Westerners, especially those born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, assume that all art serves as an instrument of self-expression, religious or otherwise. But many countries value art as a means of control through cultural reinforcement, social elitism, or government propaganda. Artists who deviate from prescribed norms are open to censure, ridicule, lack of funding, and even death.
Previous exhibits at The Museum of Russian Art have shown how Russia experienced this dichotomy between state-sponsored, “acceptable” art versus the art of self-expression, particularly in terms of the spiritual and religious. Its current exhibit, “Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art, 1965-2011” that opened Saturday (January 26th through June 9th), demonstrates how the spiritual has survived and been redefined in that country through unofficial art over the past half-century.
On loan from the Kolodzei Art Foundation’s collection of over 7000 works from 300 Russian artists, TMORA’s newest exhibit exemplifies how the Foundation continues “advancing the cause of non-conformist art” according to TMORA Director Christopher DiCarlo. As collected first by Tatiana, then by her daughter, Natalia Kolodzei, this collection of 70 works by 47 artists reveals how the spiritual in non-conformist art stretched from the traditional—Edward Shteinberg’s “religion as a transformative force”—to the extremely individualistic—Pytor Belenok’s “panic realism.”
The caption for Komar and Melamid’s “Soul of Norton Dodge” could serve as a touchstone: “Every object which contains the soul of an individual is a work of art.” Given that philosophical latitude, pieces like Gennadii Zubkov’s “Surrounding Geometry” reflect changes in the popular art movements of his time, such as Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism. Other pieces express more individual themes such as Artem Mirolevich’s “Babel Tower” which embodies the fanciful notion that “a line is a dot that went for a walk” or Anton Kandinsky’s paintings of gem-coated pistols to demonstrate how “We are obsessed with weapons. They are the gems of our civilization.”
The price for such spiritual individualism was often high. Oskar Rabin, founder of the underground Bulldozer exhibit, was stripped of his Russian citizenship. In the 1960s and 70s, non-conformist artists often were forced into internal exile or asked to leave the country. But with its wide expression of philosophies, TMORA’s exhibit shows that the struggle that characterized unofficial art clearly was worth it in terms of self-expression. Russian artists no longer need conform to any “ism,” socialist or otherwise, but heed abstract art theoretician Wassily Kandinsky’s declaration to “make art out of inner necessity, independent of external constraints.” These 70 artworks represent that non-conformist spirit well.