Boris Orlov

1941, Khimki, Moscow Oblast

Boris Orlov is associated with Sots Art, but he calls himself an “imperial artist.” The mythical empire, whose style the artist re-creates, seems much more ancient than the historical Soviet Union, although Orlov’s “imperial” seems to refer to the “Stalin Empire” style, the unofficial name for the pompous Soviet architecture of the 1930s-1950s. Boris Orlov graduated from the monumental arts department of the Stroganov school, studying under the venerable Soviet monumentalist Georgy Motovilov, whose bas reliefs ornament the Moscow metro and the VDNKh (All-Union Exposition of Economic Achievements).  Orlov is almost the only real sculptor among the unofficial Soviet artists. His works, even those combining the most variegated materials, images, and meanings, are not objects but sculptures, and they do not look assembled but erected.  Erected for the centuries, as is appropriate for sculpture, perhaps the most imperial form of art.

Unlike many nonconformists—be it Oskar Rabin or Ilya Kabakov—Boris Orlov presents the “Soviet” not at all as something miserable, wretched, or ugly. On the contrary, he creates a majestic, albeit ironic, image of the Soviet grand style. Orlov’s “empire” is not bound by the historical framework of the Stalinist USSR. His works, at least formally, in their titles, refer to the Baroque period of imperial Russia, and to the first attempts of Russian formal portraiture (“Red Persona” refers to the “personas,” the Russian portraits of pre-Petrine times, almost secular icons representing tsars and nobility), as well as to antiquity and to archaic totem poles—and also to the Russian avant-garde, which is of fundamental importance to Orlov. As if following the ideas of the philosopher Boris Groys, who was close to the circle of the Moscow Conceptualists, who believed that the Stalin style came out of the Russian avant-garde with its projects for the total reconstruction of reality, Boris Orlov merged Suprematism and the Soviet grand style. The numerous order banners that form “Formal Portrait” read like a Suprematist composition in the spirit of Malevich. Airplanes are a constant subject for Boris Orlov and refer back to the Futurist cult of aviation, uniting official Soviet culture and the Russian avant-garde (“The main theme of the play is the defense of technology, in particular of aviation. The victory of technology over cosmic forces and over biologism” was the interpretation given by the poet Alexei Kruchenykh of his play Victory Over the Sun), but airplanes are also a paraphrase of imperial eagles, a new symbol of the empyrean and sublime.

However, Orlov’s airplanes are often shown shot down and damaged. Empire for Orlov is what is already in ruins (hence his continual rhyming of Soviet and ancient). Developing his “imperial style” in the 1970s, he foreshadowed the doom of the seemingly unshakable Soviet regime, ironically but also heretically in those days, comparing it to Ancient Rome, depicting it already in ruins or frozen in timelessness: his 1973 “Imperial Bust” references, among other things, the metaphysical painting of De Chirico. After the USSR ceased to exist, Orlov completed his now mythical image of an empire turned to dust, eliciting elegiac sadness—for the “empire” that was a strange hybrid of the Russian avant-garde and the Stalin style was also a utopia that collapsed under the burden of its own unrealizable and grandiose dreams.

Irina Kulik