The Quest for Freedom. Moscow Artists of the 1950’s – 1970’s.

The Quest for Freedom. Moscow Artists of the 1950’s – 1970’s. Die Suche nach der Freiheit. Moskauer Künstler der 50er – 70er Jahre.

Berlin, Russisches Haus, Friedrichstrasse 176-179. Until 2/14/99, open daily 2-7 pm.

Lauenburg (Germany), Zündholzfabrik, Elbstrasse 2 (2/21/99 – 4/21/99, open mondays to fridays 10 am – 4 pm, saturdays, sundays 10 am – 1.30 pm. Closed over Easter. The full-color catalogue costs DM 35,–.

During the years following Stalin’s death, freedom in the Soviet Union first of all meant personal and political freedom. Artistic freedom from the norms of Socialist Realism, however, was more than a side issue, as many artists were to find out in 1974, when during the notorious “Bulldozer exhibition” a work crew demolished the pictures displayed outside a Moscow subway station. This event, which eventually led to the first open-air exhibition of unofficial art after Stalin’s death, marks the end of the period represented in this exhibition. Curator Marina Sandmann has taken care to cover the most influential movements of what has been called the “Second Avantgarde”, dividing the exhibition into four rooms that are arranged in a loosely chronological order. Among the eighteen featured artists are indeed many leading figures of unofficial art, and while their presented work may not be their strongest or best-known, there are many discoveries to be made. The first room is dedicated to Abstractionist drawings and paintings of the 1950’s. These works by Vladimir Nemukhin, Lidiya Masterkova, Vladimir Yakovlev and Mikhail Kulakov serve mainly as sketches, both in the context of their later work and in the context of unofficial art. Abstract painting was never a main concern in Russian art, and while, e.g., Nemukhin’s drawings remain valid artistic statements, their main appeal lies in showing the historical perspective that leads from his experiments with Larionov’s Rayonist technique to his mature, geometrically oriented work. The strongest paintings are those by the “Metaphysicists” of the 1960’s. In these years, artists turned towards concepts of religious philosophy and art to find a new, spiritual base for their work. It is in these works that the connection to the first Avantgarde of the 1910’s is strongest, as both groups of artists drew essentially on the same sources. Eduard Shteynberg is featured with three compositions that reinterpret Malevich’s Suprematism on a distinctly spiritual plane. The same is true for the white-on-white paintings by Vladimir Veysberg. They introduce figurative painting to a concept which, like some of the first Avantgarde¹s work, is based on factura and light. Dmitry Krasnopevtsev’s still lifes are, by contrast, reminiscent of De Chirico, but again the reduction of color to various shades of gray, combined with an iconic “inverted perspective,” serves to highlight the inner essence of objects. Michael Shvarcman is represented with several abstract works (“Hieratures”) that are painted on wood with tempera colors, reproducing the very factura of icons. The largest section focuses on those artists who left these metaphysical musings behind, first in favor of a grotesque expressionism – as exemplified in the drawings, etchings and sculptures of Ernst Neizvestny, Vadim Sidur and Vladimir Yankilevsky, and later for a decidedly conceptualist stance. With the exception of two collages by Sergey Volokhov and Anatoly Brusilovsky, there are no instancesof Sots Art, the movement that was to become the most visible. We do, however, see several works by artists who moved from Sots Art to Moscow Conceptualism. Most notably, there are three leaves from an early album by Ilya Kabakov, now the foremost practitioner of Russian art abroad. Viktor Pivovarov, another important conceptualist, is represented by four drawings that show his move from Expressionism via Surrealism to Conceptualist drawings in which the pictorial elements become, quite literally, free-floating signifiers. Ivan Chujkov and Eduard Gorokhovsky are present with photographs, etchings and drawings that through their fragmentation serve to deconstruct the metaphysics of the picture that was so important to the generation before them. If the exhibition documents the quest for freedom, official art is conspicuously absent. As Socialist Realism recedes into the past, it becomes harder and harder to re-establish the context in which the featured artists developed and against which they set themselves off. This is a pity, all the more so since the exhibition was originally conceived to do just that, and it is hard to see why this option was discarded. The pictures are strong enough to stand in their own right, but conceptually it would have been much more interesting to set them off against the official image production. What used to be unofficial art has now, not least through the activities of curators like Marina Sandmann, attracted enough interest to be a serious field of study, complete with thematic exhibitions, one-man shows and even the academic apparatus to go with it. Against this background, the concept of this exhibition seems a bit retro. But if it offers nothing radically new, it holds interest through the rare material on display, as well as the indisputable artistic quality of the works.