Nikolai Bukharin’s statement that ‘History moves in contradictions,’ remained fixed in my mind as I walked around the Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition of 20th Century Russian Art. The politician’s words summarises this evocative and enlightening collection that responds to the Communist regime in this period. In concept the party was to be a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ but what transpired was, of course, the control and subjection of the proletariat. Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union is an insight into the lives of the Russian people and artists’ reactions and documentation of this historical contradiction.
The first, and most striking, of the collection is Sergei Vasiliev’s photography entitled Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, a series of black and white photos taken between 1989 and 1993. The photos comprise of Russian prisoners, nameless and without any history, wearing only their underwear, baring their tattooed bodies. The tattoos are a way for the men to express themselves, a personal freedom to use the body as art.
The photos force the viewer to analyse and regard the criminals not by their government assigned status, but as humans. Their partially naked bodies, and gazes that are distant and forlorn without confronting the camera, reveal everything to the viewer. They aren’t hiding anything; there is no deception in their identities. It reveals the vulnerability and sensitivity of the men, in clear contrast to their masculine bodies and violent histories. Vasiliev chooses not to use colour in these photos, as it would detract from the real focal point: the men. The lack of colour allows the story and imagery of these men to be reinforced and to concentrate on them as individuals and not be their collective status as criminals.
Boris Mikhailov’s photography, Case History, is shocking, not for the nudity of the models, but for the poverty, disease and desperation experienced by the lower classes and the helplessness and disintegration felt after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There is a fine balance between the grotesqueness and poignancy when the viewer is forced to address the startling conditions of post-Communist Russia. On second viewing, there is a subliminal tension of extreme sexuality, due not only to the model’s nudity but to the suggestion of prostitution given by their intimate interaction.
Unfortunately the last collection, Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-1980s, is reminiscent of a typical Saatchi exhibition. While it gives a comprehensive and brisk insight into subversive art movements from Conceptualism to Abstractionism, a lot of the work is lost in concept. The paintings lack the direct analysis and conveyance of the previous floors. Rather than truly identifying and portraying an aspect of Russian life and society, they don’t penetrate or illuminate, leaving the work to be merely glanced at before moving on. While it’s interesting to see how painters reacted in the metropolitan city of Moscow, it is a let down visually and artistically.
Bukharin embodied his own words; like so many of the Russian people, he became a victim of Stalin and the regime he helped implement. For the first time in visiting the Saatchi Gallery, it feels like there has finally been a cohesive and relevant exhibition. Previously, the collections have seemed random and insubstantial, reliant on concept rather than realization of said concept, but this time the experience has been emotive and illuminating with most of the artists bringing a different outlook on Russian life pre and post Communism. The Saatchi Gallery has brought a refreshing collection of non-traditional Western art that exposes the macabre, real and contradictory lives of those living in that contradictory period of time.
The exhibition runs from the 21st November 2012 – 5th May 2013