Oskar Rabin

2 January 1928, Moscow

On the Dark Side. Oskar Rabin.

His face is an icon. Stooped.

Stubborn as a mule.

His mind, a razor.

Conversation with him is a battle.

Igor Kholin


Oskar Rabin, one of the leaders of unofficial art, was called “the Solzhenitsyn of painting.” Reality in his works, instantly recognizable, appeared as the image of contemporary hell and absolute evil. Not banal and ordinary, but aggressive, powerful, active, and so attractive that his pictures of ruins and dumps were among the most desirable and demanded works in the underground art market. Expelled from the Surikov Institute for “formalism,” the artist managed to study for two years right after the war at the Riga Academy of Arts, with teachers who knew about Expressionism and Fauvism. That experience shows in Rabin’s works, for he boldly distorts perspective, manipulates scale, and uses precisely painted fragments of all kinds of visual rubbish, bottle labels and graffiti, money, and wall texts. Sharply satirical and grotesquely exaggerated, his works nevertheless are not pamphlets on current subjects, but an honest description of the dark side of highly advertised socialism. Rabin’s scary stories were seriously meant to be realistic descriptions of the reality around him—barracks, infinite mud, endless darkness. Sincere and archaic, they counter the contemporaneity hailed by official art: industrial achievements and technical progress appear in his works only as toxic smoke blocking the horizon. Outlining in black the daily reality of this horrible world, Rabin depicts dead material, depressed and aggressive, the world post-catastrophe, on the verge of final collapse. A world where gravity is more powerful than anywhere else, pulling houses, bottles, newspapers and documents closer to the ground.

A nightmare grows out of his observations of the place where he moved and grew up, out of his personal experience and his sharp sense of the drama and misery of his environment. Although the artist depicts Lianozovo, a Moscow suburb, and the barracks in which he lived with the family of his teacher, Lev Kropivnitsky, his works contain the entire Soviet world, the round earth that begins in the center of the painting.  The source of this universe divided up by contours can be found in the painting system of Pavel Filonov, where an object is almost mechanically made up of numerous parts. But Rabin’s painting system is far from experiments, the artist is led exclusively by a desire for the truth. The ability to witness it freely and expansively, organically combing heterogeneous parts came not from the latest examples of contemporary art and the experience of the avant-garde, but from a drawing by his little daughter.

To the festive, light and joyous universe of Socialist Realism Rabin juxtaposed a world drowning in darkness and in the center of which are symbols of salvation: not necessarily beautiful paintings and holy icons, sometimes just a rusty herring, a bottle crucified on a board. These obligatory elements of the pastime of the people living in the real and not mythological Lianozovo remind us of the “hungry” still lifes of the Civil War period and of Christian symbols, of the avant-garde and Russian Orthodoxy, both dismissed by the authorities. Rabin held up the anti-Soviet myth to counter the Soviet one, “the truth that is worse than any lie” and certainly than any criticism.  He used a simple, concise, and almost primitive formula, and the images are so monolithic that any change in the details merely stresses their semantic and painterly unity.

“Rabin gradually became a nail hammered into Soviet ideology. He painted exactly what stuck in its craw,” wrote Nikita Alexeyev.  What stuck in its craw were bottles, herrings, and naturally rubbish dumps, but even more so, printed products, to which not only the artist but the regime attributed symbolic significance: newspaper pages, money, and documents. In his most famous work, “Passport” (1972), Rabin takes the most important document for a Soviet citizen, which in his case has a “bad” answer in the line for “Nationality”—“Latvian (Jewish)”—and adds a futuristic line, “Place of Death.” His answer there is “Israel? Under a fence.”  Emigration was in fact inevitable, but before leaving his homeland, the artist managed to turn an artistic rebellion into a real one. Although the initiator of the famous Bulldozer Show of 1974 maintains that he was fighting exclusively for the right to show his works in pubic, his demarche with his colleagues became a turning point in the destruction of the system that Rabin described so harshly, cruelly, and sadly.

Faina Balakhovskaya