MOSCOW -- The debate over the future of Russian art has turned ugly. Compared to the struggles among artists here, the fights in the Communist Party are a veritable love embrace. Three current Moscow exhibitions reveal the enormous gulf between the artistic worlds of the new and old generations.
Just when the avant-garde thought it was unfashionable to mix art and politics, a reactionary painter of the socialist realist old guard, Ilya Glazunov, has seized his chance to preach to the masses. With his massive retrospective at the czar's former riding school, the Manezh, Glazunov pays self-tribute to his 35 years of service as a Russian "People's Artist."
Perhaps the only bridge between Glazunov and his young counterparts is a common recognition of the absurd gap between yesterday's promises and today's disillusionments. The distance between the two generations remains vast. As the pop sculptor Astakhov quipped, "You know the Manezh used to be for horses. Well, they may have taken away the horses, but their manure keeps reappearing."
On the other side of town, at the Palace of Youth, a show of recent works by the Leningrad avant-garde group Mitki represents the reappearance of the old "new generation." And yet another exhibit of more than 800 works by young Moscow artists is on view at the Moscow Artists Union's central hall.
The three exhibits revive the classic 19th-century battle in Russian culture over artistic forms. In one corner stands Glazunov, now 60, silver-haired, a fop with a penchant for baronial silk suits and shallow realism. Though he once encountered opposition during the days when Leonid Brezhnev bulldozed outdoor art shows here, today Glazunov boldly flaunts the material rewards of his success: a studio on the Arbat and an adoring entourage.
In the opposite corner is the avant-garde crowd, howling at his official portraits of Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko (looking comfy in an open cardigan), Fidel Castro and the Russian nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin. Yet Glazunov sees his realism as a kind of patriotic mission: "There is a war going on now, and each of us is mobilized. Russia is on the eve of a gigantic apocalyptic change, and every artist must be a missionary." At a weekly gathering with his audiences at the Manezh, he put fire in their hearts. "If our national idea does not triumph," he declared, "then Russia will disappear from the world map just like the Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine empires did."
To judge from the long lines at his show, Glazunov's minions are hungry for his brand of neo-socialist realism. More than 5,000 people a day have been packing into the Manezh. Only McDonald's can claim competing lines.
Russian nationalism runs high among the comments visitors write in the obligatory "book of responses" that accompanies every Soviet art show. "At last Russian art is not imitating Western decadence! May God grant you health and strength to paint forever," writes Sergei Kulev, a historian from Vladimir. "Only you and He can save Russia now."
For this show Glazunov converted the Manezh into a personal cathedral, complete with blaring organ music. Occupying the altar's place is his trilogy of billboard-sized paintings. The first in the series, "The Mystery of the 20th Century" (1977) mixes this century's major political figures and icons of Western pop culture. Here are floating portraits of JFK, Einstein, Mick Jagger and Golda Meir, in a random orbit around an unknown nude woman. Banned for 13 years, as Glazunov fondly reminds his audience, the work until recently hung in his studio.
He painted the second work, "Eternal Russia," two years ago to honor the millennium of Christianity in this country. It features Christ in the center of row of Russian saints in their finest gold iconography. Behind them rows and rows of the best-known figures from Russian history stream across Red Square.
Glazunov finished the third work, "The Great Experiment," just weeks before the show opened. It depicts Lenin in the dark center of a burning red star. Surrounding him are the masses of literary and political figures who have played leading roles in the past three centuries of Russian history. It is like a yearbook photo of the entire country taken at the end of time. At the very least, Glazunov's vision is current: The work even includes this year's unofficial May Day demonstration on Red Square.
Some visitors place roses in front of these canvases. Some start to cry, as if at a funeral. As Lyudmila Denisovna, a high school teacher, said, "I cannot say whether the experiment has been successful or not, but it is time to lay flowers."
Glazunov is quite clear about the results of the Soviet experiment. "We are facing the great danger of the disappearance of Russia as a grand spiritual and cultural entity. Everything we have created has been taken from us. Everything has been built out of our account. How many millions does Cuba take from us every day? We all know how Russians live. Russians are the greatest victims of this Great Experiment."
Many of his fans would like to see him canonized. But most of all, they treasure his realistic depictions of ancient Russian heroes and legends. For them he opens up the forgotten world of old Russia. Here are their founding fathers, Prince Ruirik and his band of warrior-knights, in all their glory. "It's wonderful that we can see this now, but we should have known it all 40 years ago," lamented medal-laden Denis Ivanovich, 75, on his third tour of the show in three days.
Many in Moscow's intelligentsia art circles marvel at Glazunov's ability to survive both official and unofficial attacks. But today he is running his own show. In the latest Soviet economic fashion of khozraschot (self-financing), Glazunov has rented the Manezh for 250,000 rubles. He charges two rubles a ticket and 10 for a slim catalogue (about a day's average wages).
But not everyone in town is flocking to the Manezh. Many thousands of young Muscovites stormed the premiere of the Mitki's show. True, the reunion of the folk-rock band Aquarium was the evening's main attraction. Yet the Mitki, infamous for their shabby blue-and-white sailor vests and love of alcoholic refreshments, put together a strong group show.
The glasnost bonanza in art forced the Mitki out of the underground. Now they are less concerned with politics and more with making a living. Mostly in their thirties, they are all veterans of pre-perestroika struggles with Artists Union officials. The Leningrad painter Dmitri Shagin, their founder and best-known member, expressed their aims in plain terms: "Why should we argue about the advantages of a free market over the old command-administrative system? We are tired of art with morals. It's time for some fun."
As the concert began, a riot nearly broke out outside. But once the crowd smashed the glass doors, the militia wisely decided to let everyone in without tickets. As Boris Grebenshikov, Aquarium's lead singer and perhaps the Soviet Union's most beloved rock star, belted out his reggae-inflected lyrics, hundreds of elated youths circled the exhibit upstairs.
Founded in the 1970s, the Mitki are perhaps the last survivors of the bad boys of the old Russian avant-garde. They have in common a fondness for playful humor and exotic colors. These paintings, tapestries, cartoons and sculptures focus on a life beyond the bounds of bleak Soviet reality. They create a Chagall-like atmosphere, resonating with pre-revolutionary Russian folklore and spiritual harmony. The painter Alexandr Florensky explains, "These are idealized places, we know that. But what else are we going to paint?"
Here are dreamy scenes of a lost age, where friendly oversized bears hug big bearded peasants. Unlike Glazunov, the Mitki depict Russia's distant past as a fairy tale. Here is a world where magical knights on white steeds gallop across a velvet steppe. These are works of fantasy, not myth-making.
The sculpture capturing the most attention was Vasya Shchetinin's "Ikarushka," a life-size wooden figure in a striped Mitka vest with enormous canvas wings and a large stone tied around his waist. When the stone is pulled down, this frustrated little Icarus flaps his wings hopelessly.
But the show's highlight was the series of eight paintings by the rock star Grebenshikov, dedicated to the "Leaders of the World Proletariat." Combining the Russian literary tradition of the "Lives of the Saints" with a wry comic-book historiography, Grebenshikov's epic relates the great and small feats of this peculiar trio, resembling Stalin, Lenin and Marx. Here we learn: "How the Leaders of the World Proletariat Drink Tea," "How They Discuss a Statue of a Woman with an Oar" (one of the more infamous examples of Stalinist socialist realism) and "How Joseph Stalin Is Captured Near the Kremlin by the Irish Folk Hero Ferdinand."
There is also a new generation, still in the art institutes, eager to attract international attention. The third annual show of "Young Moscow Artists" brings together nearly every imaginable conceptual movement. Despite its slight resemblance to an end-of-the-year high school show, it reveals the accelerated maturation of Russia's youngest artists.
That Vadim Rakovsky, just 17, has already come of age is obvious in his stunning charcoal triptych, "The Youth of Perestroika." No strapping young lads hoisting aloft cheery-faced coeds here. Rakovsky's photo-realist montage of punks, bikers, whores, drunks and cops all in confrontation may well prevent him from entering a prestigious art institute. "Let's just say my teachers were not thrilled with it," says Vadim. "Even if we have glasnost, we still do not have new teachers open to new art."
This generation, however, has quickly grasped the significance of the new Soviet ties to the international art market. Few here have not heard of Sotheby's or Christie's. As Boris Korovin coolly boasted, "This isn't really my best stuff. That's all hanging in cooperative galleries for hard currency." The urge toward the free market, and recent exhibits of Western art, explains the prevalence here of past Western pop movements in new Russian forms.
Here, for example, are Warhol's soup cans, turned into pillars of painted Soviet coffee cans by Yuri Kuznetsov. There is also Jasper Johns's American flag, now formed out of dozens of blue-and-white metal signs warning "Citizens if you smell gas, please telephone 04 ... " by Vladimir Kuzmin.
For some reason baby dolls were a popular motif this year. The crowd took a particular liking to Kiril Astakhov's "Monstrodonna," a sculpture consisting of the nude torso of a pink mannequin on a black cross, holding a partially melted baby doll, covered in red Day-Glo paint. "It's my version of Myth America. Your Madonna, Russian style."