Hammer and tickle: The dark humour of Soviet art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Two satirical shows of Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery mock both Soviet and present-day regimes. Michael Glover delights in their dark humour

What is the story of art in Russia in the dying decades of the great communist experiment? And what has happened since? Two new shows at the Saatchi Gallery aim to give some comprehensive answers. The first is a survey of the art that was coming out of Moscow from the 1960s onwards. The second presents the art of Russia now, a society free of the burden of fake idealism, and free to run riot at the behest of crony capitalism.

The first of the two shows is penned – yes, that’s sadly how it feels – into four galleries at the top of the building. It shows us a wide-ranging sample of the art of the samizdat years, art which dared not speak its name or show its face in public – and which got made all the same. Here are the mysterious metaphysical paintings of Vladimir Veisberg, who painted as if communism was an irrelevant mystery quite beyond his ken. Here are the sombre urban canvases of Oscar Rabin, who shows us wonky, dreary-looking buildings, thickly painted in a palette of doom. And here, gay and exhilarating beyond all measure, are the defiant products of the Sotsart movement and, most striking of all, the extraordinarily mocking work of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, huge canvases in gloriously deflating mimicry of social realism at its most gaily triumphal.

Gaily? It was in fact Joseph Stalin who said that gaiety was the most  outstanding feature of the Soviet Union, in a speech that was delivered, without any burden of irony (one assumes), in 1935. That quotation has been deftly incorporated into the title of the survey show of art from Russia in the downstairs galleries, which brings together work by painters, photographers, sculptors and installation artists, 18 of them in all, and many of them emerging artists exhibiting outside Russia for the first time. Needless to say, there is no gaiety here, no art that seems to have been created in a spirit of joyous, carefree abandon. Which is not to say that this show lacks humour. There is much humour here, but it is of the baleful, hollow, savage kind, ever mindful of the fact that there can be no such thing as a creative life in Russia today that is unaffected, untrammelled or unhaunted by the great communist experiment, the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, and its messily complicated aftermath.

In fact, the very best of the work here, by Boris Mikhailov, Valery Koshlyakov and Janis Avotins, seems to derive its energies from the fact that it is fiercely responding to and commenting upon everything that has gone before. Mikhailov, the oldest artist on show here, is given two entire galleries to himself, as if to point up the importance of his contribution to the argument of this exhibition. Mikhailov is a Ukrainian photographer (it is interesting to note that two of the artists I have singled out for particular attention are not strictly speaking Russian artists at all – Janis Avotins is from Latvia – although they would once have been regarded as Soviet citizens) who has been documenting life in the Ukraine in general, and his native city of Kharkov in particular, since the 1980s. The particular project on display here is called Case History. There is a terrible, brutish matter-of-factness about Mikhaliov’s giant colour photographs of the bruised, tottering down-and-outs of his native city. They show themselves off with a kind of shameless pride, hoicking up layers of clothing to reveal a triangle of pubic hair or a lumpy, misshapen penis for the camera. How much older all the faces look than their corresponding bodies! The terrible, near-frenzied grotesquerie of it all smacks of late Goya – one of these old men, set among trees against the backdrop of the gilded, sunstruck dome of a Russian Orthodox church, looks like a beleaguered saint out of Nesterov.

Valery Koshlyakov’s themes are  architectural. He presents grand vistas of monumental buildings – Garnier’s 19th-century Opera House in Paris; a celebrated Modernist apartment block in Moscow; a sports stadium. The heroic scale of these images is suggestive of grandeur and the triumphal onward march of imperial design. It is the Paris Opera House that directly faces as we enter the gallery – but all has gone horribly awry. Its general lineaments are familiar enough, but everything that it has always seemed to represent, all that airy pomp, seems to have been horribly vitiated.

The painting’s canvas consists of pieces of cardboard, all fastened  together without undue finesse, and patched together somewhat randomly in order to create something that almost represents a rectangular shape. The painting itself is splashy, patchy, drippy, provisional, seemingly over-hasty, and rather wan in its unemphatic use of colour. Because of the way in which the bits of cardboard have been joined together, nothing quite matches up. The entire scene feels like a brazen travesty, a trampling down of the myth-making of the vainglorious Third Empire (and yet another empire a little closer to home, perhaps) – and perhaps a tilt at the grandiose traditions of salon painting into the bargain.

Janis Avotins’ paintings have a strangely haunted mood to them, as if someone is striving to remember something that barely fails to register. Solitary elements – a hand, a tiny  female form – are cast adrift within an ocean of blackness. The paintings are rendered very thinly, as if the subject matter barely has the confidence to speak its name. Human existence looks so sketchy. Images emerge like ghostly afterthoughts of themselves. What is this all about? The strange precariousness of national identity, which may mean the reaching after something which has almost been  expunged? The feeling that we are all alive in this world so precariously, that it would take so little to remove us from the canvas of our own lives?

By contrast, much of this show is far from unemphatic. It shows us a younger generation greedily seizing hold of entire new worlds of imagery, Russianising Warhol, turning prisoners of conscience into superheroes; in short, being as brash, brazen and bolshy as art can ever get.

Gaiety Is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: New Art from Russia, to 5 May; Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s, to 24 February (saatchi-gallery.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas