Soviet Nonconformist Art

Soviet Nonconformist Art

The term Soviet Nonconformist Art refers to art produced in the former Soviet Union from 1953-1986 (after the death of Stalin until the advent of Perestroika and Glasnost) outside of the rubric of Socialist Realism. Other terms used to refer to this phenomenon are "unofficial art" or "underground art."



From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1932, the historical Russian avant-garde flourished and strived to appeal to the proletariat. However, in 1932 Stalin's government took control of the arts with the publication of "On the Reconstruction of Literary-Artistic Organizations"; a decree that put artists' unions under the control of the Communist Party. Two years later, Stalin instituted a policy that unified aesthetic and ideological objectives, which was called Socialist Realism, broadly defined as art that was, "socialist in content and realist in form." Moreover, the new policy defined four categories of unacceptable art: political art, religious art, erotic art, and "formalistic" art, which included abstraction, expressionism, and conceptual art. Beginning in 1936, avant-garde artists who were unable or unwilling to adapt to the new policy were forced out of their positions, and often either murdered or sent to the gulag, as part of Stalin's great purges. [ Kornetchuk, Elena. "From the 1917 Revolution to Khrushchev's Thaw," "Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986", eds. Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, pp. 36-41. ISBN 0500237093]

End of World War II - 1953

In the wake of World War II, referred to in Russia as The Great Patriotic War, Party resolutions were passed in 1946 and 1948, by Andrei Zhdanov, chief of the Propaganda Administration formally denouncing Western cultural influences at the start of the Cold War. Art students such as Ülo Sooster, an Estonian who later became important to the Moscow nonconformist movement, were sent to Siberian prison camps. [Alla Rosenfeld, Norton Townshend Dodge, Jane Voorhees, "Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression Under the Soviets", Rutgers University Press, 2001, p9. ISBN 0813530423] The nonconformist artist Boris Sveshnikov also spent time in a Soviet labor camp. [Marilyn Rueschemeyer, "Soviet Emigre Artists: life and work in the USSR and the United States", M E Sharpe Inc, 1985, p47. ISBN 0873322967] Oleg Tselkov was expelled from art school for 'formalism' in 1955, which from the viewpoint of the Party might have constituted an act of treason. [Nicholas Rzhevsky, "The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture", Cambridge University Press, 1999, p227. ISBN 0521477999]

1953 (The Death of Stalin) - 1962

The death of Stalin in 1953, and Khrushchev's subsequent denunciation of his crimes during his Secret Speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 created a "thaw"; a liberal atmosphere wherein artists had more freedom to create nonsanctioned work without fearing repercussions. Furthermore, Stalin's cult of personality was recognized as detrimental, and within weeks many paintings and busts bearing his likeness were removed from public places. Artists such as Alexander Gerasimov, who had made their careers painting idealized portraits of Stalin, were forced out of their official positions, as they had become embarrassing to the new leadership. [ Kornetchuk, Elena. "From the 1917 Revolution to Khrushchev's Thaw," "Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986", eds. Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 46-47. ISBN 0500237093] However, despite increased tolerance, the parameters of Socialist Realism still hadn't changed, and therefore, artists still had to tread lightly.

1962 - mid-1970s

The "thaw" era ended quickly, when in 1962, Khrushchev attended the public Manezh exhibition at which several nonconformist artists were exhibiting. Khrushchev got into a public and now-famous argument with Ernst Neizvestny regarding the function of art in society. However, this altercation had the unintended effect of fomenting unofficial art as a movement. Artists could no longer hold delusions that the state would recognize their art, yet the climate had become friendly and open enough that a coherent organization had formed. Additionally, punishments for unofficial artists became less severe; they were denied admittance to the union instead of being murdered.

As a "movement" nonconformist art was stylistically diverse. However, in the post-thaw era its function and role in society became clear. As the eminent Russian curator, author and museum director Joseph Bakstein writes,

The duality of life in which the official perception of everyday reality is independent of the reality of the imagination leads to a situation where art plays a special role in society. In any culture, art is a special reality, but in the Soviet Union, art was doubly real precisely because it had no relation to reality. It was a higher reality....The goal of nonconformism in art was to challenge the status of official artistic reality, to question it, to treat it with irony. Yet that was the one unacceptable thing. All of Soviet society rested on orthodoxy, and nonconformism was its enemy. That is why even the conditional and partial legalization of nonconformism in the mid-1970s was the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime.
[ Bakshtein, Joseph. "A View from Moscow," "Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986", eds. Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 332. ISBN 0500237093]

late 1970s - 1991

In the mid-1980s, Glasnost and Perestroika were the policies that led to the demise of the USSR in 1991. The nonconformist movement, deprived of a host body, suffered demise as well. However, two other factors sealed the fate of nonconformism. The first was the 1988 auction of modern and contemporary Russian art in Moscow by Sotheby's. The auction was only open to foreigners who could pay in British Pounds, which signified the economic fraility of the Soviet Union, the end of its xenophobia, and the beginning of the forces of capitalism that control the art market. The second factor was diaspora - many artists had already emigrated, beginning as early as the late-1970s and continuing throughout the 1980s.

Contributors to the movement

Notable Soviet Nonconformist artists from Moscow include: Ilya Kabakov, Igor Kopystiansky, Svetlana Kopystiansky, Oleg Vassiliev, Erik Bulatov, Komar and Melamid, Leonid Sokov, Viktor Pivovarov, Ülo Sooster, Boris Sveshnikov, Vladimir Yakovlev, Anatoly Zverev, Lydia Masterkova, Vladimir Nemukhin, Ernst Neizvestny, Oscar Rabin, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Eduard Steinberg, Lev Kropivnitsky, Valentina Kropivnitskaia, Alexander Yulikov, Andrei Grositsky, Vasily Sitnikov, Dmitrii Krasnopevtsev, Leonid Lamm, Igor Shelkovsky, from Leningrad: Timur Novikov, Grisha Bruskin, Afrika (Sergei Bugaev), Oleg Tselkov, Anatoly Basin, Alexei Khvostenko, Klever (Valery), Yuri Gourov, Alexander Ney, Edouard Zelenine from Siberia.

Moscow Artists' Groups

There were many artistic groups and movements that were active in the Soviet Union after the period of the thaw. They can be difficult to classify because often they were not related due to stylistic objectives, but geographical proximity. Furthermore, participation in these groups was fluid as the community of nonconformist artists in Moscow was relatively small and close-knit.


One of the most rebellious groups to emerge from this period is called Lianozovo, after the small village outside Moscow where most of the artists lived and worked. The members of this group were: Evgenii Kropivnitsky, Olga Potapova, Valentina Kropivnitskaia, Oskar Rabin, Valery Klever- St. Petersberg, Lev Kropivnitsky, Lydia Masterkova, Vladimir Nemukhin, Nikolai Vechtomov and the poets Vladimir Nekrasov, Genrikh Sapgir, and Igor Kholin. This group was not related due to aesthetic concerns, but due to "their shared search for a new sociocultural identity." If one generalization may be made of this group's aesthetic preferences and general worldview it is that, "the aestheticization of misery is precisely what distinguishes the representatives of the de-classed communal intelligentsia of the thaw era from their predecessors (the Socialist Realists), who created a paradisiac image of history." [ Tupitsyn, Victor. "Nonidentity with Identity: Moscow Communal Modernism, 1950s-1980s," "Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986", eds. Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 86. ISBN 0500237093]

Many members of the Lianozovo group worked in an abstract style. The 1957 thaw resulted in the discovery of Western artistic practices and historical Russian avant-garde traditions by young Soviet artists. Artists began experimenting with abstraction, as it was the antithesis of Socialist Realism. However, the fallout from the Manezh exhibition, in 1962, caused restrictions to be enforced once again. The new restrictions could not however, curtail what the young artists had learned during the five year interlude. Additionally, Victor Tupitsyn points out that the 1960s mark an era of "decommunalization" in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev worked to improve housing conditions, and a consequence of this was that artists began to get studios of their own, or shared spaces with like-minded colleagues. [ op cit ] If one is to follow Virginia Woolf's thesis that "A Room of One's Own" is the primary necessary factor for the proliferation of creative work, then it is easy to see how nonconformist art began flourishing at this time in the USSR.

Officially, those in the Lianozovo group were members of the Moscow Union of Graphic Artists, working in the applied and graphic arts. As such, they were not permitted to hold painting exhibitions, as that fell under the domain of the Artists' Union. Consequenlty, apartment exhibitions and literary salons began at this time as a means of publicly exhibiting. However, the Lianozovo group in particular was often harassed by Soviet officials as they were vigilant in pursuing public exhibitions of their work. In an attempt to circumvent the law, the Lianozovo group proposed an open air exhibition in 1974, inviting dozens of other nonconformist artists also to exhibit. The result was the demolition of the exhibition by bulldozers and water cannons, for which reason the exhibition is still known as the Bulldozer Exhibition.

retensky Boulevard

A group of artists that had studios on and around Sretensky Boulevard, Moscow, became a loosely associated like-minded community in the late 1960s. The members of this group were: Ilya Kabakov, Ülo Sooster, Eduard Shteinberg, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Viktor Pivovarov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and Ernst Neizvestny. The artists' studios were also used as venues to show and exchange ideas about unofficial art. Like their colleagues in the Lianozovo group, the majority of visual artists who were part of the Sretensky Boulevard Group were admitted to the Union of Moscow Graphic Artists. This allowed the artists to work officially as book illustrators and graphic designers, which provided them with studio space, materials, and time to work on their own projects. Although they shared the same type of official career, the Sretensky group is not stylistically homogenous. The name merely denotes the community that they formed as a result of working in close proximity to each other.

Moscow Conceptualists

However, many of the artists on Sretensky Boulevard were part of the Moscow Conceptualist school. This movement arose in the 1970s to describe the identity of the contemporary Russian artist in opposition to the government. As Joseph Bakstein explains, "The creation of this nonconformist tradition was impelled by the fact that an outsider in the Soviet empire stood alone against a tremendous state machine, a great Leviathan that threatened to engulf him. To preserve one's identity in this situation, one had to create a separate value system, including a system of aesthetic values." [ Bakshtein, Joseph. "A View from Moscow," "Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986", eds. Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 332. ISBN 0500237093]

The aesthetic language of Moscow Conceptualism is self-conscious and often deals with the quotidian. Consequently, these artists incorporated their experiences of Soviet life into their art in a manner that was not overtly negative, but at varying times, nostalgic, disinterested, wry, and subtle. Erik Bulatov explains that conceptualist art is, "a rebellion of man against the everyday reality of life...a picture interests me as some kind of system...opening into the space of my everyday existence." [Roberts, Norma, ed. "The Quest for Self-Expression: Painting in Moscow and Leningrad, 1965-1990," Columbus: Columbus Museum of Art, 1990, p. 72] By exposing the underlying mechanisms of Soviet society and interpersonal interaction, the artists created a very real and relatable artistic language to rival the "official" propagandistic language of the government.

This group includes Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Komar and Melamid, Andrei Monastyrsky and also broadly encompasses the Sots artists and the Collective Actions group, which were both influential in the construction of Russian conceptualist art. The term Moscow Conceptualism is sometimes used interchangeably with post-modernism, and is sometimes meant to include all of the nonconformist artists of the "Soviet generation." This term applies to the artists who were born in the 1930s and 1940s, and grew up under Stalinism. This group came of age in the 1960s and took nonconformist art in a new direction in the 1970s.

The Petersburg group

Mikhail Chemiakin's Petersburg Non-conformist Group developed out of a 1964 exhibition at the Hermitage Museum, where Chemiakin worked as gallery assistant. The official name of the exhibition was "Exhibition of the artist-workers of the economic part of the Hermitage: Towards the 200th anniversary of Hermitage" and it included the work of Chemiakin, V. Kravchenko, V. Uflyand, V. Ovchinnikov and O. Liagatchev. Opening on March 30-31, it was closed by the authorities on April 1. The Hermitage director, Mikhail Artamonov, was removed from his post.

In 1967 the "Petersburg Group Manifesto" was written and signed by Chemiakin, O.Liagatchev, E. Yesaulenko and V. Ivanov. Ivanov and Chemiakin had previously developed the idea of Metaphysical Synthesism, which proposed creating a new form of icon painting through the study of religious art across the ages, [ The Chemiakin Foundation] The essay, "Métaphysique Synthétisme" included illustrations to the works of E.T.A. Hoffman and "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky.

A. Vasiliev and the miniature painter V. Makarenko joined the group later.

Four years after the founding of the group, in 1971, Chemiakin emigrated to France, and later the United States.

Liagatchev, until his emigration to Paris in 1975, and Vasiliev continued to participate in exhibitions of non-conformist artists in Leningrad at the Gaza Cultural Center (1974) and the Nevsky Cultural Center (1975). Liagatchev's work in this period includes: "Kafka", "Intimeniy XX" (1973) and "Composition - Canon" (1975). The group finally became defunct in 1979, ceasing to have joint exhibitions.

The 1980s

Timur Novikov was one of the leaders of St. Petersburg art in the 1980s. In 1982 his theory of "Zero Object" acted as one of the foundations of Russian conceptual art.Tom Masters, "St. Petersburg", Lonely Planet, 2005, p36. ISBN 1741041694] In the 1990s he founded neo-academism.

St. Petersburg artists Igor Polyakov and Alexander Rappoport formed the underground art group Battle Elephants in 1984.

Another important St. Petersburg artist who emerged in the 1980s was Afrika (Sergei Bugaev).

The Odessa Group

By the mid 1970s, in Odessa, a core group of nonconformist artists was formed whose most active members were: Vladimir Strelnikov, Alexander Anufriev, Valentin Khrushch, Victor Mariniuk, Lyudmila Yastreb, Stanislav Sytchev, Evgeni Rakhmanin, Ruslan Makoev, Andrei Antoniuk and others. These artists continued to show their art privately in spite of the constant harassment from the authorities and the oppression and hatred coming from the majority of the officially recognised artists. They had close connections with the Moscow centres of the underground art movement and were participating in the apartment exhibitions of nonconformist art in Moscow and in Leningrad. They also invited their Russian colleagues to visit Odessa and to take part in their apartment exhibitions there.

The following artists took an active part in the unofficial, so called "apartment exhibitions" in the 1970s in Odessa. Some of them participated in the "apartment exhibitions" in Moscow as well. Valentin Altanietz (1936 - 1995) Andrey Antoniuk, Alexander Anufriev, Valery Basanietz, Alexei Bokatov, Igor Bozhko, Valentin Khrushch (1943 - 2005), Michail Kowalski, Ruslan Makoev, Victor Mariniuk, Volodymyr Naumez, Nikolay Novikov, Victor Pavlov, Valery Parfenenko, Evgeni Rakhmanin, Viktor Risovich, Sergei Savchenko, Vitaly Sazonov, Valentin Shapavlenko, Yuri Shurevich (1937 - 1997), Oleg Sokolov, Nikolai Stepanov, (sculptor) (1937 - 2003), Alexander Stovbur, Vladimir Strelnikov, Stanislav Sytchov (1937 -2003), Vladimir Tziupko, Alexander Voloshinov, Ludmilla Yastreb (1945 - 1980), Anna Zilberman.


Collectors of Soviet and Russian Nonconformist art include:

* Tatiana Kolodzei and her daughter, Natalia Kolodzei. In 1991 they founded the Kolodzei Art Foundation which has presented many exhibitions on Russian Nonconformist art.
* The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA
* Lili Brochetain Collection, Paris France
* Nadja Brykina Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland
* Robert Mohren Collection, Germany


*Irène Semenoff-Tian-Chansky, "Le pinceau, la faucille et le marteau: les peintres et le pouvoirs en Union Soviétique de 1953 à 1989", Institut d'Études Slaves, 1993
*Norton Dodge and Alla Rosenfeld, eds. "From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union". New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

ee also

*Russian postmodernism
*Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art

External links

* [ Kolodzei Art Foundation and Kolodzei Collection of Russian and Eastern European Art]
* [ The Odessa Group]

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