Hammer and tickle: The dark humour of Soviet art

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)