`100 Years of Russian Art'


GLASNOST - among other things - means that the West is now seeing more and more Russian art. Not just respectable or notable art from Soviet museums, and not just art by Chagall or Gabo, Malevich or Kandinsky - artists long known and admired outside the Soviet Union. Some of them spent most of their lives abroad anyway, becoming international, rather than simply Russian, figures. But today the art of artists little known overseas is beginning to be shown and even sold in the West. Some of it was made in defiance of official sanctions at various times during the hard-pressed years since the 1917 Revolution. And, perhaps most extraordinarily, this is art that has been preserved in private collections within the USSR.

``100 Years of Russian Art'' - at the Barbican Art Gallery here through July 9, later to be seen in Oxford and Southampton - is a large exhibition made up entirely of works on loan from 38 private collections throughout the USSR (though mostly from Moscow and Leningrad).

``It is not generally appreciated,'' observes the English selector of the works, David Elliott, in the catalog, ``that a flourishing art market has been sustained since the Revolution and that there are many substantial private collections in the major cities.''

He also points out that ``two years ago'' this exhibition - which is also claimed by Mr. Elliott's Russian counterpart, Valery Dudakov, to be the first such show ever organized abroad - ``could not have taken place.''

There have been exhibitions of contemporary and earlier 20th-century Russian art in other parts of Europe and United States before, of course. A selection from the Costakis collection of the Russian ``avant-garde,'' largely from the first two decades of the century, was seen in New York and London earlier in the '80s. Including works by such known artists as Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko, El Lissitsky, it also introduced a number of less familiar artists of great merit. Mainly these works were abstract and constructivist.

Edinburgh boasts a commercial gallery that specializes in shows of Russian as well as Scottish painting. And Roy Miles, among one or two other London dealers selling art from the Soviet Union, is clearly out in front in his eagerness to benefit vigorously from glasnost. In mid-June he opens a vast new gallery to expand his already successful trade in Russian art. He buys in the Soviet Union and has been doing so for the past five years. Signs of the times.

Mr. Miles comments: ``It's only a few years ago, remember, that they beat up the artists and bulldozed their work! ... It was a Stalinist hangover....'' He makes the point that art has long been a potent means of communication and enjoyment for people of all classes in Russia - not, as in some countries, just a taste of the upper-middle classes.

So art in the Soviet Union has easily been seen as politically dangerous. ``I think,'' he told me, ``that art had always seemed to be a dangerous vehicle to the KGB. Because ... especially in Russia, where most of the population didn't read or write, art was always the medium that they all could see anything by.''

But today, he implies, if a dealer like him has the patience to penetrate the still-thick bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, there are rich findings available.

By his own admission, Miles, being a commercial dealer, goes for a particularly attractive (i.e., rather popular and pretty) kind of Russian painting, and if his 1988 Winter Show was a guide, it would be hard to imagine any of it considered dissident even in the Stalinist era - but who knows.

Much of it seems quite accessible to ordinary Western middle-class taste. Miles buys from private collectors in the USSR, and in the nature of things, what private collectors prefer (and not only in Russia) is not necessarily the same as what museum curators prefer.

By the same token, perhaps, the paintings selected for the Barbican's noncommercial loan exhibition do not seem for the most part potentially disruptive in even the tightest of repressive political regimes. Presumably the exceptional interest of this show derives from the fact that what have until very recently been secretly owned works can now be openly admitted to, and even lent freely abroad.

Roy Miles confirms the secrecy, until very recently, of private collectors: ``Certainly no one would have dared say they had got anything a few years ago, because the state would have stolen it - until about seven or eight years ago.''

Elliott, the selector, admits that as a history of Russian art of the last century, the Barbican exhibition has its limitations. Much art has, in fact, found its way into the state museums as gifts from collectors. Confiscation has not been the only way the Soviet state has laid hold of its official art collections. But Elliott maintains that this exhibition nevertheless ``reveals the essential narrative of modern Russian art.''

What are missing, however, are what he calls the grandes machines of Socialist Realism, the ``Revolutionary Romanticism'' inhabited by the cipher heroes and enemies of the Stalinist regime in the '30s and '40s. Such approved, propagandist works were public by definition, anyway, and their appeal to private collectors may well also have been lessened by their large size.

The private collectors did save work by some artists condemned by officialdom: symbolists from before the Revolution; mystical and religious artists; and artists who emigrated, thus becoming nonpersons, like Grigoryev and Altman and Roerich (not to mention Chagall), just after it. This show includes fine works by such people.

It also gives at least a glimpse of ignored Expressionistic painting by Drevin and Nikritin in the early '30s: It would be good to see more of such individualistic work. And there are various ``unofficial'' or barely tolerated artists shown from every decade since, some of the most recent being quite satirical and daring.

What emerges overall is a remarkable pluralism. If this show does nothing else, it should finally confound the simplistic view we have had in the West that Soviet art has been all socialist-realist, officially - and all abstract, dissidently.

``What becomes clear,'' writes Elliott, ``is that there was not one Russian avant-garde but many, and in confusing aesthetic values with political ideology we are in danger of misunderstanding what actually happened.''

He also points out that ``realism'' has a totally different meaning in Russian art and literature from that in the West.

On this basis he makes out that the various changes of style that people like Malevich and Tatlin underwent as the political climate changed do not necessarily indicate a capitulation on their part, or a falling off of quality in their own eyes. Nonetheless, the later paintings in the show by these once radical artists do suggest a terrible diminution of their powers. Who was to blame?

But Elliott's point, which is justified, is that Russian art, either abstract or realistic, is essentially philosophical. It is a mixture of the philosophical, of folk art, and of modernity. But it is rarely art for art's sake.

Instead, it is the extension of ideas, ideals, and, sometimes, of ideology. As such, its style is secondary. And so style - as this multi-faceted, enjoyable, but rather confusing exhibition amply demonstrates - can be as various and changeable as the climate.

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