Russian Art: Caught In the Tumult

Economic and political upheavals paint bleak picture for a once-thriving artistic community

The 20th century has rocked Russia probably more than any other country. It has been buffeted by two world wars, revolution, and counter-revolution, with a few destructive social and economic experiments thrown in. Yet despite it all, Russia has somehow produced remarkable artistic talents.

Especially in the early part of this century, periods of political and social upheaval proved, at the same time, to be epochs of exceptional intellectual vitality. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, provided the backdrop for an artistic explosion in Russia, giving rise to new art forms -- such as ''Cubo-Futurism'' -- that had worldwide impact.

But as the century draws to a close, all the chaos finally seems to be catching up with Russians, exacting a severe toll on the country's artistic community.

Once again, Russia finds itself embroiled in tumult, trying to undo the damage done by 70-plus years of communism. But unlike in previous bouts with instability, few people think the current turmoil will be accompanied by a creative breakthrough.

Communism's legacy, combined with the economic pressures unleashed in the post-communist era, is proving an insurmountable barrier for most artists. Either the communist way of doing things deprived many artists of initiative, or the contemporary daily battle for survival is forcing those with potential to sell out to commercialism.

In the realm of the visual arts, some painters have made names for themselves in the West. In the early years of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Westerners were astonished by the variety and quality of Russian underground art. Dealers flocked to the former Soviet bloc.

''I was astounded by the range of styles and the subject matter,'' says Barbara Hazzard, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Russian art impresario.

But interest has since dropped dramatically. Critics agree that there is no person or art force coming out of the former Soviet bloc today that can match the talent of the Russian avant-garde around the 1920s.

''The international art market has shown there are no real stars in Russia now,'' says Konstantin Akinsha, a prominent Russian art historian who now lives in the German city of Cologne.

This creative vacuum may be a harbinger, Mr. Akinsha adds. It bodes ill for Russia's latest attempt to modernize, and catch up politically, economically, and socially with the West. ''It's a sign of a complete bankruptcy of ideas,'' he says.

Communism can't entirely be blamed for the unfulfilled potential. In some ways, the present chaotic economic conditions in Russia have done more to restrain artistic potential than did the old political order.

''The creative impulse is suffering under economic hardship,'' Hazzard says. ''A lot of them [Russian artists] are now turning out pot-boilers -- just trying to churn out something that will sell.''

Among the artists themselves there is widespread pessimism about the lack of a home audience. ''The atmosphere in Russia right now isn't receptive for art,'' says George Pusenkoff, an artist from Belarus who now lives in Cologne. ''A person who is forced to think only about the most basic of things -- eating and earning money to live -- is not in a position to appreciate art.''

After the 1917 Bolshevik coup, Russia's artistic community was immersed in politics, both in support of, or opposition to, the new regime. In contrast to the early Soviet era, however, few in the creative class these days show enthusiasm for politics. Amid the rough and tumble of communist deconstruction, most people are too preoccupied with self-preservation to worry about society.

''You must worry about so many things now that there is very little time for [artistic] work,'' Sergei Kovalsky, a painter from St. Petersburg, said at the opening of a recent exhibition in Berlin.

For Russian artists, the window on the West has traditionally been Germany. It was at a 1927 exhibition in Berlin, for example, that the outside world got its first look at Kazimir Malevich, Russia's greatest 20th-century artist whose works can now fetch millions.

In recent years, German galleries have held numerous exhibitions of Russian artists. Several prominent German museums over the past 18 months have staged major retrospectives that tried to capture the essence of 20th-century art in Central and Eastern Europe.

Those shows -- one entitled ''Europa, Europa'' at the national art museum in Bonn; and another called ''Russian Avant-garde in the 20th Century, From Malevich to (Ilya) Kabakov'' staged by the Ludwig Museum in Cologne -- attempted to link the current generation to the masters of the early 1900s. Instead, according to Akinsha, the two shows highlighted the differences between present and past.

''It's difficult to unite something when there is a huge hole, a void, in the middle,'' Akinsha says. The void that Akinsha refers to is communism, especially that practiced by Moscow after Stalin's rise to power in the late 1920s.

Stalinism had a disastrous impact on Russian creativity, channeling intellectual force -- under threat of a Gulag sentence, or death -- into an artificial new form labeled Socialist Realism. A 1932 government decree stifled creativity and made art subordinate to the state.

During subsequent decades, the former Soviet bloc continued to produce top-notch talents in a technical, classical sense. But Stalinism stifled the development of any new styles. The Soviet system isolated the intelligentsia from the Western creative mainstream.

While a large segment of the communist intelligentsia submitted to the new controls, some artists and writers persevered in the quest for originality. And, ultimately, Stalinism proved unable to completely erase the creative impulse.

After Stalin's death, creative conditions improved somewhat. The Soviet bloc of the 1960s and '70s, far from being a Big Brother era, featured a remarkable amount of intellectual freedom, Akinsha insists.

''All the literature of Kurt Vonnegut and Beat Generation writers, like Jack Kerouac, was translated into Russian. Officials were tricked into thinking that it was anti-American, when it was really avant-garde,'' he says.

The '60s underground generation in Russia worked mostly in secrecy, waiting to be discovered by the West. That opportunity wasn't to come for several decades, until the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as Communist Party boss.

It was Mr. Gorbachev's glasnost policy that allowed access to the outside world. The experience was a pleasant shock for those Westerners who, in the late 1980s, finally got a good look at Soviet underground art.

And in 1989, ''Russian underground'' suddenly became the flavor-of-the-month in art. ''The popularity of Russian art was a visual manifestation of Gorby-mania in the West,'' Akinsha says.

A successful auction of Soviet underground art, conducted by Southeby's, sent dealers rushing to the former Soviet bloc in search of new talent. Hundreds of Central and Eastern European artists showed their works in the West during the early '90s. But the interest has not been sustained.

''At first, the new generation portrayed themselves as the grandsons of Malevich. People in the West were full of hope. The market was in desperate need of new ideas,'' Akinsha says. ''But this hope disappeared very quickly. People understood very soon that there was no one in the blue-chip category.''

Selling to Survive

The reason for the lack of blue-chippers isn't necessarily due to a lack of talent among the current crop of artists. The potential was there, but has been largely squandered many art critics, including Ms. Hazzard, say.

Artists struggling to survive have little time for creativity. ''Sure, I now have the freedom to paint anytime, anywhere. But the situation is a lot more difficult now,'' says Kovalsky, the St. Petersburg artist.

Kovalsky's story is a common one for artists, not just in Russia, but across the formerly communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. In many cases, the intellectual freedom that accompanied reforms proved insufficient compensation for the drastic deterioration of living conditions.

''There used to be special conditions,'' art historian Grigorii Kozlov says about life in the dying days of the former Soviet bloc. ''In some ways, it held back artists.... But in other ways, the special conditions supported them.''

Mr. Kozlov and others say the reign of former Soviet Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev -- dubbed the Stagnation Era -- was a time when new creative impulses took root. The strict regulation of public life under Brezhnev meant new artists and art forms couldn't gain a public audience. But as long as they kept to themselves, most artists could explore, as best they could, largely without official interference.

Studio space and art supplies were always in short supply for those who didn't want to conform to the official norm, Kovalsky says. That meant anyone wanting to experiment often had to work in the cramped confines of their apartments. ''But there was always time and the freedom to sit in the kitchen and paint and talk,'' Kovalsky says.

In addition, artists didn't bear financial pressure. Living conditions, while far from ideal, were easily affordable under Brezhnevite communism.

''In Soviet times, it was always possible to find a mindless job, that didn't require you to do anything, so you could concentrate on art,'' Kozlov says.

The talent that emerged under Brezhnev, in the '60s and '70s, has gained widespread appreciation only in the last five years, after Communism's collapse. A February show at Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau -- featuring works since 1945 from Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Germany -- demonstrated the artists' ingenuity in overcoming material shortages. For example, a work by Czech-born artist Martin Mainer, titled ''Art of Dreaming,'' consisted of a series of figures shaped out of styrofoam bed cushions.

Conditions for artists changed virtually overnight with Gorbachev's policy of openness. While new possibilities opened up, old certainties vaporized.

''In the society that existed before perestroika ... there was a sublime freedom,'' says Pusen-koff, the Cologne-based artist.

''There was no need to hurry anywhere. It was easy for people to make decisions back then, because everyone knew what the situation was,'' Pusenkoff adds. ''Now it's totally different. People no longer can be decisive.''

While the domestic economic chaos of the post-perestroika age has played a role in suppressing creative instincts, it may have been Western art dealers who unintentionally delivered the coup de grace.

''In '89 and subsequent years, dealers concentrated on young artists. Buying up all their works for peanuts,'' Kozlov says. ''This screwed up the brains of the young artists. They decided to go for easy money, and stopped doing anything new.''

Meanwhile, many of the '60s and '70s generation -- artists like Kovalsky -- still have a hard time adjusting to the new system. Under communism, for instance, there was a constant struggle to find studio space. Now that studio space is available, the problem is holding on to it.

Kovalsky is the leader of an artists' cooperative in St. Petersburg that is battling city officials for control of studio space in a prime downtown location.

Kovalsky says the city is driven by greed, adding officials want to displace the artists in order to build a money-making hotel, or office complex.

Hazzard suggests that the artists are making the situation more difficult for themselves, because their understanding of the world remains stuck in a bygone era. ''It must gall the city to see this building in the hands of a bunch of scruffy artists whose idea of aesthetics is out of hippie days,'' she says.

West offers mixed bag

The need to think commercially has had a Darwinistic effect on the creative intelligentsia, observers say. Many artists have forsaken art for other, more lucrative careers. Those who remain committed have largely gone separate ways. ''There had been an 'us against them' attitude before,'' Hazzard says. ''But the tight bonding broke.''

No matter how difficult conditions get, Kovalsky says he could never leave Russia. ''For an artist to be at his best, he must work at home,'' he says.

For those who stay, however, there now seems no easy way to escape difficulty. ''There is an ideological crisis,'' Kozlov says. ''It seems there are only two options; either adopt Western principles, or a style based on nationalism.''

The Western approach has certainly proved to be the most lucrative. And those who have done best, Kozlov says, were the ones who understood that in capitalism, marketing, not just content, plays a role in success.

Many of the best contemporary Central and Eastern European artists -- people like Pusenkoff -- now live outside the former Soviet bloc. But the West can be a mixed bag for artists from the East.

''Many artists lost their identity,'' says Barbara Straka, director of the Haus am Waldsee, a Berlin exhibition hall that promotes Soviet bloc art. ''They adopted Western art concepts, and then they were lost. You have to retain a sense of your roots.''

Pusenkoff is one of the few who has managed to strike a balance. He first exhibited in the West in 1989 and moved full time from Moscow to Germany at the end of 1991. He says that, obviously, the material situation is better in the West, but what really drove him to leave was a lack of philosophical depth in Russia.

''The quality of work depends on the quality of ideas,'' he says. ''In Russia, it was tougher to find points to connect with.''

But while moving West puts an artist in the intellectual mainstream, for former Soviets, at least, there's a big trade-off that hinders the ability to fulfill potential. ''It's difficult to explain, but I have lost something,'' Pusenkoff says. ''I have to use a different language, and also my tactile feelings are different. This means you become more of an observer, and you lose some of your emotion.''

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