Resources for Art in Context

Images and Video

Video interview and accompanying works

Interview with Professor Jane Sharp of Rutgers University.

Viktor Pivovarov. Fly on the Apple. 1972. Lithograph.

Boris Sveshnikov. Untitled, Vetlosian Series. 1950. Ink on Paper.

Works not specifically referenced in the text:

Peeter Ulas. Land, Countries, Landscapes, Earths. 1982. Etching.

Over one hundred different nationalities lived within the vast borders of the Soviet Union, and the policy implemented to govern this diverse federation promised state support to those forms of nationhood that did not conflict with it. The government introduced the “Friendship of the Peoples” (Druzhba narodov), which granted superior status to the Russian people and pledged to promote individual minority identities through attention to national culture. As a result, the art of a given minority was either officially sanctioned or altogether forbidden. Artists from the Baltic republics sought a representational language for their message of dissent. Peeter Ulas’ etchings, their rich materiality of surface invoking the tactility of soil, comment on territorial displacement and the longing for occupied land.

Evgeny Rukhin. Untitled. 1975. Oil on canvas.

Grappling for ways out of the confinement of socialist realism, nonconformist artists turned to templates culled from the archives of Western art, the historic Russian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s, and Russia’s own rich visual culture. The vertical stripe in this painting by Evgeny Rukhin is borrowed from the Russian avant-garde, and its combination with a found object reminiscent of icon painting reconfigures the modern and the traditional. Rukhin’s use of pastiche and his emphasis on the materiality of the surface create a wonderfully tactile and painterly piece of art.

Additional works:

Evgeny Rukhin. Untitled. 1975. Mixed media on canvas.

Vladas Zilius. Untitled. 1977. Lithograph.

Vello Vinn. Traffic Lights. 1977. Etching.

Glossary Terms

Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks were a political party founded in Russia by Vladimir Lenin in the early twentieth century. The movement was influenced by Marxist ideas about the oppression of working people by those who benefit from their work. Lenin believed that the working people had to form an organized political party in order to bring about their own liberation, and it was this party that ultimately gained control of Russia in October of 1917 and went on to form the U.S.S.R.

Bourgeois. In Soviet rhetoric, “bourgeois” was used to refer disparagingly to lifestyles and value systems driven by consumerism and material wealth. In a Marxist view of society, the bourgeoisie are those who control money and land (the “means of production”).

Gulag. GULAG is an acronym used to refer to the system of forced labor camps in operation between the 1930s and 1950s in the USSR. The word came to refer to the larger network of institutions, labor camps, and concentration camps to which millions of Soviet citizens were sent by their government. Anyone from everyday criminals, to political prisoners, to so-called enemies of the state could be sent to the the Gulag, where the sentence could be spent performing manual labor in extreme conditions.

Extension Resource

Teachers can borrow large folio collections of perestroika-era political posters from the Davis Center. With their bold colors, short slogans, and cartoonish figures, posters from the glasnost and perestroika era of the 1980s were used to communicate clear, strong messages critiquing the Soviet government for its lack of innovation and free thinking, environmental destruction, and financial instability. Students can compare and contrast the visual language used in these posters and works of nonconformist art, considering:

  • In what ways do each use imagery as a response to government control and conformity?
  • Would students describe this work as conceptual, abstract, or surreal?
  • How does use of imagery and text in these posters compare and contrast with use in works of nonconformist art?

Works from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art are on display at the Davis Center on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tours of the collection for teachers and student groups are possible.

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