Canvases of Their Own

  • Share
  • Read Later
If any single art event symbolized Russia's thawed relations to its own modernist past, it was the show at the Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow last winter by a painter and mystic who died in 1935, well into the Stalin era, and whose work remained buried for decades thereafter: Kasimir Malevich.

Each day a long queue of the curious would form. Inside the packed gallery, people would argue and gesticulate in front of abstract paintings -- a red square on a white ground, a fragmented cubist portrait -- done a generation before their birth.

The Malevich show was a political emblem -- an embrace of a severed history. Not long before, in A-Ya, a magazine dedicated to "unofficial" Russian art, the critic Igor Golomshtok lamented, "We know little more about Malevich's last paintings than about Andrei Rublev," the legendary Russian artist who died in the 15th century. For most artists in the Soviet Union today, Malevich is the rodonachalnik, the "founding father" of modern art: the man around whom its history needs to be rewritten.

Born in Kiev in 1878, Malevich invented himself with astonishing speed. Between 1905, the year he moved to Moscow, and 1915, he ran through the gamut of early modernist styles, from pointillism to cubism. Early works like Floor Polishers, 1911-12, show his assimilative powers: this gripping image of hard labor, where every line reinforces the muscular twist of bodies and the thrust of the feet with their waxing pads on the floor, ultimately derives from Matisse's Dance. Troglodytic, pious and massive, Malevich's figures of peasants from the '20s both assert modernity and deny it.

His most radical paintings were the suprematist compositions he made between 1913 and the mid-1920s. To imagine that these were just formal exercises is to underrate them. Malevich thought of his black square and its cousins -- the white-on-white geometries, the crisp arrangements of colored planes floating in space as deep as the sky -- as icons, points of entry into a superior spiritual world. Their vividness, their power to fix one's attention, is also the vividness of the staring eyes of a pantocrator.

Small wonder that Malevich is seen, in Soviet terms, as the bridge between tradition and innovation: a sort of starets, a holy man or prophet, whose images invoke deep strands of identification with religious faith and folk culture while pointing to a future wreathed in theory. The reinstatement of Malevich had been under way for years, and yet this show was certainly one of the events in the Soviet Union's intellectual life that define the cultural consequences of glasnost.

Party lines, like glaciers, do move. But for Soviet artists, glasnost seems more like a whirlpool of possibilities, most of them still anxiously hypothetical. The artists have had to learn not to be optimists. Fifteen years ago, Leonid Brezhnev's officials sent plainclothes militia and bulldozers to break up and bury an outdoor show of unofficial art in Sokolniki, a park on the outskirts of Moscow. This goons' picnic would not be repeated today. The socialist realist line, imposed by Stalin after 1929 and kept to the end of Brezhnev's reign, held that a work of art should fulfill the criteria of partinost (party spirit), ideinost (firm commitment to prescribed ideology) and narodnost (true portrayal of the life, soul and spirit of the people). It has now been undone. "Dissident" modernism became a talisman only because it was repressed; once tolerated and encouraged, it becomes politically harmless.

The clincher is the Soviet Union's shortage of hard currency, combined with the Western art-dealing system's devouring search for new product. At last, modern art has a real party use: it brings in sterling, dollars and marks. Scores of Western dealers are swarming over the Moscow studios. They buy through the Ministry of Culture, which generally keeps 40% of the purchase price and passes on 10% to 15% to the artist in hard currency, which can be spent only outside the U.S.S.R., and the rest in rubles. Payment is always slow, and then there is tax.

The auction of Soviet contemporary art held, amid vast hype, by Sotheby's in Moscow last July was seen by the West as a vindication of dissident artists but by many of the artists themselves as divisive and even dispiriting. Some lots went for unheard-of sums; the painter Grisha Bruskin, whose work had been comfortably selling in America for just over $40,000, saw a large multipanel piece called Fundamental Lexicon go for $415,000, an event that caused much skeptical talk both inside and outside the ministry. Landscapes by Svetlana Kopystiansky, and her husband Igor's assemblages of old-looking, torn and reworked canvases, which had stood well out from the ruck of young artists in last year's Venice Biennale, made as much as $75,000. Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that a growing number of Soviet artists, once they have signed up with a Western dealer, circumvent the whole wearisome apparatus by going to Paris or New York City, making their art and then going back.

Few Western collectors want the kind of mildly academic images of birchwoods in mushroom season, gymnasts and cosmonauts that members of the Artists Union tend to produce. They want what they are used to: late modernism or post- modernism, a souvenir of glasnost on the wall. Thus, since the Ministry of Culture is the conduit for modernism to the West, it has become a de facto rival to the Artists Union -- a switch that has caused a good deal of heartburn in the union's ranks.

But anyone who thinks a new market and a thaw in the state cultural line have made the Soviet artist's life an easy one should think again. The dissemination of art has been built for so long around the idea of ideological service that the transition to a free-market art economy is tortuous. No Soviet artist can depend on the kind of structure that, however nominally, supports painters and sculptors in the West. There are thousands of art galleries on both sides of the Atlantic but comparatively few in Moscow. Outdoor shows are sometimes organized by artists in Izmailovo Park. The "art scene" on the Arbat is just hole-in-the-corner spaces showing sad, touristy little daubs, mixed in with the schlock that passes for folk art.

But what would more professional galleries survive on, except sales to foreigners? The Soviet Union has virtually no internal market for contemporary art. To pay $415,000 for a contemporary painting is almost as obscene in a society whose average yearly salary for a civil servant is 2,604 rubles ($4,300) as the $17 million recently paid for a Jasper Johns was in America. There are a few collectors of contemporary art in Moscow, but the coin they pay for their collections -- jammed cheek by jowl, all up the walls and over the door lintels of cramped flats -- has always been more a matter of sympathy and closeness to the artists, a sharing of aesthetic interests, than heavy cash.

The flow of art-world information, a torrent in the West, is a trickle here. Contemporary shows from abroad are rare, though recent work by Robert Rauschenberg was seen at the Tretyakov Gallery last February. A young art historian wants to write a definitive biography of Wassily Kandinsky, there being none in Russian, but she cannot obtain basic texts, like the four catalogs of the Kandinsky shows organized in the '80s by New York City's Guggenheim Museum, because no Moscow archivist had the hard currency to buy them. There are no truly adequate general histories of Russian 20th century art published in the Russian language. "In the U.S. you have history," chuckles a collector. "What we have here is gossip. The art world feels scattered, fragmented. There is an atmosphere of mystification caused by the emigration of artists." It can be hard even for Soviets to find out what other Soviet painters are up to.

Today it is much easier to see work by leading Soviet contemporaries in New York City, London and Paris than it is in Moscow. In fact, once you are in Moscow, there are only two ways to do so. One is to visit Polyanka, the deconsecrated 17th century Orthodox church on Polyanka Street in Moscow that is used as a depot and point of sale to Western dealers by the Ministry of Culture. There hundreds of paintings by contemporary artists, stacked against one another under conditions so primitive they would give heartburn to any New York gallery owner, sit in racks, while embrowned, battered frescoes of the Annunciation and Visitation look down.

The other is to see the work in the studio, which, owing to the difficulties of finding addresses in Moscow and the suspicions some artists unsurprisingly have about strangers, is not an exercise for the dilettante. "Unofficial" artists are at the bottom of the official pole whose summit is the Academy of Arts, that august body of 77 academicians and 99 alternate members. Among them are the state propagandists, whose mission it is to turn out the unending stream of statues of Lenin (with benign and resolute features that grow more Asiatic the further east they go) for public places from Minsk to Irkutsk. Many an unofficial artist finds himself in the predicament of Nikolai Filatov, whose large canvases -- a fervent compost of '50s-style abstract expressionism and broken-up cubofuturist planes -- are beginning to sell in the West, so he has hard currency but nowhere to paint. To get studio space in Moscow on an official basis, you must belong to the Artists Union and do "real" aesthetic work. Some of the best-known figures in the Soviet avant-garde, like Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasilyev, who share working space, are still officially registered as illustrators of children's books.

So younger artists squat. Some work in crumbling tenements scheduled for $ demolition, dank shells with tangles of extension cords carrying bootleg electricity up their gapped stairwells. Here they agonize about the "spiritual crisis" with which glasnost has confronted Soviet artists -- the sudden conversion of "dissident" art from a talisman to a commodity. One hears 28-year-olds, too young to remember the '60s, waxing nostalgic over the "purity" induced among artists by former repression.

The idea the Western market tends to promote, that the Soviet Union is a mine of little-known contemporary pictorial genius, is mostly sales talk. Stalinism deformed or aborted two generations of artistic talent, and no culture recovers so fast. The sense of a time lag is acute to the visitor. Certainly, there is no shortage of artists doing earnestly secondhand versions of last year's, or last decade's, Western model. But there is also some extremely serious talent: Natalia Nesterova, for instance, with her brooding groups of figures, locked in thick, silvery paint and dense with melancholy, or, in the area of abstraction, Erick Stenberg. In the 1960s and '70s, Stenberg's work was a prolonged meditation on constructivism and suprematism, the chief movements of the "classical" Russian avant-garde in the years just before and after the revolution: finely tuned planar constructions in a pale, deep space. Lately, in a way that parallels Malevich's return to peasant themes in the 1920s, Stenberg has deepened his color and turned to images of a remote village where he spends part of his time: bare roads, cottages, grave markers, religious symbols like the fish and the Cross, all emblems of an ancient Russia that continues to exist below ideology.

The recent political past lies heavily on new Soviet painting, producing a largely original blend of conceptual art and pop, based on reflections about the state styles of propaganda. In the West, the best-known artists working in this vein are Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, with their wonderfully pointed pastiches of Stalinist -- and American -- political kitsch. In Moscow, there are older men like Ilya Kabakov, whose paintings and installations of documents, scraps and the somewhat hermetic flotsam of his own past family life, form a Gogolesque narrative of the meager lives of imaginary, pathetic Russian characters -- The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, The Untalented Artist. The constant theme of his work is the absurd gap between the promises of the system and its grim disappointments. Bulatov is fascinated by the ^ seepage of official art language, in all its enthusiasm and coerciveness, through daily life. In Spring at the Spa, the white statues of Lenin and Maxim Gorky stand in the banal dreamy park (in fact, a state resort for union officials and their families), a faint allusion to the statues in a Watteau garden, recalling an idealized past. There is something very Russian -- a spiritual dimension, not just a linguistic preoccupation -- to the work of both men.

There are also fine "conservative" artists in Moscow, not dinosaurs of socialist realism but painters whose own sympathies lie further back, in the Florentine Renaissance or 19th century Paris. One of these is Dmitri Zhilinsky, whose work can rise to a most disciplined poignancy, as in his animal Pieta, a self-portrait holding the corpse of his red Chow dog killed by a passing car. Yet it is as hard to find a "modernist" with a good word for Zhilinsky as it is to get Zhilinsky to concede there might be some merit in, say, the recent Rauschenberg show at the Tretyakov. Old animosities run deep; it will be years before the Soviet art world is like ours, blandly tolerant of everything except failure in the market.