Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
In the February issue, we talked about the artists of the 1980s, the so called Vosmidesyatniki. In this issue, since we are moving retrospectively, we shall look at the artists of the 1970s, the ‘Semidesyatniki’. They are an interesting generation of artists that followed in the footsteps of the 1960s, born out of Khrushchev’s thaw.
If the artists of the 1960s believed in the new times in the USSR after the fall of Stalin’s regime, their art and philosophy being optimistic if not a bit naïve, the artists of the 1970s realized things were not that easy and democracy does not just pop up overnight. They lived during Brezhnev’s stagnation period when Stalin’s gulags became more or less a thing of the past, but the political system was still a far cry from freedom. Most aspects of life and art were still under strict KGB supervision.
The free market did not exist, one could not stroll into a shop and pick up a pair of Italian boots, a French sweater or a Japanese tape-recorder. One could see long lines of people queuing around GUM (State Department Store in Red Square). One had to have a special ticket from one’s enterprise to be able to buy some delicious food or a good set of imported furniture, for which one usually waited a long time. That black and white world was still full of fear of repressions, although it was safer than the terrible years of Stalin’s rule. Whilst in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, youth culture was in full swing, in the Soviet Union pop culture was just evolving (with the appearance of Alla Pugacheva, for example) and only a few people such as diplomats and their children who had spent time abroad experienced what was happening in the West.
Art in the 1970s became more complicated. That period of art, unlike the collective approach of 1960s artists, demanded resolving one’s individual position through a deep analyses of the situation. Perhaps creative people realised that in the end it is the individual who has to struggle. The philosophy was all about: “me as an individual and the world”. The creative ego-consciousness of the artistic 1970s was much less integrated than in the 1960s.
In this sense what was happening here was similar to what was happening in the West as young people started to reflect what was actually going on around them, and in the Soviet union the reality was pretty morbid. Young artists of the 1970s reflected the atmosphere of stagnation and left a figurative image of society. For example, the early works of Evgeny Strulev, Tatiana Nazarenko, Irina Starzhenetskaya, M. Malashenko, Ksenia Nechitailo, Irina Mesheryakova and Pavel Malinovsky. We can also mention masters from various Soviet republics: S. Aitiev, R. Bichunas, D. Dzhumbaev, A. Nakisbekov and F. Khalilov. These artists rethought the traditions of folk art, contemporary naïve art and the search for primitivism at the beginning of the 20th century, represented by Marc Chagall, Mikhail Larionov and Henri Rousseau. The canvasses of these semidesyatniki combined decorativeness with a burlesque view of life in the folklore style, using grotesque streaks whose tone varied from light irony to bitter sarcasm. It’s noteworthy that the artists turned the mocking mirror first of all to themselves.
That tendency showed itself vividly in portraits: self-portraits and group portraits of the artists’ friends or acquaintances. On the face of it, the realistic nature of this genre is alien to the primitivistic grotesque. But here we have a creative situation when buffoonery serves the truth. Is it so paradoxical? ‘To tell the truth to the Tsars with a smile’, as the Russian famous 18th century poet Gavriil Derzhavin once said.
That tradition goes back to the medieval times, to carnival culture. There are more recent examples: at the beginning of the 1910s - in the portraits that belonged to the art group “The Knave of Diamonds”. The early works of Konchalovsky and Falk reveal some features of the sitter that were not realized by the traditional realistic school.
Stern energy, discontentment with and disapproval of the old order of things, a quest for the new, a need to unite with the Universal being. That is the mood of these portraits. The primitivistic portraits of the 1970s declared their own conception of man, and in a way developed the demographic pathos of the young art that had been popular at the beginning of the 20th century.
The characters of the above-mentioned artists of the 1970s are very common people. They differ even from the common people of the 1960s who had a social status at least. What do people do in the paintings of Strulev or Nechitailo? They walk the streets, drink tea, are seated and just exist in their usual habitat. What statement is behind all that? These characters seem to be saying: ‘We are people. We are made of flesh and blood. We are common and not romantic heroes.’ Such a perspective was new to the Soviet art.
One of the early works of Natalia Nesterova is called ‘Village Razdory’ (1967). It is a far cry from the sentimental poetic image, so typical of the Soviet rhetoric, so to speak. Country people are the same ‘common people’ living in the provinces. They do common things, not at all aesthetic. They are alien to the patriotic style of the socialist realism tradition that was domineering the arts. They trade in the market place, bargain, mock each other. There are butchers among them, rough creatures murdering animals. One can see a man or a woman with an axe cutting off the head of a rooster, putting up carcasses in their shops. These people take a steam bath, beating themselves with green birch twigs. They nibble sunflower seeds, drink beer, embrace at dusty dancing places.
Other works of Nesterova, as well as the art of Nechitailo and Alexander Sitnikov dating back to the beginning of the 1970s go along the same lines. The women artists began to portray maternity hospitals in their undisguised ugliness. These images bear the bitter truth. They are full of pain, speaking about the miracle of life that appears in conditions, which can hardly be called miraculous. These paintings are not beautiful, but very sharp.
Such works push the viewer from the aesthetic heights down to the Earth, almost into a ditch, into the dust thus revealing a strata of society, which Soviet art preferred not to notice, not to mention. They actually spoke about the same reality that was revealed in the prose of Vasily Shukshin and in the plays of the dramatist Alexander Vampilov. However it was more difficult for the paintings to talk directly to their audience. Fiction was more direct, thus its way to the hearts of the readers was shorter, while the paintings were more fragmentary and less purposeful. But both the art and the works of literature determined the social thinking of the 1970s in the USSR.