Gift of Thomas P. Whitney, (Class of 1937)
“The years 1957-1962 were a period of hope, of long-awaited relaxation. Later came the sleepy and hopeless feeling of despair that stayed with us until 1974 – the year of the ‘Bulldozers’ when you could be seized and crushed at any given moment for God knows what, for your ‘painting the wrong way’ or ‘showing your works to the wrong people.’”
From 1932 through the late 1980s, Socialist Realism was the only officially approved style of art in the Soviet Union. Its main characteristic was the depiction of a glorious Communist future as realized in the Soviet present. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched a new policy, which temporarily relieved the tension between the official and alternative art forms. For a few years—from 1956 to 1962—the so-called Thaw allowed all artists, regardless of the style in which they worked, to participate in public exhibitions. This new atmosphere fostered an independent art movement, and inspired many young artists, searching to develop their own visual ‘language,’ to seek out information about (previously prohibited) foreign and Russian developments in Modern art. Ultimately, however, Krushchev’s liberal policy proved limited. As Larisa Kashuk put it, “those artists who were interested in contemporary culture of the world were doomed to educate themselves and to gain knowledge second-hand at ‘home universities’.”
Denied official access, curious students turned to secret means. A few teachers invited a selected circle of students into their homes to see reproductions of paintings by Matisse, Derain and Picasso. The collector Grigori Kostakis allowed young artists to see works of the Russian avant-garde. And exhibitions of Russian, American and European Modern and contemporary art rounded out this furtive education. One of the earliest of these presentations, organized in conjunction with the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1957, presented non-figurative works of Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism to a Russian audience for the first time. Another presented a retrospective of Picasso’s richly various career. As a result, non-official styles became popular among young Russian artists. Yet style was not the driving force uniting them into a single artistic movement: ideas were.
The resulting artworks present a diverse array of styles, but share a desire to express subjective experience and create an alternative reality completely separated from the official art world. This exhibition features twelve non-official works that reflect the simultaneous coexistence of numerous artistic practices in the Sixties and Seventies, including (but not restricted to) primitivism, figurative abstraction, Surrealism, and geometrical abstraction.
Despite the ideological gap between official and non-official spheres, several artists worked in both. Bulatov, Iankilevskii, Neizvestnyi, Sidur, Sobolev, and Sooster, for example, served as illustrators of journals or children’s books. This work qualified them for admission to the Union of Artists—thereby providing them with access to art supplies, studios and the state-managed art market. By contrast, artists who were excluded from the Union, such as Zverev, typically worked in their homes and struggled to obtain supplies. They had to show their work in private spaces or in public places such as cafés, where the exhibitions usually lasted only a few hours or days before the authorities closed them down. Of course, visitors to such unofficial presentations—friends, family and acquaintances—did more than look at art. They also exchanged un-censored information.
In 1962, members of the Moscow Branch of the Union of Artists invited non-official artists (including several whose work is displayed nearby) to participate in the group’s 30th anniversary jubilee exhibition. The invitation, however, became a trap, when conservative forces within the Union used the occasion to convince Khrushchev that the spirit of Modernist art was fundamentally negative. In the aftermath of this event, campaigns against Modernism filled the news-papers and leading art critic Andrei Lebedev claimed that abstraction was breeding “pessimism, depression, and helplessness.” The Thaw had ended.
In the period that followed, authorities again considered the production of non-official art to be a subversive activity. Non-official artists and their supporters risked job loss, arrest, placement in a psychiatric institution or banishment to a labor camp. As a result, many—including Brui, Bulatov, Neizvestnyi and Shemiakin—left the Soviet Union in order to pursue their artistic careers without interference. Only in 1974, after bulldozers had destroyed an open-air exhibition in Moscow, did Russian and foreign protests lead to a legalized relationship between the state and non-official artists.
This exhibition marks the 70th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize winning Russian-American poet whose ideals and life circumstances correspond closely to those of the artists presented here. To learn more about Brodsky, please visit the web site for the poet’s South Hadley, Massachusetts, home: sycamoreshouse.org. On Thursday, October 8th, 2010 the Sycamores House opens an exhibition with photographs of Brodsky.
The installation is supported by the Julia A. Whitney Fund for Russian Art and the Amherst Fund for the Whitney Collection of Russian Art.