Soviet non-conformist art from the 1980s

Mikhail Gorbachev appears twice in this exhibition of “unofficial” art from the final years of the Soviet Union. And well he might, being the architect of glasnost and all that. It was his policy, after all, that liberated Soviet artists and writers, as well as giving its name to what the Haunch of Venison gallery calls London’s “first comprehensive survey of Soviet non-conformist art”.

Gorbachev was to be disappointed, however, if he expected gratitude for releasing artists from their straitjackets. Both of this show’s depictions of the last Soviet leader are mocking and risqué for their time in the way they have defaced his airbrushed Politburo portrait. Aleksandr Kosolapov’s “Gorby” (1991) is given the Andy Warhol treatment, with day-glow backdrop and a dab of eye-shadow; Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s version of the same name (1990) is cruder still, daubed with heavy mascara.

If the Soviet leader himself was fair game, it’s only logical that the artists here turned so much party imagery and sloganeering on its head, subverting the original propaganda.

Yet before Gorbachev launched his “openness” policy in 1985-86, this kind of subversion would have led to artists being banned or prosecuted. Just over a decade earlier, in September 1974, the authorities had bulldozed an outdoor exhibition of “unofficial” art in the woods near Belyayevo, on the outskirts of Moscow.

Gorbachev wanted not to overturn the Soviet system but merely to loosen its grip on public life. He hoped that glasnost would promote healthy criticism and that perestroika (“restructuring”) would help the system work better. Instead, he found he had opened Pandora’s box: the trickle of mild criticism he had expected swelled to a torrent of pent-up frustration, especially from artists who had been forced underground.

In a nation of state-run galleries, where the party controlled what could be exhibited (and even restricted supplies of artists’ materials), “official” art steered clear of subversive messages, which included the abstract, the surreal and the erotic. The party held that artists had to be “engineers of the soul” and serve the cause of building utopia. Hence the art of socialist realism, which, at its most didactic, gave us nothing but happy workers and tireless farmers, and heroic portraits of Lenin.

The recurring staples of socialist realism provide fertile ground for parody in this show, with a tone that ranges from wry questioning to bitter disillusionment. Erik Bulatov’s “Perestroika” (1989) splatters that buzzword across a wide canvas, aping the optimism of the 1920s constructivists; mid-word, however, its huge capital T is clearly a Soviet-style hammer. In Alexey Sundukov’s “Bonfire Pioneers” (1986), a cheering crowd of uniformed youths becomes a macabre gaggle of skull-like grimaces, with decapitated heads borne aloft by the flames behind.

Until the late 1980s, this kind of art could have been exhibited only in the artists’ own crowded apartments. The label “non-conformist” alerts us to the fact that there was no single salient movement: instead, a mixed bag of styles drew on the forbidden fruits of pop art, conceptualism and surrealism.

Another strikingly subversive work is Maria Konstantinova’s “Sleep Quietly or Rest in Peace” (1989). A “fallen” red star, like those atop the Kremlin towers, only in the form of a flaccid cushion, lies slumped against the wall like a drunkard in a doorway. And Russia’s high levels of alcoholism (against which Gorbachev battled in vain) is the subject of “In the Line for Vodka II” (1990). Here, in a riposte to the sunlit faces of socialist realism, Semyon Faibisovich’s photo-like hyperrealism lays bare the grim reality of Soviet life; the only determination on these workers’ faces is a determination to get hammered.

The theme of doctrine-as-religion surfaces in “Last Supper” (1989) by Andrey Filippov. This simple but impressive installation places viewers before a long table draped in red, with 13 empty white plates, and hammers and sickles in the place of knives and forks.

There’s bitter irony in another pair of installations too. “I Sleep in the Orchard” (1991/2008) by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov juxtaposes the grimness of a communal apartment with an imagined garden, represented by a few potted plants; while in Sergey Mironenko’s “Hero’s Corner” (1989) a hospital bed offers a bleak comment on the fate of war veterans.

In this work, and in many others at this show, Russian slogans are an integral visual element, emblazoned across the frame or even right across the wall. But given that text is central to many of the artists’ satirical messages, it’s a shame that the gallery has stopped short of translating all of them; you miss out if you can’t read Russian.

This matters less in “Proletarians of all Countries, Unite!” (1992) by Sergey Bugaev (also known as “Afrika”). Even without knowing Russian, it is easy to recognise the Leninist banner that Afrika has embroidered with South Park-like nudes, genitals and all. As with other Leningrad “New Artists”, the use here of flags or bedsheets made it easier for their work to be smuggled unnoticed.

In Gorbachev’s early days, artists were sceptical about the new freedoms apparently on offer. Sergey Borisov’s black-and-white photograph “Glasnost and Perestroika” (1986) shows two hooded figures with ropes round their necks (one of them appears to be a statue of Lenin) being transported away.

And indeed, once it was a case of “anything goes”, what was left to rebel against? The system that had kept underground art muzzled was grist to its mill, so the glory days of glasnost were a passing phase – too much defined by rebellion, perhaps, to constitute any lasting trends. Amid the welter of stylistic responses, it’s hard to discern any movement as prophetic as constructivism was in the 1920s.

Nevertheless, Glasnost, a collaboration with German collector Volker Diehl, is a sobering reminder of a special time and an eclectic snapshot of the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s’, Haunch of Venison, London until June 26

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