A Dispute on Art

Alexandre Rozhin

Magazine issue: 
#2 2004 (03)


...Residents of Germany and Russia are the most free, the most courageous and the most cruel of all people known in history...
Henry Beyle Stendhal


As its press-release stated, the second part of the 20th century deals not only with the cultural interaction between both capitals and the states, but - to a great extent - reveals the attitude of the two political systems to the visual arts. Thus one of its main aims was to analyze cultural events from an ideological point of view, in other words from the point of view of the long-lasting opposition "East vs. West” in the visual arts which started from the middle of the 20th century. Such a standpoint is disputable in our multi-polar world.

Personally I consider it much more interesting and correct not to analyze the opposites, but on the contrary, to reveal what was shared, namely, the mere fact of co-existence of the official and non-official - the underground, prohibited forms of art in both countries.

The curators of the exhibition - the authors of its ideological concept - stepped on the slippery path of the least resistance: could they have been remembering the (once!) very well- known article by Lenin, ”A Party Organization and Party Literature", and once again be making art dependent on political situations and demands?

Unfortunately, the new "Berlin- Moscow. Moscow-Berlin" exhibition is not as consistent as the previous exhibition of the same name. In addition, it seems the curators of the "1900-1950" earlier part set themselves more complicated aims, trying to reach a comprehensive and thorough demonstration of all the parallels and alternatives in the development of art in the two countries in the context of world art movements.

Concentrating on the political originality of the project, to the least extent typical for contemporary art criticism, the curators of the exhibition (both Russian and German) were too enthusiastic with the declared principle of getting free from belonging to any particular trend and movement for the sake of giving the greater attention to the most essential - namely, to the ever topical problem of the interaction and interrelation of mass culture and the creative activity of the individual.

My first general impression of the exhibition left me dissatisfied with the inadequacy of its Russian and German components, both in their systematic elements and the choice of exhibited works.

Thus the Russian curators - Pavel Khoroshilov, Russia's Assistant Minister of Culture, and critics Victor Miziano and Ekaterina Degot - gave preference to the so-called "secondary" culture, to the underground artists whose names were synonymous with their ideological opposition to official Soviet art; these artists were known outside Russia as bearers of a social-political alternative to an art which served the power of, or was under the thumb of Communist doctrine.

This evident predominance of the representatives of the so-called "other art" - the approximate ratio is one to ten - does not correspond to the real state of affairs in the culture of the ex- USSR. Of different professional standards and quality, these works, on the one hand, mark a vivid substitution of criteria, a shift in the evaluation of art in general; on the other hand, they are evidence of the subjective approach of the curators in defining the concepts and content of the Russian part of the exhibition, and behind-the-scenes decisions taken in the Russian Ministry of Culture. It seems the curators were too self-confident, which is risky in the implementation of such a large-scale international project.

Furthermore, in the Russian part of the exhibition there were none of the most prominent representatives of the Soviet/Russian non-conformists, such as Boris Sveshnikov, Alexei Tyapushkin, Vadim Sidur, Oleg Tzelkov, Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, Vagrich Bahkchanyan - to mention only a few.

A new understanding of Soviet reality came in the short time of Krushchev's "thaw", and resulted in the short novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. At the same time in the Soviet cultural life of this period new tendencies appeared, which later produced some crucial changes in the ideological background; but they did not cause any cardinal changes in the public conscience, and therefore could not become a dominating cultural phenomenon of socialist realism due to historical reasons.

The main accent of the "Berlin- Moscow, 1950-2000" exhibition is on the democratic tendencies which prevailed in Russian art in the 1910s and 1920s, practically ignoring such acclaimed figures of Soviet art as Arkady Plastov and Alexander Laktionov, Ekaterina Belashova, Nikolai Tomsky and Eugeny Vuchetich, together with the "great" renowned representatives of the "old guard" such as Alexander Deineka, Matvei Manizer, Alexander Kravchenko, Vladimir Favorsky and Andrei Goncharov. It is also worth mentioning other artists who were still active at that time: Pavel Kuznetzov, Robert Falk, Piotr Konchalovsky, Alexander Matveev.

Of course, the innovators - the so- called radicals - have played their particular role in the history of our art, but they were not that influential and their impact on the development of the Soviet artistic movement at that time was minimal.

It should be noted that the newly- formed left wing of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s turned to be of a second order, not only compared with the founders of the Russian avant- garde but also to the Western artists working at that time. This fact was completely ignored by the Russian curators which is proved by the declared concept of the Berlin-Moscow Exhibition.

But one historical mistake should not give rise to another. A changing of accents or a diversion of political vectors does not give anybody a free hand to substitute one historical fact for another in connection with today's political situation. The ratio of the works of artists whom we refer to as non-conformists, belonging to an ideological and artistic underground, and the works of the social-realists as represented at the exhibition was not in favour of the latter.

To my mind such an act of revenge on the part of the curators is not appropriate. A certain random choice of the works of art or a kind of a subjective attitude of the curators to the process of formation and casting turns to be far from justified, and as a result we have to deal with a dogmatic re-evaluation of historical heritage and revision of the role of culture in the life of society. Today's voluntarism in art resembles the ambitions of the advocates of social- realism under the Soviets. The viewer can see for himself the peculiar approach of the curators and their preoccupation with the process of rewriting the national cultural history of the recent past.

Who then is on display and recognizable for the descendants? Who has been chosen by the Moscow curators in order to give a plausible picture of artistic life in the USSR? The 1950s are represented by Vasily Yakovlev with his painting "A Dispute on Art”. A grand picture "The End” by the great "trio" of the Kukryniksys never fails to catch the eye of the viewer; next to it is "Baltic Sailors Making an Oath" - not the best painting of Fedor Bogorodsky; and two works of the renowned Pavel Korin - "Requiem" and "Portrait of S. Konenkov".

It would have been necessary, to my mind, to enlarge this part of the exhibition because these masters have already been given special attention. And the more to this: the large-size paintings of Yakovlev and Bogorodsky are exhibited in the same room, practically speaking, in direct contact with the conceptual "loud-speaking" work by Marcel Brudtaers "The White Hall" (1975) which anticipated the analogous work of Ilya Kabakov exhibited in the same Martin-Gropius-Bau years later (in 1997) at the exhibition "The Epoch of Modernism".

The artists associated with the 1960s are represented by Gelii Korzhev (his cycle "Touched by the Fire of War", Victor Ivanov ("Funeral"), Dmitri Zhilinsky (a monumental composition "The USSR Gym Team"), Tair Salakhov ("On the Caspian Shore"), and Victor Popkov with "Builders of the Bratsk Electric Station". That may seem enough to some. But those art critics whose attitude to the history of Russian art is based on more objective criteria, and who remember the exhibition "Thirty Years of the Moscow Union of Artists" in 1963 would have included such keyworks of the so-called "severe style" as "Rafters" by Nikolai Andronov, "Geologists" by Pavel Nikonov, "Strike" by Alexander and Piotr Smolins, and - last but not least - works of a different stylistic trend represented by the brothers Sergei and Aleksei Tkachev.

Of course, one cannot embrace the boundless. Thus, it might indeed be impossible to present a retrospective all-embracing panorama of the visual art of that time. But how to explain then the choice of six works of Vladimir Veisberg - not a key figure either in the nonofficial or the official Soviet art in the 1960s-1980s.

The period of the 1970s leaves the viewer with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. There are no works by Natalia Nesterova, Anatoly Komelin, Tatyana Nazarenko, Alexander Sitnikov, Irena Starzhenetskaya, Eugeny Strulev, Anatoly Slepyshev, Olga Bulgakova, Alexander Rukavishnikov and a number of other artists whose creative activity did influence the evolutionary development of our art and public conscience. As a result there is a certain disbalance in favour of artists opposing the "official" culture. No doubt Ilya Kabakov, Lev Nusberg, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Francisco Infante, Igor Makarevich, Vyacheslav Koleichuk, Ivan Chuykov, Erik Bulatov, Oskar Rabin, Mikhail Shvartzman, Eduard Shteinberg, Victor Pivovarov, Boris Turetsky are notable, acclaimed artists whose activity determined the main directions of the development of non-official, non-conformist art. Such a list of artists who openly confronted "social realism” is far from complete, but nevertheless it gives evidence of their predominance at the exhibition. Thus any inexperienced viewer might get a far-from-objective impression of the situation in the field of art in the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s.

And how to explain, for example, that Mikhail Chernyshev, who has been living in the USA since 1981, is represented by nine paintings? Such an unjustified attitude to those masters who gained official and public acknowledgement in the USSR not for their particular conformist position or obsequiousness, but for their talent and professionalism gives a false idea of the state of affairs, picturing something desired but not real. If the artistic opposition had been an influential force, then in the second half of the 20th century the national Russian art would have developed along quite different lines and in accordance with quite different laws. The mere fact that many representatives of the "other culture" emigrated to the West is another argument in this thesis. Nevertheless according to the concept approved by the Ministry of Culture such artistic groups as the "Lionozov Commune", "Dvizhenie (Movement)", Sotzart (Social Art) and others determined the image of Soviet art of that period, which is least justified.

The period of "perestroika" - to my mind - is much more objectively presented at the exhibition, and the same can be said about the last decade. Preference is given to such much spoken-of figures as Oleg Kulik, the late Timur Novikov, Sergei Shutov, Konstan-tin Zvezdochetov, Leonid Sokov, Dmitry Prigov, Andrei Monastyrsky, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monro, Valery Koshliakov, Igor and Svetlana Kopystyansky, Pavel Peppershtein, Sergei Bugaev-Afrika, Semen Faibisovich, Andrei Filippov, Leonid Tishkov, Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky. And even though this list is long, there are some blank spots; among some noticeable figures absent from it are Alexander Ponomarev, with his numerous grandiose projects which produced a sensational impression at home and abroard, Natasha and Valery Cherkashin, and Dmitry Tugarinov.

Such a detailed and scrupulous list of artists whose names can be easily found in the catalogue of the exhibition (in comparison to those who were omitted!) has been given with only single purpose - to state a certain special, biased approach to the modern history of Russian art, which has been turned upside-down (like in the paintings of Georg Baselitz) and which appears to be wrong both quantitatively and qualitatively. The attempt to "squeeze" the art of some Russian artists into the sophisticated concepts, and the attempt to identify their works with those of the well-known Western transavant-garde and postmodernist artists proved to be just a work of imagination, far from an objective point of view and a grounded appraisal of very often diametrically different artistic phenomena.

It should be mentioned that the German part of the collection, which included the works of Pablo Picasso, David Siqueiros, Andy Warhol and other non-German artists, did not prove to be a strong argument in favour of the thesis formulated by the German curators of the exhibition - Jurgen Harten, Angela Schneider and Christopher Tannert: "to have a certain continuation with the previous exhibition "Berlin-Moscow- Berlin" embracing the first half of the 20th century, the present exhibition is connected to the period of the Cold War between "communism and capitalism", to the existence of two German states and the Berlin Wall, glasnost, perestroika, and today's situation in the world at large, which is more and more concentrated on globalization, causing feelings of latent threat. Besides, this exhibition reminds something that is common for both the former enemies: the totalitarian systems and the trauma caused by the very fact of the Germans being the initiators of World War II, and the Russians being the winners of the Great Patriotic War...Thus the cultural ties between Moscow and Berlin depended to the greatest extent on the West-East conflict, and to no less an extent on its solution. So, the "Berlin- Moscow" exhibitions reflected and are reflecting some general tendencies - pars pro toto - just as the poles of Ger- man-Russian ellipse with some international tangents.”

The last words serve a necessary argument - an option to exhibit some particular works of world-known French, American, Italian and Mexican artists. But even in this case the choice seems to be least convincing, if not random - the best names, but not the best works. The concept-makers have unwillingly narrowed the "West-East" notion, paying no attention to such great European and American artists as Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana, Mark Rothko, George Segal, Giacomo Manzu, Marino Marini, Victor Vasarely, Nam June Paik, and of course, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. In addition, they put aside some prominent GDR artists, like Wolfgang Mattojer and Walter Womaka. There was something else which seemed - at least to me - groundless: the works of Willy Zitte hanging next to the painting of Pablo Picasso.

In a private conversation with Christopher Tannert, I could not find any definite answers to my questions, nor could I digest the message of the thesis of "the poles of German-Russian ellipse with some international tangents", as applied to the context of the exhibition.

This might be explained by our different points of view on the simultaneous evolution of Russian-German political and cultural opposition and cooperation. Yet I give our German colleagues their due for having made a more precise and objective selection of the works of art to represent the manysided display of the development of art and culture in post-war Germany, than my respected Russian colleagues have made.

The first-rate works of the artists who determined the evolution of German art - both Western and Eastern - in the second half of the 20th century proved it again and again. The works of Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Heinz Mack on the one hand, and Werner Tuebke, Hans Grimmling, Fritz Kremer, Willy Zitte, on the other, give evidence to a clearly determined desire to analyze - logically and comprehensively - most phenomena of the cultural life of Germany not only in the context of the attitude of the rival ideological systems to art, but also in the new context of a dilemma: cultural values vs. politics.

As for the Russian curators, whose personal ambitions and preferences were taken as a general and unequivocal truth, their work seemed - to my mind - to a greater extent groundless because it claimed to have a unique and original point of view to the historical dominance of the artistic and cultural process.

A certain inequality of the exhibited works of art from the German and Russian partners, as well as a diversity in understanding the general aims made them reach the decision that it was really necessary to make serious corrections in the general concept of the exhibition - as it was stated by Christopher Tannert, who informed me that the German part of the exhibition would be changed, that some other works would be substituted, and some accents shifted. I was not surprised, but to tell the truth, I was embarrassed - before our conversation I was not sure about such a turn of events.

Thus, the organizers are going to make two different exhibitions, offering two different "cups of tea" to the German and Russian viewer. Thus unbreakable German punctuality has gained some traces of tolerance. It might be caused by the revision of some statements on the actuality of the no-longer-actual art, or by some other more sophisticated considerations.

The visual results of the final decision of the curators - to simplify or to complicate the basic dilemma - will tell on the Moscow variant of the exhibition that will open in April 2004 at the Historical Museum.

Marina ABRAMOVICH. Hero. 2000
Marina ABRAMOVICH. Hero. 2000
Werner TUEBKE. Man is the Measure of All Things: Lovers (right upper part). 1975
Werner TUEBKE. Man is the Measure of All Things: Lovers (right upper part). 1975
Mixed media on hardboard. 175,8 by 174,5
Willy ZITTE. My Studio – Homage to Courbet. 1976–1977
Willy ZITTE. My Studio – Homage to Courbet. 1976–1977
Oil on hardboard. 170 × 274
Vasily YAKOVLEV. Dispute on Art. 1946
Vasily YAKOVLEV. Dispute on Art. 1946
Oil on canvas. 350×420
Jeff WALL.  Dead Troops Talk. The Red Army Reconnaissance Unit, Caught in an Ambush at Moquor, Afganistan, Winter 1986. 1991–1992
Jeff WALL. Dead Troops Talk. The Red Army Reconnaissance Unit, Caught in an Ambush at Moquor, Afganistan, Winter 1986. 1991–1992
Slide film projection. 229 by 417
Oil on canvas. 200 by 251
Fritz KREMER. Rising Up. 1966–1967
Fritz KREMER. Rising Up. 1966–1967
Ivan CHUYKOV. Window XX. 1980
Ivan CHUYKOV. Window XX. 1980
Oil on wood. 180 by 74
Valery KOSHLIAKOV. Head of Colossus Constantine. 1992
Valery KOSHLIAKOV. Valery KOSHLIAKOV. Head of Colossus Constantine. 1992
Tempera on cardboard. 250 by 200
Alexander VINOGRADOV, Vladimir DUBOSSARSKY. A Happy Day. 1995
Alexander VINOGRADOV, Vladimir DUBOSSARSKY. A Happy Day. 1995
Oil on canvas. 400 by 800
Joseph BEUYS. Fund VII/2. 1967 (1984). Installation
Joseph BEUYS. Joseph BEUYS. Fund VII/2. 1967 (1984). Installation 1967 (1984). Installation
Anselm KIEFER. Inner Space. 1981
Anselm KIEFER. Anselm KIEFER. Inner Space. 1981
Mixed media. 287,5 by 311





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