Questions of a New Age -
The Struggle of the Post-Soviet Identity as Seen in Contemporary Russian Print
The internal disintegration within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the turn of the last decade of the 20th century signalled a dramatic change within the Eastern European landscape. The resulting geopolitical changes lead to a dramatic experience of “economic and social marginality”, which resulted in a loss of “national and personal virility” (Simpson 391). The promises of a utopian future, which were so “fundamental to the project of Soviet modernity” (Coe 1) has neither been propagated nor replaced in the post-Soviet imagination. Sovereignty, moral structure, and most notably: national identity, were constantly questioned and reassessed. The post-Soviet condition became identified with a “futureless ontology” (1), where the cultural questioning of a deceased social structure fed into a dangerous state of hopelessness and vulnerability. The contemporary art scene, most notably in Russia, occupied itself with exploring the new post-Soviet identity, while attempting to study the pieces of a failed system that were left behind. “Decolonial” (1) forms of activist art, most notably print, became methods to explore and overcome the despairing condition of a new national identity.
After the dissolution of the USSR, the relationship between print and the artist underwent dramatic feats of renewal and freedom by dropping the pretenses of Soviet censorship. Printmaking mediums became a vital outlet of expression for contemporary artists who commented on the dramatically changing identity of the Russian individual. Through approaches of historical analysis, such as Timur Novikov’s critique of social realist images, Yuri Avvakumov’s fantastical draft prints advocating for creative expression, and Alexander Florensky’s humorous and optimistic Russian folk images, print became a significant tool in an introspective discourse surrounding the post-Soviet identity.
Timur Novokov, one of the most prominent figures in the Russian contemporary art scene, was credited with a rigorous practice that utilized print, painting, and performance in order to explore the politics of the Russian identity, which mainly revolved around the scene of the underground; the taboo. Major shifts in his practice aligned with the dynamic happenings of the socio-economic transformations that took part after the dissolution of the USSR. Founding the new doctrine of Neoacademism (the New Academy group) in the early 1990s, Novikov began to explore the cultural identity of Russia through archival print work that served as a historical analysis with an interest in “reviving classical influences to create a paradoxicality between unilateral dogma of the Soviet period and the pompous aristocratic peripheral of Empirical Russia” (Stodolsky 141), two concepts that ironically mold notions of superiority, and introduce a playful, almost anarchical ground for the exploration of moral structure. The New Academy’s kitsch remakes of “classical tropes” (141) had a clear relation with “certain Pop-art trends in contemporary postmodernism” (141), whose rhetoric reflected the attempt to re-identify the modern moral structure, with a link to cultural nostalgia that emphasized the impermanence of national or cultural identity.
Novikov’s “evocation of classicism” (142) reflected the desire to reinvent tradition, but was portrayed in a manner of “subversive intent” (142) that underlined the artificiality of the previous political structure in Russia. Such themes are presented in Novikov’s lithographic print from a series titled Lost Ideals of Happy Childhood (fig. 1), which pairs social realist statuary and lavish classical decoration as a way to present the “artificiality of communist dogma” (Akkermans). The pairing of the idealist figure of the Soviet agenda with baroque ornamentation cements the figures into the history of the impermanent and overturned, signalling a certain departure from the artificiality of the socialist doctrine, the naive interpretation of children in summer camps, along with an unmistakable nostalgia that marks the tension, hesitancy, and cynical opinion on the communist agenda in the post-Soviet period. This print “reflects a shift from utopia to melancholy” (Akkermans), signaling the departure of an identity that was prevalent in the youth of many, consequently marking departed socialist ideals. The choice of utilizing the lithographic technique is significant as it draws upon the communal and political agenda associated with the medium. Novikov supplants the medium’s political history into a work that critiques “the all-consuming soviet rhetoric” (Stodolsky, 144) by highlighting the brutal reality that was swathed in lavish socialist propaganda, which fed into an artificial Russian identity whose instability was significantly revealed after the dissolution. Novikov and the New Academy utilized archival print works as a method to satirically underline the artificiality and impermanence of Russian moral and political structures, resulting in a melancholic struggle to redefine the post-Soviet identity, while mocking Russia’s desperate grasp of the nostalgic past.
Much like Novikov’s intent to unearth the hopelessness of the post-Soviet moral structure, artist and architect Yuri Avvakumov strived to relent against the dehumanizing, monotonous nature of Russian architectural planning as a way to address the creative suffocation that many individuals experienced during the period of the Soviet era. Becoming a founding member of a group of Russian conceptual artists called the “Paper Architects”, Avvakumov’s drafts and prints of “unrealisable (architectural) schemes”(Avvakumov) served as influential symbols of protest after the Soviet dissolution, signalling a rebellion against the fervent suppression of creative expression. Avvakumov’s group created drafts, drawings and screen-prints of their fantastical architectural plans as a way of “bypassing restrictions and dissenting, as a way to critique the dehumanising nature of Russian architecture of the time, and the lack of care for traditional building” (“Paper Architects”). Not only was this outcry against a bankrupt system, where architecture planning was part of “large scale machinery” (“Paper Architects”), but it became an occupation of unearthing the clear erasure of individuality, and lack of care for an expressive way of life. Avvakumov’s Red Tower screen-print from 1998 (fig. 2) reflects the group’s strife between “tradition and avant-garde, between cultural inheritance and new invented forms” (Wolfe). The portrayed structure is isolating and megalithic, vague in both its aesthetic and function. It almost serves as an aggressive, overflowing symbol of the hopeless Soviet ambition, held up by beams and growing at an unimaginable scale. Illustrating the dissonance between creative progression and systematic ambition, the print portrays an architectural form that exercises a “strange grip on the imagination” , which demonstrates the “entire range of possibilities (and impossibilities)” (Wolfe) in the expression of individuality that seemed to open up after the fall of the USSR. The use of screen-printing removes the autographic trace of the artist, and functions as a distributive media that cements something fantastical and unique into a certain level of stream-lined professionalism and legitimacy, which becomes a convincing tactic for highlighting the struggle for maintaining creative expression within a large, ambitiously reproductive system. The printing surface also holds significance in this work. By printing these megalithic, fantastical forms on top of dominant Soviet print media, Avvakumov seems to foreshadow the superiority of fantastical expression, all while parodying the artificial, and overly ambitious “advanced modernization” (Simpson 391) of the Soviet agenda. By underlining conflictual tendencies in Russian and Soviet architecture, Avvakumov’s Paper Architects highlight the unrealistic, and subversive promises of “ a utopian future” (Stodolsky 141), that has not been sustained in the post-Soviet imagination. His architectural prints, which participate as “de-colonial forms of activist art” (Coe 1), bring attention to the inherent struggle with maintaining an expressive identity both in the times of Soviet suppression, and the futureless confusion of the post-Soviet condition.
Contrasting the hopeless, chaotic mentality of this period, conceptual artist Alexander Florensky created prints that studied Russian folk life in a philosophically optimistic fashion as a way to empower the beauty of the commonplace Russian individual. Florensky is known as a founding member of the Mitki group: an underground collective that occupied themselves with the subject of challenging the Soviet establishment through combining humour and tragedy. This group fashioned a “playful, empathetically countercultural identity with affinities to European avant-garde and American hippie movements” (Mihailovic). More broadly, the Mitki’s exploration of urban life in Russia, their mentality, and history, presented a renewed Russian identity through utilizing figures that “are rooted in mythologies involving mass consciousness”
(Aminova). Florensky’s Russian Album screen-print depicts a dissected rendition of a classical Russian genre painting. This work serves as an ironic take on “the popular Russian taste for copies of nineteenth-century history paintings in the style of the ‘Wanderers’ school of social realists” (“Russian Album”). In this print, Florensky has integrated the idiom of the “Lubok or folk print” (“Russian Album”), which depicted narrative or moral subjects and flourished in Russia in the early twentieth century. The print is rendered in a “cartoon-like fashion” (“Alexander Florensky”) , opting for simple shapes and flattened blocks of colour instead of utilizing traditional linear perspective. The high contrast of a bold black outline on the white of the paper also gives the work a “certain intensity” (“Alexander Florensky”). The unassuming subject, occupied with music and drink, directly reflects the Mitki’s idolization of loitering and alcohol, which is “a quintessential aspect of [the Russian] identity” (“Mitki”). Florenksy’s renditions of folk paintings often favoured the screen-printing technique for the medium’s possibility of graphic lines and segregated tones which accounted for the “playful humour and exotic colours” (Meier). With their talent for underlining the classic, folk-based Russian identity, Florensky and the group brought “optimism to the masses” (Aminova) despite the grim reality of the post-Soviet period. Their print works, like the one mentioned, focused on a life “beyond the bounds of the bleak Soviet reality” (Meier), instead choosing to depict a fantastical Russian atmosphere, resonating with pre-revolutionary “Russian folklore and spiritual harmony”. Florensky explains, “these are idealized places, we know that. But what else are we going to [depict]?” (Meier) – in truth, his determination to use the Russian fantasy as an optimistic point of departure for the post-Soviet identity is in its way a protest against the social structures of the Soviet and post-Soviet realities. And unlike Novikov, whose depiction of the past renders a scene of hopeless nostalgia, Florensky aims to look deeper into a surviving, humorous Russian spirit that empowers the struggling post-Soviet Russian with his “frank and guileless look at life” (Aminova), thus revealing the beauty of the commonplace.
Through the graphic, documentative, and versatile capabilities of print, contemporary Russian artists strived to reclaim or redefine a cultural narrative that was virtually undermined and hopeless in the turbulent years leading after the fall of the Soviet state. For Timur Novikov’s New Academy, print became a method of subversive historical analysis that unearthed the harsh reality behind the artificial dogma of social realism. Yuri Avvakumov, along with the Paper Architects, utilized the screenprint as a repetitive tool for infiltrating rebellious notions of creative expression in a field where a monotonous, corrupt structure suffocated the concept of a creative identity. For Alexander Florensky and the prominent Mitki group, the print served to redefine the fantasy of the Russian spirit, and to bring a humorous and optimistic light upon a demographic whose sense of national identity was dangerously wavering. More broadly, the use of the printmaking medium allowed for a fertile ground of question, exploration, and introspection in a dejected climate that lingered within a state of confused disarray. Contemporary Russian artists ventured through the nuances of a turbulent social structure in order to vocalize the pending questions of identity surrounding Russia’s new age.
Fig. 1.Novikov, Timur. Lost Ideals of Happy Childhood. 2 000. Lithograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O101602/lost-ideals-of-happy-childhood-print-noviko v-timur/
Fig. 2Avvakumov, Yuri. Red Tower. 1 986-98. Screenprint. Victoria and Albert Museum.https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O101633/red-tower-screenprint-avvakomov-yuri/
Fig. 3Florensky, Alexander. Russian Album. 2 001. Screenprint. Victoria and Albert Museum. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O101630/russian-album-screenprint-florensky-alexande r/
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