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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


‘Populated Islands’ v. Unlimited Nihilism of the Contemporary World: Artists of the 1980s
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Ivan Lubennikov

was puzzled when my editor asked me to write about the Russian artists of the 1980s. The term has not been used for a long time. Even today, after the exhibitions of vosmidesyatniki in Moscow and London, one is not sure whether one can call that period a phenomenon (like let us say artists of the 1960s, the shestidesyatniki) or whether they were just separate artists working each in his or her own style and media, and repeating more or less what had already been created. But I then found out that the term is still in use. Maybe as time passes the school will become better known.

In February-March 2006 artists-vosmidesyatniki organized an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery called “The Populated Islands”. That exhibition had been announced several months before its opening and rumours spread that it was going to be not just an exhibition, but something of a vosmidesyatniki’s generation manifesto. A little later those rumours were refuted and people started talking about displaying selected works of 15 artists connected by friendly and professional ties. Eventually we found out that the Transnational Car Corporation was patronizing the project.

So what came happened? A Manifesto, a get-together or a corporative PR action? Probably, all of those three put together. The co-ordinators were eager to throw about some aggressive rhetoric, the sponsors enjoyed presenting themselves as philanthropists, while the artists, who had known each other for a long time, got on with compiling work for the exhibition.

Each artist was a kind of ‘a populated island’, separate from the others, but connected with them at the same time. Such group displays, only less pompous, happen fairly often and usually don’t bring about an effective resonance or a social feedback. However, in this case passions about the event ran high. Some said: ‘The time of these artists has come at last.’ Others said: ‘Their time has long gone.’ A third group asked: ‘Who are they anyway?’

Lev Tabenkin

The Russian press said that the whole company could be called vosmidesyatniki. However they never made it as a school like the shestidesyatniki, or semidesyatniki (artists of the 1960s and 1970s). Something wasn’t quite right. They weren’t ardent servants of the Evil Empire. Neither did they follow the stylistic standards of socialist realism.

They could have probably ruined the Soviet system of controlling art from inside, but it fell down by itself. With it fell all the established schemes and hierarchies. Relationships with the market were difficult to repair. Those artists were probably afraid to find themselves as conservatives, phantoms of the past. Therefore their message was: no, we’re not the remnants of the old system of production, neither are we victims of the bourgeois art show-rooms, we are legal representatives of the figurative art tradition. Our motto is professionalism and honest rules of the game.

Mikhail Dronov

With such self-confidence one would have thought that they could have proved the validity of their cause. But “the populated islands” somehow lacked charisma, according to the Russian press, although enough veteran professional artists were displayed – Lev Tabenkin, Ivan Lubennikov, Anatoly Kamelin, Mikhail Dronov. It is arguable who else should have been included. But the whole thing fell to pieces, although only two genres were presented – painting and sculpture.

A strong artistic common line failed to appear. The fact that the artists were friends was not enough for an ideological statement. The abundance of female bronze torsos does not automatically confirm figurative values, nor do limp abstractions. Although there were quite a number of worthy works, for example, Natalya Glebova’s or Nikolai Vatagin’s, the same could be found at any collective display of The Moscow Union of Artists. But an atmosphere of hopelessness and defeatism, depicted by the Russian press, cancelled out all the positive impressions.

Such was the Russian press’ resume of the Populated Islands Exhibition.

In November 2007, London saw an exhibition of the top ten Russian artists- vosmidesyatniki, participants of the ‘Populated Islands’ project. The display took place on the eve of the Russian Art Weeks in the largest auction houses. This time the Russian press was much more positive calling the exhibition ‘unique’ and saying that it declared the artists-vosmidesyatniki ‘a generation of the leading masters of figurative art’.

The exhibition, organized by The Peace and Colour Gallery, had a conceptual name ‘X’. Within the framework of the display there was a five o’clock cocktail for the guests and the press. Artists like Ivan Lubennikov, Natalia Glebova, Lev Tabenkin participated. The author of the project was Anna Namit, The display curator was Ludmila Marz; and the head of Sotheby’s European department, Lord Mark Poltimore, was there, as was a representative of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Maria Mileeva, a representative of the Hennessy company, Mark Hayway, and collector Joran Ben-Israel. The artists and art dealers came to the unanimous decision that it was time to declare the art of artists-vosmidesyatniki not as the creativity of separate artists, but a whole epoch of the Russian figurative art.

Today it’s still hard to figure out exactly what has happened to Russian over the past 20 years or so. There must be a time delay enabling one to look at the present from outside. Painters like Natalia Glebova, Nikolai Vatagin, Ekaterina Kornilova, Dmitry Krymov, Ivan Lubennikov, Lev Tabenkin and the sculptors Mihkail Dronov, Valery Epikhin, Viktor Korneev, Elena Surovtseva are masters who have won international recognition. Their works are sharp and modern, highly individual and unlike each other. But 10 big names do not exhaust the whole spectrum of contemporary Russian art. However, those ten masters did not get together by chance. They are united by their fidelity to figurative professional art.

“Each of us is an island that has a living mind, soul and emotion,” says artist Ivan Lubennikov. “We are changing with the years, but one thing remains: a desire to shift away into the shelter of our own creativity, to stay there alone with oneself, on one’s island, and feel part of the eternal World.”

The ‘Populated Islands’ exhibition uses the humanism of art to oppose the limitless nothingism and chaos of the contemporary world.

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