Forbidden Art: The Postwar Russian Avant-Garde
presents 77 works by Soviet underground artists who dared to challenge
the Communist government's monopoly on artistic expression. After the
Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, many Russian artists believed that the new
Communist state would give them unprecedented artistic freedom. Instead
of filling commissions for the wealthy elite, they would now create authentic
art for the people. Avant-garde artists such as Vasilii Kandinsky, Kazimir
Malevich, Luibov Popova, El Lissitzky, and Vladimir Tatlin believed that
Modernist forms would be the true artistic language of the liberated,
egalitarian Soviet society. These idealistic artists were bitterly disappointed
when, in the early 1930s, the Communist government set strict guidelines
for Soviet art.
The official style, known as Socialist Realism, emphasized narrative,
didactic subjects and classical composition. The Ministry of Culture of
the USSR proclaimed that "the truth and historical concreteness of the
artistic depiction of reality must be combined with the task of the ideological
transformation and education of the workers in the spirit of Socialism."
Furthermore, artists were "to create works with a high level of craftsmanship
and a high level of ideological and artistic content." The entertainment
of "irrelevant" or subjective styles, such as abstract art or Surrealism,
was strongly discouraged.
The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 brought hopes of artistic freedom.
With Nikita KhrushchevÑs revelatory Secret Speech in 1956 and the first
official statements on the horrors of the preceding era, the truth of
the dictatorÑs crimes began to emerge. New civil and cultural liberties
seemed imminent. Bold artists joined literary and scientific figures like
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrey Sakharov on a dangerous path of alternative
expression, issuing provocative statements and formulating new aesthetic
theories. The inevitable result was a series of confrontations with the
government, epitomized by the so-called Bulldozer Exhibition in 1974,
when police drove bulldozers through the exhibition, scattering the painters,
and then doused the paintings with fire hoses.
The state suppression of alternative ideals continued after Khrushchev,
through the Leonid Brezhnev years and the brief tenures of Yuri Andropov
and Konstantin Chernenko. Nevertheless, the Soviet underground continued
to expand, pressing for creative freedom and public recognition. In many
ways, the 1970s marked the zenith of the nonconformist movement's originality
and polemical power. Finally, in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev's policies
of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding) marked a new era of
free and energetic cultural expression. The auction of Russian Avant-Garde
and Soviet Contemporary Art held at SothebyÑs in Moscow in July 1988 formally
introduced nonconformist art into the international market. The emigration
of Russian nonconformists to Europe and the United States also gave Western
audiences new access to Russian alternative art.
Forbidden Art: The Postwar Russian Avant-Garde begins with a Socialist
Realist work, Nikolai Kritski and Group's Power to the People.
The six sections of the exhibition trace the different ways that Soviet
artists reacted against Socialist Realism, beginning with the first waves
of nonconformist artists, the Reform School and the Radical School. The
next two sections present Sots Art and Moscow Conceptualism, two forms
of artistic innovation that emerged in the 1970s. The final section gathers
together works by artists from St. Petersburg.
Forbidden Art: The Postwar Russian Avant-Garde is drawn from the Yuri
Traisman collection. The exhibition is organized and circulated by Curatorial