Russia’s artists glance back to their long history

Russian art in the twenty first century has come a long way since socialist realism

Many people when thinking of Russian art tend to think of Constructivism in the years following the 1917 Revolution, or of Socialist Realism from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Constructivism was a fascinating art movement and is worthy of serious appreciation; Socialist Realism was what artists can do when communist authority is watching over their shoulders. I never saw any necessary reason why socialism should mould the arts in such a way but it did. In site of this some socialist realism, such as the image below, is quite charming and does show a respect for the people whose work makes society function.

Socialist realist art from Berlin, East Germany
Socialist Realism from Berlin, when it was part of communist East Germany

After the death of Stalin, Russian art began to open up and as long as artists did not criticise the Soviet system they were able to make art which was more diverse and interesting, though it was still not entirely free of the constraints set by communist authorities. The Soviet and post-Soviet education and training system for artists appears to be the equal of any in the world, and fosters for Russia a community of well-trained artists.

In July 1988 there was a Sothebys auction of communist era art which caused great controversy by converting Soviet art into money. Rock stars such as David Bowie and Elton John bought work. Shortly afterwards the Soviet system collapsed and Russian artists had to scramble for their living outside of the old communist system which, whatever its flaws, provided them with real and metaphorical space to work in

Russians have never lost touch with their history. They have a lot of history to look back on, and do not have to negotiate the appalling cultural legacies which European imperialist countries and the USA inherited from colonial exploitation, slavery and genocide. This in my opinion makes Russian art interesting, as the Russians freely mix references to their history and culture into their art in a more relaxed way than is seen in Europe or the USA.

So, who are the Russian artists whose work reflects the proud splendour of their past and their view of the future? Here are a few of my picks.

Pavel Pokidyshev

Personally this artist is my favourite Russian painter. I love the way he brings alive figures drawn from history, in such a way that we feel we can understand them here and now. His work speaks of the eternal human spirit and seems to yearn for some of the simplicities of times past. Pokidyshev’s figures, like all of us, are transient inside the bigger world around them.

Pavel Pokidyshev

Olga Suvorova

This St Petersburg artist paints incredible colourful paintings drawn from the rich imperial history of her home city. I like the way her figures make eye contact with the viewer as if they are distracted and in thought. It is as if they take a break from the cacophony around them to watch us for a while. Suvorova’s colours are fabulous, and indeed much of the content of her paintings seems to be there specifically to add more colour, such as the flowers which intrude into the compositions. There is also a feeling of a deep respect for culture; something shared by nearly all Russians in my observations. This could well be a legacy of the Soviet era, during which the government made many efforts to bring high culture to all and to eliminate the notion of high and low culture which possibly originates from social divisions.

Olga Suvorova

Dmitry Shorin

This artist’s works adorn several airports, where presumably they are perfectly at home. They often present us with some modern angel, replete with modern high tech wings. I like the juxtaposition of the soft natural beauty of the human figure and the aerodynamics and regular angles of the wings. This seems a positive vision which hints that some of our technology is compatible with our spiritual wellbeing – a view I have held for some time. The challenge which faces us is how to ensure that technology is our servant and we are not its servant or the servants of those who control it. And that technology does not hasten the destruction of the very ecosystems we rely on to exist at all.

Dmitry Shorin

Marina Federovna

Popular in Paris apparently, this artist mixes fashion and other elements into compelling paintings. I see a tiny hint of the American artist Lempicka in the rendering of the flesh tines and limbs in her work.

Marina Federovna painting
Marina Federovna

Vyacheslav Mikhailov

This artist explores new approaches to painting and has exhibited around the world. For decades during the Soviet era this kind of abstract expressive painting was discouraged by the cultural authorities. Consequently one wonders if Russian abstract expressionists have a lot of ground to make up, and maybe some new ideas to add into this type of art to reinvigorate it. Arguably practitioners of abstract expressionism in the Western world have exhausted it; who knows maybe Russians can help here.

Vyacheslav Mikhailov

Maxim Kantor

This intellectual artist explores the problems brought by globalisation.

Maxim Kantor

Categories: Russia

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