Fresh Momentum for Moscow Art

Despite shortages of supplies and government funding, Russian artists find that the home market has potential

IN Ivan Akimov's studio, politics has at long last taken a back seat to personal interests.

Stashed away in a corner, almost hidden from view in the high-ceilinged, characteristically messy work area, are modernistic paintings that mock the former Soviet Communist Party bosses Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. These days Mr. Akimov is more interested in displaying recently completed canvasses of frolicking Russian peasants in traditional felt boots.

Akimov isn't the only artist who has all but abandoned painting works with anti-communist motifs, a style known in Russia as Sotsart. The current trend emphasizes a return to traditional themes, art experts and gallery operators in Moscow say.

"Sotsart is gone," says Akimov. "Six years ago, with the start of perestroika, there was aggressive criticism of communism.

"Now it's settling down," he continues. "People have cursed communism for so long that they're tired of it and are moving on to something more conceptual and traditional."

Correspondingly, there appears to be a growing appetite for art in Russia. Up until a few months ago, a Russian artist had to depend on foreign buyers if he or she hoped for commercial success.

But now, for the first time, Russian artists are finding that a home market exists, albeit a limited one. That development could keep many young and talented artists from moving to the West, thus providing a tremendous boost to the Russian art scene, says Leonid Bajanov, director of the Contemporary Art Center here.

"The process of commercialization is just beginning here," he says. "This is significant because it may help preserve the spiritual energy of the country. It may also help our country's transition to a market economy by giving rise to a cultural identity."

The totalitarian system introduced by the Communist Party destroyed the creative instincts of artists, part of a general atrophying of the Russian cultural identity, according to Sergei Tarabarov, director of the Dar Gallery in Moscow. Beginning in the 1920s, art became an instrument controlled by the party to help in the so-called building of socialism.

"The assignment was to show the everlasting happiness of life - particularly the happiness of the workers - and this lasted more or less until the end of the Soviet Union," says Mr. Tarabarov.

The style that perhaps best captured the essence of art under the Communists was called Socialist Realism, which often featured smiling faces set against the backdrop of a factory or collective farm. Socialist realism enjoyed its heyday in the early 1950s, during the later years of Stalin's dictatorial rule, but its influence extended into the 1970s.

When official restrictions began to ease during former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost era, it didn't come as a surprise that artists rebelled using Sotsart. Many also distanced themselves from the official Communist organization that used to control them - the Union of Artists. The union's demise, in turn, opened the doors for many talented artists who had been denied recognition because they were deemed politically unreliable.

"The collapse of the Union of Artists meant artists would finally be judged on talent alone, not by who they knew," says Mr. Bajanov.

WHILE the old system has been collapsing, Bajanov and others have worked to form a new independent art structure through a growing number of private galleries. It hasn't been easy going. Russia's economic woes have led to a decrease in government funding for the arts. And in the drive to commercialize state-owned property, officials are closing many city-run exhibition halls and selling the properties to cash-rich businesses. The halls had been a prime venue to promote up-and-coming artists.

"Culture simply isn't profitable," Bajanov says about the lack of government help. "The first casualties of commercialization have been libraries and exhibition halls."

To make matters worse, artists are also experiencing acute shortages of everything from studio space to paints. During the past few years, the difficulties, in addition to the lack of buyers in Russia, led many successful artists to head for the West. Akimov is one of the few painters who gained prominence during the Sotsart era still living in Russia, Tarabarov says.

An event that may help stop the exodus came late last year during the Art Myth '91 exhibition in downtown Moscow. The show, in which several Russian and foreign galleries participated, was considered a tremendous financial success, with paintings selling for up to 200,000 rubles each (about $20,000 at current exchange rates). Most of the buying was done by corporations in the growing business sector in Russia.

While the exhibition proved the potential of the Russian market, there have to be more successful shows, as well as a stabilization of the overall situation in Russia, before young artists give up the notion of leaving for the West, says Akimov. "I want to think there will be a good market for art here, but a lot still depends on the political and economic situation in Russia," he says.

If conditions worsen in Russia, he adds, the art world's recent gains will be threatened.

"I have the means to live, but I don't know how younger artists will be able to survive this age of shortages," he says. "The shortages could kill the development of the next generation of artists."

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