Boris Orlov, Bust in the Style of Rastrelli II, 1982. The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, Moscow

Illicit Masterpieces Created Under the KGB's Nose Make Aliyah

How did underground art in the Soviet Union acquire such immense influence, and how did such work reach the West from behind the Iron Curtain? A Jerusalem exhibition of 300 works of Russian avant-garde art tells the story



Tanya Sirakovich, head of the Prints and Drawings Department of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, marked the centenary of the Communist Revolution by touring exhibitions across Europe. By the end of 2017, she decided to compile an exhibition about the Russian avant-garde that would be more comprehensive than anything she had seen. Her idea was to locate the starting point of the style and trace its development down to the present day.

The result is “Victory Over the Sun: Russian Avant-Garde Art and Beyond,” on view at the Israel Museum until the end of April. It is one of the most interesting and complex exhibitions currently on display in the country, and not easy to digest or understand. Viewers must adopt an in-depth approach, do some reading, even perhaps a little homework; their reward will be important insights into key chapters in art history.

Four seminal historical events forged avant-garde trends in Russian art, Sirakovich notes in an interview. The first two – the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 – are linked; the others are the death of Stalin in 1953 and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

The 300 works on display – from private collections, galleries and museums in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Paris, among others – cover the period from 1913 to 2017. Many of the works are underground creations that were not exhibited in museums or other public spaces in the Soviet Union because of opposition by the Communist regime. Others are by Russian artists, many of them Jews, who fled the constraints of Soviet censorship and produced their work in the West.

Naomi van der Lande

Black square on red flag

“Black Square,” one of the most famous images in the history of art, is part of the exhibition. However, this is not the original 1915 work by Kazimir Malevich, which is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Sirakovich explains that a later Malevich painting of a black square, the one usually seen in exhibitions outside Russia, is currently on view in the Vatican. Accordingly, the Israel Museum show makes do with a black square painting by one of Malevich’s pupils. “This too is an important work,” Sirakovich avers. “It shows the extent to which the black square was a statement that pupils imitated.”

Three Malevich originals from 1915 are on display: “Suprematism” and “Composition,” which consist of simple forms and strong basic hues, and “Four Squares,” a work of two black squares and two white squares.

Eli Posner / The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Those who are unfamiliar with early 20th-century avant-garde trends might not be especially impressed by the compositions and the black square. But in fact they are milestones of art whose influence extended into other realms, such as design and architecture. Malevich himself was convinced that in the black square he had found the perfect form of expression. Upon first exhibiting “Black Square,” in December 1915, he hung it in an upper corner of the room. Sirakovich points out that in Russian-Orthodox homes, this was the place earmarked for icons of saints, so with this act, Malevich was saying that the black square was the most important work in the exhibition, imbuing it with sublime power.

Alongside the black square there are photographs of “The Last Futuristic Exhibition of Paintings 0,10,” a 1915 show in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Here, too, works by Malevich are on view, among them the black cross, a black circle and a black rectangle.

The exhibition also features important drawings by El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky). Mechanical puppets he designed in the early 20th century were used in the 1913 Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun,” from which the Jerusalem exhibition takes its name. Owing to the technical impossibility of rebuilding the puppets, the exhibition contains only prints of them in basic colors: a muscleman, a gymnast, “cowards,” “old man” and others. According to Tatiana Goryacheva, a curator in the Tretyakov Gallery, Lissitzky and Malevich engaged in a covert competition.

ADAGP, Paris, 2018 / Jean-Alex
ADAGP, Paris, 2018 / Jean-Alex

Mocking the clichés

Avant-garde art began to fade in the Soviet Union, at least publicly, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Socialist Realism was the only art style approved by the Communist Party until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. After Stalin’s death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, launched an initiative of greater openness known as “the thaw.” In this period a number of international exhibitions of modern art were held in Russia, including an exhibition of works by Picasso and the American National Exhibition in 1959.

At the end of the 1950s, an unofficial group of artists that did not enjoy state support was formed. Known as “underground artists” and “nonconformists,” they took part in the exhibition “New Reality” in Moscow’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall in December 1962. Upon visiting the show and seeing the extent to which Socialist Realism had been breached, Khrushchev was furious. He scolded the artists, and thus ended the cultural thaw.

Exactly 10 years later, another artistic efflorescence occurred. In 1972, two young artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, with a wink and a nod to the Pop Art movement, founded the Soviet version. They dubbed it “Sots Art” (short for “socialist art”). But in contrast to the American style, which drew inspiration from the consumer culture and the mass media, Sots Art appropriated visual images from the official style and mocked the abundant Soviet clichés.

Komar and Melamid’s “Ideal Slogan” (1972) is one of the prominent Sots Art works on view in the Jerusalem exhibition. It is based on the Soviet red flag, but the regime’s slogan, “Our goal – Communism!” is replaced by white rectangles, the words having long since become worn and trite. The two also created a double profile of Lenin and Stalin, which appears in a medallion-type pendant.

Another fascinating Sots Art work is “Iron Curtain” (1976), by The Nest group: It’s a rusting metal can on which the words “Iron Curtain” appear in English. Boris Orlov’s 1982 wood and enamel “Bust in the Style of Rastrelli II” (the name refers to an 18th-century Italian-born Russian architect) is a striking work consisting of Soviet military decorations cobbled together to create a form that evokes a classical sculpture.

These and the other underground works are intelligent and sophisticated, not making their criticism directly, but challenging viewers to think about what they are seeing. The Moscow Conceptual School, an extensive movement in the unofficial art scene of the 1970s and 1980s in the Soviet capital, emerged parallel to Sots Art. One of its leading figures was Ilya Kabakov, creator of the installation “Life in the Closet” (in collaboration with his wife, Emilia) which represents the “Sitting-in-the-Closet” motif that was used by a number of artists. The closet was the place into which the artist could escape to immerse himself in his world, to seclude and isolate himself from the noises of the “kommunalka,” or communal apartment. Because of the severe housing shortage, complete strangers had to squeeze into the cramped rooms of a single residential unit, living under the ever-watchful eyes of neighbors and with the constant threat of someone barging into the toilet or the bathroom. Fittingly, another work in the exhibition is the Kabakovs’ “Toilet in the Corner.”

Ofrit Rosenberg

On view in the same space is Vladimir Yankilevsky’s 1972 work “Door (Dedicated to the Parents of My Parents…).” The Moscow-born artist, who died last year, used a real door from a communal apartment to which he affixed a large number of doorbells. The door opens to reveal another door, in front of which the figure of a man – wearing a coat and a fur hat and holding a shopping basket – is seen from the back. The door symbolizes the transition between two spaces: the circumscribed social situation of a Soviet apartment, and the infinite realm of the imagination. Yankilevsky afterward smuggled the installation out of the Soviet Union.

All the art created in the Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s that departed from Socialist Realism originated in the underground, Sirakovich notes. “These works, even the greatest of them, were not exhibited anywhere,” she emphasizes. “For example, ‘Door’ was smuggled out by a Parisian gallerist. Komar and Melamid immigrated to New York at the end of the 1970s. We don’t know exactly how the artists got the works out.”

Asked whether it’s possible that the secret police knew what the artists were up to and “safeguarded” the works, Sirakovich replies: “The Stalin period was marked by the least creativity. After his death, the artists cropped up like mushrooms after the rain. We don’t know precisely whether KGB agents protected them in the post-Stalin years, but there are conjectures that some of them helped the artists and told them when it was dangerous to work and when not, because they were cultured people themselves. The situation began to change ahead of the 1980s, and the KGB also became less threatening.”

The artist Michail Grobman, some of whose works are displayed in the exhibition, was born in 1939 and immigrated to Israel in 1971. Through his persona and his creative output, he offers a response to two fundamental questions relating to Russian avant-garde: How does art created in secret influence other artists, and how were some of these works smuggled to the West?

Eli Posner / The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

In an interview with the art researcher Dr. Lola Kantor-Kazovsky, which appears in the exhibition catalogue, Grobman confirms that the works were not exhibited publicly, “but the paintings were kept by the artists themselves, by their relatives, and by other owners. ... most pieces were hidden away somewhere or were just lying about, forgotten and neglected, in the dachas… In the 1950s collectors began to see value in these works ... The avant-garde surfaced, names once forgotten were brought to life. It happened without any involvement on the part of museums.”

New freedoms

The Perestroika initiative of Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the secretary general of the Communist Party in 1985, revitalized the Soviet administration and Russian society, offering new freedom and encouraging productivity and competitiveness. The atmosphere of openness and creativity generated opportunities for exhibitions, and artists from across the country flocked to Moscow. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 also saw the collapse of the boundaries between official and unofficial art, and contemporary art took center stage. The final section of the exhibition focuses on this new era.

Prominent among these works is a huge installation by Vadim Zakharov, which viewers can enter. The work consists of a series of archival file-folders, which exceed human scale. They are entered through an opening accessed by three stairs placed between the “Russian Avant-Garde” and “Socialist Realism” folders. When the installation is viewed from the open side of the folders, it turns out that the “Avant-Garde” folder, to which El Lissitzky’s red triangle is affixed, is completely covered by a black fabric. As such, it marks the avant-garde movement as disconnected, a situation the artist critiques. Within the installation are reproductions of a number of works, two of which – “Iron Curtain” and “Glory to the CPSU” – are included in the exhibition.

Another intriguing contemporary creation is Mikhail Karasik’s 2007 video art work, “To the Affirmer of the New Art: Daniil Kharms. On the Death of Kazimir Malevich.” Karasik reworks communist icons and images and weaves into them avant-garde elements. The black square is pasted on Lenin’s mausoleum, for example. Another segment of the work presents a photograph of Stalin delivering a speech with senior party members by his side, the faces of those who were executed or imprisoned covered by colored forms. Lenin’s photograph has been replaced by a black square. Karasik places Malevich at the center of the table in a pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” while the faces of the disciples become black circles.

Contemporary trends indicate that Russian avant-garde art is moving like a heartbeat – changing according to surrounding events. Zakharov sums up the current situation and his anxiety at developments in Russia today in an article, written in 2017, that appears in the catalogue: “It is no coincidence that today, against the background of a regime that has lasted 16 years so far and pointing toward gerontological perpetuity, the Russian avant-garde has once again become interesting. The resurrected corpses, with trembling triangles instead of hands and squares instead of heads, will spread horror – and we cannot escape them.”

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