On View Now

Varieties of Nonconformism: Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union
October 9, 2017–February 11, 2018

Open: Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.

Oskar Rabin, Spring in Priluki, 1967.
Oskar Rabin
Born Moscow, 1928; active in Paris 
Spring in Priluki, 1967 
Oil on canvas, applied paper elements 
Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937) 

This exhibition is devoted to work produced by the leading members of the Soviet nonconformist art movement. The term “nonconformist art” refers to works by Soviet artists who rejected the state-prescribed style of Socialist Realism, creating their art with no regard for restrictions on subject matter or style. Emerging around 1956 and lasting through the late 1980s, nonconformist art encompassed a broad range of artists, united in their search for alternative means of artistic self-expression.

By the late 1950s, becoming more conscious of Western art movements, Soviet artists responded in different ways, expressing their discontent with official Socialist Realist aesthetics by making use of a wide range of modernist styles. Around this time art in the Soviet Union became divided into “official”—art that was hung in exhibition halls and received government subsidies because it promoted the ideas of Socialism and glorified the Soviet state, the nation’s industry, and the leaders of the Communist Party—and “unofficial,” or “nonconformist,” which was totally deprived of any state support.

Ernst Neizvestny Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), Russia 1925–2016 Stony Brook, New York. Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1977
Ernst Neizvestny 
Slverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), Russia, 1925-2016
Stony Brook, Brook Haven, NY 

Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1977 
Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937) 

On the basis of Socialist Realist doctrine, the Soviet authorities identified the types of art they deemed unacceptable to achieving the goals of Socialist Realism. The state cited four main categories of forbidden art: work containing negative commentaries on Soviet society, religious or erotic imagery, and so-called “formalist” art. Formalism was seen as a tendency to ascribe importance to the formal properties of a work of art (such as line and color) over and above its subject matter. By contrast, the opposite tendency—the emphasis on subject matter—was part and parcel of the very nature of Socialist Realism.

As this exhibition demonstrates, nonconformist artists drew on a wide variety of styles and practices prohibited in Socialist Realism, including abstraction, Surrealism, and Conceptualism, while dealing with themes likewise forbidden in official Soviet art, such as works permeated with anti-Soviet commentary, or religious and erotic art.

Unofficial artists’ deviation from the norms of Socialist Realism represented an exceptional act of courage, a deed signifying the rejection of official authority—and one regarded by the Soviet regime as an act of outright political defiance. The creation of work that failed to adhere to Soviet state ideology meant jeopardizing one’s livelihood and safety. For some nonconformist artists of the 1960s-70s, such artistic dissidence resulted in the loss of employment, incarceration in a psychiatric institution, and sometimes even arrest.

Today, many decades after the Soviet collapse of 1991, we can take a more dispassionate look at nonconformist art, regarding it not merely as a political phenomenon but an aesthetic one as well. The works in the exhibition cover a broad spectrum of unofficial art during several decades. Some artists in the show investigated the spiritual potential of color, while others revealed the transcendental qualities of the everyday; some artists deployed figuration, while others consistently worked in an abstract mode.

With Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1985 and his subsequent calls for glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), the “official-unofficial” dichotomy in culture lost its significance, resulting in the erasure of the boundary between the two.

By the 1990s, many former leading nonconformist artists had left Russia for the West. These included Ernst Neizvestny, Grisha Bruskin, and Leonid Lamm, who settled in the United States, and Lydia Masterkova, Vladimir Yankilevsky and Edik Steinberg, who moved to Paris.

However, following their departure, many Russian emigre artists have made numerous trips to Moscow, and some even held major exhibitions in the Russian capital. Many former nonconformists are now both a part of the post-Soviet art scene, and participants in the international dialogue on contemporary art.

This exhibition is organized by Alla Rosenfeld, Ph.D., Curator of Russian and European Art at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum. It has been made possible with the generous support of the David Pennock ’60 Russian Culture Fund and Julia A. Whitney Fund for Russian Art.