Unofficial Illustration: A Conversation With Ivan Razumov

Ivan Razumov is an artist working in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Exhibitions at the Academy of Russian Arts, Moscow, the Museum of the New Academy of Fine Arts, St.Petersburg, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Razumov is well-known for his illustrations of Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Basho, and Sei-Shenagon.

'Pioneers', ink on paper, 1997-2001.'Pioneers', ink on paper, 1997-2001.'Pioneers', ink on paper, 1997-2001.

Yevgeniy Fiks: I remember seeing your “Pioneers” for the first time during my visit to Moscow in 97. How did this series come about?

Ivan Razumov: This series has been put together out of drawings that I made as illustrations for popular and independent magazines and literature at different points in time over the course of the last couple of years.

These drawings are unified by the visual style and iconography that references the Soviet book illustrations of the 30’s and 50’s. Often times such illustrations with pioneers are not based on any particular literary narrative, but rather are visually pure abstract idioms like “a book is a man’s friend” or “children are our future.”

By authoring these idioms with the irresponsibility of a schoolboy that draws doodles in his primer, I am trying to keep these drawings halfway between being emblematic and story-driven. A very specific effect of recognition is achieved when people who have gone through the Soviet system of elementary education perceive such “pictures.”

This phenomenon is fixed in our collective conscience by the lyrical-patriotic song, in which the rhetorical question “What does the homeland start with?” is answered with assurance:” It starts with a picture in your primer.”

Y. F.: You have mentioned book illustration as a point of departure. You are making a clear distinction between the two faces of the official Soviet art: Fine and applied. Interestingly enough, during the Soviet period the field of book illustration served as an area where an unofficial artist, especially conceptual (take Kabakov for one), could hide without being afraid of damaging her unofficial career. Illustrations by definition are protected from discourses. As far as the leftist Soviet intellectuals were concerned, a fine artist creating a painting on the subject of May 1 was a criminal, while the same artist illustrating a book about May 1 could have been referred to as a person of integrity. What strikes me as interesting is that you are relying not so much on thestand-alone works of official Soviet fine art-that is primary sources-but rather on pieces of its applied counterpart, which have never been ideologically pure or transparent. How much do you think your choice was influenced by your own upbringing, your coming from a dynasty of official Soviet artists?

I. R.: The relationship between illustration and “primary source” is a theme in itself that deserves special consideration. The way you describe it reminds me more of the situation in the West.

In Russia, as is commonly known, culture manifests itself most fully and continuously in literature and other types of texts. The local visual art functions as a long list of illustrations for these “primary sources.” Illustration not only protects them from discourses but also creates new discourses.

The other day I stumbled upon a book by the Medical Hermeneutics group called Idiotechnique and Recreation. The texts written by the latest conceptualists are not easy reading because of its quasi-scientific language.

Nevertheless, the section of the book devoted to Soviet book illustration caught my attention at once; and it is directly related to the theme you have touched. The authors discuss the traditional sensitivity of the Soviet-Russian culture to the problem of illustration.

For instance, the October Socialist Revolution, according to the authors, took place in order to illustrate Marxism. More so, the USSR itself was an illustration, according to MG. Furthermore, the authors describe in considerable detail that the origins of the reflection on the whole Soviet ideology could be actually traced to Soviet children’s book illustration (due to the initial distance of the artist from the “decorating” ideology).

Coming back to your question I should say that, undoubtedly, my having been brought up in a family of official Soviet artists played its role in my choosing this material, just like the fact that I was a pioneer too. More so, some pictures by my grandfather, an illustrator and a pupil and disciple of Favorskiy, have gotten into Soviet textbooks.

However, by examining closely my personal history as well as our collective history, I can point out a moment, which I believe is the key to understanding forces behind the artistic practices of the generation I belong to. This moment falls chronologically in the early 90’s.

The Soviet symbolic order collapsed so unexpectedly that a relatively long period of time had passed before the unveiled chasm of chaos and freedom started to form into an order of a new type. This thrill of finding yourself suspended in a clear space between the departing world of our totalitarian childhood and the arriving adult world of consumerism and high-tech recreational activities coincided with a period of our having a realization that we were actually part of culture.

We realized this when the cultural context was breaking. The “Pioneers” series was possibly predetermined by a desire to repair this break in retrospect and illustrate the text that was then absent.

Y. F.: How do you see the place of your art in the context of Moscow conceptual art?

I. R.: By virtue of this specific experience of self-identification that I have just described, I would rather not pretend to such a high degree of verbalization and accountability for my work that the high rank of a Moscow conceptual artist requires.

On the one hand, Kabakov, Pivovarov, the Collective Actions Group, Medical Hermeneutics, Lunina, Shefner, and others are still very active contemporary artists. On the other hand, the huge body of practical and theoretical work that their texts comprise makes the Moscow Conceptual School look like a centuries-old Chinese-style tradition, it is said.

It seems to me that after Medical Hermeneutics took stock of all these experiments and inventoried their findings, the recruitment into the school was complete. However, aesthetic positions developed by Medical Hermeneutics are having an immense influence upon much of the Moscow art scene. It could be said that the Moscow Conceptual School has developed for the local art scene one of the codes of belonging to a thing called contemporary art.

I am trying to state some features of that code, which is yearning for collaborative artistic practices, rejection of the romantic, metaphysical, and furthermore, anthropological types of approaches, and a shift of interest from the process of creation to the process of “consumption and interpretation of a work of art as well as to the tradition of visualization of certain “rhetorical figures.”

I must also point out the striving of the art community to self-structure in the face of the almost total void of appropriate institutions. One more parallel can be drawn between what I just described and NOMA, and it would be appropriate to point it out in this context.

You have already mentioned that the field of book illustration was an area where a conceptual artist could hide out without risking her unofficial career. An unofficial career is an oxymoron, like “latent dissident”. Today such a field is what can be called the “entertainment industry.” Almost all young artists in today’s Moscow are implicated in different services such as organizing fancy social events, design and organization of clubs, magazines, putting together musical and advertising projects.

The series we have been talking about is a byproduct of such activities. An artist here, just like thirty years ago, needs financial independence, which can provide her with an opportunity to advance from time to time her unofficial career.

Y. F.: It is amusing; nowadays Moscow artists are illustrating Putin’s “primers”. Who would have thought that the same unofficial artists would be responsible for the “look” of the new Russia. What strikes me as interesting is that reflecting on the new order manifested itself almost at the very moment the new Russia emerged.

One could notice traces of the old Sots art technologies in a number of shows in Trekhprudny and at Gelman’s gallery even in the very early 90’s. Interestingly enough, these shows were often by the very same Sots artists; a project by Komar and Melamid in Red Square, for instance.

However, such a quick reaction was a new phenomenon; during the Soviet period it took several decades for Kabakov to emerge. As for the market, a great many prominent figures on the Moscow art scene of the 80’s have completely abandoned their careers as contemporary artists in favor of design.

It is widely believed that a departure is going on of the most active and promising forces from the contemporary art scene. What do you make of today’s situation with contemporary art in Moscow, at least in terms of energy level? What have the dynamics been since the early 90’s till now as you see it?

I. R.: I am afraid I can say little new about the dynamics of developments in artistic life here over the last ten years. A certain agiotage ruled on what was in fact a rather small art scene and its surroundings in the early 90’s. The numerous art stars of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were blocking your view. At times you couldn’t even sneak a peek and see what was going on there.

However, you could sense that they hoped for something. I spent the second half of the 90’s mostly in Saint Petersburg. It is believed that contemporary art is doing better there than in Moscow, but that’s not really the case. It was a period of several economic crises and, of course, no art market existed.

As a somewhat noticeable event I can only recall Ter-Oganian’s case. In 1999-2000 the subject of the 90’s was a commonplace and many, if not all, active participants in the art process spoke of it and expressed their views on the subject. There is no reason to address this entire problem here; moreover, neither you nor I suffered from it.

In a word, everybody agrees that a circle of artists has formed; there are several decent galleries, but there is a lack of institutions and critics that would cover the art scene. On the whole, no one is quite satisfied. If I were to give a subjective evaluation of the current situation, I would avoid the word energetic.

This word would have been right on target in the early 90’s. Energy went through the roof in all areas, and quite frankly, even the most radical actions of the most colorful back then, Brener and Kulik, seemed pale by comparison with what was going on in such areas as terrorism or medical science.

Today I would use the word atmosphere. The atmosphere is pessimistic and in that possibly more realistic.

Y. F.: When I showed one of your drawings-which depicts a schoolgirl giving a kiss to a Lenin monument-to a colleague of mine and said that it was made in the late 90’s in Moscow by an artist who was only thirteen when Gorbachev came to power, the first definition that came to his mind was “neo-Soviet.”

Really, an artist who has not been overburdened by the Sotsart discourse creates a work of such kind in the Moscow of the late 90’s.How would you respond to the definition neo-Soviet in relation to your work? Pretend you are talking to a Western viewer who still does not feel comfortable in the labyrinth of the Moscow art scene.

I. R.: It does not come to me as a surprise that from an American point of view at the end of 2001, a manifestation of extremism (neo) is so easily detected in a picture of a little girl devotedly kissing Lenin’s monument.

I feel completely indifferent about the ideology that used to back up these symbols. Moreover, there must be a difference between how the word Soviet is understood in the West as opposed to here. “Soviet” is not the official communist ideology (Leninism, Stalinism, est.), but most of all a specific mentality that had formed in the USSR; a peculiar type of everyday mass ideology in a way.

As a result of the collapse of the USSR this ideology has actually emerged victorious. All the signs of Socialist Realism and official Soviet art had been discredited as far as it could have been, and if not totally eliminated, then, pushed aside in a psychoanalytical sense and quite literally from the main streets and squares.

Notwithstanding the fact that the new order in Russia has been around for ten years now, the denial of a Soviet core in any current discourse here is absurd. This is like the elephant in the living room. That’s why the language of Soviet art seems to me interesting to work with.

Most post-Soviet viewers easily receive it, which allows me to count on a wider audience than just the art community (whose wonders have already been discussed) as well as alternative venues and spaces. As contrasted to Sots art, there is no irony involved here or some sort of pathos of exposing something.

During the Soviet period these symbols lead only to idiosyncrasy.. Then, during “perestroika” they ceased being sacral and became objects of commodity exchange. In the 90’s, ex-Soviet people were ashamed of them and tried to construct their identity out of Western mass culture or pre-Revolution Russian symbols.

The “Pioneers” came about as my reaction to that. Today, Soviet symbols are totally disinfected, sterile, and lacking any pretence for power. They are ready for purely aesthetic appreciation. At the same time, the language of Social Realism still adequately represents all the phantasms of the local collective unconscious. We have yet to gain insight into the limits of the possible future integration of this language into our culture. No kidding this time.

Yevgeniy Fiks is a New York based interdisciplinary artist and writer. He has written for Moscow Art Magazine, NY Arts Magazine, and Tema Celeste.

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