More Art… Back in the U.S.S.R.

Soviet Nonconformist Art Pt. 2

During the post-Stalin “thaw” period, Russia would see a weakening in the state repression of free speech, including the unique visions of nonconformist artists during the era. Prior to this, Stalin had implemented a policy that would categorize illegal art into four categories: erotic, political, religious and  “formalistic,” i.e., anything that the state saw fit to deem as contentious, threatening or offensive in any way, including simple abstraction or expressionism.

The underground art movement that would follow the thaw period spurred as a result of a public and highly scrutinized argument during a 1962 exhibition between First Secretary Khrushchev and sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. It is often theorized that conservative-leaning members of the Artist’s Union orchestrated the argument in an attempt to strengthen a crackdown on experimentation amongst union members. However, the results of the argument had the opposite effect, leading to a shift in the paradigm of art and the birth of a unique underground movement. Non (state) sponsored exhibitions were to be held discreetly in Soviet apartments, various groups began to form outside the traditional spheres of socialist realism, artists began mentoring pupils privately, and previously unbeknownst Western styles and practices were being discovered and utilized rapidly.

An interesting side note about Neizvestny – after Khrushchev’s death in 1971, his family approached Neizvestny and asked him to design a sculpture for Khrushchev’s headstone. The finished piece was a bronze cast of Khrushchev’s head in between individual structures composed of marble and granite, meant to represent the dichotomy of Khrushchev’s progressive, humanitarian side coupled with his preeminent, and often times corrupt determination for communist rule. Unfortunately, the only photo I could track down of the argument is courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo…unsure who the original photographer was. You will also see his tomb, erected by Neizvestny ca. 1974.

This led to the formation of groups based out of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other locations scattered across the metropolitan areas of  Western Russia. One such group was known as the Lianozovo group. Unlike other Moscow groups, the Lianozovo group had no particular aesthetic or style they followed. Instead, their group was fostered around the idea of a shared search for a new sociocultural place in the U.S.S.R. Unlike the paradisiac presentation of socialist realism, much of the art that came from the Lianozovo group depicted misery and hardship…a key departure in tone from their predecessors. The featured image for the article shows Lianozovo member, Oscar Rabin at the

One other example of the many groups that formed out of Moscow would include the Moscow Conceptualists. Deliberately and unabashedly expressive in nature, the Conceptualists believed that through abstraction and conceptualization, they were directly challenging the rigid nature of socialist/conformist realism. Artist Ilya Kabakov was amongst them, a Russian-American artist, most famous for his evocative and visceral installations.

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, 1985. Six poster panels with collage.

Another such collective that would form in the mid-60’s was Mikhail Shemiakin’s group. This group was birthed as a direct result of an exhibition of Shemiakin’s work, held in 1964 at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – northeast of Moscow.

Mikhail Chemiakin, A pair of portraits of Vaslav Nijinsky, 1990

It is important to note that during the thaw period and post-thaw period, many of the above artists and groups were still not sanctioned by society in any form. They held private exhibitions, worked outside the scope of state-sponsored art, and were barred from entering unions that often time meant stability and comfort. However, Neizvestny’s bravery, and the courage of the artists that followed their convictions would cause a profound change in the both the representation of art in their society, and the representation of their society in art.

I wish I currently had more time to write about the various collectives that grew under the nonconformist movement. For a few months now, I’ve been fascinated with modern history and the various ways artists and movements have interconnected with social, political and economic issues. Perhaps it is a subconscious attempt to ask the world what it wants from myself as an artist…a question I believe every artist should have the opportunity to explore.

More info/sources:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.