Art as Document

The exhibition based on the artworks by the Russian contemporary artists from the permanent Erarta Museum collection

Collective Action (2009) by Ovchinnikov VladimirErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

The value of an artwork is not determined by its informational content. However, it is very often the case that the work of an artist provides the most representative testament to an era. The Soviet past, being the key to understanding contemporary Russia, becomes a reoccurring theme for many Russian authors of our time.

During the Soviet period, the membership in the Artists’ Union of the USSR was a critical prerequisite for any involvement in the official exhibition life of the country. Consequently, the artists had to strictly follow the principles of socialist realism that didn’t allow too many liberties in the depiction of reality. On the one hand, the art had to be “objective”, that is, literally recreate the surface of reality, instead of refraction of this reality through the author’s vision. On the other hand, it had to be ideologically correct, to function within the themes approved by the Communist party, and the only acceptable point of view was that of the Builder of Communism.

At the same time, a great deal of outstanding works of art was created within so called “unofficial” Soviet art that is to this day of considerable historical as well as cultural interest. Soviet people, owning to the nature of their era, were accustomed to hide their true thoughts and feelings from the public and produce the most expected clichés instead. As a result, it’s the works by non-conformist artists where the valuable records of the period can be found, while the output of socialist realism was heavily influenced by the needs and objectives of the communist propaganda, and hence, despite the name of the art movement, had little to do with the reality.

Field Camp. The Izvestiya (1960) by Peter GorbanErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

The Khrushchev Thaw through the eyes of artists

The decade from the mid-50s to the mid-60s known as “The Khrushchev Thaw” that followed the death of Joseph Stalin and the exposure of the cult of personality was characterized by the upsurge of liberalism and public debates about historical events that had been previously tabooed. During this period, a private individual emerged as a main point of interest and his identity and personal experiences acquired a greater value than the working masses, building a brighter communist future.

Pyotr Gorban depicts everyday scenes than one can oversee in day to day life. The characters of Field Camp are middle-aged men, getting some rest after the day of exhausting labor. Those years provided few amusements for the men of a certain age. The only replacement for the scant life of the communal flats was the game of dominoes with neighbors or flipping through the newspapers on the bench in the park. There were never enough benches and one could rarely hope to sit alone. Several people crammed together on one bench are not necessarily one company or even acquaintances.

The focus of Gorban’s painting, showing the group of three people, is the Izvestiya ("news") newspaper that along with Pravda ("truth") was an official mouthpiece of the Soviet State. These publications differed little from each other in content; there was not much news in Izvestiya and not much more truth in Pravda. However, there were only few alternatives available, especially outside Moscow.

A middle-aged man in the centre is reading an editorial, a leading article on the front page (in Soviet practice, it was used as a propaganda tool and was usually hard to read), barely holding the newspaper with his hardened fingers. A younger man on the left is also staring at the newspaper page, but it seems that he is entranced not so much by its content as by its foreign whiteness that stands out from the dusky palette of the surroundings. And a man on the right is just having a smoke absorbed in his own thoughts.

Deep wrinkles on the workers’ faces replicate the twists of the tree on the background and the color of their hands echoes the brown ochre shades of the autumn landscape. Static postures, tangible heaviness of the figures and absence of any movement turns the whole composition into a monument to a one of many autumn evenings.

Pioneer Bonfire by Savrasov EvgenyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

In the late 50s and 60s, despite the persistent dictates of socialist realism, Moscow and Leningrad hosted a number of exhibitions by Western avant-garde artists, while the press published occasional articles, covering the events of the world art process. Subsequently, the Soviet artists gained access to a wider range of artistic means. The colorful primitivist works of Evgeny Savrasov can serve as an interesting example of the reinterpretation of modernist aesthetics. In the 1960s Savrasov works with the major constructs of the Soviet state.

Pioneer Bonfire (1966) shows The Kremlin wall made up from the unnaturally elongated pioneer caps, where, under the heavenly valleys of the Soviet land, young pioneers half-heartedly burn the caricatures of bonfires. Even though the Soviet political life of the time became more liberal, Evgeny Savrasov’s modernist works were not welcomed to the official Soviet art scene.

The artist’s vision driven by his sense of humor and astonishing fearlessness was too brave for that time. The symbols of the Soviet power in Savrasov’s works are no more than sterile and degraded pieces of scenery, and, at the same time, his paintings reflect on the bygone Soviet epoch with warmth. Even today this kind of nostalgia is shared by many Russians, which is understandable. At the time, Soviet people felt as if they were children of the Motherland that wasn’t always kind, but evenly provided with free public housing, health care and education; and above all, these people lived in equality that didn’t exclude anyone and they couldn’t imagine there were other ways to live.

Plank Bed (1985/1986) by Lapitsky SavelyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

The subject of political repression under Stalin’s regime emerged as one of the focal points of public debate during the years of Perestroika. The life path of Savely Lapitsky coincides with tragic milestones of the XX century history. In 1942 he was evacuated from the Blockade of Leningrad and then sent to the front. After the war, along with millions of Soviet people, he was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment in the camps for a joke classified as counter-revolutionary activity. So, it is life experience that dictates the subjects of the artist’s works, many of which feature the confrontation between a man and a dictatorial, totalitarian State.

Plank Bed strings the archive photograph of prisoners on a symbol of the Soviet State, the hammer and sickle and fascist swastika. Dates in the bottom corner, saying 1933-1945, don’t allow the viewer to make a common mistake and reduce the author's intention to the period of the Second World War. Rather, through his artwork, the artist exposes all totalitarian regimes that deprive a human being of identity and personal destiny. The war and the camps erased lives of millions of people, robbed them of their right to choose and made into unknown soldiers or unknown victims of terror and, ultimately, sent them into the mass graves. They were forced to board the train heading toward the unknown.

Meal of Impious (1996) by Vladimir ShinkarevErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Perestroika and the 90s in Russia

In the mid-80's, the Soviet Union embarked on a course of political reformation known as Perestroika. Total state control over every aspect of public life was replaced by the policy of transparency and the fall of the Iron Curtain. 

The 1990s had brought many dramatic contradictions to Russian society. A new, intoxicating sense of freedom was mixed with frustration caused by grave social, political and economic situation in the country. Vladimir Shinkarev, one of the most prominent Russian artists, in his Meal of Impious depicts a genre scene: three faceless figures, barely distinguishable in the darkness, are leaning over the filling glasses.

The Soviet tradition to share a drink among three people (“сообразить на троих” lit. “think for three”) found its reflection in all periods of Russian history. People used to drink because they were sad and because they were happy, during holidays and during weekdays, on special occasions and without any occasion, for example, at the end of the working day.

They drank to make their soul sing: notably, Shinkarev puts the white piece on the table in front of the newcomer, making it look like a keyless piano. During Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to carry out the so called “dry law”, however, his anti-alcohol campaign failed miserably. People were not prepared to sobriety, and drinking as the most available way to forget oneself and get away from a dreary reality retained its leading position among the traditional forms of socialization. Moreover, the refusal to take part in the drinking ritual was interpreted as a form of disrespect.

At the same time the composition is reminiscent of the iconography of the Trinity and its title refers to the common subject of the popular Russian prints, where table manners of pious and impious people are contrasted. The contradictory narratives behind the picture formed from the complex networks of interlacing cultural layers and subtexts make it an interesting reflection on one of the most common myths about Russia.

Dance (1994) by Semichov&KyzminErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Dance and Music, artworks created in the 90s by the artistic duo Semichev and Kuzmin, clearly hint at the paintings of the same names by Henri Matisse. Frantic energy of Matisse’s works is achieved here through the collective activity of gloomy characters that rave in the airless surreal space as if they were calling for Apocalypse.

Their ecstatic greeting of the impending end of the world reflects the overall climate of the so called “Wild 90s” when Russia had the highest murder rate in the world.

Music (1994) by Alexey Semichov, Andrey KuzminErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

In those tumultuous days, when all the foundations began to crack like the ice under the feet of the mad orchestra in Music, and when the habitual way of life was destroyed to the ground with nothing offered in return, the people yearned for change and were willing to untwist the flywheel of destruction, like the one in Dance, for only the complete destruction of the past could give hope for something new to arrive.

The Last Supper (2016) by Andrei FilippovErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Looking back: the reflection on the Soviet experience

The dissolution of the Soviet Union incited the public debate that among other things called for the revaluation of the 70 years period after the Revolution.

The launch of Perestroika in the second half of the 1980s significantly changed lives of the Soviet people. One of the major achievements in that period was the opportunity to travel outside the Soviet Union. Western world, in its turn, had a great deal of curiosity about the processes on the other side of the iron curtain. As a result of this mutual interest, a huge number of successful collaborations were carried out at the time, including Mosca – Terza Roma exhibition that took place in Rome in 1989. It was there that the The Last Supper installation by Andrei Fillipov was first presented to the public.

There are twelve white plates on the long table that is ceremonially covered with red cloth. Cutlery is substituted with savage hammer and sickle straight out of the Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union. One can expect the bloodshed during this meal. Red tablecloth makes everybody who has lived in Soviet Union think of the Party meetings, and, at the same time, its black fringe turns the table into the typical cheap coffin. Thus, this meal is also reminiscent of a funeral dinner. The composition, as well as the title, of the work is a clear reference to the biblical story. And still it’s the absence that gives this work its central meaning.

The clear empty plates from the era of the communism triumph seem like they have never been used for their intended purpose. And neither Christ nor his apostles are present at this symbolic meal. The interaction between the communist and religious symbols, on the one hand, and the meaningful void, on the other, embodies the idea of communism as a religion without god.

From the Series “The Walls” (2006) by Dmitry YanovskyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Dmitry Yanovsky is yet another Russian artist who reflects on the haunting Soviet heritage. His best work from the Walls series shows “the shining face of the leader ( a common way to describe the Lenin’s portrait during the Soviet era) coming through the layers of time. Nothing escapes this unforgiving squint. You can paint over it all you want, and still the Leader’s image triumphantly finds its way up to the surface as if to demonstrate the same inexhaustible and crushing enthusiasm that assisted Lenin in the annihilation of the old order as well as everyone belonging to it.

He still didn’t avenge the execution of his brother and still didn’t fulfill the ultimate historical mission. A communist society isn’t achieved even at the level of a country, let alone the world. It seems that Yanovsky illustrates the words by a famous Soviet poet: Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.

However, the ideological exaltation of the poet transforms here into a simple statement of fact: Lenin will never leave those who were born in USSR. In order to turn the page, people would need to look, finally, ahead into the future, or, at least, take Lenin’s body out of the mausoleum. Otherwise, as the orthodox Christianity that slowly but surely asserts itself as a State religion of contemporary Russia teaches us, the soul of Lenin will never find peace.

Big Brother (2010) by Rybakov YuliyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Yuliy Rybakov, a prominent member of the dissident movement and actionist, offers another look at the events of the Soviet era. In 1976, he and Oleg Volkov, a fellow artist, carried out the project that gained great notoriety at the time: they painted on the walls of the Peter and Paul fortress: “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles!” This bold action was indeed one of the first instances of open political statement in the Soviet Union. Sadly, the consequences didn’t take long in coming and Yuliy Rybakov was put in prison for six years.

The work titled Big Brother, a reference to George Orwell ‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, creates a powerful image of the fragility of human life in the face of the State machinery. A gun-microscope is aimed at the egg that is lying helplessly in the nest made of barbed wire reminiscent of the crown of thorns. When Big Brother is in charge, your freedom is always restricted, you are always watched and someone is always ready to pull the trigger.

Russians are coming II (2014) by Anatoliy GankevichErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Russians are coming by Anatoly Gankevich brings to mind the socialist realism mosaics to this day decorating the central stations of Moscow Metro. The illusion is strengthened by the author’s technique that imitates mosaic and infuses the painting with certain grandeur. The ranks of identical women are marching cheerfully right in front of the viewer. Their procession evokes the traditional parades and workers’ demonstrations held on major Public holidays in the Soviet Union.

People were carrying flags and banners with sincere joy for they were rewarded later with an extra day off work. But, on Gankevich’s painting, instead of the red flags, the rugs are flying over the women’s heads, and with that the Soviet system of rules is broken. During the celebration of jubilant uniformity, only these rugs function as an open demonstration of disobedience.

Despite the efforts to line up the Soviet people under the banners of common Party ideology and to create one face for all, people, even when taking part in meaningless rituals, have never blindly followed the abstract ideal of a public good. Instead, they were seeking to satisfy their private interests. The rug, being a symbol of the domestic well-being in the Soviet era, may serve, in this case, as a good example.

Opposition (2005) by Bazanov AlekseyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Topicality and timelessness: the present as a subject

Russian contemporary artists often choose as their subject the relationships between people, society, the State, the Church or other social institutions. 

Opposition by Aleksey Bazanov shows the confrontation between human beings and the state. A scene presented on the almost five meters wide canvas is reminiscent, on the one hand, of the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods captured on the frieze of the Pergamon Altar and, on the other hand, of Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David with the similar dynamics in the hand movements.

Bazanov’s scene, however, refers to the present and the mythological characters are our contemporaries. Energetic human figures move forward with the impulse that gets crushed by the wall of shields in the hands of the marionettes in spacesuits. In this case, the two opposing forces are “the people” and “the order”.

Notably, Bazanov creates not a faceless human crowd, but an incredibly specific portrait of every individual, making it possible to examine the smallest details of each face. By contrast, black and white guards in full armor are devoid of any personality and seem to exist as one unit. Thus, the “order” in Bazanov’s work is by nature repressive, because it denies human individuality and the right to be different. Any display of something individual and personal is out of order and can be considered a riot that should be suppressed by any means possible.

Borders of The Empire (2015) by Nikolay PolisskyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

Through his artworks, Nikolay Polissky attempts to make sense of the Russian imperial legacy. The artist is a founder and one of the regular participants of The Archstoyanie Land Art Festival held annually in the village of Nikola-Lenivets that subsequently became another centre of the Russian contemporary art.

The Borders of the Empire project that once disturbed the peaceful banks of Ugra River is now presented in Erarta museum exhibition space. Huge pillars of this installation are similar to those that marked the passage of the triumphant rulers of Roman Empire. Designed as gallows, crosses and cages, they remind the viewer of their true purpose to intimidate the people on both sides of the border.

Every Empire, be it Roman, Mongol, Ottoman, British or Russian, aspired to acquire as many territories as possible. The Empire grew like a tumor, gradually turning into an independent body that didn’t obey any ruler. It is for this reason that every Empire is doomed to perish. When the Empire becomes too huge to suppress the people living within its borders, it falls apart, and then the new borders, for the new countries are created. The perpetual reaffirmation of imperial ambitions, by this point, has only one goal and meaning that is to remind a person of his insignificance and belonging within these all-powerful borders. It’s no coincidence that the wooden pillars are reminiscent of the pagan gods, the sacred objects of worship and horror.

Crucified Shiva (2012) by Khanikov AnfimErarta Museum of Contemporary Art

The official ideology of the Soviet Union only allowed for one religion, and it was atheism. The orthodox Christianity that had a long history in Russia was abolished too fast without providing any chance for people to adapt to the dramatic change. It was not the first time, however: the Christianization of Rus by Vladimir the Great, the eradication of religion by Bolsheviks or the Europeanization by Peter I were carried out in a hurry by the iron fist, repressing all those who were too slow or unwilling to adjust.

In the words of Pushkin, Russia was “reared up” at every turn. The sharpness of these turns ruled out the possibility to leave the past behind, so people were left with no choice, but to carry their past into the future. It resulted in a very peculiar mentality of Russian people, who are equally committed to Paganism and Christianity; support both Monarchism and Soviet ideals, and combine within themselves the craving for European way of life and Asian temperament.

Anfim Khanikov’s sculpture Crucified Shiva made within the tradition of XVII-XVIII century Russian northern wooden sculpture perfectly illustrates the ability of Russian people to combine incompatible. Anfim Khanikov, a devoted orthodox Christian, inverts the most classic Christian myth by giving his Christ as many hands as had a Hindu deity, Shiva. Khanikov came up with the idea when he was traveling through India and was experiencing a new culture. It wouldn’t be right to say that the artist encourages the viewers to overcome their religious and cultural barriers, because these barriers simply don’t exist for him. Instead, he takes in the spiritual experience of the humankind on the whole and lives in harmony with all the greatest doctrines and the values they teach.

Opposition (2005) by Bazanov AlekseyErarta Museum of Contemporary Art


Contemporary art not just reflects on the current state of the world, but searches for its origins and roots.  The authors, through their works, interpret the events of the past and transform them into the prophecies for the future. The next generations will see and judge our time through the vision of these artists.

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Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art

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