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Costakis Collection

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Date: 1950s-1977

Artists in the collection: Vasily Kandinsky, Ivan Kliun, Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Ivan Puni, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova, Anatoly Zverev, among many others

Location: Costakis apartment, Prospekt Vernadskogo, Moscow

George Costakis (Georgii Dionisovich Kostaki, 1912-1990) began collecting Russian avant-garde art in 1946, when he discovered three paintings by Olga Rozanova in a Moscow studio, and was bitten by the collecting bug. He soon added 15th-17th century Russian icons and the work of young “nonconformist” artists, like Anatoly Zverev and Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, to his roster. Employed at the Canadian embassy as an administrative clerk, Costakis hunted for lost works by such artists as Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Ivan Puni, and Ivan Kliun anywhere he could find them, among remaining relatives and tucked away in private rooms and studios around the Soviet Union. At a time when modernist art was hidden from view in the storerooms of Soviet museums, Costakis’s private collection, which he displayed on the walls of his home, became Moscow’s unofficial museum of modern art and a meeting place for international art collectors and art lovers visiting the capital. Regular guests to Costakis’s apartment included nonconformist artists Anatoly Zverev (1931-1986), Oskar Rabin (b. 1928), Dmitri Krasnopevtsev (1924-1995), Dmitri Plavinsky (1937-2012), Vladimir Veisberg (1924-1985), and many others. Costakis’s friendship with the younger artists gave them access to the avant-garde legacy, to which many of their own works aspired and responded. Costakis left the Soviet Union for Greece in 1977, leaving a large portion of his collection as a gift to the Russian people to reside at the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Document: George COSTAKIS – excerpt from memoirs (1993)


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Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students

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Date: 28 July – 11 August 1957

Participants: the festival hosted over 30,000 foreign guests and 160,000 Soviet delegates; the International Workshop of Plastic Arts showed 4,500 works by contemporary foreign artists from 52 countries; the International Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts showed 375 by 223 Soviet artists, including Erik Bulatov (b. 1933), Pavel Nikonov (b. 1930), Oskar Rabin (b. 1928), and Oleg Tselkov (b. 1934)

Organized by: Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Communist Youth League (Komsomol)

Location: Moscow

The sixth World Festival of Youth and Students took place over two weeks in the summer of 1957, bringing over 30,000 foreign guests to the Soviet capital with the stated goal of promoting peace and friendship. After the isolation of the Stalin years, the Festival played a major role in opening up Soviet society to the West, as Soviet visitors encountered Western consumer goods, jazz music, and modernist art for the first time, and mingled with guests from abroad. For many young artists, the painting exhibitions, coming on the heels of the hugely successful Picasso retrospective at the Pushkin Museum the previous year, were a revelation. Many unofficial and nonconformist artists of the 1960s generation attribute their later bold explorations of modernist idioms to this formative experience.

The photographs presented here were shot by Igor Palmin, a recently-graduated geology student at the time, who had obtained a coveted ticket to the opening festivities at Luzhniki Stadium. He managed to document many of the Festival’s delegations and crowded cultural events, assembling the shots into a handmade annotated album, from which these pages are taken. In the following decades, Palmin would become one of the most prolific documentarians of the Soviet artistic underground as well as a distinguished photographer for such publications as Iskusstvo, Sovetskii khudozhnik, and Sovetskii pisatel. His portraits of unofficial artists in their studios and candid shots of special gatherings convey something of the warmth of underground social life in the last decades of the Soviet Union.


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Art in non-art institutions

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Date: Since 1962

In the period the art historian Elona Lubytė termed ‘silent modernism’ (1962–1982), unofficial exhibitions were held not only in artists’ studios or residences, but also in various non-art institutions that were home to patrons of modern art and exhibition-initiators. Among the most significant institutions were the club of the LSSR (Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic) Writers’ Union, the LSSR State Conservatory, the Urban Planning Institute, the Vaga publishing house (all based in Vilnius), and the Panevėžys Drama Theater, led by the acclaimed director Juozas Miltinis, who cultivated avant-garde ideas in his stage productions. According to contemporaries, the control of the art events that took place inside these institutions was less strict, yet these exhibitions were not advertised by official posters or covered by the press; in other words, they did not receive public attention or official evaluation. Artists’ works were exhibited in lobbies, hallways, offices, and sports and concert halls. Sometimes the unusual exhibition spaces spawned alternative approaches to displaying works of art.


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Fluxus concert

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Date: Spring 1966

Participants: Vytautas Landsbergis (1932) and his students at the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute

Organizer: Vytautas Landsbergis

Location: Vilnius Pedagogical Institute

In the 1960s, the musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis corresponded with his childhood friend, artist and initiator of the Fluxus movement George Maciunas. Maciunas laid out the ideas of this anti-art movement in his letters, and sent Landsbergis recordings of his favorite music and Fluxus performances, as well as Fluxus scores. Landsbergis used this material in his public lectures on modern music.

In 1966, Landsbergis organized a Fluxus concert at the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute, where he taught at the time, together with the institute’s senior students (around 20). The event started with the New Music manifesto written and read by Landsbergis. The program of the concert that lasted for approximately 30 min. was comprised of the instructions sent by Maciunas, complemented with Landsbergis’s own ideas; Landsbergis also created the wall decorations that reflected the Fluxus spirit and set the atmosphere for the concert. Although this avant-garde movement did not take on in Lithuania (the mentioned concert remains the only notable Fluxus event), the dissemination of the ideas of Fluxus and modern music via Landsbergis’s lectures contributed to the emergence and spread of modern art forms.

Documents:

Vytautas Landsbergis: A Manifesto (1966)

Vytautas Landsbergis – interview: Fluxus in Vilnius (2007)


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Crossing the border: international exlibris exhibitions via mail

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Date: 1967 – 1985

The phenomenon of artistic communication via mail emerged in Lithuania as a form of resistance to the ideologisation and isolation of art. In the late 1960s, Lithuanian artists became interested in a small form of graphic art – exlibris (bookplate). Such small forms were seen as marginal at the time, yet it was precisely this status that helped them to circumvent strict Soviet censorship and secure a special place among other art forms in the context of Soviet art. Exlibris was a mobile genre that could represent Lithuanian modern art abroad, as small-format bookplates could be sent to international exhibitions without the knowledge of the state institutions.

In addition to the graphic artists, the sculptors and the painters began to work in the genre of exlibris too: about 200 Lithuanian artists engaged in communication via mail in the Soviet times. Thanks to the connections of the artist Vincas Kisarauskas, four Lithuanian artists took part in an international exhibition abroad – the International Biennial Exhibition of Modern Exlibris in Malbork – for the first time in 1967. As the circle of foreign contacts expanded, artists sent their bookplates to exhibitions in Poland, Italy, Denmark, the USA, Australia, and elsewhere. The genre of exlibris and communication via mail provided Lithuanian artists with a possibility to present their work on the international level and receive due acclaim for it.


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Gatherings in Ilya Kabakov’s Studio

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Dates: 1967–1987

Organized by: Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933)

Location: Attic studio, 6/1 Sretensky Boulevard, Moscow

Soon after Ilya Kabakov built his sixth-floor attic studio on Sretensky Boulevard and until his emigration in 1987, the space became a meeting place for Moscow’s unofficial artists, particularly for those who would eventually be associated with Moscow Conceptualism. Artists, poets, philosophers, critics, gathered there to discuss new work or for festive occasions.[1] Starting in the mid-1970s, Kabakov began to “perform” a series of conceptual albums. He used his training as a book illustrator to create metaphysical or conceptual narratives on sheets of gray or white paper. The readings would consist of Kabakov slowly turning the pages and reading the texts of these albums before a seated audience for periods that could last hours. In a short text from the time, entitled “…the point is in the turning of the pages,” Kabakov attempts to describe the sense of pure time that occurs in these durational performances, a concern that is echoed in the work of other Moscow Conceptualists such as the poet Lev Rubinstein with his index card poems, or the Collective Actions group with their actions for Trips Out of the City.

See also Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[1] Many members of Moscow’s artistic underground who gathered at the studio included: Yuri Kuper (b. 1940), Erik Bulatov (b. 1933), Eduard Steinberg (1937–2012), Vladimir Yankilevsky (b. 1938), Oleg Vasiliev (1931–2013), Viktor Pivovarov (b. 1937), Pavel Pepperstein (b. 1966), Andrei Monastyrski (b. 1949), Dmitri Prigov (1940–2007), Boris Groys (b. 1947), Joseph Backstein (b. 1945), Ivan Chuikov (b. 1935), Vladimir Sorokin (b. 1955), Lev Rubinstein (b. 1947), Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934-2009), Nikita Alekseev (b. 1953), Elena Elagina (b. 1949), George Kiesewalter (b. 1955), Igor Makarevich (b. 1943), Nikolai Panitkov (b. 1952), Sergei Romashko (b. 1952), Sabine Hänsgen (b. 1955), Viktoria Mochalova, Irina Nakhova (b. 1955), and others

 

Documents:

Ilya Kabakov – “…the point is in the turning of the pages” – artist’s text (1970s)

Ilya Kabakov – excerpt 60-e – 70-e… Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve [1960s-1970s… Notes on unofficial life in Moscow – memoirs (1982)


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Exhibitions in the apartment of Judita and Vytautas Šerys

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Date: 1967–75

Participants: Valentinas Antanavičius (1936), Linas Katinas (1941), Vincas Kisarauskas (1934-1988), Vytautas Šerys (1931-2006), Kazimiera (Kazė) Zimblytė (1933-1999), Vladislovas Žilius (1939), and others

Organizers: Judita and Vytautas Šerys

Location: The apartment of Judita and Vytautas Šerys, Vilnius

Exhibitions were held at the home of the museum worker Judita Šerienė and the artist Vytautas Šerys between 1967 and 1975. This was the first private, unofficial, and unsanctioned exhibition space in Soviet Lithuania. Šerienė worked in the exhibition department of the Art Exhibition Hall[1] at the time, and had access to avant-garde works that were inconsistent with the dominant communist ideology and consequently were not included in official exhibitions. These works were exhibited in solo and group exhibitions organized at the home of Šerys, which were open to a circle of like-minded visitors who exchanged information about unofficial cultural phenomena by word of mouth. The exhibitions at the Šerys home featured works by Valentinas Antanavičius, Linas Katinas, Vincas Kisarauskas, Vytautas Šerys, Kazimiera (Kazė) Zimblytė, Vladislovas Žilius, and others, which were stylistically close to the language of Abstract, Op, and Pop art, or explored other modern ideas and forms of expression. In addition to the exhibitions, the Šerys home hosted improvised poetry readings. It attracted students and intellectuals of the time—artists, writers, and theater people.


[1] The Art Exhibition Hall, opened in 1967, was the most modern and important space for rotating exhibitions in Lithuania. In 1992 it was renamed the Contemporary Art Centre.


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SOUP’69 – exhibition

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Date: December 1969

Participants: Ülevi Eljand (1947), Ando Keskküla (1950-2008), Leonhard Lapin (1947), Gunnar Meier (1942-2003), Rein Mets (1942-2011), Andres Tolts (1949)

Location: Café Pegasus, Tallinn

Cafés were important exhibiting spaces for unofficial art. However, the Writers’ Union’s Café Pegasus was an official exhibition space for which the Artists’ Union was responsible. Still, censorship was milder there, and it gave young artists the chance to present their work. In December 1969 the legendary Pop Art exhibition “SOUP’69”—the poster depicted a Warhol soup can being “pried open by Estonians”—proclaimed the arrival of Pop in Estonian art.


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Estonian Avant-Garde Art – exhibition

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Date: 17 – 23 August 1970

Participants: Enn Tegova (1946), Peeter Urbla (1945), Rein Tammik (1947), Vello Tamm (1940-1991), Ando Keskküla (1950-2008), Andres Tolts (1949), Leonhard Lapin (1947), and Sirje Runge (1950)

Location: Café Pegasus, Tallinn

The exhibition “Estonian Avant-Garde Art” that opened as part of the third International Finno-Ugric Days was supposed to become a group exhibition of the most radical Estonian art groups active at the time: ANK’64[1], Visarid[2], and SOUP’69. However, due to changes in the political situation[3], many artists decided not to participate.

The few faded photographs of the exhibition that have survived dynamically convey a sense of the exhibition itself as well as the space, which differs greatly from the white cube of the gallery. These are not anonymous shots of an exhibition; rather, they show the works in the social atmosphere of the café. The setting was probably important for creating the works as well. Most of the artworks are inspired by Pop Art—the notion of wanting to shock and grab attention is apprehensible. Urbla’s phallic object Kazachok made from patterned chintz, Tolts’s textile assemblages like the one titled Sleeping Place, and Lapin’s two readymades (pillows) all play with the idea of blurring the line between art and everyday objects. Relating to reality and its mass-produced objects—a concept stemming from Pop Art—leads to the idea of the artist’s need to intervene, which in turn becomes the agenda for the following years. This new role of the artist (and its unique accompanying capabilities) was also referenced on the exhibition poster, which displayed a red cross and a crescent moon along with the slogan, “Sick ones, we will heal you!”


[1] ANK’64 was the first artist’s group in the Soviet period. It formed 1964 from the students of printmaking at the State Institute of Art, including Tõnis Vint, Malle Leis (1940), Jüri Arrak (1936), Kristiina Kaasik (1943), Tiiu Pallo-Vaik (1941), Enno Ootsing (1940), Tõnis Laanemaa (1937), Aili Vint (1941), Marju Mutsu (1941-1980), Vello Tamm (1940-1991). Their pursuits in art were connected with youth culture, Pop and Op Art, as well as with the Avant-Gardes of the early 20th century.

[2] The artist’s group Visarid formed 1968 around the art studio of the Tartu State University and the head of the studio Kaljo Põllu (1934-2010). Other members were: Peeter Lukats (1933), Jaak Olep (1945-2000), Rein Tammik (1947), Enn Tegova (1946), Peeter Urbla (1945), et. al. Visarid advocated “total art”, art that do not design individual commodities, but reorganize the hole environment. The group dissolved 1972.

[3] In aftermath of the Prague Spring events the pressure on artists as well as other members of the society got higher,  the system got more repressive.


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Films by Artūras Barysas-Baras presented at Amateur film festivals

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Date: 1977, 1979

Location: 4th and 5th Republican (LSSR) Humorous-Satirical Film Festivals

Artūras Barysas-Baras (1954–2005) – filmmaker, actor, record collector, and bibliophile – was one of the most prominent personalities in Vilnius’ alternative culture of the second half of the 20th century. He had become a member of the LSSR Society of Amateur Filmmakers in his school years, and made more than 30 short films during his lifetime, most of them between 1970 and 1984 (11 of the films have been lost). Barysas’ films earned critical acclaim at republican and Union-wide amateur film festivals. The amateur film festivals, presenting films under various categories, were popular events in all Soviet Union, as well as in other socialistic countries. Though subsidized by the state, the amateur cinema (an unprofessional art form), was left almost entirely outside the interference and control of Soviet authorities and was a medium conducive for experimenting. Film festivals presented Artūras Barysas and his films to audiences in Moscow, Leningrad, Tula, Tallinn, Riga, Brest, and Bryansk.

Braysas’ films were prized for their metaphorical artistic language, which implicitly mocked the everyday reality of life in the Soviet Union, and peculiar close-up montages. Barysas played the lead role in almost all of his films, supported by non-professional actors, with the action often taking place simply “on the street” as an improvised situations or according to a conventional scenario. In Barysas’s films, the film critic Skirmantas Valiulis[1] traces echoes of American postwar avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren’s theoretical statements about filmmaking, the comic aesthetic of pre-1968 Czech cinema, and Felliniesque humor, yet acknowledges that the Lithuanian filmmaker retains a peculiar style of his own.

Today Barysas’ work is considered to be a part of the Lithuanian cinematic avant-garde and an eloquent reflection of the epoch. In the context of the visual arts, some of Barysas’ films invite a discussion impossible without the concepts of performance and happening, especially two of them: That Sweet Word… (1977) and For Those Who Do Not Know, Ask Those Who Do (1975). Both of them were presented at the Republican (LSSR) Humorous-Satirical Film Festival (respectively in 1977 and 1979) for the first time, and later on That Sweet Word…, awarded with the 3rd-degree “cheese-sack”, was screened in three film festivals under different film categories, such as 9th Film Festival of Baltic States and Leningrad City, Leningrad, 1977; 9th Short-Film Competition in Riga, 1977, and 19th B-16 Festival in Brno, Czechoslovakia, 1978.


[1] Skirmantas Valiulis, “Baras kino baruose” [Baras in the Domains of Cinema], in Pasaulis pagal Barą [The World According to Baras), ed. Gediminas Kajėnas (to be published in 2012). The book  is focused on Artūras Barysas-Baras’ personality and creative work.

(courtesy of Artūras Barysas-Baras’ family).


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Colouring the Elephant – happening

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Date: 24 April 1971

Participants: Ülevi Eljand (1947), Tiit Kaljundi  (1946-2008), Ando Keskküla (1950-2008), Vilen Künnapu (1948), Leonhard Lapin (1947), Avo-Himm Looveer (1941-2002), Kristin Looveer (1947), Jüri Okas (1950), Jaan Ollik (1951), Sirje Runge (Lapin) (1950), Andres Tolts (1949), et al.

Location: Children’s playground in Pelgulinn, Tallinn

The opening of the 1971 exhibition of independent student works at the State Art Institute in Tallinn culminated in the happening “Colouring the Elephant” in a nineteenth-century suburb of Tallinn. During the happening, a large group of art and architecture students repainted a run-down children’s playground that had a wooden elephant slide in the middle. The event was initiated by artist and design student Andres Tolts, who had a studio in the neighborhood. It was officially sanctioned as a renewal project and paint was provided by the local municipal housing committee. The happening is documented in Jüri Okas’s film Elephant (8 mm, color, 15 min.).

Happenings, walks through neglected areas and wastelands of the city—“places abandoned by socialism that had themselves abandoned socialism,” as Lapin put it—and interest in strange and uncanny encounters had all been among the practices of a group of young architecture students since the late 1960s. In 1972, a year after “Coloring the Elephant,” architect Vilen Künnapu and poet Juhan Viiding published their article “A Proposal” in the main cultural newspaper. The article called for a rediscovery of the neglected spaces of Tallinn—its anonymous courtyards and wooden dwellings—and suggested that they “modestly supplement them with beautiful vibrant colors.” Emphasizing the aesthetic value of elevator shafts, staircases, external plumbing, and ventilation ducts as anonymous works of art, they pleaded for them to be enhanced with color. The blank walls of industrial structures were to become exhibition spaces filled with posters and images.

The happenings and walks initiated efforts to revive these urban spaces, but resisted uniform redevelopment. Characteristic of these happenings was the use of playfulness as a specific tactic to counter the rational and normative aspects of everyday life and as a reaction to the seriousness of prevailing art forms and dominant powers. (One should not overlook the ironic appropriation of subbotnik—Soviet “voluntary” community work—in “Coloring the Elephant.”)

In his speech “Art Designing the Environment” at the same exhibition of independent student works, Lapin proclaimed that “the human living environment has become the central concern for contemporary culture.” Lapin criticized “beautiful art” as merely a decorative form of commodity, and confronted it with art that contributes to the production of new environments. Both design and happenings were intended to help achieve this goal. Ideas such as those announced by Lapin would define art practice during the following years; among the defining characteristics of these practices was their interdisciplinarity.

Document: Vilen Künnapu, Juhan Viiding: A Proposal


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Group exhibition in the Republican House of Science, Riga

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Date: 1971

Participants: Jānis Borgs, Atis Ieviņš, Laimonis Šēnbergs, Arvīds Priedīte, and Henrihs Vorkals.

Location: Republican House of Science,  Riga.

This exhibition was the first visible event in Riga in which direct Western influences and the linking of art to a sense of real time were manifested. Participants were a group of like-minded artists studying design, interior design, and textile arts at the Art Academy.

The exhibition had an innovative, experimental arrangement. The central object was Henrihs Vorkals’s spatial tapestry Icarus, in which colorful circles and crescents united a human figure’s inner and outer worlds, allowing it to be interpreted as a target, victim, or struggle. The exhibition’s second strong accent was Jānis Borgs’s super-graphic in which the cartoonish label “Sviuuu …” was placed over an abstract geometric base. This was complemented by similar silk screens, sketches, paintings, and posters scattered around the perimeter of the circular hall.

The exhibition was popular and attracted both controversy and praise. Its organizers later acknowledged that it was intentionally imitating Pop art, noting that “Pop art was everywhere”—in design, interiors, fashion, on record covers, and in musical taste and lifestyles. As written in a review of the exhibition, it was a period of “the universe, electronics, a dynamic living pulse, shifting information requiring heightened intellectuality where earlier intuition and emotions had sufficed.”[1]


[1] Georgs Barkāns, “Izstāde svētku noskaņā” [Exhibition in a Festive Mood] in Padomju Jaunatne (6 February 1972)


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Celebrations – design and interiors exhibition

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Date: February 1972

Location: Exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda (the historic Stock Exchange), Riga.

Participants: Exhibition installer and chief artist: Jānis Pipurs. Creative team: Jānis Borgs, Nora Ķivule, Jānis Osis, Leo Preiss, Laimonis Šēnbergs, and Viesturs Vilks. Altogether forty-nine artists took part.

The ninth Young Artists’ Exhibition was devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the USSR and presented a wide-ranging program. An exhibition of paintings, graphics, and sculptures was held in the Foreign Art Museum, while the Stock Exchange hosted the experimental collective interior design exhibition “Celebrations.” This latter event was one of most capacious presentations of contemporary art, which demonstrated that the avant-garde was not based just in alternative circles, but, through peculiarities of the Soviet system, it was also part of the official, politically acceptable process.

The exhibition’s title was open to various interpretations, and its formal alignment with the anniversary of the USSR, as well as its designation in the design category, made it possible to present a broad, atypically Soviet range of works, with much less painting and sculpture. It was “a dynamic exhibition-show and improvisation in which everything pulsed, moved, glittered, beeped, or revealed other dynamic-kinetic expressions.”[1] Viewers were surprised by the moving floor that beeped when walked upon, the “thirsty” silver fishes that moved in the air against the background of a sunny Pop-art painting, rotating cylinders and towers, etc.

The exhibition emphasized formal and aesthetic solutions, but it also paved the way for the hybrid and art-synthesis processes of the 1970s. Involving spatial, architectural, urban-planning, psychological, and other elements, it changed the way of art perception and the role of the audience.


[1] An interview with J. Borgs in April, 2009.


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Exhibition of independent works by Romualds Geikins, Piotr Severin, and Jānis Strupulis (Latvian Art Academy students)

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Date: 1972

Participants: Romualds Geikins, Jānis Strupulis, and Piotr Severin

Location: Latvian Art Academy, Riga

There were a series of  exhibitions organized by students themselves through the student club and the Communist Youth Committee, but entry to them was restricted to students and staff of the academy. The official justification for the events was the need for the academy’s faculty to be informed about the extracurricular explorations of their students.

The students produced a number of freethinking events that broke artistic taboos and caused controversy, scandal, and the closure of several exhibitions. These exhibitions were not controlled by any approval (censorship) committee and did not respect thematic or ideological boundaries, and hence works with eccentric styles and content could be displayed.

For example, in 1972 three students from the painting and sculpture departments—Romualds Geikins, Jānis Strupulis, and Piotr Severin—organized an exhibition/action with abstract, Op-art and Pop-art works arranged in an unusual set-up. Some of the works were displayed on the floor, which was strewn with papers, while elements such as chairs and easels were stacked in installation-like piles, disturbing the space. The exhibition was banned the next day, deemed artistically unsuitable and to be propagating politically dissident notions.

Several other exhibitions of independent works were also shut down in a similar manner.


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Exhibition by painters Līga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis

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Date: August 1974

Participants: Līga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis

Location: Riga Photo Club in the Central Printing Workers’ Club

This exhibition of photorealist works by fourth year Art Academy students Miervaldis Polis and Līga Purmale was the first serious manifestation of its kind not just in Soviet Latvia, but also in the wider region. It was unprecedented for students to organize an exhibition on their own initiative open to all outside the academy. To make it happen, the artists had to collect recommendations and permits from almost ten different institutions. The artists vividly recall[1] an episode in which members of the Central Committee suddenly turned up at the exhibition, apparently on the basis of an anonymous report that one of the paintings made a mockery of Lenin. But while the painting Brass Band (1974) did have a figure of a little trumpet player in a peaked cap in the foreground, it bore no resemblance to the proletariat leader.

At one of the exhibition’s public discussions, the artists were approached by Estonian art enthusiast Matti Miliuss, who subsequently arranged for the exhibition to be presented at the Deaf Persons’ Society in Tartu and the Tallinn Art Institute in Estonia.

The exhibition gained a lot of public attention despite receiving no press coverage. This resonance was connected with the unabashedly photorealist and hyperrealist manner of painting. The exhibited works formally complied with the official line of Soviet art—realism—but in reality they were much closer to contemporary trends in Western art. The professional art scene greeted the young artists with a mixture of genuine admiration and resigned or harsh criticism, but in time Purmale and Polis would come to be regarded as masters of the genre.


[1] An interview with M. Polis in May, 2011.



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