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In the early 1970s, a new trend emerged among the members of the Union of Artists of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Diverse groups of painters from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and the Russian urban centers of Moscow and Leningrad began to demonstrate a keen interest in photo-realism, producing large-scale canvases that mimicked the formal properties of photography, film, television, and other forms of mass visual media. Despite their prevalence, most of these works were not widely seen during the late Soviet period. As good standing members of the Union of Artists, the photo-realist painters received salaried commissions for their work from the state. Most relied exclusively on figurative realist content. This reliance placed their works within the official framework of Socialist Realism, ensuring, as the art historian Timofei Smirnov points out in the exhibition catalogue for Hyperrealism: When Reality Becomes an Illusion, that they would not provoke direct disapproval from Party administrators (31). Nevertheless, the photo-realists’ invocation of photographic and other mass media forms made those bureaucrats in charge of the visual arts uneasy, and as a result they consistently excluded the canvases from major exhibitions both at home and aboard. The State Tretyakov Gallery’s bold exhibition, Hyperrealism: When Reality Becomes an Illusion, presents a major retrospective of these once-marginalized photo-realist works, allowing the international public first-time access to this little-known trend in late Soviet art.
Drawing upon the diverse holdings not only of the State Tretyakov Gallery, but also of the International Confederation of Artists Unions (formerly the Union of Artists of the USSR), the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, the State Museum-Exhibition Center “ROSIZO,” and several private collections, curators Kirill Svetlyakov and Yulia Vorotyntseva have assembled an installation of almost two hundred paintings produced between 1967 and 1992. The exhibition’s title references Jean Baudrillard’s 1976 “The Hyperrealism of Simulation,” in which the French philosopher argued that material reality had dissolved into late capitalism’s economy of immaterial, affective data (in Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, London: Sage, 1993, 71–72). In choosing to use the term “hyperrealist” to describe the paintings in the exhibition, Svetlyakov and Vorotyntseva suggest a provocative similarity between the capitalist visual cultures of postwar Europe and United States and the late-socialist visual cultures that developed across the USSR during the same period. The paintings on display in Hyperrealism test this hypothesis. In so doing, they offer insight into the complex relationship between these works and their counterparts in the capitalist West and the broader significance of the medium of painting in late-Soviet visual culture.
The paintings in Hyperrealism are arranged according to four common themes: violence, work, landscape, and public space. The works in the first section of the show posit a direct link between the televisual medium and modern violence, and each examines a particular aspect of this relationship. In Galym Madanov’s 1989 Recreational Area, for example, the screen of an ordinary television appears to explode. Rather than projecting an immaterial image, its prism of light bursts into orange and yellow flames. Small fragments of incendiary material shoot along a trajectory aimed at the viewer’s space outside the canvas. The humorous disjunction between Madanov’s image and the painting’s title suggests that the cultural role of the televisual medium, despite its immateriality and promise of fun and entertainment, is far from innocent.
Nikita Meshkov’s 1983 painting Today in the World also affirms television’s role in the propagation of modern violence, but his analysis of the topic is less humorous. The right background of Meshkov’s picture is filled with the image of an on-air anchorman presenting the events of the day from inside the studio of the Soviet television news program Today in the World. Everything inside the studio, including the anchorman, glows an eerie orange. Just outside the glassed-in studio, a grid comprised of five small televisions shows contrasting images of other news programs with scenes of war from around the world. A man in a business suit, whose features appear very similar to those of the man inside the glass studio, sits next to this grid, calmly reading L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party. Unlike the anchorman behind the studio glass, Meshkov paints this figure in living color. This juxtaposition of two identical anchormen, one trapped and aglow inside a screen and the other free and vibrant, raises questions about how the strange irreality of televisual transmission alters the perception of the material substance of the human body. The images of war that blare on the screens next to the newspaper reader press the viewer to consider whether the televised narration of violence against that body should itself be considered a weapon of global destruction.
The question of how the technologies of visual reproduction alter the perception of the human body is also central to the paintings in the second section of the exhibition, which focus on work. Olga Grechina, for example, incorporates images from propaganda posters into Factory (1977). A hand-painted reproduction of a poster of three enthusiastic male workers dominates the background of her small, grayscale painting of the interior of a factory, which in both color and texture resembles a newspaper illustration. In the foreground, a lone female figure looks dejectedly out the window, casting her eyes upward toward the future not with eager anticipation, but with absolute exhaustion. Behind her, a male floor manager casts the beam of a flashlight outward toward the viewer. Grechina’s hierarchical arrangement of propaganda image, manager, and female worker emphasizes the significance of the impact of mass-produced propaganda images on both the perception of the spaces of production and worker-self perception. Grechina’s rendering of the Soviet state’s optimism as masculine suggests that the visual components of the means used to shape the labor force were gendered; rather than liberating humankind, these images appear to reinforce the subordination and exploitation of women.
Questions of gender and social control are also central to Viktor Ryzhikh’s Cybernetics (1985). The Ukrainian painter renders the back-turned figure of a young engineer at work on a maddening tangle of networked cables, which sprout from the body of a supercomputer. Three posters hang on the wall next to him. The first two are reproductions of paintings that depict, respectively, lovers in an embrace and a seascape. The third is a poster of a champion weightlifter from the Soviet Caucasus. Ryzhikh asks the viewer to consider how the emergence of digital methods for the transmission of information shapes her or his experience of the environment. In juxtaposing these three posters with the back-turned figure of the engineer, whose corporeal materiality is palpable thanks to Ryzhikh’s thick layers of paint, he suggests that in the digital future the surfaces of gendered visual images will play a more prominent role in the development of social relations than the material physiognomy of the human face.
All of the artists represented in Hyperrealism emphasize the materiality of painting as distinct from the insubstantiality of mechanically reproduced and transmitted images. This position is especially evident in the section of the show devoted to landscape. Sergei Shablavin’s circular Moscow (1989–90), which resembles a vinyl LP with a few urban scenes superimposed on its sleek black background, and Erik Bulatov’s Opening (1967), a picture of an idyllic, autumnal birch grove that is interrupted by what appears to be a dark tear in its surface, both rely on the material properties of the canvas, especially its ability to be sculpted and, at least in theory, ripped open, to underscore the role that geometry and the perception of space play in the interpretation of the visible.
The paintings in the fourth and final section of the exhibition, which is devoted to late-Soviet public space, appear more unreal than any of the other paintings on display. The dark tones of Tamara Gudzenko’s Terminal Stop (1988) mute the picture’s image of an elderly woman waiting for a bus on a deserted urban street, making it difficult for the viewer to discern the tiny figure’s facial features or determine the time of day. The pulsating glow of the woman’s red headscarf that serves as the picture’s single source of illumination makes the scene and its subject appear as though they were of another planet. As in Gudzenko’s painting, the figures in Evgenii Amaspiur’s Winter Stadium (1980) are dwarfed by their built environment. Rendered as if viewed through a dark, dirty window, the hazy bodies of two male gymnasts haunt the derelict hall of a rundown sports complex. Their ill-defined bodies contrast sharply with the assertive presence of the screaming red poster in the picture’s upper-right corner announcing the 1980 Summer Olympics. The vibrant Technicolor reds, blues, greens, and yellows used by the artists who render public space appear to have been mixed to match the hues of the latest innovations in film and television. By emphasizing the total saturation of Soviet public space with the colors of projection, these artists remind the viewer of the omnipresence of mass media technology. They suggest that rather than revealing the nuanced aspects of everyday, collective life these techniques engender a mode of perception that obscures and isolates.
Despite the exhibition’s title, the works on display in Hyperrealism suggest that Soviet photo-realists did not produce hyperreal paintings. In the last decades of the twentieth century American Hyperrealist painters such as Chuck Close, Charles Bell, and Denis Peterson produced pictures on canvas that were indistinguishable from the millions of images that had become the driving force of Western late capitalism. The very fact of their hyperreality resulted from this lack of visual difference between the paintings and any other immaterial sign. The Soviet artists’ works, on the other hand, consistently assert that painting’s particular materiality distinguishes it from all other image forms. The show reveals that the Soviet photo-realist artists’ use of the material properties of painting allowed them to examine the role of the technologies of reproduction and transmission on the perception of the postwar socialist body and the spaces of its existence. In so doing, they raise questions about how the particular socio-economic circumstances of Soviet life affected the understanding of the medium and its social function, not only during the period of late socialism, but throughout the history of the USSR.
Assistant Professor of History and Art History, National Research University-Higher School of Economics, Moscow