Background for Educators

Learn more about the history of Soviet nonconformist art to explore connections between visual culture and politics of opposition, as well as the use of art as a primary source in the classroom.

The Arts of Subversion

Leaders of the socialist Soviet state crafted a vision of an ideal society through political, economic, and social policy. Following the overthrow of the Russian monarchy through the February and October revolutions of 1917, Russia was plunged into a period of civil war from which the Bolshevik Red Army emerged victorious. The Bolshevik-led movement coalesced into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and as the state extended its control in the 1930s, authorities increasingly demanded that their vision be reflected in the works of Soviet visual artists. In form and content, the state sanctioned a particular style of artistic expression—socialist realism—promoting a worldview that prized collective experience, complete loyalty to the paternalistic regime, and unwavering celebration of the life promised to Soviet citizens by their government. This agenda is easy to recognize in the subject matter of socialist realist paintings. Happy and healthy citizens beam out from the canvas: hardworking farmers, brave soldiers, and loyal factory workers. Less obvious are the ways in which the viewer’s experience was also understood to reinforce Soviet ideals.

Surrealism

Finding materials and support for their livelihood was not the only concern of nonconformist artists who risked working outside of the state-sanctioned system. They also had to find models of nonrepresentational art from which to draw inspiration.

Rather than depict a Soviet reality intended to be easily recognized and mimicked by viewers, surrealist Soviet artists portrayed fantastical, absurd, or dreamlike scenarios. Soviet authorities saw the lack of clear meaning, reference, and narrative in these enigmatic subjects as dangerously subversive.

See Artist Focus: Boris Sveshnikov (1927-1998).

Abstraction

Searching for artistic legacies outside of the Soviet system, some nonconformists looked to the works of Russian avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, as well as to new movements in Western art. From these sources they studied the use of abstract art, a visual style focused on building blocks of visual images—forms, lines, and color. Geometric shapes, curving outlines, or splashes of color may show only fragments of recognizable figures, objects, or landscapes, inviting viewers to create their own interpretations and experiences of the image. In contrast to realism, which was used to moralize, teach, or insist on a single meaning or “lesson” for a painting, abstraction was used as an open invitation to the viewer, to welcome multiple responses free from an artist’s agenda.

See Artist Focus: Evgeny Rukhin (1943-1976).

Conceptual Art

By the 1960s the underground movement of nonconformists was flourishing. Many artists who had been excluded from working in public or state institutions chose to create their own art outside of the government-sanctioned process. Unofficial artists who wanted to show their work and connect to an audience had to do so creatively and surreptitiously, at great personal risk. For example, an open-air exhibit staged in a vacant lot in 1974 was soon attacked by police and bulldozed to the ground. Nevertheless, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new generation of artists focused on conceptualism emerge.

Unlike abstract art, conceptual work may include images of recognizable objects or people, but composed in ways that do not mirror the natural world—perhaps floating on a blank page, or presented in implausible scale. Setting and composition are even less recognizable than those of surreal images. Here artists play with the idea of communication and reference. Playfully or absurdly, they may hint at a recognizable narrative, though a clear message remains unfixed and elusive.

See Artist Focus: Viktor Pivovarov (b. 1937).