio. The auction was to be held simultaneously in New York and Moscow on May 19, 1979. Artist Alena Kirtsova came to the auction and accidentally bought the soul of Andy Warhol for 37 rubles, 80 kopecks (another version states it was 36 roubles, which corresponded to approximately $70). Apparently, Ms. Kirtsova still owns Warhol’s soul locked up in a bird’s cage! According to Svetlyakov, it was one of the most vivid experiences of artwork’s dematerialisation in the history of contemporary art. So, do not miss the stand with the cage holding a captive soul in it (alas, not Warhol’s) and the photo of Kirtsova buying the soul of the founder of the American Pop-Art.

You will also see documented performances of Collective Actions group, of Yuri Albert and Vadim Zakharov, and of SZ Group. Overall, it is quite interesting to observe how official art channels popular fears and anxieties, while the unofficial art mocks the official ideology and transcends it through laughter, parody and by creating alternative versions of reality.

Stand with Komar and Melamid’s documented action of The First Duty-Free Trade Between the USA and the USSR. We buy and sell souls, 1979 @Irene Kukota

Photo of Alyona Kirtsova receiving the soul of Andy Warhol from Mikhail Rochal @Shalva Breus International Foundation

Photo of the slip confirming the selling of Andy Warhol’s soul to Komar and Melamid, 1979, Courtesy @Alyona Kirtsova

As the state propaganda was coercive and positivist, many Soviet artists (both official and unofficial) developed an interest in religious mysticism and alternative religions. Both groups sought to find answers to questions that the Soviet ideology could not provide. This is evident in the juxtaposition of Popkov’s work In the Cathedral (1974), Lydia Masterkova’s Cathedral (1968) and Michael Schwartzmann’s hieratures of 1970s-1980s. You can also wonder at the whole range of Vitaly Linitsky’s (now, Metropolitan Stephan) mystical works – it is curious how he seems to have anticipated the “heavy metal aesthetics” in his paintings. From Sots Art and religious art that was frowned upon, the viewer will move on to official art, which sought to grapple with various issues of the Soviet life in a more traditional, accepted and less confrontational way.

So we enter the “Village Life” and “Childhood” sections – nostalgic, escapist and interconnected (as in Soviet times childhood was often associated with life in the village during long summer school vacation). It was also the time when the Soviets idealised childhood and village almost in the 19th or even 18th century fashion, associating it with innocence, Russeau-like state of purity and freedom. Soviets had a true cult of childhood and children mirrored in popular slogans “The Children are our Future” and “All the Best to the Children”). On entering this part of the exposition, you will walk into the monumental Popkov’s painting Old Anisya was a Good Person (1971-1973) capturing the funeral of an old village babushka and musing on the hardships of rural life and the fate of Russian peasantry. It is also in this section that the curators displayed amazing prints of old wooden villages by the underground artist Dmitry Plavinsky and the somewhat prophetic footage of Konchalovsky’s Siberiade. You will find it to be almost on the same axis as the footage of Tarkovsky’s Mirror on the opposite side. While exploring two sections, you will find cinema bills, amazing models for Yuri Norshtein’s legendary animation films Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and Tale of Tales (1979). Goodbye, Misha (1982) by Sergey Luchishkin who belonged to the young generation of Soviet avant-gardists (in his youth, he was a member of OST group) is a memorable, symbolic painting. It depicts the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, when many observed it with their eyes welling up with tears. The work captures a general poignant sentiment of not only waving goodbye to one’s childhood’s dream but also of bidding farewell to the Soviet Union itself, as the Moscow Olympic Games practically became its swansong.

Sergey Luchishkin, Goodbye, Misha, 1982, @The Tretyakov Gallery

Next room, “Communities”, demonstrates the disintegration of the Soviet society into small closely knit groups and communities. Perhaps, the most compelling works there are My Friends (1978) by Alexander Petrov and the Mutes (1977) by Yevgeny Amaspyur. It is also there that you can find the chronicle of the Bulldozer exhibition organised in September 1974 by the Lianozovo group and one of its leaders Oscar Rabin (whose paintings have, sadly, not arrived from France due to COVID-19).  I also missed works by Mikhail Roginsky and naïve artists (only Natta Konysheva represents them in “Ritual and Power”) in this part of the exhibition.

Alexander Petrov, My Friends, 1978 @The Tretyakov Gallery

The next room will perhaps leave you perplexed, as it gives the impression of coming across a strange fossilised dinosaur that needs to be dug up and studied. The most critically reviled room, History and Time at a Standstill, is perhaps the most bizarre part of the exhibition: a mix of surreal, pretentious, neurotic and kitschy at the same time. Be not afraid or confounded: it is here that you will fully get the taste of polystilism, so characteristic of the official late Soviet art. The artists who were not openly confronting the system, were allowed relative freedom of expression. Along with its subsection, dealing with escapism, History and Time at a Standstill provide an unexpected glimpse into the collective unconscious of the late USSR. As the official ideology seemed to disintegrate, the artists actively sought for new meanings and visual languages. It was safe to seek them in the past, not in the present or the future – hence the historicizing inherent in many paintings. The practice of official artists consisted in exploiting familiar visual formulae of the Soviet or Old Master art, while imbuing them with their own meanings. Nikolay Belyanov’s Reflections (1982) is an eclectic collection of quotes from art history.  Obedient to the demands of the Communist party, that required to depict lives of the working-class, Nikolay Eryshev painted his Kolkhoz Market (1980) as if it was Raphael’s School of Athens. Oleg Filatov captured BAM Drivers of Magiruses (1980) in a pseudo-Renaissance fashion, and the group of BAM builders in Yuri Raksha’s Conversation About the Future (1979), iconographically resembled scenes of the Last Supper.

Another prominent feature of the era – plenty of leisure, cultivation of hobbies. Suddenly, life was not all about work and class struggle, but also about pastimes and various intellectual and artistic pursuits. Instantly, the artists looked for parallels and found them in the lives of the leisured classes of old times. The Evening in Peterhof (1981) by Tatiana Fyodorova seems to echo ceremonial aristocratic family portraits by Gainsborough, thus, paving the way to innumerable 1990s pseudo-aristocratic portraits of Soviet nomenclature and oligarchs painted by Shilov, Glazunov and Safronov. Her Venice is another exercise in depicting Soviet students as young idealistic aristocrats. In the late Soviet culture it was fashionable to style oneself as some kind of nobility (it is also at that time that family trees became popular, and being the descendant of an old Russian aristocracy turned into an enviable asset, not a curse).

Dmitry Zhilinsky, Portrait of the Diplomat Vladimir Semyonov with his Wife and Daughter, 1978. @The Tretyakov Gallery

My absolute favourite was Dmitry Zhilinsky’s Portrait of the Diplomat Vladimir Semyonov with his Wife and Daughter (1978). Semyonov was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister under Gromyko and was known as a famous collector of avant-garde artists, such as Lentulov, Falk, Kandinsky. He also advised famous German collector Peter Ludwig, who actively bought unofficial art in Russia. He was also known as supporter of the art-collector Georgy Kostakis who emigrated from the USSR.  Zhilinsky’s stylised portrait represents Semyonov as another Medici or Philip the Good – a patron of arts and artists. This portrait is also a witness to the new generation of Soviet collectors: high-ranking, knowledgeable, astute, business-like.

Tatyana Yablonskaya’s Evening. Old Florence (1973) is a little gem that dwells on belonging, yearning, estrangement and reaching out. The late Soviet era was the time when the “chosen” few, who had been considered “reliable”, were occasionally allowed to travel outside the USSR and venture into the mythical, forbidden and beckoning “abroad” – the West. Such journeys were the much-envied chance of a lifetime (in 1992 Alexander Proshkin released the film with a very telling title “To See Paris and Die”), the crowning achievement of one’s life and career. Obviously, they stirred the whole gamut of pent-up emotions, personal and professional. Yablonskaya’s panting is the epitome of that special yearning, a wish to linger in the beautiful phantom-like Florence she had probably seen so many times in illustrated art books. Quite possibly, this work captures the encounter she might have been dreaming about her entire life. The painting tells us of both: the wish to reach out to the inaccessible otherworldly beauty outside the window, become part of a wider world, and of the impossibility to do so, of not-belonging. The heroine of Yablonkaya seems to melt into the landscape seen from her window, whilst also remaining barred from the world of her dreams by the wall.

Tatyana Yablonskaya, Evening. Old Florence,1973, [email protected] The Tretyakov Gallery

Bulatov’s early and rare work Artist en Plein Air (1967-1968) offers an alternative to this dilemma: if he cannot become part of a bigger world, he can escape into his art, melt into his painting. Another canvas, indicative of its time, is Boris Talberg’s double self-portrait Tête-à-Tête (1977). On the face of it, it is a witty reference to The Satyr and the Peasant (c. 1620s) in the collection of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow – a popular interpretation of the well-known Aesop’s fable by the Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens. However, Talberg’s work contains a deeper meaning: he represents himself in both guises – as his normal self and as a naked satyr with horns. Intended or not, it seems perfectly to correspond to Jungian notions of conscious self and its shadow. According to Jung, “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”.

Soviet regime, while proclaiming integrity as its ultimate ideal, frequently lied to its people and was responsible for creating severe rifts in their psyches. Nominally, a soviet person had to meet very high moral standards, remain ideologically loyal and be an achiever. Those who failed to comply were publicly shamed and condemned.  As a result, the face many people wore in public rarely corresponded to their real self. Double life became their second nature. In Jung’s words, “all those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values – everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact – now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego.” Therefore, we might presume that the artist therapeutically meets his doppelgänger, his shadow, and casually chats with him in the kitchen. So, this painting offers a subtle critique of the system and suggests an alternative, while pulling off a visual joke.

Boris Talberg, Tête-à-Tête, 1977, courtesy @The Tretyakov Gallery

The exhibition ends in “Disappearances”, — the section abounding in depictions of disappearing people, with their backs turned on viewers. Here curators also dwell on, almost child-like, late Soviet obsession with closets: it turns out to be a recurring theme among the official and non-official artists, as demonstrated by Ilya Kabakov’s  Sitting-in-the-Closet Primakov (1974), the installation by Makarevich, or the animated film Closet, (1971), made by Andrey Khrzhanovsky (not to be confused with his son Ilya Khrzhanovsky who filmed DAU). The extremes of collective culture and communal living generated the opposite extreme when people’s most cherished dream was to have their own private space, no matter how small or secluded, even the size of a closet (if we view this as a metaphor of the womb, it may point to the need for refuge and safety). The main character in the Closet buys an old, antiquarian piece of furniture, then moves his belongings and himself inside the closet and finally disappears. Following Magritte’s aesthetic, Soviet artists interpreted the closet as an empty shell that did not contain anything, and therefore, could serve as a portal to another dimension. Interest in Magritte and his visual experiments was an instantly recognisable attribute of a late Soviet intellectual art connoisseur: Dali was for the general public, while Magritte was appreciated only by the select few. Ilya Kabakov’s installation Box with Garbage (1981-1985) appears to further develop this visual metaphor of a closet/drawer.

General View of the Exhibition with works of Igor Makarevich, Case of Sensations, 1980 (on the right) and Sergey Volokhov New Holofernes, 1974 (on the left); @Irene Kukota

Ilya Kabakov, Box with Garbage, 1981-1985, @Irene Kukota

IS IT OVER YET?

Commenting on the exhibition, Kirill Svetlyakov observed that “those who believe that the 1970s are long over and done with, must be very naive to think so. Since the 1970s, many processes have been ongoing without reaching their completion stage yet. Amongst them are:

  • the formation of current Russian elites;
  • the economy based on resource rent;
  • the emergence of “split” personality, brought up on mass culture, for whom the “second reality” of the mass media displaces the real one.

Apart from these ones, there are many other processes still at work. If we follow this logic, the collapse of the USSR was only an episode within a much greater process stretching in time, not its destination point. For this reason, the second edit of the “Stagnation Era without the Soviets” was quite predictable”. This phenomenon, certainly, needs to be studied further.

There is nothing more permanent than temporary”, – proclaimed the undisputable axiom that remained a building block of the Soviet civilisation for many years.  So, when looking at the title of the new exhibition, do not take it at face value. Read between the lines – after all, that is what good old Soviet intelligentsia did. There is a certain irony concealed there: the whole solid, unyielding, monumental edifice of the Soviet life that was meant to last forever, collapsed almost overnight with the onset of “perestroika”. But has it really?

NOTFOREVER will run until 11 October 2020.  You can find out more about times and tickets by following the link.