Contemporary Art Scene Goes Public in Moscow

Times Art Writer

The most important word about Moscow’s contemporary art scene is that there is one. By Western standards, the scene is young, rumpled and unsophisticated, but its very existence is news of the first order.

Artists who once would have been routed off the streets, if not locked up, now set up their easels and hang their paintings on the Arbat--a popular promenade near the center of town. Others peddle their wares in weekend art fairs at Izmailovo Park in northeast Moscow or show their work in rambling group exhibitions sprinkled around the city.

Six years ago, when I last visited Moscow, public shows of contemporary art were about as rare as hot water--which was inexplicably cut off for the duration of my trip. This year, on the occasion of Sotheby’s ground-breaking auction, it was almost impossible to avoid bumping into a display of contemporary art. Every artist suggested a show that shouldn’t be missed.

The easiest way for tourists to get a taste of this aspect of glasnost is to stroll the Arbat, an attractive walking street lined with pastel buildings in various stages of restoration. The quality of the art--not to mention the dearth of originality--is roughly equivalent to that in American parking-lot art sales, except that the work is more committed to traditional styles and laborious drawing.


Tight little landscapes abound, along with picturesque views of onion domes, pastiches borrowed from modern masters and occasional pleas for world peace. On a recent Sunday, one artist had covered a fence with effusive paintings of baroque fantasies and was busy nailing a gold frame around his show’s centerpiece that depicted a cherub on an ambassadorial mission.

The most prominent art form practiced on the Arbat is portraiture, however. On a fine day you may find a dozen or more artists creating credible likenesses of patient sitters in pencil, charcoal or pastel while crowds admire their efforts. The price of a portrait is 25 rubles (about $42), but it’s negotiable and--judging from the number of clients--not prohibitive.

At Izmailovo Park (a huge, wooded amusement park near the Izmailovski Park Metro station), the fare is more varied and the atmosphere even more casual. It’s definitely a soft-sell situation, with artists lounging under trees and propping up their works with branches stuck into the ground. Prospective buyers stroll along a dirt path lined with handmade items, then search for the artist if they want to make a purchase.

Pot holders, painted cutting boards, embroidered aprons, beaded jewelry and nested dolls mingle with the artworks. There are lots of familiar landscapes in watercolor and oil, a startling array of religious-themed art (including crucifixes and glossy icons), sexy nudes, biting social criticism and rip-offs of Western paintings. On a recent Sunday, one artist boldly exhibited a copy of one of Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nudes” but objected to having it photographed.

Visitors looking for higher quality will find it in various exhibition halls around town. Installations are uniformly horrendous by American standards--with badly stretched canvases and awkwardly mounted works hung floor-to-ceiling in poorly lighted, stiflingly hot halls. But the art itself is a fascinating outpouring of the sort of personal expression that was kept under wraps until recently.

Two of the best places to get an overview of Moscow’s contemporary art this summer are the Palace of Youth (above the Frunzhenskaya Metro station) and the House of Artists (11 Kuzhnisky Most). Some of the same artists are represented at both places, and each show has a few pieces by artists who sold works in Sotheby’s much publicized July 7 auction.

Such displays indicate that there’s no such thing as a reigning art style in the Soviet Union. (Even the dreaded Socialist Realism has long since dissipated into a proliferation of styles and subjects that are only unified by accessible subject matter and political inoffensiveness.) Disparate though it is, the contemporary work currently in the limelight is predominantly figurative, often expressionistic and political. Some works question the depth of glasnost , while others rebel against the abuse of power and the military establishment. But in the same exhibitions are crisp geometric abstractions and restrained reflections on private moments.

The variety of aesthetic sensibilities and approaches is refreshing--though confusing for anyone trying to arrive at meaningful conclusions about new art in the Soviet Union. It helps to look back into Russian art history.


Though the achievements of the Russian Avant-Garde are only now becoming widely known to Soviet artists, the influence of Russia’s late 19th-Century Symbolist movement seems quite pervasive. Contemporary works rarely echo the stylistic traits of that period, but artists repeatedly speak of “poly-semantic symbols” and of revealing a reality that has little to do with appearances.

Instead of insisting on a single interpretation of their work, they are eager to point out its equivocal or multilayered nature. Deprived of contact with the Western art world, they have, in their words, developed “closed systems” that burrow inward, piling up meanings and building complex relationships. It appears that artists forced to live with a dichotomy between public pronouncements and private truths have absorbed the conflict into their work. They have also absorbed the force of political realities.

In physical terms, contemporary Soviet art can be defined by its limitations. Painting predominates partly because artists have not had access to Xerox machines, computers, photographic methods of printmaking and foundries. When sculpture appears, it is usually made of wood scraps or found objects. Cramped studio space is also a factor. Since most artists paint in their apartments or tiny walk-up studios, large works are generally composed of small segments.

Short-term visitors to Moscow may come away with a skewed view of Soviet contemporary art, depending on exhibition schedules. But Soviets are likely to get equally strange impressions of American art this summer.


The most accessible example is ridiculous: An exhibition of flashy works by LeRoy Neiman, one of America’s most commercial illustrators and least professionally respected artists, has moved into the hall dubbed the New Tretyakov. Located across the street from Gorky Park (at 10-14 Krymskaya Naberezhnaya), the building houses part of the venerable Tretyakov Gallery’s collection of Russian art while the historic facility undergoes renovation.

On the positive side--but not very accessible--is a selection of works by such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Krasner, George Sugarman and Billy Al Bengston, which has moved in the Spaso House (the residence of American ambassadors) through the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies Program. Unfortunately, only guests of the ambassador will see these imports, on loan from several museums and the Frederick R. Weisman Collection.

So, those visiting Moscow before Aug. 14 (when the Neiman show closes) can not only see the Tretyakov’s stunning collection of icons and avant-garde paintings but also some of the worst art that America has to offer. Must be a communist plot.