march/april 2004

more feature articles:

Representing Blackness
Kerry James Marshall's recent work re-thinks the meaning of "black art".
by Matthew Biro

DOES BERLIN EQUAL MOSCOW?

An ambitious examination of Eastern Europe‚s recent cultural history falls prey to contemporary political concerns

by Michael Friedländer

Berlin‚s most spectacular show this winter no doubt will similarly dominate Moscow when it opens there in late March.1 With nearly five hundred artworks by a hundred and seventy artists, „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlin, 1950ų2000š demonstrates an audacious curatorial vision. This considerable ambition, however, pales beside the show‚s Russian curators‚ political aims and beside the dramatic historical revision they undertake in pursuit of those goals: history, it seems, has not proved the Soviet system wrong; Socialist Realism is a vibrant art form; and the Soviets never persecuted unofficial art.2

Erik Bulatov, At the TV, 1982-85, oil on canvas, 46 by 63 inches
(©Erik Bulatov/VG BildųKunst, Bonn 2003/The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union,
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli
Art Museum, Rutgers,
The State University of
New Jersey/ADAGP, Paris;
Photo: Jack Abraham).

 

These political and historical intentions make this exhibit an unworthy complement to „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlin, 1900ų1950,š which debuted in Berlin in September 1995 and moved to Moscow the following springųand which openly recounted the main artistic currents in those cities during the twentieth century‚s first fifty years, including the persecution that artists faced under Hitler and Stalin. To emphasize this frankness, this earlier show‚s German curator, Jörn Merkert, writing in the catalog with Russian film historian Maja Turovskaja, cited an ancient Jewish saying: „Forgetting prolongs the exile and the secret of salvation is remembrance.š

With over two thousand exhibits by almost five hundred artists, this first show may have been overwhelming, but it wasn‚t conceptually unclear, ideologically biased or politically compromised. The same cannot be said of the current exhibition, which, while showing many interestingųeven greatųworks, takes as its theme the vague concept of „From Today.š Consequently, the exhibits cluster around twenty ill-formed ideasųšCommunicative Systems,š „Engagement-Social Intervention,š „Virtue Terror,š „Joke Guerillaš and the likeųirrespective of each artwork‚s place in its country‚s art scene. The resulting sub-sections include works by both German and Russian artists, even though these artists rarely knewųlet alone influencedųeach other. For, of course, tight government control sealed Soviet artists off from the West between 1950 and 1985, thus minimizing Berlin‚s cultural sway. And it seems much too soon to pinpoint mutual influences after that, when Russian art was more or less free, particularly since contemporary Russian artists exchange influences throughout the West rather than especially with Germany or, even more specifically, Berlin.

Such objections, though, miss this exhibition‚s purpose, which is to connect unrelated artworks and justify an implausible exhibition in order to aid the efforts of German Chancellor Schröder and Russian President Putin to „intensifyš cultural relations. And Germany has clear motivation for pursuing such „intensificationš: it wishes Russia to return an estimated two hundred thousand artworks, four and a half million books and two miles of archival material seized by the Soviets during World War II.3 In 2001, after a decade of futile legal arguments, the German government began trying to improve the climate for a return of the works of art by means of the aforementioned „intensification.š This tactic also helps the Russian Ministry of Culture by generating extra budgets for joint projects and more travel to the West for its staff. Thus, in early 2003 the Ministry explored legal loopholes to return the so-called Baldin collection of three hundred and sixty-two drawings and two paintings to Germany, until stopped by Russian public opinion, the prosecutor‚s office and the Russian Duma‚s committee for culture.4

Given the Russian Ministry‚s interest in this rapprochement, it‚s no surprise that Deputy Minister of Culture Pavel Khoroshilov leads the exhibition‚s Russian curatorial team. Unfortunately, Mr. Khoroshilov and his Russian co-curatorsųart historians Ekaterina Degot and Viktor Misianoųhave a much less positive attitude towards „forgetting and remembranceš than the curators of the 1995 show. Khoroshilov, Degot and Misiano write in their joint foreword to the catalog: „We think it is important that the exhibition disproves the stubborn (ideological!) cliché that the Cold War had victors and vanquished.š And: „The juxtaposition Modernism-Socialist Realism...is equally an ideological relic, whose correction, in our view, should be the purpose of the exhibition.š And finally: „Since the 1950s, the USSR was a post-totalitarian state in which unofficial art developed not despite, but thanks to, the specific economic and social order.š 5 Whether the Russian curators believe these Soviet-inflected arguments or merely wish to deflect domestic criticism of their cooperation with Germany matters far less than that the show‚s murky concept and hostility towards unofficial art obscure the truth about Russian (and, for that matter, German) art during and after communism. However, the exhibits and the two thick catalogues give a much clearer picture.

Ernst Neizvestny, The Horseman, 1982ų1986, oil on canvas, 76 by 47 inches
(courtesy Sloane Gallery of Art).

By 1950, Stalin‚s grip on art was terrifying. A fossilized Socialist Realism circled in its narrow universe of official themes and forms, exemplified by the archaic academicism of Vassilii Yakovlev‚s Dispute about Art.

Even then, however, some artists chose artistic freedom over official recognition and publicity, avoiding persecution by showing their art only to close friends. Unfortunately, this exhibition downplays early unofficial art. However, among the few examples shown is Aleksandr Arefjev‚s depiction of the depressing world of post-war Leningrad‚s communal housingųa true „Socialist Realism,š which caused him frequent conflict with the KGB and two spells in the GULAG. His neo-Cezannist style, however, was considerably less original than his themes. Evident skill notwithstanding, Arefjev seems stuck in a blind alley, unable to lead future artistic generations anywhere. This stylistic backwardness no doubt reflects the terrible isolation of Russian artists, since normally an artist as courageous and creative as Arefjev probably would have been remarkably innovative. As Ilya Kabakov, a prominent and distinctly original contemporary Russian artist, observed, „Soviet art appeared not as a river, but as a swamp drying up and located far away from contemporary life elsewhere.š 6

After Stalin died in 1953, fear generally subsided. However, art remained controlled and suppressed, and a confrontation between Nikita Khrushchev and unofficial sculptor Ernst Neizvestny in November 1963 came to symbolize the Soviets‚ suppression of art. When Khrushchev called artworks exhibited by young unofficial artists „dog shitš and „filth,š Neizvestny replied, „You may be Premier and Chairman but not in front of my works. Here I am Premier and we shall discuss as equals,š resulting in a threat that he would be sent to the uranium mines.7 Asked later by Khrushchev how he withstood the state‚s pressure, Neizvestny answered, „There are certain bacteriaųvery small, soft onesųwhich can live in a super-saline solution that could destroy the hoof of a rhinoceros.š 8 No doubt Neizvestny, now living in New York, wasn‚t surprised when the bacteria eventually destroyed the rhino. Tellingly, none of Neizvestny‚s neo-expressionist sculpture appears in the Berlin-Moscow show. Instead, a large, vacuous neon installation by Germany‚s Gerhard Merz dominates the hall.

Despite Neizvestny‚s exchanges with Khrushchev, unofficial art‚s creative impact remained limited until the late 1960s. However, its political influence grew steadily following Stalin‚s death. The establishment of the Lianosovo circle in 1958 by the painter Oscar Rabin exemplified this growing social and political role. This group ran the Soviet Union‚s first purely private exhibition space, using a barrack in the Moscow suburb of Lianosovo that Rabin and his wife Valentina lived in with four other people. During exhibitions, limousines bearing Western dignitaries became as familiar as the KGB agents photographing these visitors. More importantly, Lianosovo fostered the emergence of a private exhibition scene in Moscow, with artists, writers and foreigners regularly holding shows in their apartments. Unaware of the threat this development posed, the state tolerated these independent exhibitions. After all, the Kremlin and KGB probably reasoned, workers and soldiers start revolutions, not art lovers visiting apartments. However, this independent art community emerged hand-in-hand with a civil society whose breadth and depth largely caused the regime‚s breakdown.

Oscar Rabin,
Composition with Russian Newspaper, Vodka and Fish, 1996, oil on canvas,
32 by 51 inches
(courtesy Sloane Gallery of Art).

Rabin pushed his support of unofficial art further in 1974 by organizing a public exhibition with artist and collector Aleksandr Glezer. This time, a collision with the authorities, more than unavoidable, was intentional. On September 2, Rabin and Glezer wrote to the Moscow City Soviet to say they planned to hold an exhibition in an open field on the outskirts of Moscow.  They also informed Western newspaper correspondents and US embassy officials.  At the opening two weeks later, the KGB acted quickly to dissolve the show. Researcher Majlena Braun writes:

When the artists arrive with their paintings, they are met by militia, several rubbish trucks, bulldozers, and a group of „volunteer workers,š who announce that a park is in the process of being built...When several of the artists attempt to hold up their paintings for view, the workers charge at them, knocking them and their paintings to the ground. An American Embassy official intervenes and demands that the worker in charge identify himself. The man replies: „We are the working class, the international proletariat.š Several paintings are burned on a bonfire. Fights break out and three bulldozers move across the field, rolling over paintings and toward artists. Rabin is thrust into the air by the blades of one bulldozer. 9

The next day, accounts of the bulldozers‚ attack on the exhibition appeared throughout the Western press, creating a powerful symbol of the regime‚s brutality against free thought.10 Degot, however, gives an astonishingly different account:

What went down as iconoclasm with the help of a bulldozer was, however, the result of a coincidence: the driver of the bulldozer had, when ordered by a (plain clothes) KGB man to stop, activated the wrong lever, causing the machine to drive on. But only a few seconds later, a quick-witted American newspaper correspondent succeeded in hurling himself into the driver‚s cabin and switching off the engine. 11

Clearly, the burden of proof lies on Degot, since she does not identify her sources, whereas Braun‚s six eyewitnesses include Glezer, Alfred Friendly, Jr., at that time Newsweek‚s Moscow bureau chief, and David Nalle, then Counselor for Public Affairs at the US embassy in Moscow, as well as Western press reports and Glezer‚s and Rabin‚s published memoirs. Moreover, the backlash so shocked the Kremlin that they allowed the show to take place in Moscow‚s Izmailovsky Park, where thirty thousand visitors came in the first three hours, and subsequently permitted further public exhibitions by unofficial artistsųalbeit mostly at obscure venues.

The regime‚s position on free thought, however, had not changed. Following its usual tactics against dissidents with reputations in the West, it forced Rabin and Glezer into exile. Other artists in the Beljajevo/Izmailovsky exhibition were less fortunate: the artists Evgenii Rukhin and Nadezhda Elskaia died mysteriously in 1976 and 1978, respectively. And the Berlin-Moscow show contains only one work from this group: Rabin‚s One Rouble, a painting of drab apartment blocks and factories in winter with an overlay of both sides of a rouble emphasizing the work‚s melancholy.

This picture, like all of Rabin‚s Soviet-era art, parallels Arefjev‚s work by adapting an anachronistic Western style (this time, expressionism) to original themes depicting Soviet life‚s everyday grimness. If Arefjev‚s style is True Socialist Realism, then Rabin‚s is Socialist Expressionism. And, as with Arefjev, Rabin‚s works conjure thoughts of a great talent withered by isolation and unlikely to inspire, educate or challenge subsequent generations.

.

W. Serow, documentation of
Komar & Melamid performance
"Colorųthe great force," Moscow, 1970, s/w digital print 15 by 11 inches
(© Collection Je. Schumilowa, Moscow)

Nikolai Gogol‚s words, written from Italy almost two hundred years ago about his Russian contemporaries, still resonate: „They often possess true talent, and if only the fresh air of Italy could blow upon them, this talent would undoubtedly spill forth as freely, widely and brightly as a plant which has at last been taken out into the fresh air.š 12

Even without fresh air, however, two participants in Rabin‚s public exhibition did change the course of Russian art: Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, collaborators who mostly signed their work with a lapidary „Komar, Melamid.š Remembering the Soviet situation while in exile in 1980, they wrote, „The reader must imagine for him or herself the situation in which [Soviet artists] live and work. Dreary, boring, terrifying Moscow, whose inhabitants are oppressed by a monstrous fear.š 13

Komar & Melamid,
The Origin of Socialist Realism, 1983,
oil on canvas, 72 by 48 inches
(© Komar & Melamid/Norton and
Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union,
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers/The State University of
New Jersey;
Photo: Jack Abraham).

The first Soviet artists to free themselves completely from that terror, Komar and Melamid created, as early as 1967, a startlingly new art form, which they called „Sotsš and which appropriated Soviet propaganda in a way similar to Pop Art‚s use of comic strips and advertising. Equally surprisingly, the Berlin-Moscow exhibition contains nine of their works, all characterized by a subdued ironyųthe subtlety of which may explain why Soviet authorities overlooked it, at least initially. Soon enough, though, the honeymoon ended, and the duo emigrated in 1977.

Did nostalgia for Soviet memorabilia induce the Berlin-Moscow show‚s Russian curators to select more works by Komar and Melamid than any other unofficial artist? Or do they hope the Duma‚s communist members will miss the works‚ irony when the exhibit arrives in Moscow?

More characteristic of this show‚s attitude toward innovative unofficial art is its scant attention to Kabakovųthough Eric Bulatov, with whom he co-founded Moscow conceptualism, gets treated more generously. Like Sots Art, Moscow conceptualism used material from everyday Soviet life to create surprising, often ironic work. Kabakov employed a variety of media, including albums, drawing and installation; Bulatov focused on painting. Despite Kabakov‚s significance, „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlin, 1950ų2000š includes only two of his works. Of these, one, a plate made in 1970ų71 depicting a table with answers of a hypothetical „experimental group,š relies heavily on Russian text, so most viewers will miss its irony. The display thus seems almost calculated to obscure Kabakov‚s insight and significance.

Perversely, given the show‚s slighting of Kabakov and in light of the history of art under Soviet rule, Degot uses Kabakov to deny the distinction between official and unofficial art:

The descendents of unofficial art today represent Russian art in the West. In today‚s Russia, however, the classification of official and unofficial art often evokes protest, for it isųnaturallyųby no means neutral and evokes an aesthetic and ethical hierarchy because it blames the former and underlines the correctness of the latter. One could argue that many representatives of unofficial art, who are today famous, were not only members of the [Soviet] Association of Artists but also absolutely successful ones (for example, Ilya Kabakov was a highly paid book illustrator).14

Though Degot demurs on the point, she seems to share this view. At any rate, the argument is confusing. Unofficial artists did take chances by pursuing certain artistic or political ideals and therefore appear ethically superior to official artists who avoided these risks despite often being skeptical of official ideology. But a talented official artist still makes better work than a mediocre unofficial artist does.

Nonetheless, if, as the examples of Arefjev and Rabin show, producing first-rate, original art was difficult outside the constraints of official art, it was nearly impossible within those confines. And, contrary to Degot‚s assessment of Kabakov‚s career, that many artists worked in both realms emphasizes the distinction‚s relevance rather than proving its uselessness. Kabakov parlayed his talent and conscientiousness into a successful career as a state-sanctioned book illustrator, but he did his most important, acclaimed art outside the official scene. Furthermore, to protect his official position, he downplayed this parallel career. Asked by Rabin to participate in the Beljajevo show, Kabakov replied, „All my life, I have crawled on all fours. I stand on four feet. And you are trying to stand like a normal person on two legs.š15

Today, Kabakov and Bulatov are seventy years old and new artists have emerged, profiting from their radical innovations. Prominent in this new generation is Oleg Kulik, a master of provocation and self-promotion and, as such, proof that contemporary Russian artists are free from the mental inhibitions that the Kabakov-Bulatov generation struggled to overcome. This freedom manifests itself most clearly in a well-targeted use of sex in Kulik‚s works and performances. For nothing shows better the invisible shackles that fettered the minds of Soviet citizens than their sexual prudery and ignorance. Russian satirist Victor Jerofeyev, in a charming catalog essay entitled „Soviet Sex,š writes, „Everything that departed somehow from the habitual position [for sex] was somehow regarded as a perversion.š16

.

Oleg Kulik, Eclipse I
(from the series "The Russian"),
1999, digital print, 87 by 64 inches
(© Oleg Kulik; courtesy Trilistnik, Moscow from the Photo Chronicle)

Kulik‚s spectacular Eclipse is probably the most reproduced work in the show. This digitally edited photograph shows a naked man from behind holding a red banner (contrasting against an otherwise black and white picture) and standing in snow with communal housing blocks in the background. As two dogs hump his legs, he turns his head toward the viewer, an expression of surprise and anguish on his face.

Such sexually and politically charged provocation characterizes Kulik‚s work. In fact, one of the Russian curators of „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlin,š Viktor Misiano, had direct experience with this aspect of Kulik‚s art, since Misiano also was a curator of the „Interpolš show in Stockholm in 1996. In that show, Kulik presented himself as a dog in a kennel, naked except for collar and chain. To protest the Swedish organizers‚ alleged inefficiency and indifference towards Eastern artists, Kulik bit several people during the opening and was promptly arrested. In the aftermath, Misiano defended Kulik against accusations of fascism made by some of the other artists at „Interpol.š Regardless of whether Kulik‚s art is any good, Misiano showed courage in supporting him. But one wonders how Misiano reconciles this adamant support for Kulik with the Soviet-style tone of the Russian curators‚ introduction to the „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlinš catalog.

And what about the show‚s famous German artists such as Gerhard Altenbourg, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Andreas Gursky, Jörg Immendorf, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, A. R. Penck, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter? Of these, only threeųBeuys, Immendorf and Kieferųwere born in West Germany. The others came from East Germany, except Lüpertz, who is a native of the former Czechoslovakia. This disproportionate significance of German artists born behind the Iron Curtain presented a real opportunity to ask why so many first-rate German artists come from the East, while so many first-rate Russian artists move to the West.

However, the organizers had no intention of addressing such questions in this show. The Russians wanted to mollify their critics back home with a bombastic exhibition downplaying the significance of unofficial art. And the Germans wanted to please the Russians and to ride the show out as smoothly as possible.

But why did the artists, Russian and German alike, not protest the show‚s wishy-washy concept, anti-dissident bias and nostalgia for the Soviet era? Let us hope that their silence does not return to haunt them.

NOTES

1. Pavel Khoroshilov, Jürgen Harten, Joachim Sartorius, Peter-Klaus Schuster (Editors), Berlin-Moskva / Moskau-Berlin. 1950-2000. Kunst) (Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2003): vol. 1, p. 335; vol. II p. 413. All translations are by the author. The show likely will be even more spectacular in Moscow, as the Russian curators have announced that they intend to include examples of Soviet/Russian architecture, film and design.

2. The show was put together by a Russian and a German curatorial team.

3. Speech on 6 June 2002 by then German Minister of Culture Julian Nida-Rümelin before the Bundestag committee for culture and media; www.bundestag.de/presse/hib/2002/2002_147/01.htm. On art restitution to Germany see: Celestine Bohlen, „Arts Abroad; A Homecoming for Treasures Looted in War,š New York Times, April 27, 2000: E1-E2; Robert Hughes, „The Spoils of War. Russia‚s New Displays of Art Looted from Germany Reignite a Debate Over Who Rightfully Owns Such Plunder,š Time, April 3, 1995.

4. „Baldin Collection Works of Art to Be Sent for Additional Checks,š Online Pravda, April 1, 2003; Sophia Kishkovsky, „A New Glasnost On War‚s Looted Art,š New York Times, March 12, 2003: E1 and E3.

5. Vol. I: 14ų15.

6. Laura Hoptman, Tomas Pospiszyl (Editors), Primary Documents. A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s (Museum of Modern Art, 2002): 8.

7. John Berger, Art & Revolution (Vintage Books, 1997): 83.

8. Primary Documents: 85ų86.

9. Primary Documents: 68; Letter to the Politburo from 24 participating artists corroborates this account; ibid.: 62.

10. In the New York Times of 16 September 1974, the title of the article on the front page read: „Russians Disrupt Modern Art Show With Bulldozers.š

11. Vol. II: 137. 12. Primary Documents: 259.

13. ibid.: 270.

14. Vol. II: 133.

15. Primary Documents: 77.

16. Vol. I: 115. „Berlin-Moskau/Moskva-Berlin, 1950ų2000š originated in the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin and will open on March 21, 2004 in Moscow‚s Tretiakov Gallery.

MICHAEL FRIEDLÄNDER writes from Vienna where, with his wife Mi-ja, he is founder and owner of Akakiko, Austria‚s largest Japanese restaurant chain.

 

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