The Functional Shift in Soviet Art and the Birth of Artistic Non-conformism

Ely Bielutin. The Symbology of Motherhood. 1969
 Ulo Sooster. The Space Egg.Ulo Sooster. Junipers in the Moonlight.For a long time, Soviet Nonconformist Art lacked a generally accepted term; artists, researchers, collectors used to call it Experimental, Pioneering, Forbidden, Other, Alternative, Independent, The art of Second Avant-Garde, The art of Protest etc. The “mere mortals” perceived it as a barbaric disgrace against Soviet moral principles and the honour of Homos Sovieticus. Odd, fanciful experiments with colour, line, composition and other visual properties enraptured and intrigued the intellectual; while the “intelligentsia” longed for fresh air in the space of ideological redundancy, it bewildered and revolted the commons, as manifested in the figurativeness of socialist realism. The Party’s verdict respectively concluded that the Soviet man should not be exposed and indeed does not require such art.

It may sound surprising today, but Soviet Non-conformism had originally no intention to oppose any ideological line or to adopt a politicized stance. The artists gathering in 1962 at the infamous Manege exhibition[1] (E. Neizvestny, B. Zhutovsky, V. Yankilevsky, U. Sooster and other artists of E. Bielutin’s Novaya Realnost Studio) trembled with excitement, as they were anticipating the moment of presentation of their  works and ideas to the ruling top.  Khrushchev and his colleagues started the examination by looking at socialist realism art and gradually approaching the last several halls, where most pioneering art tendencies were demonstrated. The artists awaiting Khrushchev’s appearance did not identify as Non-conformists yet. They majority held the belief that the cultural split between official and unofficial art was a logical and imminent phenomenon.  During that fateful moment, they sincerely believed that the ideas, method and aesthetics of New Art could be accepted by Soviet society. All such artists, who were bound to be expelled from the public cultural space soon after, worked as illustrators, decorators, stage designers and some even held official and strictly censored positions during the day. In the evening artists would head over to their studios where they would dedicate all their time and strength to developing a new artistic method and to giving art sense and meaning once again. Let us analyze two approaches towards the understanding of the essence of art, according to Karl Eimermacher:[2]

  1. The general one. Art as socially oriented phenomenon aimed at world change and revisionism, including also that of the inner human world.
  2. The narrow one. Art as functional interdependence of formal artistic modes and form, as well as content correlation in the limits of work of art.

The lack of realization of the second approach at the governing level of Soviet Union precipitated the sense and aim of art to forcefully become equalized in public conscience with universally formal, aesthetic properties. The reduction of visual art opportunities was triggered by two factors in particular: (a) governmental support was offered exclusively to the artists who followed the formal tradition of the Itinerants school, by depicting the theme of class struggle and the underlying the leading role of workers and peasants; (b) the exclusion of all modern art tendencies from the public sphere and the strengthening of the selection principle, based on the socialist realism canon. Consequently, Soviet artists had an extremely limited range of formal modes at their disposal – since the 1930s the ideological tendency allowed for virtually no artistic experimentation. The official standard dominated to the extent that the mass art perception could not be different and instead became automatized (here we are addressing to Eimermacher’s theory again), i.e. highly sluggish, passive, narrow and scanty. Ideological redundancy deprived official art of informational value and functional purpose.

Ely Bielutin. Requiem. 1962

The canon of socialist realism did not allow modern art to be publicly exhibited until Stalin’s death in 1953. The right to public exhibition was only held by those works of art that corresponded the official standard or could be interpreted as its direct continuation. The remaining forms of art were hidden in museums storerooms or sold abroad. A concrete illustration of this social situation is seen in the fate of the Pushkin Art Museum (Moscow) which was transformed into the gallery of Stalin’s birthday presents in 1949 and managed to regain its former status only three years later. The cultural space of this period is characterized by intellectual vacuum and information starvation. Official art became entirely rhetorical in content and formally uninteresting both to the public and to the artistic stratum, which in turn stirred up a number of refreshing tendencies that grew into the cultural soil during the Thaw (1953 – 1964) period. The XX Party Congress (1956) launched the process of Stalin cult erasure, rehabilitated victims of political repression and returned many works of literature, music and visual art into public access. The field of the humanities began would start to sense the influence of linguistics, structuralism and semiotics; for the first time after a long vacuum period, the cultural field saw the exhibitions of Russian avant-garde and even exhibitions of Western European and American art.

The reconsideration of art’s functional values met the official political line of The Thaw period but this process gradually began to free itself from upper control. The artists were interested mainly in the opportunity to express their subjective world-view, Weltanschauung, without outside influence. The matters of politics and ideology were outside the area of their priorities. Intimate genre painting with non-typical characters full of expressive individuality received a central place in artistic work (V. Sidur, E. Neizvestny). The “historic truth” was replaced by the “subjective truth”, as artists responded to and interpreted any phenomena in terms of existential problems of the individual and of humanity as a whole. This thematic shift demanded new visual modes, which inspired artists for experiments with colour, line, composition and other visual properties (E.Bielutin, O.Rabine, U. Sooster, etc.). This new art tended to contain more significant emotional component than socialist realism art and to replace natural forms with abstract ones.

The artists were looking for ways to project new aesthetic perspectives and to send a message which differed from the rhetoric of socialist realism. They reacted to the social and historical context they found themselves living in, feeling (subconsciously at the beginning and actively when the official position towards uncontrollable art became clear and the tension increased) that functional degradation of art could be undone though radical methods only. They tried to build a new type of art ab ovo, in refusing to subscribe to thematic taboos, thus refusing to abide by the official canon with the purpose of rejecting it. They created their own artistic means or borrowed them from other historical periods. The opposition, the spontaneous artistic split, was becoming increasingly visible, although artists did not enter political protest until 1974.

The above-mentioned Manege Exhibition marked an open split in Soviet cultural space, as it raised a crucial underlying question: what kind of art can and cannot be official? In 1962 unofficial art was independent enough to introduce the viewer as the third element in the system of artist-painting relationship, which formed a prominent reason for not being tolerated by the officials. Soviet Nonconformist Art was essentially dialogic and the dialogue inevitably touched upon existential problems which the Party had been strenuously glossing over. The birth of Nonconformist method deprived the cultural space of homogeneity and stimulated the cultural split as a background to art’s functional shift.

Alina Strelkovskaia

[1] The exhibition dedicated to the 30th birthday of Moscow Artists Union, took place on December 1, 1962. Famous due to N. Khrushchev’s visit after which the exhibition was closed and the mass anti-abstractionism campaign started. The Party leaders strongly criticized the artists using obscene words and personal attacks, then Khrushchev ordered to “root out” all the abstract forms of art

[2] German art historian specializing in Soviet art.


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