Russian Non-conformist Art, 1960-1980

There are many terms and labels used to refer to the art represented in the Brochetain collection. In the West these include non-official art, non-conformist art, "The Other Art", avant-garde, underground etc., each term referring to a different aspect of the movement. The art is non-official to the general public and the authorities, non-conformist in relation to the reality surrounding the painter and the predominant ideology and, "Other" compared with Social Realism and its tolerated variations. Because they perceive the movement from a certain distance, the terms "non-official" and "Other" have been subject to changes in their meaning, whereas the expression "non-conformist" is more stable as it refers to the essential and more interiorised phenomena of the genre. In fact the limit between the official and unofficial manifestations of a particular painter were pretty unclear, especially to begin with. At the height of the "Thaw" the movement shows great spontaneity and almost naivety as the painters were trying to communicate not just with the public but with the instances of power and the goverment.

At the time it was unimaginable that art which merely because it did not fit into the mould of Socialist Realism (founded on the traditions of 19th century Russian Academicism) could be perceived to be a political opposition to the government. On the contrary, events such as the Picasso and Leger exhibitions at the Pushkin Museum and the early 20th century Russian avant-garde exhibition at the Maiakovski, seemed to have confirmed that a certain artistic freedom would be introduced.

On December 1st, 1962 at the Cavaliers Room Khrustchov inaugurated an exhibition to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Painters Union of Moscow. The exhibition included successful painters from the first half of the 20th century such as Sterenberg, Falk, Drevine, Petrov-Vodkine, Kousnestov and, for the first time, the works of certain young independent artists. On the first floor paintings were exhibited by Sobolev, Yankilevski, Joutovski, Neisvestny and a large section of work by painters from Belioutine's studio. Khrustchov's aggressive reation to these works determined the fate of the non-conformist movement. Henceforth the painters were dragged through the mud, found themselves classed as enemies of the people, as destructive elements. At a second meeting between representatives of the Party and certain artists and writers in January 1963, Khrustchov proclaimed to the assembled company, "They (the non-conformist artists) should not be locked up in a prison, but a madhouse would do". This declaration was immediately and conscientiously acted upon by the authorities.

Thus were expelled from the official cultural scene the young generation of formalists. Kindled by the "Thaw", their hopes to communicate freely with the public had been dashed. There was no longer any question of a constructive dialogue with the government or even of legal exhibitions. They were being forced underground.

From this time, the non-conformist artists in Russian society devoted themselves to attempting to break through the wall built up around them by the official ideology. Most of their initiatives were doomed to failure from the start but nevertheless the artists carried on with a spectacular energy which in itself attracted many new admirers of their work.

One of the manifestations of their will to exhibit and their desire to protest against the authorities' quashing of this will was the series of exhibitions which they organised in apartments throughout Moscow. The most important of these exhibitions took place at the homes of the collector Costakis, the composer Volkonski, the art historian Tsirline, and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. These private exhibitions flourished all the more because there were no official ones - they provided the only opportunities for the public to see the works of the non-conformist painters. Such private exhibitions were allowed by the authorities but were promptly shut down by the Soviet authorities a few hours after their inauguration. For example, and exhibition of twelve painters (V. Vorobiew, A. Zverev, V. Kroppivnitskaia, V. Nemoukhin, D. Plavinski, O. Rabin, E. Steinberg and others) organised by Glaeser at the Friendship Club was forcibly closed a mere two hours after it opened. In 1971, an exhibition of works by Oleg Tselkov at the Architects Association was shut down after a quarter of an hour.

In September 1974, a group of bulldozers dispersed painters who had organised an open air exhibition of their works on wasteland in the Muscovite suburb of Beliaevo. This infamous event was soon to be well-known as the "Bulldozer Exhibition". The immediate reaction of the international press created great consternation abroad and forced the Soviet authorities to allow certain concessions to the painters involved. However the government was in no way prepared to moderate their opinion of the non-conformist artists. The places in which they were prepared to allow the painters to exhibit showed clearly their despisal of their art. The first officially recognised exhibition took place outdoors, at the Izmailovo Park in September 1974. A second exhibition was held at the Beekeepers Pavilion of the VDNKH (Permanent Exhibition of Economic Achievement) and a further one took place in September 1975 at the same park but in the Cultural Pavilion.

Also in 1975 non-conformist artists, many of whom earned their living by illustrating books, helped the Moscow Illustrators Club to set up a painters section within its organisation. Later on this painters section was accorded a tiny exhibition hall in the centre of Moscow, on Malaia Grouzinskaia Street. The hall opened up with an exhibition of the works of seven Muscovite painters - Vetchtomov, Kalinin, Kandaourov, Krasnopevtsev, Nemoukhin, Plavinski and Kharitonov.

Malaia Grouzinkaia Street quickly became the scene of spectacular queues. Official culture may have hounded the underground movement and refused to recognise the non-conformist artists, but they still generated a huge amount of interest among the public. Furthermore, political dissidents and ideological non-conformists were irresistibly attracted to the company of underground painters, poets and musicians.

Paradoxically, the Soviet underground thus became a sort of crossroads for cultural exchange and discussion. Within the movement there was total freedom. Independent of any kind of ideological, artistic or political dogma, the artists were also free from market pressures and, as they received no official commands, were able to give their creativity fairly free expression. One could compare the atmosphere of the underground movement to that of the "salons" of the Russia described by Pushkin, as a sort of brotherhood of the elite always ready to learn and discover. Anyone with a touch of genius, be they outcast, beggar, eccentric, pilgrim, drunkard or buffon received admiration and prestige which they would no doubt not have attained in any other circumstances. Such was the case of Zverev, Yakovlev, Sitnikov and others, many of whom were later to find themselves among the Brochetains' favourite painters.

Olga Medvedkova
(translated by Kate Viggers)