While major visual achievements of the Eastern-European avant-garde have found their way into the vocabulary of painting, sculpture, design, film, typography, photography, and architecture, their origin was systematically ignored in times of Cold War. Malevic, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Daniel Spoerri, or Elias Canetti received recognition for their works, but their achievements were only partially taken up and developed. Due to a separating wall, the roots of their work, namely Eastern Europe with its history and social conditions, remained somehow a taboo, although these sources were obviously of crucial relevance for the mentioned artists. They used native symbols in the same way as the American pop art artists used the idols of Western mass media and mass culture.

The artists generation of Glasnost and Perestroika had seen both sides of the wall. They could not deliver an art corresponding with Western patterns since Western consumption and culture industry was too much ideologized in their own countries. They did not want to draw on their own early avant-garde either, since that would have meant to produce something unrelated to the present situation. Not willing to succumb to Western allurements, the Eastern artists had to re-establish the link to the traditional cultural sources of their countries, to the historical experiences and the formal language of socialist realism. As they did not receive any encouragement for that from either side, they deleted the known vocabulary of art and culture and created an own, novel utopia.

All exponents of Russian contemporary art as well as the artists of the Soviet era back to the avant-garde painters have in common that they have never distanced from their Russian roots, irrespective of their potential critical attitude towards the state and socialism. Even in the era of the Soviet Union, there was no one-and-only Soviet art, as neither communist party nor communist state were able to create a cultural identity, and official aesthetic values were mostly arbitrarily imposed on the artists.

For that reason, great efforts were made in the Gorbatchev era, and even more in the Jelzin era, to create a government-defined identity. This led to increased nationalism and nostalgic feelings regarding the perished global power Soviet Union. For the artists, this meant, like in the past already, the dilemma of, on the one hand, being prepared to meet the standards of the overall European context and, on the other hand, not losing national identity and acceptance.

In the late 1980s still, the young artist who had formerly acted in the underground, had triumphantly travelled abroad to profit from a new popularity under the label of Gorby art. Warhol, Cage, Nam Jun Paik, or Rauschenberg were curious to know these exotic, non-adapted Russians. They returned from their travels rich and famous, and brought with them a new life-style, which, with the club and rave culture, triggered a dancing epidemy in Russia’s metropoles.

But soon already, many artists turned their backs on their former excesses and started to parody the “ugly” modernists, or they became followers of ‘Hare Krishna’, or orthodox priests. It turned out that the former KGB attention had been a menacing but nevertheless constitutive element in their strive for independence, which now would drop and leave a vacuum behind. In St. Petersburg, the revolutionary artistic phase lasted from 1986 to 1996, followed by a new, official ideology of greed. Similar to the artists of the German Romanticism, artists not able to bear those hard confrontations and upheavals committed suicide or died early for other non-natural reasons. Having resisted the pressure of the totalitarian Soviet regime, they were broken by the new conditions.

Even after Perestroika, Russian contemporary artists again ended up in social isolation, concealed only by the fact that they could now and then appear in an international art market. With the beginning of the new millenium, former party fans and scene gurus retreated from the “Free market”, for which they had originally fought. Consumption society, or the eager adoption of this attitude in Eastern Europe, became the subject of their irony. If current Russian art does not seem to have found an identity be it ideological, economic, or historical it is just this aspect that makes it interesting, too. Raphael B. Locher

Sources and further information on the history of Russian contemporary art:ArtChronika, Special Issues no. 19-21, editor: Shalva Breus, Moscow, Artchronika 2008/2009.

Borovsky, Dr. Alexander, The State Russian Museum, The Department of Contemporary Art 1991-2001, History, Collections, Exhibitions, St. Petersburg, Palace Editions 2004.

Groys, Boris, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, Die gespaltene Kultur in der Sowjetunion, Munich, Carl Hanser, 1988/1996.

Hoptman, Laura & Pospiszyl, Tomas, Primary Documents. A Sourcebook for Eastern and central European Art since the 1950s. NY, MOMA, 2002.

«Kabinet»//KABINET, An Anthology, INAPRESS, Saint Petersburg. The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1997.

Khlobustyn, Andrej, The Russian Schizorevolution. Marres, Centrum voor Contemporaine Cultuur, Maastricht 2009.

Matvejeva Anna, Die frohe Kunst der Enttäuschung, in Davai!, Russian Art Now, Berliner Festspiele, Hatje Cantz Publishers 2001.

Raev, Ada and Wünsche, Isabel, Kursschwankungen, Russische Kunst im Wertsystem der europäischen Moderne, Berlin, Lukas Verlag 2007.

Riese, Hans-Peter, Von der Avantgarde in den Untergrund, Texte zur Russischen Kunst 1968-2006 Cologne, Wienand Verlag 2009.

Weibel, Peter, Der Kalte Krieg und die Kunst, in: Zurück aus der Zukunft, Osteuropäische Kulturen im Zeitalter des Postkommunismus, Frankfurt am Main, Edition Suhrkamp 2005.

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