Adding colour to red

Nonconformist Art
May 17, 1996

This large and well illustrated book is an introduction to, although not a catalogue of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of unofficial Soviet art that has recently been donated to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey. The whole collection numbers over 10,000 works and only part of it is illustrated here. It amounts to one western couple's panoptic view of a wide range of "unofficial" artistic production made in the Soviet Union between 1956, the year of Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing the excesses of Stalin, and 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika initiated a new period of cultural liberalism. The book mirrors the scope and ambition of the collection in that it brings together most usefully - in what is still a rather thin bibliographical field - a wide range of opinions by western and Russian scholars as well as many illustrations of new work.

The number of contributors leads to an inevitable fragmentation and lack of consistency in approach and terminology. Alfonsas Andriuskevicius, for example, choses to write about the category of semi-conformist Lithuanian painting, and there is much huffing and puffing from Victor Tupitsyn about former Soviet colleagues' unawareness of (or lack of interest in) the kind of poststructuralist and gender-based critical theories that have become a form of ideological orthodoxy in the West. Yet the lack of a common language of criticism, typifies the current state of what is still a relatively new field of research. The book, nevertheless, contains invaluable new information for art historians, historians and social anthropologists. Its lack of consistent discipline is, in fact, the source of its strengths and weaknesses. In this it mirrors the idiosyncratic approach of the collectors in their 30-year quest to collect the unofficial art of the Soviet empire.

No such project pursued by two individuals in the fluctuating temperature of the cold war could ever be complete, and yet in no other publication has so much information been gathered together on the recent art of the Baltic states, the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, along with that of the better researched cultural centres of Moscow and Leningrad.

The articles are organised historically, then geographically, beginning with Moscow and ending with Georgia, and finally thematically, highlighting significant trends such as realism, surrealism and photorealism (Janet Kennedy), abstract and kinetic art (John Bowlt) and conceptualism in the 1970s and 1980s (Margarita Tupitsyn).

The main source of confusion is the project's terms of reference. Mirroring conventional Soviet histories, the period under consideration is framed by changes in politics and cultural policies, rather than in visual culture itself. The result is that moments of rupture are emphasised and elements of continuity are diminished. No one would seriously believe that Russian avant-garde art began in 1917 - the year of the October revolution - yet the time spans covered by a large number of Soviet, and some western, publications and exhibitions imply that this was the case. The same kind of approach, no doubt unwittingly, is adopted here. In a publication which deals with the field of "nonconformist" or "unofficial" art, which stresses the individual autonomy of the artist rather than the control of the state, it seems bizarre to observe a time scale which emphasises official policy at the expense of those who were excluded from it. The practical effect of this is that the elements of continuity that run between the avant-garde, autonomous, nonconformist or unofficial art of the 1930s and 1940s, and that made in the 1950s, when this book begins, are completely ignored. It almost seems as if the nonconformist art discussed here landed from another planet. We know that this was not the case; the history of unofficial art under Stalin has not yet been completely researched or written. But this should not mean that the myth of discontinuity, which obviates the need to consider seriously the fate and artistic production of the early Soviet avant-garde under Stalin, should be further propagated as it is in Elena Kornetchuk's introductory article.

Related to this is the equally fundamental problem of terminology. The sense of rupture is reinforced by using the term "nonconformist art" exclusively for the postwar period; this has only relatively recently gained currency over the more widely used term "unofficial art", which can be applied to earlier periods as well. This usage introduces an element of imprecision into the discussion in that it is by no means clear to what norms the work is not supposed to conform. One assumes that it is to the official party line yet, to western eyes, this establishes a paradox: by self-consciously adopting modern art archetypes from the West much nonconformist Russian work seems decidedly conformist and becomes immediately divested of its heroically rebellious role. Only within a relatively closed system can a definition which depends on ideas of "conformism" or "nonconformism" work because these are culturally relative terms. The rigid divisions between East and West are now no longer in force; for this reason, I prefer the more neutral terms "unofficial", "nonofficial" or even "semi-official" art because these clarify the relationship of the artist and his or her work to central party control, which is the point at issue.

The best work, of course, transcends all such considerations and some of it is illustrated in this book. But to understand it more fully we have to be aware of the context in which it has been made. This publication makes an important, if at times a rather datedly romantic contribution to this provision.

David Elliott is director, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. He is organising, with Leonid Tishkov, an exhibition examining the tradition of the absurd in contemporary Russian art.

Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-86

Editor - Alla RosenfIeld and Norton T. Dodge
ISBN - 0 500 23709 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £40.00
Pages - 360

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