Comfort for Super People, 1977. Cibachrome Print, 8 x 10 inches. Collection Neuberger Museum of Art.
As I racked my brains trying to recall fragments of my Russian history A-Level module, one thing that rang true with the exhibition title is memories of the Thaw. The rigours of cultural propaganda were being loosened, artwork, although still subject to the authorities, was no longer created for the sole purpose of enhancing the Communist ideology. The precursory exhibition text led me to Moscow, informed me of its cultural hotspot status, home, not only to creatives of many nationalities but also to different styles and artistic movements, all flourishing. The text was bedecked with Soviet black and white photos from this period, nourishing the context in which the work sat.
The main point hammered home before even seeing any of the work is that the exhibition cannot do justice to ALL of the styles and voices that came from Moscow, but it could only endeavour to show those that were most prevalent. With this apology in mind, Moscow seemed to me like an even more overwhelming melting pot of ideas. For, there were so many different movements to contend with, even without those that hadn’t been deemed lucky enough. Different coloured walls signified movements and artists, almost like, and perhaps too crude a description for Saatchi, almost like a game of Supermarket Sweep. With each turn came a new artist, something different to pick from.
Abstract art came first, on a white background. There was abstract expressionism, bold colours, organic shapes built up, brush strokes, smears and Kandinsky-esque pastel hues. Work reminiscent of Constructivism, with restrained geometric imperfect circles and stripes on yellowing paper. My favourite work came next, emboldened by dark purple wall paint. A series of photographic prints by Francisco Infante entitled ‘Deformed Space Series’. The composition made me believe they were collages, as my eyes followed a line of upright balloons getting smaller as they reached the sea, then floating upon the water. It was surreal. It could have simultaneously been a line of oval fruits standing on the surface of the moon and floating off into space. They were clever, bringing nature and the artificial together to create surreal landscapes. They got the award for holding my attention for a very long time.
I think the most comprehensive way to describe the work that followed is by an extensive list. There was retro modern art, where abstract figures with the same blank facial expression roused my suspicions, there was Russian Pop Art, where the focus lay on rendering images of daily necessities, namely doors, tiles and cooking pots. The glitz and glamour associated with Pop Art was lost in the Soviet regime. Gloomy colours reigned. Metaphysical art (I don’t know either), led through to Analytical art, where light, space and colour were examined, and I felt like I was looking into gradients as seen in a kaleidoscope. There were postcard paintings by Kabakov, beautiful illustrations by Victor Pivovarov, which you didn’t know how to react to due to the Russian text, but couldn’t help feeling there was a massive level of satire hiding in the crayon renderings and Indian ink outlines. The work kept coming.
This exhibition seems impossible to summarise within this space. There was work I walked straight past and work I spent time with. There was work that I considered to be bad, to be boring, but others innovative (Lenin’s statue contemplating a Giacometti peer), mesmerising (the bold red flag painting that belonged to Nostalgic Social Realism) and truly hilarious (the ridiculous super objects proposed by Komar and Melamid, with accompanying photographs). I can’t help feeling that my inabilities to describe the sheer range of work in this exhibition does justice to the premise of trying to portray the artistic output of a cultural centre spanning thirty or so years, where new movements flourished and existing movements were given new life. It highlights how many different elements can be produced in one energetic city, one marked by a turbulent history, and the sheer strength of creative force that this can inspire. It is definitely worth seeing.