It is called 'A Time of Transition' and features the work of some 40 printmakers who were active between 1987 and 1992 (though the earliest prints were made in the 1960s). Because they pre-date the introduction of a market economy, they were made for exhibition or exchange between like-minded friends rather than for sale, and are a direct and personal expression of the artists' sense of their times.
Most of the work on view at the Bankside is for sale, however, though the editions are often small. Prices range from pounds 30 to pounds 750. One of the most surprising features of the exhibition is the almost total absence of direct political statement or criticism. The response of these artists to political upheaval was to retire into a dreamworld where the battles of everyday existence were transmuted into allegory or literary allusion. The stirring times through which their countries were passing are reflected by the intensity of these visions.
For example, Valerii Mishin, a 55-year-old who won many honours in Eastern Europe in the early Eighties, was inspired by a Chekhov short story when he produced the remarkable lithograph Man in a Box. An ordinary middle- aged man is shown with his head in a cage which he has just unlocked - he holds the key in his hand. The eyes that look out at the viewer are knowing, but not distressed. The allusion to minds caged by propaganda is the more powerful for being understated.
Boris Zabirokhin, 47, whose lithograph Auntie Klava has been used on the cover of the catalogue, has had a similar career to Mishin. Both attended the Mukhina Institute in St Petersburg, became members of the Union of Artists, and are represented in many Eastern European museum collections. In Russia, 'Auntie Klava' is an affectionate, generic term for a peasant woman; in the print, a patient old woman of massive build makes her first essay into the market economy by presenting three cloves of garlic, three carrots and six potatoes for sale. The contrast between her physique and the derisory quantity of food she is trying to sell makes its point with quiet humour.
Igor Podolchak from Lvov, the principal city of Western Ukraine, has recently made headlines with his campaign for a memorial to be erected there to the city's most famous son - Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom masochism is named. Podolchak's prints incorporate grotesque mutations of the human body. 'It is very hard to determine the motivation of my works,' he has written in the exhibition catalogue. 'There are many causes: my character, the literature on which I grew up, philosophy which has influenced me, art that I like. But I think the main cause is our past and present reality. The absolute desperate absurdity of our life, the helplessness of human beings in this system. . . .'
The exhibition was put together by the British artist-printmaker Peter Ford, who runs the Off-Centre Gallery in Bristol. He began to visit Eastern Europe in the mid-Eighties when his etchings were included in shows in Brno (in the Czech republic), Berlin and several Polish cities. In Lodz, Poland, in 1987, he met a Leningrad artist, Konstantin Chmutin, whose still- life mezzotints are among the stars of the exhibition. His Conception VI, for instance, is a study of eggs on a table, broken or about to fall. It can be enjoyed equally as the play of light and shade on simple forms or as an allegory of broken dreams.
Chmutin invited Ford to Leningrad, where he met many of the city's very active printmakers. On his return to England, Ford began to exhibit Eastern European prints in his gallery and to organise touring shows. Then, in 1992, he was invited to be on the jury of the major biannual print exhibitions in Lvov, Ukraine, and Kaliningrad on the Baltic. The artists represented in 'A Time of Transition' came to his attention during these visits.
Ford acknowledges having under-represented Moscow artists, with whom he has had less contact. But 'A Time of Transition' does include powerful abstract works by printmakers from the Senej Workshop just outside Moscow, which has been closed down; Senej was financially supported by the Union of Artists, a state entity now disbanded. Printmakers from all over the Soviet Union were attracted by its high reputation and good facilities; for a while it was the only place in Russia with screenprinting equipment.
The kind of lyrical abstracts made at Senej in its heyday are represented by Valerii Tsagaraev, Vladimir Kizilov, Natasha Mironenko and Natalia Zarovnaya (formerly the workshop's director). They continue the pioneering exploration of abstract art by Malevich, Rodchenko and other Russian artists in the first three decades of the century, which Stalin suppressed.
In the past five or six years, London, Paris and New York have been flooded with Russian paintings. When communications with the West were first re-established, Russian art held an exotic appeal and many collectors bought it. Meanwhile, Russian artists enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to earn foreign currency. With so many oil paintings available, prints have hitherto attracted little attention.
The quality of the prints on view at Bankside is outstanding. It reflects the fact that traditional techniques were part of the curriculum of Soviet art schools. Indeed, colleges in Russia and the Ukraine are still organised along the lines of 19th-century academies, with the emphasis on learning to master a medium, rather than on self-expression.
The technical brilliance of the prints - whether etchings, mezzotints, lithographs or any other technique - sets a standard now rarely achieved in the West. Monotypes by Ekaterina Kamenskaya use abstract colour to evoke space with photographic fragments of St Petersburg collaged into the image. Kikolai Koshelkov makes colour prints from cut cardboard, using an elaborate jigsaw technique.
The exhibition has been touring Britain for the past two years, starting at Bristol City Art Gallery. Bankside is its only London venue and the penultimate location - it will be shown in Truro, Cornwall, next month. Several new artists have been included to bring the show up to date and extend its coverage. There are some older artists, some younger ones, three more women - doubling the number in the show - and work from other regions. With these additions, it is the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind ever mounted outside the former Soviet Union.
The exhibition reflects the end of an era, a period when the printmakers of Russia and the Ukraine used their skills to comment on social and political realities. The introspective, often dark and dreamlike imagery comes from the creative imaginations of artists living through one of the most significant phases in 20th- century history. The show crystalises this turning point with impressive aesthetic power.
'A Time of Transition' is at the Bankside Gallery, 48 Hopton Street, London SE1, from 8 September to 2 October, and the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, from 22 October to 26 November. Sales enquiries should be directed to the Off- Centre Gallery, 13 Cotswold Road, Bedminster, Bristol BS3 4NX (0272 661782).