Contemporary Russian Art
Under Stalinist rule, Russia’s unofficial art movement blatantly rejected the creed of Socialist Realism. The structure that Stalin had imposed on the art world controlled every aspect, forcing Soviet ideology upon artists and demanding allegiance to the Communist Party. Aesthetic matters were at the discretion of Party ideologues, and artistic merit had become an abstract concept. Stalin held a firm grip on the individual’s creative spirit, suppressing any semblance of artistic individuality and conceptualizing culture into absolutes. No longer were there any distinctions amongst artistic styles. In fact, artists of the unofficial art movement had little in common with one another on a stylistic level. As one artist said, “All that unites us is our lack of freedom.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, artists slowly began to approach their work in terms of unique style and subject matter. Even artists who had adhered to the severe structure of Social Realism began to rethink the banal technique and style of Stalin’s time. Art became more personal, and less of a blatant interpretation of the Communist ideal that was seen under Stalin. The departure from Stalinist norms continued for the next few decades, until the point where the ideas of Social Realism are largely unrelated to contemporary Russian art.
The post-Stalin era saw the emergence of a more radically non-conformist art that challenged the norms in terms of style and subject matter. Authorities viewed this as anti-Soviet, and denied these artists access to state-sponsored exhibitions, and even threatened these artists with beatings and arrest. Khrushchev led many attempts to repress unofficial art, but the non-conformist artists had found a voice of their own, and were intent on being heard.
It was not until recent years, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that the situation of these artists has improved to the point where they can express artistic freedom. Contemporary Russian art flourished as censorship and ideological pressure on the arts dissipated. A wave of excitement and urgency swept over the nation and Russian artists hastily assembled to celebrate their victory in this cultural battle. Overall, the agenda is set for a reorganization of the contemporary Russian art world. Such progressive broadening of attitudes has closed the aesthetic gap between conformist and non-conformist art, realigning artistic merit in the light of the creative spirit.
Contemporary Russian artists have since developed a new kind of Realism, one that takes an uninhibited look at the world, unadulterated and unbounded by certainties and absolutes. There is an emphasis on individual authorship that celebrates a more artistic approach. Contemporary Russian art has reached beyond its cultural and sociological boundaries, creating a new vision that extends beyond the parochial values of Soviet culture.
Where paintings were once consumed with a sense of expectancy and rigidity, they have become spontaneous and stimulating. Each painting engages the viewers’ senses in its own unique way. This newfound individual expression is part of the existential plight that many Contemporary Russian artists have embarked upon. Their art is no longer concerned simply with intellect or sensual appeal of the painting, but more importantly, with the supreme idea. Paintings often convey a deep yearning for a harmonic resolution of the surrounding world. There is a creative accord amidst subjects that inspire a sort of reverie and reflect a communal Russian sense of Socialist tradition.
Contemporary Russian artists often employ iconography in their work. Icon painting has long been a primary form of artistic expression, firmly rooted in Russian tradition, and continues to play a major role in contemporary Russian art. This tendency towards mysticism and the supreme idea of spiritual life has brought artists to a new realm of artistic expression. Portraiture has also become an important part of contemporary Russian art - helping link icon painting to academism. Portraiture’s sense of realism begets individuality of the subject yet relays a fundamental universality of emotion.
Russian art has undergone a perpetual stylistic evolution. From its first association with Byzantine culture and icon painting to the avant-garde visions of the unofficial artists and the oppressive demands of Social Realism, the foundation of Russian art is an acknowledged pluralism of styles. Contemporary Russian art dispenses with provinciality and strives for communication across frontiers, uniting seemingly varied aesthetic styles and creating artistic expressions unlike anything seen before.