Retro Modern Art

The Retromodernists. Describing Reality in the Language of Early Twentieth-Century Culture

In the 1950s, for the young artist who wanted a renewal of the arts, the word “professional” was a curse word. The people who called themselves professionals were those who were against “live” and “free” art, who declared that despite the spirit of the times and fashion they “served art.” That service was expressed in continual drawing of nude models. These exhausting lessons helped them in their later careers to sculpt a goddess, glory with trumpet, or a tombstone angel. In the USSR, to sculpt a milkmaid or “Mother Russia.” The professionals saw themselves as inspired executors of state commissions. Not as contractors, but more like musicians who need not only technical skill but also soul in order to perform. Such a performer, even if a genius three times over, does not have the right to change the technical parameters of the instrument or the composer’s score. In Soviet academism, the role of the artist-performer was reduced severely, to the point of anonymity. More important than the artist were not only the state commissioning the work and the normative style, but even the heroes of his subjects. Lenin was a hundred times more important than the artist and the painting in which he was depicted. “This is Lenin in the Kremlin,” the tour guide would say. And only then add, “Painting by Brodsky.”

The rebellion against Socialist Realism was expressed in the rejection of academic professionalism. Modern art was reborn when the artist decided to work only for himself. However, for some innovators the break with the Academy meant accepting the new rules of visual language and for others, in playing without any rules.  In the previous section we looked at artists who decided that the way into modern art meant hooking up with one of the foreign creative movements. The neophyte began with creating something in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, or kinetic art, trying to stay close to the original, which didn’t happened often (thankfully) for a lack of information. This position had many plusses.  Instead of delayed development, it allowed the artist instantly to make ultra-contemporary works, which had a knockout effect on the public, especially if it was unaware of the source of borrowing.  But imitation had its weak sides. The innovator artist who declared his own personal path in art suffered from the enforced coming in second. He tried to introduce more of his own notes into the borrowed language, and the result was the loss of clarity in language and in comprehensibility of message. After five years of working in the “international style,” Numukhin, Masterkov, Zlotnikov, and Infante led themselves into the dead end of invented solutions and it took them a long time to find their way out. They sought contact with local reality, with the “spirit of the place,” and painfully adapted the avant-garde stylistics of their work to the character of their personalities.

Another form of rebellion against academic professionalism was the programmatic immersion in dilettantism. It was on this path, where everyone cultivated a personal, unique manner of existence, imagination, vision, and sensation of life, that Russian art suffered the greatest losses. So many outstanding artists buried their talent, since external and internal life seemed a more valuable artifact to them than its transposition into the language of visual arts. Those few personalities who found the way to a full-fledged material embodiment of this position are of great interest. For they stand at the source of the new independent school of Russian modern art. One is Oskar Rabin. Here is how he describes the situation of the 1950s: “After Stalin’s death, life, having broken through the asphalt and climbed out, did not bother with external forms and aesthetic directions. There was no time for that. It was more important to sense and understand your human personality, your personal aesthetic, your personal ability for creative expression—and it did not matter in what form or to which tendency it could be applied. Whatever form came to hand was used. We needed to shout out our own voice, and what came to hand, whether it was abstract, or expressionist, whatever materials, that was all secondary.” That phrase contains the characteristic traditional thinking on the division of form and content. Rabin did not care about form. He gave all his attention to his “sense of reality,” as he called it.

A quick look at Rabin’s paintings is enough to see that this feeling did not give him the same image of Soviet reality that existed in the culture then. Instead of white skyscrapers that were just rising in the Moscow sky, the prospects as wide as American prairies, the amazing “metro bridge,” and other new construction, Rabin depicted Moscow as grim and dark, a treeless city of barracks and crooked dilapidated houses, streets filled with slops and mud and stinking potholes. Rabin put in the foreground of his paintings the most important objects of Russian life, as if police had forced a drunkard to empty his pockets: a bottle of vodka, dried salted fish, a metal ruble, a cross worn on a chain, a copy of Pravda, and a passport.  “Externally, it looked like a protest against ‘Socialist Realism,’ that prettied up reality. But deep inside that was not it. I have to go back to some other categories. Life is all around. […] those barracks, that herring or vodka, for me they express the people’s soul, the people’s joy—the Lord gave and left them for us, the wretched.”

Rabin’s paintings were in as much contrast to the works of the youth culture on the cusp of the 1950s-1960s. It rang similar notes to what came out of the ruins of German cities in the late 1940s. The new generation drew a thick line at the end of the totalitarian experience and rejected that past. The young people in Russia did not want to know or discuss the past that in Russia had not yet quite ended.  It was camouflaged as if by the wings onstage with colorful spots of cheerful design, the glowing glass panes of new architecture, jazz music, and American fashion. Rabin’s father-in-law, Lev Kropivnitsky, played the saxophone, wore yellow shoes and pegged trousers. A real dandy, he spent his evenings at dances and his days greedily painting abstract paintings, sloshing around buckets of paint. His artistic language rejected as immaterial and not pertinent to culture the fact that he himself had just returned from a Stalinist concentration camp, that he lived in a communal barrack, where the whole large family of Rabins and Kropivnistkys huddled, near the suburban railroad station Lianozovo, which served the closest prison camp to Moscow. There is a point of view that Rabin’s image of the Soviet city is the viewpoint of a true realist, who had removed the eyeglasses of utopian dreams and looked soberly at the country’s present and future. I doubt that it can be considered correct. Every personal style is the result of a layering of borrowings, influences, and impressions from magazines and exhibitions. But if an artist joins a direction and consciously controls the process of selecting the components of his manner with the help of the collective mindset of his group, then the dilettante lets the formation of his language go on autopilot, and therefore ends up a prisoner of readymade linguistic solutions. In this case, Rabin’s vision was controlled by the stylistic choices of late Symbolism (the images of the “octopus city” of Andrei Bely and Alexander Blok), existential expressionism, and the German “Neue Sachlichkeit.” They are all part of early modernism and by the time Rabin was painting, they were already museum pieces in the West.

Unconsciously, the spontaneous language of another singular genius of the Thaw, Oleg Tselkov, was built on the stylistic recipes and ideas of that era of early modernism. Like Rabin, he likes to stress that “no one taught” him, even though he attended academic schools, from which he was expelled twice. “I never had authorities as such,” Tselkov says. His real interest in art began when he understood “that a painting and reality were completely different things,” he continues, apparently unaware that he is quoting Matisse. A spontaneous Fauvist, wildly forcing the colors of his painting, Tselkov came across in 1959 the subject that would become the one and only in his enormous output: mass man. He represents people of the crowd, with similarly amorphous molten bodies and heads devoid of individual faces. Unlike Magritte’s clerk in his hat, Tselkov’s personage is not separated from the painting’s background. He is immersed as if in a pot of jam, a mobile magma that flickers and radiates endless monochromatic clones. Their “nonobjective,” dreamlike character is underlined by the juxtaposition of living three-dimensional creatures—butterflies fluttering on Tselkov’s paintings.  Tselkov makes it clear that this human mass that gobbles watermelon, laughs, kisses, and fights among itself is extremely dangerous. That is why the artist has devoted the rest of his life to it, because he sees a mortal threat to civilization in it, and like Ortega y Gasset sounds the alarm, trying to engage insouciant society. “Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is ‘mass’ or not,” wrote Ortega y Gasset in his famous book, Revolt of the Masses.  “The mass is all that which sets no value on itself—good or ill—based on specific grounds, but which feels itself ‘just like everybody,’ and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.” This quote ideally suits Tselkov’s “mug” with stuck-out tongue, oligophrenic expression, and empty eyes. In these portraits the Fauvist method of semiotic simplification of nature moves into expressionist deformation, where the distortion of a person’s natural image is read as the psychological characteristics of the person depicted and the commentary of the depicter. “Look at this marvelous, smug monster!” the artist seems to shout at us with his work. In selecting the visual code for his deepest thoughts, Tselkov fell into the power, without suspecting it, of the discourse of socially engaged, anti-fascist expressionism, which was very timely in the mid-1930s.  And which now sleeps quietly in the hush of museum rooms.

The labor of the “retromodernist” resembles breathing air into a campfire that has gone out. The artists expend enormous efforts to reanimate and make actual and palpable the flames of an artistic language that has outlived its time. This task is justified in those regions where the challenges and dangers that were activated by a discourse have not yet been heard and disarmed.

Andrei Erofeev