Oleg Vassiliev

4 November 1931, Moscow - 26 January 2013, New York

Light in the Dark

“Calling objects out of the dark, light gives them a measure of existence. For me, I suppose, the dark is empty.” Oleg Vassiliev

The author of the most piercing and memorable images of the era was not given to artistic and political provocations, did not participate in collective protest actions, and generally, avoided harsh formulations in life and in art. Vassiliev built his meticulously worked and detailed paintings in accordance with formalist spatial concepts, melding methods of photorealism, symbolism, impressionism, and constructivism. Without rejecting the legacy of Russian landscape painting of the nineteenth century, and using the experience of the German Romantics, he without a doubt combined realistic depiction with the abstract and diligent work from nature with formal research. Vassiliev, now established in the USA in Minneapolis, played an incredibly special role as a unique figure in Russian art, which was under state control and which strictly divided allowed and forbidden artists—those who followed the Party’s general line for Socialist Realism and those who were outcast formalists.

His good friend and colleague Erik Bulatov said this about him: “Oleg Vassiliev is a central figure in our contemporary Russian art, because he ties the past to the present. In essence, it is his work that demonstrates the connection between the realistic art of the nineteenth century, the avant-garde of the 1920s, and contemporary art, thereby proving the wholeness and unity of Russian art.” [1]

Juxtaposing himself to the lies of the official art scene and overcoming the numerous gaps and stylistic discord between the traditional art imposed since childhood and the semi-banned modernism, Vassiliev found his own way, which did not resemble what his close friends Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov were doing. Restoring sensory memory and innermost emotions in his paintings, he forced traditional visual culture to deal with cold and imperious form. Taking a painting to be a complex spatial construction, he then tests it “not so much by word as by color, and composition, and the border of imagination.” Analyzing the relations of the surface of the canvas and the illusory space of the painting and the object depicted on it, he hides a personal story, which belongs only to him, in the complex structure filled with cultural and political allusions. The most important aspect of his research was light, which enlivens and animates the work, uniting figurative and nonfigurative elements into a whole. Even in his most documentarily precise compositions, Vassiliev did not strive for a realistic objective image, violating it with light, fiercely breaking through the painting’s space.  According to Ilya Kabakov, “most important in the understanding of the paintings of Oleg Vassiliev and in part of his entire life position (and separating them in our situation sometimes seems impossible) is the understanding of ‘light’ as the highlighting within one’s consciousness of all the components of existence and of everything ‘real’ out of the darkness, blackness, nonexistence, and ‘invisibility.’ “[2] Powerful rays coming from the corners of the painting cross in the center and dissolve the figurative image, cancel it and sometimes turn the work into pure abstract art. By not defining the source of the light, the artist does not define its nature, either—physical and mystical. Only the scale is given—surpassing the limits of the image and the painting itself.

Starting with “House in Anzelma,” which the artist considered the first work that was truly “his,” light remained the main instrument of comprehension, even as it changed image and meaning, in the range from the expressive, charged energy of the rainbow to the hyperrealistic, diffuse sfumato. It transforms everything around it, turning a modest landscape into a fairy tale fantasy place and Communist shrines into insignificant toys, burning human figures into whiteness. In paintings formed from heterogeneous elements, the narrative always gives way to the pressure of the strict constructivist composition and the active geometric form. The signal module confirms the objectivity of the experiment, leaving only the true poetry, the most important recollections, hidden in the layers that formal formulas can control. The painting loses it subjectivity, becoming a mere witness of the times and of the “ego” of the artist who distances himself from his own expression.

Faina Balakhovskaya


[1] Erik Bulatov. “Ob Olege Vasile’eve [About Oleg Vassiliev],” in Okna pamiati [Windows of Memory], Moscow, 2005.

[2] Ilya Kabakov. 60-70e… Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve (The 1960s-1970s, Notes on the Unofficial Life in Moscow), Wiener Slawistisher Almanach, Sonderband 47, Wien, 1999. pp. 70-71.