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An history of contemporary art in the Soviet Union" Excerpts from an Interview with Haim Maor

An history of contemporary art in the Soviet Union"
Excerpts from an Interview with Haim Maor

published in catalogue "Contemporary Russian Artists"
Exhibition in Contemporary Art Museum Luigi Pecci
Prato, Italia, 1990

The history of contemporary art in the Soviet Union is divided into two histories; the official and the unofficial.

The history of official Soviet art began after the Revolution and it is connected to the victory of Socialism over different avant-garde movements. Until 1932 Socialism wiped out all those movements and took hold of art. The fluorishing of Soc-Realism took place in the 40's and 50's and its style is similar to that of the nazis. Today, this style still exists, but it is fossilized and about to die. In the West, people only thought and knew about this history of Soviet painting; the image of Soviet art has been perceived as a "closed subject," defined and clear. But things are not so simple because in 1957, suddenly, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, unofficial art came to life. Suddenly, this art developed in parallel both in Moscow and in Leningrad in a very clear way but in different artistic styles and directions. In other towns, as well, there were individual young artists but they were isolated, not in organic groups of artists, writers, and poets with very clear outlines as there were in these two centres.
The principal meaning of unofficial art is the negation of all preconceived artistic traditions and official life, shaped on Soviet ideology and to propose, instead, an alternative way of thinking, of expression, and an individual life-style. Here in Moscow, a small group of people found the inner strength to look for an alternative to this ideology. We can understand that the fact that a group of people has gone down to the underqround and is fightinq the establishment is interpreted by many experts as a political fight, but this is not true.

There were groups of dissidents who demonstrated against the government over socio-political issues. But it's a mistake to link unofficial artists with these groups, as both Western experts and Soviet authorities have done. They saw those artists as enemice and foreign capitalistic agents. All of them were mistaken. These artistic movements just strove to reflect Soviet society through artistic means. It was just a grouping, unaffiliated and very limited, and it still exists today. We didn't deal with political art.

Up until today there have been four generations of unofficial creators. These include the artists from the 60's to the 90's. In the 50's all contacts with the history ot he outer world were cut and the iron curtain became impenetrable. There were artists who took over the role of renewing contact with the avant-garde of the 20's and ancient Russian art. Other artists worked on the problems of international art history, or tried to link themselves to contemporary art problems (of the 50's). The main aim was to be in contact with Western styles and problematics (Abstract and Pop Art). In the 50's, the sources through which we knew the artistic creation of the West were intuition, and books or catalogues which were published in the Soviet Union and which represent in very radical and negative terms the "decadent, bourgeois and capitalistic" art. These were our nourishment. Also, there were American exhibitions of science and technology which were shown in the Soviet union. The Americans always showed American art in them. The authorities were forced to swallow this ploy because they were very interested in the scientific and technological exhibitions. And there were also other sources of information... We didn't have any real historical material, but everybody built an art system for himself from his inner personal world. This epoch reminds us of the 20's in the Soviet Union. As then, all the basic artistic problems were issues to be reexamined. For example, what is art? What is the character of the creator? Why does a painter paint? What is the relatinnship between religion, education, ethics and history? Those are traditional questions in the Soviet Union, and the painters of the 60's reply to them on the basis of their own personal experience. I have thus spoken about two basic errors about unofficial artists: the understanding ot unofficial art as political art, and the seeing of artists as bourgeois agents. There is another main mistake: seeing unofficial art as one school or movement. I would like to point out again that we are absolutely not a homogenous movement! It's a gathering of different artistic systems; everyone in this system has a developed and complete persona style, but all of us comprise a warm group of friends with a good understanding between us.

A common Pink between differentleading artists was their relationship with official artistic life. When we met by chance there was that feeling of meeting a long-lost relative. Suddenly people found out that between them existed a common artistic thought. We started to meet every day in different flats and to exchange information. In the Soviet society of the time there weren't any public spaces for this kind of meeting, therefore they took place in the kitchen or in tiny living-rooms. All the activities of this artistic group was in these meetings. It was very dangerous. We were always afraid of police raids, of being arrested and having our works requisitioned. We felt as if the whole USSR was watching us. The danger was that our works would not be seen as art. We were thought to be a group of hooligans and parasites. We were under fixed surveillance by the KGB; our biggest sin, by the establishment's definition, was that we allowed foreigners into our flats. Then it was seen as a terrible crime, as a conspiracy. These "foreigners" were journalists, tourists, businessmen or diplomats who were very interested in our art and therefore came to see it. In official circles, there was a big fear of foreigners and they could only visit a Soviet citizen through a special "ritual." For example, it was prohibited for a foreigner to be connected directly with an artist by telephone; one had to ask the Union of Artists, and the Union would find an artist good enough to be shown. A committee had to accompany the visitor, and the artist had to talk about the fluorishing of Soviet art, etc. Any meetings between foreigners and Soviet artists were seen as a real crime, because no doubt they were only a pretext to pass on secret information! This craziness existed until Perestroika.

All these rules proved to be too much for many unofficial artists; the pressure was felt in the air. Many of us were called in for investigations by the KGB, mainly around the time of the Bulldozers exhibition in 1974. Until 1976 the newspapers published defamatory articles against the unofficial artists. We were described as foreign agents, swindlers, enemies of the people, garbage to be thrown out.

Suddenly, a radical change arrived in 1985. To the surprise of the officials, unofficial art became the focus of interest of museums and art critics from the West. It was accompanied by an economic boom of selling works to the West while the authorities pocketed the foreign currency.

Artist's ateliers emptied quickly and another tragic event happened: the most talented artists began to emigrate to the West. About one-third of all unofficial artists of Moscow and Leningrad escaped to the West. We can't blame them. In an atmosphere of fear and isolation, when someone cannot sell his works in the USSR and has no right to have an exhibition, emigration is the natural outlet. Parting from our close friends was very difficult; we knew it was final.

The unofficial group of artists was small enough in proportion to the official artists: in the Soviet Union 12,000 artists are members of the Official Union of Painters, while we were less than eighty in total. During the 60's we worked on metaphysical and spiritual issues, and were interested in classical Russian philosophy. The surface of the paintinq was interpreted as a screen radiating transcendental light and spirituality. In 1972 the Soc-art movement appeared. The Soc artists worked on the poster forms of Social Realism as raw material. The artists wanted to show the psychology and mentality of the Soviet citizen, who is not a Homo Sapiens but a "Homo Sovieticus." It's not ironic, it's terribly serious. The artists began to show the world as seen through the eyes of "Homo Sovieticus." It's like a very sick man talking about his illness. The Soviet painter is a Soviet citizen who understands his ertical situation. Looking in the mirror was, in my opinion, the beginning of the recovery: at the start of the 80's, a distancing began from the figure of the Soviet person who was imprisoned in each of us. Irony, humour, reflection and detached observation began to appear in art, in parallel to the death of Soviet ideology which started to melt like a metal phantom, leaving an empty space.

During these years, exhibitions were realized in Moscow of Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Malevich and Kandinsky. There was also a wide interest in exhibitions of Soviet emigrants. People started to admit the tragic error of brain drainage of the intellectuals from the USSR. The new political trend tried to correct the mistakes of the totalitarian regimes. But as long as the leadership is the same as that which ruled in the past, this is ridiculous. Perestroika opened the samovar and gave us the possibility to get out of the bunkers. But the art establishment in the Soviet Union is still ambivalent towards us.

In the USSR there is no tradition of acquiring works of art to hang in private apartments. In a Russian house, the walls are empty. When I came to the West I was surprised to find art works in private houses. In the USSR, art is understood only as propaganda. In the Soviet Union, we were preoccupied with the question of how our works would be understood in the West. We were skeptical about the possibilities of our work being understood, but a miracle happened: our works were absolutely understood, because in the West there is a brilliant system of artistic comprehension; even if my works comprise specific Russian texts, which can only be understood by those who know the Russian reality and its daily life. There is a narrow limit between ethnography and art, but if you express spatial problems in the language of art, people can understand them, while ethnography remains interesting only for sociologists and sovietologists.

I see myself as a person who talks with other people through objects hanging on a wall. I am a person of dialogue. I am a patriot of Western art. I will give you a fable: the river of art streams in the West. Sometimes it changes its direction, sometimes it has tributaries. One of the tributaries may be very close to the river, it's good to be in it, but the best is to swim in the river itself. For forty years we have heard about this river. We thought it didn't exist at all, but I smelt its aroma in the air. Now, for the past two years I have been in the river and I am very happy to swim in it. But I'm a very bad swimmer and therefore I'm staying close to its borders.