Rethinking The Legacy of Unofficial Art in St. Petersburg: The Case of Pushkinkaya-10 Art Center

Monika Bernotas (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

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One must really have the desire to find the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center if they are to visit it. Located in an otherwise inconspicuous courtyard, off Ligovsky Prospect, which runs parallel to the street of its original name, it hides, tucked behind the bright signs of the downtown area surrounding the Moskovsky railway station. The residents of the center do not make it easy for visitors to navigate, either, offering an overwhelming variety of galleries and points of interest to visit. In short, the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center is not for the faint of heart, yet as an art space, having survived over twenty years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it remains to remind us of the necessity of physical space in the creative process for artists.

Although the Puskinskaya-10 Art Center is, in itself, a site of memory, it is not one that is accessible to all, physically or intellectually. In an interview with the art center’s co-founder, Sergey Kovalsky, he emphasized that, although the space is shared and public, it is not, truly, for everyone.[1] Not every gallery visitor easily understands the art created by the nonconformist artists of the Soviet era, because it takes an understanding of the era and the movement to really grasp it. Pushkinskaya-10 simultaneously tells its own story of unofficial art and represents the many nonconformist art movements of the twentieth century, both successful and unsuccessful, that expressed their discontent with the Soviet System through artistic media. Academically and journalistically, this art center in particular has not been the subject of much study. However, the site serves as a home to artists both young and old, as an archive of “dissident,” “forbidden,” “nonconformist,” and “unofficial” art[2], and, as a tribute to the legacy and memory of unconventional art in twentieth century St. Petersburg and the Eastern Bloc.

The art movements represented in Pushkinskaya-10 have been studied to some extent, as information about their roots in unofficial art is uncovered. This chapter in Russia’s art history is extremely significant, especially because the art remains so controversial, even twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet regime.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union is no longer in existence, a sense of distinction between official and unofficial art remains, preventing some works from being displayed publicly.[3] For this reason, the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center exists as a testament to the emergence of a continuous tradition of unofficial art from the Soviet Union and through its dissolution to today, by giving aspiring and established artists a space in which to create and share their work with one another and with the public. Further study of this art cooperative allows us to observe how the operations of the center have changed, and understand the connection between an artist’s physical and emotional space and their ability to create.

Since the Stalinist era the government tried to control art, along with all other forms of “creative” production. Strict limitations were placed on artists, preventing them from creating and displaying works that did not conform to the accepted method. In 1932 the Soviet leadership adopted Socialist Realism as the official method of Soviet art. Any creative product was subject to the limitations of this method, including plays, films, books, sculpture, and all fine arts. Socialist realism not only sought to glorify the virtues of Soviet collective labor, but also, simultaneously denounced the evils of capitalist culture. In literature and cinema, socialist realism manifested itself in stories, in which a socialist mentor guides a spontaneous youth to recognize the errors of his ways, and glorify the ideals of socialism.[4]

In visual arts, the distinctive style realistically captured images of pride in the Soviet way of life, which were subsequently used in propaganda and every aspect of illustrated life from children’s stories to cookbooks.[5] All artistic production, notably the many portraits of party leaders like Stalin and Lenin, was commissioned and required to conform to the socialist realist aesthetic method. Additionally, sculptures and monuments in the socialist realist style, to either party leaders or the workingman or woman, took up physical space in the cities of the Soviet Union, giving mass and volume to the philosophy, making soviet socialist realism truly ever present in the lives of the urban citizens. In this way, the Soviet elite attempted to permeate the lives of the citizens with socialist ideology in their physical surroundings, and allowing no space private to be private. An example of this is Vera Mukhina’s statue in Moscow, The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman. The statue, originally constructed for the 1937 Paris World Fair, towers now nearly 200 feet above the VDNKh section of Moscow. Besides that, the statue became the iconic logo of the major Soviet film company, MosFilm, allowing it to truly penetrate the lives of the Soviet citizens.

Mosfilm Studios Logo.

Official paintings and sculptures were created by those occupied in the strictly controlled field of artistic production. For those who wanted to make art outside the method of socialist realism there was little opportunity to be creative. Despite these limitations, artists continued to create art of their own, outside the official method. When socialist realism was implemented in the early 1930s many Soviet Russian artists continued to create in the avant garde style, disregarding the official method of the Soviet Union. These artists were forced to work on their unofficial art as privately as they could with their own resources while simultaneously working as official book-illustrators or in other occupations, lest they be purged during the Stalinist era, or accused of parasitism in the 1970s and 80s.[6] Those who worked outside of the art industry could often obtain materials to create their own works through connections inside the art guilds. Unless they were associated or connected with such art guilds, they were severely limited in time and resources, and, most importantly, private studio space in which to create. Without space, they were unable to create, let alone hide, the art that helped them to confront the state-imposed limitations.

It is important to note that the situation in Russia was much different from the situations in other republics in the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet rule began in Russia in 1917, quite suddenly artists transitioned from a restrictive czarist regime to a restrictive socialist regime. Many artists tried to immigrate to countries where they were able to work outside of the socialist realist method, but few were successful. On the other hand, some states, such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were incorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II, allowing artists from those countries to create works in their own style for thirty additional years. Furthermore, in the Baltic States, for example, the flux of the Second World War gave artists the opportunity to escape abroad, where they were able to create art without restrictions or requirements imposed by the socialist state.

In Russia, some of the most important unofficial networks were established in St. Petersburg in the 1970s and 80s, specifically, the Brotherhood of Experimental Art, which was established in 1981, and the Society for Experimental Exhibitions.[7] Such organizations were established outside of the official unions and guilds of Soviet Artists, meaning that they did not reap any benefits of being an organization, and had to conduct their operations as privately as possible. Such secret organizations were not regulated, and, therefore, not tolerated by the state. Operating in secret, however, the groups did benefit the members by offering a community of support for their art, and establishing connections for each other outside of the stifling environment of the Soviet Union.

Those dissident artists who worked in secret did manage to network with one another unofficially. Artistic movements from abroad that were censored by the Soviet Regime were discovered and shared through these artistic networks. Additionally, they made contact with international art collectors and dealers, inviting them into their unofficial syndicate. One such collector was Norton Dodge, whose collection of nonconformist soviet art can now be seen at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University. His collection was built up over the course of ten visits to the Soviet Union starting in the 1970s, through Perestroika, and includes works by some of the most prosperous, previously-dissident artists, today, such as Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. It was fortunate that, through these small, private outlets, the unofficial artists of the Soviet Union managed without personal creative space, by secretly exporting their art, creating a satellite art space in the United States.

Furthermore, it was out of these unofficial organizations that unofficial exhibitions began to emerge in secret, and then in public. Although art was an escape and a therapy for these artists, it was also an act of political dissidence, despite the fact that the subjects of their art were not necessarily explicitly anti-soviet. For example, the art of Boris Koshelokhov, which draws greatly from early 20th Century Russian avant-garde and fauvism, depicts many natural and neutral themes.[8] It was largely because his art was not created in the socialist realist method that it was denied and tagged by Soviet law as unofficial, and, therefore, illegal.[9]

In 1989, at the height of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, the members of these organizations, realizing their need for a space of their own, joined their forces to create the Free Culture Society and moved into the house at Pushkinskaya-10 in Leningrad. Sergey Kovalsky, the founder of the space, recognized the abandoned building at that address as a potential home for all the artists who did not have their own spaces to create, much like the establishment of the SoHo district of New York by Fluxus artist, George Maciunas. Its location on Pushkinskaya Street made it particularly ideal, since “Pushkin is [our/Russia’s] everything.”[10]

The building, dubbed the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center, managed by the Free Culture Society, has now been functioning as an art cooperative for twenty-two years. Aside from apartment and studio spaces for over thirty artists, the center boasts approximately ten museums and galleries, as well as studios for performance art, a shrine to the Beatles, two cafés and a record store. The space serves as a creative home for musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and, of course, the painters and sculptors, who established it. Although it is no longer accessible from its original address at off of Pushkinskaya Street[11], the art center still holds much of its original charm, and seems to maintain its nonconformist roots, albeit somewhat ironically. The Art Center was established as a space of nonconformity, where artists were expressing dissent towards the soviet authority.

Now, the artists refer to the Art Center as “an island of communism,” as its operation and maintenance are taken on with a collective attitude. In fact, the artists and residents still consider themselves nonconformists, despite the fact that the Soviet Union has long since dissolved. Logically, they continue to resist conforming to the ideals of the state and mainstream cultural values, so, when the government ceased to be socialist, the artists at Pushkinskaya-10 picked up where the state left off.

Kovalsky, the Center’s co-founder, has a unique view of the world, describing it as a “Parallelosphere.” The concept, although difficult to understand at first, makes a certain degree of sense, geometrically and philosophically speaking. While we, as human beings, live on the sphere of the earth, we consistently find parallels between our creator, ourselves and that which we create. His goal is to expand the parallelosphere to include all of mankind through cultural parallelism throughout the world, which is, in essence, the mission of Pushkinskaya-10.[12]

One of the unique things about the center is the varied integration of public and private spaces together. While each resident artist has his own space to use for living and creating, the exhibition space spills out into shared areas, including hallways, stairwells, elevators, walls and ceilings. Visitors participate in the creation by adding what they can to graffiti-ed areas while, in most cases, respecting that, which has already been created. Some residents of St. Petersburg, who come to visit the center, say that they like the idea of the space particularly because of its accessibility.[13]

Since its establishment, the Art Center has striven to maintain its original mission; that is, to integrate Russian contemporary art to the new world culture.[14] To do this, the art center brings in foreign exhibitions, and displays work of their own abroad. One such collection brought to the center was that of a German artist, Kurt Flekenstein, whose exhibition, featured an installation that describes the center’s operation: “Freedom is Space for the Spirit,” a banner of which now hangs in one of the courtyards in the Art Center. The quote, which has blended into the backdrop of the courtyard for many of the residents, has yet some resilience when questioned about it. In particular, Kovalsky relates to the quotation, saying that without space in which to act, the spirit can do nothing, and that freedom has potential in all spaces.[15]

More importantly than bringing in foreign artists, however, is the new opportunity to share their creations outside of their own space. In the early 1990s, with the help of foreign collectors and artists, like aforementioned Norton Dodge and Barbara Hazard, the artists associated with the Free Culture Society at last shared their work in exhibitions abroad and in public exhibitions in Russia, where they were previously restricted from displaying.

 

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Monika Bernotas interviews Sergei Kovalsky at the Exhibition in Peter and Paul Fortress

 

One exhibition of note, called “St. Petersburg Free Culture in Museums of Russia,” had been touring the cities of Russia over the past year, until it at last arrived home to St. Petersburg. Years ago, nonconformist artists who would become the founders of Pushkinskaya-10 wanted to exhibit their work in the Peter and Paul Fortress, but were thwarted by the authorities. Now, this travelling exhibition has made its final stop in the Peter and Paul Fortress’s Nevsky Gate Gallery, bringing its journey full circle, both around the country, and in time.[16]

The significance of such an exhibition, taking place in the cradle of St. Petersburg, was not unintentional. For the artists of the Society of Free Culture, finally displaying their work in this space shows St. Petersburg’s, and Russia’s, acceptance of the work they did illegally during the Soviet reign. On walls of the fortress the nonconformist art movement began in 1976 when one of the underground artists, Yuli Rybakov, painted on the walls of the fortress: “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles.” Rybakov was convicted to six years of prison for his artistic and political performance.  The Pushkinskaya-10 art community views Rybakov’s artistic act as one of the stories of origins for their movement.  Thus, exhibition inside of the fortress, where the works of Yuli Rybakov among other artists are displayed, has a special significance for the art center community.

While Russia’s capital Moscow had an aggressive and assertive artistic community during the Soviet era, the exhibitions they held in apartments and public squares were often broken up by Soviet authorities. On the other hand, the St. Petersburg artistic community was more discreet and structured, leaving much of their work to be discovered only now, in the period after the Soviet reign.[17] Despite the obvious international acclaim, the future of the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center remains to be seen. The resident artist population is aging, and the funds to support such an institution are running low. The Society of Free Culture, which reigns over the Art Center’s space, puts a great deal of effort into maintaining their stance, that art should be free. For this reason, the art center functions almost entirely on donations and grants, while admission to the museums and galleries remain free of charge.

Furthermore, keeping in mind the lofty cultural confidence of St. Petersburg, (as Russia’s “cultural capital”) new galleries and projects are constantly appearing, supporting artists in their endeavors to create. The Novyi Muzey[18], located on Vasilievsky Island, boasts a collection of avant-garde art, ranging from the early 20th century to the present, giving a brief overview of Russia’s avant-garde history in a noticeably less confusing exhibition space. Additionally, a few blocks down Ligovsky Prospect from the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center, the Loft Project Etagi[19] is establishing a similar project, targeting a younger population and emphasizing its accessibility, even advertising space for function rentals and a hostel.

The question now is whether or not the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center will be able to survive moving into the future of Russian art. Some of the resident artists are reluctant to answer. For example, Boris Koshelokhov says that he lives and creates only “here and now.”[20] The time and space in which he creates is entirely transient, and it is difficult for him to consider the future. This is also evident in his creative process, and his ability to churn out several paintings in a day.

Aleksandr Bashirov, a filmmaker and actor whose film company, Deboshirfilm[21], has its headquarters in Pushkinskaya-10 has a much different outlook. He described his first visit to the space as visiting a garbage pile. Distressed over the disorganization and less-than-healthy lifestyle of the resident artists, he seems to think that without proper care, the art center will return to its original state – a trashed abandoned building. Unfortunately, he offers little constructive feedback as to how this fate can be prevented, recommending that the artists be hit over the head.[22]

Others, like Valentina Kirichenko, the Art Center’s International Programming Director, are optimistic, saying that Pushkinskaya-10 offers much more than other galleries. The center is special because of the unique quality of the creative space being shared with the public, and gallery space not being restricted by walls. Although the budget for marketing is finite, and the advertising for the art center is limited to whoever will notice, she says that they are currently targeting a younger population, who are beginning to play a larger role in the operations of the art center. Older generations, who are reluctant to embrace the legacy of nonconformist art, are quickly fading out of the picture, and it is up to the youth to carry mantle of this historic art movement.[23]

To get to Pushkinskaya-10, one must know the way, in both a literal and figurative sense. Across Ligovsky Prospect from the Moskovsky Railway Station, the entrance to the art center can be found through the courtyard to house number 53. However, finding the physical space will not help you to understand it immediately. The artists who reside there risked their lives to create their art during the Soviet era, and continue to live and resist conformity. By adopting this space as their own, they have created an unofficial cooperative island, on which the memory of unofficial art lives on. Pushkinskaya-10 stands, and, with love, creativity, and perseverance, will continue to stand as a testament to the courage of nonconformist artists during the Soviet Era, and as a St. Petersburg site of memory. The Art Center as a space, and the unofficial art movements which it represents, reminds us that people, to create, need freedom, and freedom is space to create.


Special thanks to Anastasia Vasilyeva (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Анастасии Васильевой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.

ENDNOTES

[1] Kovalsky. Personal Interview.

[2] Different terms describing the art of the Soviet Union have been coined, especially since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. “Dissident” art describes art that is specifically against a particular political ideology. “Forbidden” art can be used to describe any art that is unacceptable to the regime at hand, in this case, the Soviet Union. “Nonconformist” art can be used to describe any art that is made by people who identify themselves as not conforming to the system in power. My favored term is “unofficial” art, which describes the movement’s existence and addresses the fact that, although the Soviet authorities were aware of its existence, they were often helpless to confront it publicly. Although each artist chooses to associate his or herself with a different category,=, the concept remains generally the same.

[3] One situation of note is the Sots-Art travelling exhibition of 2006. The Sots-Art movement, which was based in Moscow during the late Soviet era, combined elements of Soviet propaganda and pop-art style from the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the style remained popular. However, when an exhibition of the works was to begin an international tour in 2006, at the last minute the Russian government held back several pieces from departing, despite the fact that there was no written law to explain why it should be so, an example being a photograph showing two Russian police officers embracing in a kiss in a birch forest. Sots-art remains relevant today because it satirizes not only the Soviet past, but also contemporary Russian society.

[4] Clark 27, 255-260.

[5] Книга о вкусной и здоровой пище (the Book of Delicious and Healthy Food) was a classic Stalin-Era cookbook, that outlined the basics of the Soviet Russian diet, including approximately seven recipes for borscht, as well as how to serve caviar. Published in a starving country, the book became the epitomy of Soviet ideological hypocrisy.

[6] Baigell 374.

[7] Koshelokhov. Personal Interview.

[8] The turn of the century brought the development of many new art movements in Europe and North America starting with impressionism and its modernist descendants, such as fauvism. These works emphasized feeling and impulse, rather than exact study of a space. Such artistic movements were thought vulgar by many critics; however, the art emerged from a politically and culturally volatile time, when it was necessary for artists to express their stance through art.

[9] Koshelokhov. Personal Interivew.

[10] Kovalsky. Personal Interview, citing the famous line about Pushkin by Russian nineteenth century literary critic, Apollon Grigoryev.

[11] Kovalsky. Personal Interview.

[12] Kovalsky, “The Parallelosphere of the Art Center ‘Pushkinskaya-10′”

[13] Sokolova. Personal Interview.

[14] Kovalsky, Sergey, Evgeny Orlov, and Yuri Ribakov. Art Center “Pushkinskaya-10” – Parallelosphere. 1989-2009.

[15] Kovalsky. Personal Interview.

[16] Kovalsky. Personal Interview at Peter and Paul Fortress.

[17] Rosenfeld 133

[18] Новый Музей http://www.novymuseum.ru/

[19] Лофт Проект ЭТАЖИ http://www.loftprojectetagi.ru/en/about/

[20] Koshelokhov. Personal Interview.

[21] “Дебошир Фильм” http://www.deboshirfilm.ru/

[22] Bashirov. Personal Interview.

[23] Kirichenko. Personal Interview.


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