Had the Russia that emerged from the Bolshevik revolution sanctioned free experimentation as the avant-garde had hoped, this period of artistic transformation might have continued, but in 1932, Joseph Stalin's regime demanded that all works of art be produced to serve the purposes of the Communist Party. "Official" art was required to be instructive in tone and classical in appearance. Artists who did not adhere to the edict were imprisoned or worse.
For the next 60 years, underground artists kept alive the idea of the artist as an individual and art as the subject of the artist's soul, but at great cost. Until 1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed, one of their few rewards was the popularity of underground exhibitions secretly mounted in individuals' homes. Today a chasm remains between "official" and "unofficial" art, although imposed limits to artistic expression no longer exist.
Seven "unofficial" St. Petersburg artists (currently called "nonconformists"), some of whom were imprisoned for their activity during the Soviet period, have come together in an exhibition called "The Brotherhood of Free Culture" at University of Richmond's Marsh Art Gallery. The viewer will not know by looking at the work that these artists were denied the freedom to openly express themselves, or that the expression of an artist's individuality is a conscious and ongoing effort for them. What is clear is that each artist makes art that is personal in spirit, and that in form seems to be picking up where the early modernists left off.
Marina Kaverzina's paintings, some of the most overtly jubilant in the exhibition, feature large, loosely defined figures painted in bold primary colors. Her childlike gestures, as if applied impulsively and without deliberation, jaunt across the canvas on large fields of flat color. Similarly, Igor Orlov takes a loose and intuitive approach in three of his paintings, each a thinly stained canvas layered with strokes of thin paint. But in two others, his paint is thick and white, applied densely on a black field to form a single, large figure. As in "We Drank Spanish Wine All Night," Igor Orlov's black-and-white compositions can be seen either as a nonobjective study about the painted surface, or as a bold and graphic ghostlike silhouette. Both artists appear to have been influenced by the French painter Jean Dubuffet's brutally distorted figures that dismissed classical notions of beauty.
Igor Orlov's brother Evgeny contributes paintings of abstracted architecture described with simplified, hard-edged geometries in woven patterns. By abstracting onion domes and other vernacular structures, Evgeny Orlov separates them from commercialism, poverty and corruption, and celebrates them as the glue that holds his world together.
Also working with hard-edged geometries, Svetlana Tsvirkunova's paper collages nod to early cubists by carving multiple perspectives of a subject in a single composition. Her colleague Viktor Andreev paints sculpturelike abstractions of matter and space with airbrush, and Alexei Chistyakov expressively paints about the nature of paint itself as it drips, stains and bleeds into fields of earth tones. Aleksandr Lotsman's landscapes, like Evgeny Orlov's architectural images, single out the essences of rural environments in muted, cool tones.
These seven are making art in a chaotic world that still values art serving a collective good, which is, after all, the same kind of atmosphere in which the early avant-gardes found themselves. So it makes sense that the images of these contemporary artists and their theoretical forbearers are visually connected. "The Brotherhood of Free Culture" intends to underscore the importance of the individual's perspective, but, at the same time, it reminds us of the gigantic steps those members of the avant-garde took 100 years ago. It also inspires the viewer to marvel: what a strange circumstance these artists face to only recently be allowed to be modern. S
"The Brotherhood of Free Culture: Recent Art from St. Petersburg, Russia" is showing at the Marsh Art Gallery in the University of Richmond's Modlin Center through Dec. 15.