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The Arts

The Real Socialist Realism
Text Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

n the 1960s, during the Khrushchev era, a “thaw” in Soviet cultural life brought about emancipation for artists, and creative thought began to break through the earlier restrictions on personal artistic expression. New artists and new ideas began to bloom. Freedom was soon followed by Brezhnev’s stagnation period, but before stagnation bested creative freedom, there was an upsurge of new energy, hope and creative impulse.

One of the most important artistic names of the 1960s and 1970s was Oscar Rabin. In contrast to Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, profiled in Passport’s February issue, who was a virtual hermit and art world outsider, and Anatoly to Zverev, profiled in the March issue, who was never far from the public eye, Oscar Rabin was both an artist and a public figure. He gathered artists around himself, forming artistic movements, the best-known being the famous exhibition of underground art at Belyayevo, Moscow, on September 15, 1974, forever to be known as the “bulldozer exhibition.”

Rabin gathered artists at his house in Lianozovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, forming a circle that later became known as the Lianozovo Group. Lianozovo became a defining symbol of a different impulse in art, an impulse that opposed the Soviet regime and the idiocy of the state-sanctioned youth movement, Komsomol (Young Communist League).

Rabin became the uncontested leader of the Moscow underground art movement. After the Moscow Festival of Youth and Students in 1957, there was heated discussion about “which way to go.” Artists Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, Nikolai Vechtomov, Vladimir Nemukhin and his wife, Lidia Masterkova, along with poets Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir, and Vsevolod Nekrasov were the nucleus of this group.

In 1968 Rabin painted “Still Life with Fish and Pravda.” In his book Three Lives he wrote that, although he was accused of being anything but a realist, he believed “Still Life with Fish and Pravda” was realistic in the best sense of the word. “I was reproached for my still lifes, for vodka bottles, and for a herring sitting on a newspaper. But haven’t you ever drunk vodka with a herring? At all the feasts, including the official ones, one drinks vodka. Nothing doing…” But from the point of view of the Communist Party, this painting mocked the Pravda newspaper, the main Communist Party mouthpiece, by comparing it, and therefore the Party, with a bottle of vodka and a herring. The juxtaposition of images insulted the Soviet heroic reality.

On September 15, 1974, Rabin organized an exhibition of underground art on a piece of vacant land at Belyayevo. In the Soviet Union there was the official art of socialist realism, which was very well funded by the state. In contrast, there was nonofficial art, very much frowned upon and suppressed. At the beginning of Soviet rule, artists in the nonofficial school included Filonov, Malevich, and Tyshler. Later on, it also included Tselkov, Rabin, Plavinsky, Nemukhin, Kropivnitsky, Rukhin, Weisberg, Zverev, and Yakovlev. These artists resisted the huge and powerful influence of Soviet control over artistic expression.

Still Life with Fish and Pravda 1968

Violin at the Cemetery 1969

Passport 1972

Visa to Cemetery 2004

As a phenomenon, underground art was brought to life by the energy of resistance, nonconformism and opposition to the Soviet state and its mandated socialist realism tradition. Almost every piece that dates back to that period is a cry of protest, a satirical portrait of a pathological society. For example, Rabin’s painting “Unexpected Joy” is a portrayal of the Holy Virgin icon of the same name against the background of a winter landscape crisscrossed by high-voltage wires. In this paintaing, the feeling of unease and depression, the dominant mood of Brezhnev’s stagnation period, is rendered perfectly.

The exhibition acquired the name of “bulldozer exhibition” because the authorities used bulldozers to destroy the art by crushing the works displayed. Foreign correspondents photographed the event, which soon became a world-famous scandal. The episode made the Soviet official stance on art look so pathetic in the eyes of world public opinion that the authorities were forced to allow the nonconformists and other “formalists” and “lefts” to organize another exhibition, this time in Izmailovsky Park. It was an incredible sight: artists holding their works formed a line while above the artists on a hill stood rows of police and KGB agents. Of course, the authorities remembered that exhibition for a long time. It was their disgrace and defeat, while it was a victory for Rabin and his friends.

However, this victory cost Rabin tremendously. At first he was put under house arrest and later was sent to prison. Rabin wrote: “I’m not afraid of prison. And I know for sure that I’ll never emigrate.” Rabin did not know that the question of leaving his beloved country had already been decided in the offices of the KGB. Rabin and his wife, Valentina, were permitted to make a trip to the West. While abroad, they were deprived of their Soviet citizenship. Such was the fate of an artist who was courageous enough to create art as a protest against a repressive regime. Their story is similar to the plight of opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and like that famous couple, Rabin and Kropivnitskaya had their citizenship restored in the 1990s. Rabin was 50 years old by this time, and he thought it was too late to start over in the new reality of a post-Soviet Russia. The artists settled in Paris, not far from the Pompidou Center. Rabin never wanted to emigrate and neither was he an aggressive defender of human rights. Although he was a kind and mild-tempered individual, his works are full of sarcasm and irony toward Soviet reality.

Nepravada 1975

Russian Landscape with Train Cars 1997

Matsot with Roses 2001

In March of 2001, Oscar Rabin was celebrated in simultaneous exhibitions in Paris and New York. The artist said, “Frankly speaking, I can’t waste my energy on the organization of my exhibitions. I wait until somebody offers a show to me. That’s how it was at the Monde d’Art Gallery. Its owner organized everything and was paying me for one year so that I could work quietly.” A New York gallery also exhibited the works of Rabin and Kropivnitskaya, and there is interest in the artists in Russia as well. When Rabin’s exhibition was organized in the Museum of Private Collections last year, it was widely covered by the media. The artist expressed his artistic credo: “A real artist remains himself wherever his fate takes him. This is a happy opportunity to talk about things that worry you most of all. And if your expressive medium reaches a level where other people can share your rapture, sadness, sorrow, and thoughts, you are doing all right.”

The lofty symbolism of Rabin’s art is based on gloomy reality. His art is often compared with that of Marc Chagall, but the comparison is, of course, equivocal. Rabin will remain an original artist who reflected the Soviet world truthfully and in a manner that will be defined only in the future.

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