The landscape of memory
Oleg Vassiliev. Source: The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA)
Russian artist Oleg Vassiliev gives memory a voice. Often he begins with a personal memory of his family, a home, a road, even a field. Then he recreates the vision, one that echoes all the more as he experiments with light and space.
Vassiliev, who was born in Moscow
in 1931, represents a generation of Russian artists who rejected the narrowly
defined, state-sponsored Socialist Realism of the U.S.S.R. and created their
own work, under
“Although his painting and drawings start with the specific and the personal,
Vassiliev is able to turn those events and images into something universal,”
said Natalia Kolodzei, head of the Kolodzei Art Foundation, which has offered
longtime support for Russian artists in an era of great upheaval and has
amassed a collection of 7,000 works.
Kolodzei said that Vassiliev invites “the viewer to explore the landscape of
Some of his works appear political as well as personal. In 1980, Vassiliev
created an emblematic cover for Ogonyk magazine that also became a well-known
painting. The work portrays a speaker at a Politburo meeting, but Vassiliev
obscures the face with a color-suffused intersection of light beams. The effect
is startling, and somehow beautiful. But it also evokes the Stalinist-era
exorcism of politicians from photographs. They were erased once they fell out
of favor, were imprisoned or purged. Ogonyk was shown in the “Russia!” exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum
A retrospective of Vassiliev’s body of work is currently underway at The Museum
of Russian Art (TMORA) in Minneapolis.
The museum is a rare space in the center of America devoted to Russian art; the
show features new Vassiliev pieces, including recent etchings, as well as those
created during the height of the Cold War.
“Many of the works for this exhibition are being shown in the United States for the first time, and more than a few are being exhibited for the first time anywhere,” said Kolodzei, who is also lending works for the show.
Brief History of the Underground Artist
The Russian Noncomformists, as they are
called, lived secret artistic lives in their tiny apartments. Occasionally,
they had underground shows. Even more rare were visits by foreigners - like the
eminent and fearless collector Norton Dodge. Formal exhibitions were mostly out
of the question.
The young Vassiliev did manage to show
his work at the Bluebird Café in Moscow
in 1968, the same café where his contemporaries Vitaly Komar and Alexander
Melamid honed their ironic yet passionate parodies of Socialist Realism,
creating a genre that grew up and became known as Sots Art.
Vassiliev attended art school in Moscow.
Like his friend Ilya Kabakov, he put food on the table with his work as a
children’s book illustrator. Only when he immigrated did he make his living as
an artist. In recent years, he has sold works for as high as a million dollars
Dozens of artists went into voluntary exile in the 1970s and 1980s, but not all
of them fared as well as Vassiliev. There was a heady time when interest in Russia was
high, but the passion, for many, also waned. Many of the artists experienced a
shock of culture, language and identity.
In the book, “Oleg Vassiliev: Memory Speaks,” Natalia Kolodzei wrote that
“after he moved to the United States, Vassiliev found that his urge to capture
what was close and important to him became stronger, the further he was from
his friends and memories.”
Vassiliev kept creating, and weathered the crises of identity and vision while
others did not. He also stayed true to his rather distinct vision. “The river
of time carries me further and further,” he wrote, “and vivid moments immersed
in golden light remain on the banks.”
The past is never dead, as William Faulkner said (and Vassiliev painted). Thanks to art, memory survives. Only history will tell how much artists like Vassiliev contributed to the opening and collapse of the system that repressed them.
Nora FitzGerald was the Moscow correspondent for ARTnews and is a guest editor for RN.