Igor Golomshtok, “Russian Unofficial Art, A-Ya” (1980 review)

Igor Golomshtok, Russian unofficial art A-Ya, published by Igor Schelkovski, Chapelle de la Villedieu, 78310 Elancourt, France. Nos 1 and 2 (each 60 pp.)

The number of periodicals being published by Russians in exile can now be counted in dozens. Nevertheless, the appearance of the journal A-Ya is a significant event in the history of uncensored Russian thought: this is the first professional journal produced by exiles and devoted exclusively to the fine arts. Two issues of the journal have been published, a third issue is in preparation.

[Note: the Cyrillic alphabet begins with the letter “А” and ends with the letter “Я” or Ya.]

For the first time since the twenties a serious attempt is being made to penetrate to the heart and soul of the artistic process in the Soviet Union. And the journal A-Ya itself is part of a process which began in the first years of the post-Stalin era. At that time, in the mid-1950s, protest amongst Soviet artists against the official ideology of art, pumped out in the theory and practice of socialist realism, came to a head. From the single current of Soviet culture a little tributary formed, gradually gained momentum and became a powerful movement; it was subsequently given the name of ‘Russian (or Soviet) unofficial art’. Now this movement has a history of its own, spanning more than a quarter of our century. 

A picture, a drawing, or a sculpture, are dead unless they are seen by the human eye, and the cultural process does not take place unless it is interpreted and formulated. It seems that those in charge of Soviet art have mastered this truth well. For a long time they tried physically to eradicate the plague of free creativity from their midst through destructive articles in the press and different sorts of prohibition, but once they were convinced of the futility of these attempts, they changed to more efficient methods: somewhere in the mid-60s they tacitly declared that unofficial art in the Soviet Union simply did not exist. For its exponents this spelled creative death; one can fight against force, but not silence. And, as in the 20s, the early 70s saw the beginning of a mass emigration of artists from Russia: in the past 10 years more than 300 Russian artists have arrived in the West. One of them, the editor of A-Ya, sculptor Igor Schelkovski said ‘When we were preparing an exhibition and were compiling the list of contributors, we tried to include as many artists as possible currently living in the Soviet Union, and as few exiles. But it turned out that half the artists had already emigrated.’ The exiles in Paris decided to publish the journal A-Ya

Printed in a large format, 60 pages long with parallel texts in Russian and English (and a separate insert in French) and a large number of colour and black-and-white illustrations, the journal covers a wide spectrum of topics, mostly concerned with Russian unofficial art. Pride of place is given to long theoretical articles devoted to the most significant trends, problems and artists. There is a ‘Gallery’ section, presenting a display, almost a small exhibition, of new works by Russian artists living in Moscow, Leningrad, Paris, New York, London and Jerusalem; each is given a page with a few reproductions, biographical details and comments by the artists on their own work. The journal also touches on questions of the history of Russian art in the twentieth century and Western artistic life. 

The aims of the journal are set out in a kind of declaration on the cover of the first issue: 

‘The present journal sets itself the following tasks: 

  1. to familiarise Russian artists both in Russia and in emigration with each others’ work; 
  2. to inform the reader, in particular the Western reader, about these artists’ work; 
  3. to give art critics the opportunity to write about this or that artist, or artistic event.;to 
  4. be the mouthpiece of no particular faction, but to offer its pages to everything that is new, striking and independent.’ 

The journal focuses on the trends which appeared in the West in the 60s and which were taken up a little later by Russian artists. In Western art criticism these trends have different names: ‘minimalism’, ‘happening’, ‘performance’, ‘body-art’ and so on. The authors of the journal A-Ya prefer to call this wide spectrum of phenomena ‘conceptualism’. The Moscow art critic Boris Grois defines the phenomenon in the following way in his article ‘Moscow’s Romantic Conceptualism’ (A-Ya No I):

‘In a wide sense “conceptualism” means any attempt to depart from the making of works of art as material objects intended for contemplation, and aesthetic evaluation and to move towards the discovery and development of the conditions which dictate the way the viewer perceives a work of art, the way in which the artist produces it, its relationship with the surrounding environment, temporal context, etc’ 

The authors of A-Ya tend to view this tendency as the main direction of unofficial Russian art at its present stage. The conceptualist artists Rimma and Valery Gerloviny wrote (A-Ya No 1) that the characteristic tendency of contemporary art is to pay particular attention to the conceptual aspect of the work: in their view this has always been one of the basic considerations of Russian art, overriding all others, including aesthetic ones (compare the Peredvizhniki with the Impressionists). They stress that the work of most Russian artists has at its heart a striving, based on the artists’ philosophical outlook — most often intuitive in nature — to solve moral, religious and social problems. And so a characteristic feature of this striving is an element of indifference to the formal perfection of the work. These factors lead them to think that conceptualism has its own fertile soil in Russia and is a most important and vital phase in Russian art. 

Whilst paying tribute to its Western sources, the authors of A-Ya try to discover in late modernism the roots of the Russian tradition and to reveal its national characteristics. They draw them both from Soviet, and at a deeper level, from Russian culture. Two articles in the journal’s second issue, by the Moscow critics B. Grois and V. Patsyukov, are devoted to the work of Ilya KABAKOV, who was one of the first in Moscow to begin to work out the principles of this movement. At first sight some of Kabakov’s graphics remind one of labels, advertising hoardings and visual aids, often accompanied by headings. In Patsyukov’s view Kabakov projects the entire visible and invisible world on to a flat surface schematically, using structures made up of simple symbols — topography is at the base of all his systems. His innovations lie where two lines cross: the verbal and the visual. Grois treats his style as a specifically Russian phenomenon, as a sort of turning inside out of socialist realism. He recalls the appeal of Anglo-American pop-art to the mass culture of its day. This appeal, he writes, was based on the conviction that adverts, comics and other non-elite forms of art have an immediately compelling attraction for the viewer. In the Soviet Union, however, mass culture was never formed by appealing to the viewers’ tastes, and consequently, did not reflect them. It was seen primarily as an educational culture. The same educational and ideological demands were made of all culture as a whole. Art which was inaccessible to the wide masses was rejected. A style arose which was based not on artistic technique but on ideological stance. This style, being pictorially neutral, manifested itself ultimately in the absence of any depiction — in the pure word, and even more than this, in the unspoken conception which went behind this style. Ilya Kabakov, writes Grois, has taken advantage of the vast amount of work done before his day in unifying earlier artistic experience with the style it produced — the plastic and graphic style. Patsyukov calls this creative approach ‘high parodyism’, when he refers not to Kabakov, but to works of another artist, Dmitry PRIGOV. ‘High parodyism’ rejects once and for all the consolidated truth of history, it acts as a litmus, as a filter and test of our social values. Our view, reference points and morality undergo the test and everything which survives in this crucible is somehow reborn and returns to us again from the alien world of ideological cliches — Homeland, Love, Home, Death — touchingly transformed and defined. 

The artist, and more so, the critic in the Soviet Union, now finds himself in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand he is cut off from the evolutionary process of world culture, but this isolation forces him to discover the process again for himself. Each artist or critic in his creative work goes through this process from- the very beginning, finds himself inside it, becomes its eye-witness and participant. The position of the Russian artist,’ writes Grois, ‘provides a natural corrective to the historical flow of Western art, which far too hastily consigns its former stages to the irredeemable past.’ This leaves its mark on the style of unofficial art in Russia and on the character of Russian artistic criticism, in particular as represented in the pages of A-Ya. Unlike many Western critics who seem to take up in half a sentence what has already been said by others, Russian art experts strive (through necessity) to grasp the whole process from beginning to end, struggling in a single word (for perhaps they will have no other opportunity) to pour out all the most important things they have bottled up for years, thought through, and not expressed. What is sometimes intended for a monograph, is limited to the confines of an article, and this produces a creative intensity of thought, and density of philosophical prose, but it also sometimes produces gaps in the author’s exposition of his ideas. Kant, Schopenhauer, Vladimir Solovyov, Fyodorov, Vernadsky, the whole wide spectrum of Russian literature from Gogol and Dostoyevsky to the Oberiutov group, the thing in itself, the structure of thought’, ‘the psychology of perception’ and many other similarly complicated concepts — all serve as keys to the critics — with which they try to unlock the enigmatic box of late modernism, to see what exactly is inside. Most frequently they discover timeless Russian values and existential truths, which they feel more at home with than the aesthetic expanse of Western culture, and from which they mostly take their readings of the phenomena under analysis. 

The journal has a special section called ‘Sources of the avant-garde’ or ‘Heritage’. In the first issue it published extracts from the diary entries of K. MALEVICH in 1922, and in the second, a most interesting autobiography by Pavel FILONOV, which he wrote in April 1929. Most of the documents on the history of the Russian avant garde, in particular those mentioned above, have to this day not been published in the Soviet Union. From the state and private archives where the materials are kept, they are gradually filtering into samizdat, and if, as the publishers of A-Ya hope, this section of the journal expands, the world’s knowledge of art will be enriched by a series of priceless materials on the most important period in the development of art in the 20th century. 

Questions of politics and ideology remain outside the vision of the contributors to A-Ya, who concentrate upon interpreting the artistic and other cultural processes now taking place. Nevertheless, as might have been expected, the appearance of this journal in the West was seen by the Soviet machine of repression and control as another example of ideological subversion. Threats, intimidation, summonses to the KGB — all the usual arsenal of suppressive weapons has long ago been used against those of its contributors who are living in Moscow and who are guilty not only of existing, but of drawing attention to their existence. By now the Soviet government has been forced to reconcile itself to their existence but only on condition that the government preserves a monopoly over all art in Russia. 

The journal A-Ya introduces Russian artists who do not exist officially but who are perhaps the most outstanding and talented. This is its crime in the eyes of the Soviet state. 

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson,
Index on Censorship 10/1981