The climate change denier-in-chief may be grabbing all the headlines, but Russian artists have been responding to the threat of environmental degradation for decades, as can be seen in “A Vibrant Field: Nature and Landscape in Soviet Nonconformist Art, 1970s-1980s,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum through October 1.
The works have been selected from the museum’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union and explore the many meanings the natural world held for “unofficial artists” who challenged dominating themes in Soviet visual culture.
Russian landscape painting is certainly not as well heralded as France’s Barbizon School, which had an important influence on Russian landscape painting, or the Hudson River School. Russian landscape paintings “tended to promote life-affirming, bountiful landscapes as extensions of human achievement, productivity, and optimism,” writes exhibition organizer Anna Rogulina in the catalog.
“A Vibrant Field” presents the alternatives to this approach by artists from the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine.
The exhibition is especially pertinent in light of environmental politics today. Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that ice melt in the Arctic region represents an economic opportunity for his country — the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world — and Russia has not ratified the Paris climate accord. Yet the largest country in the world is not immune to smog, flooding, and wildfires.
Approaches change as regimes change. Nikita Khrushchev, who served as premier from 1958 to 1964, said “An ecologist is a healthy guy in boots who lies behind a knoll and through binoculars watches a squirrel eat nuts. We can manage quite well without these bums.” Mikhail Gorbachev, who served from 1985 until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, had a more liberal take: “The people’s growing ecological environmental awareness is one of the manifestations of the democratization of society and a key factor of perestroika… We must welcome this in every way possible.”
And today, under Putin, environmental NGOs have become an endangered species, exemplified by prominent Russian environmental activists Yevgenia Chirikova’s statement: “In a place where resources like oil, gas, diamonds, and coal are the most important thing, human beings are not important,” and “Anyone opposed to pollution becomes an enemy of the state.”
Covering one-sixth of the world’s land area, the Soviet Union occupied a vast terrain of environments, from the steppes and deserts to Arctic tundra and Siberian forests. “In pursuit of modernization and ambitious economic goals, the Soviet regime sought to maximize utility of its natural resources,” say exhibition materials. “The construction of hydroelectric power stations, railroads and factories; the growth of collective farms, mining, logging and nuclear industries; and the efforts to expand water resources and arable land left profound marks on the country’s topography and ecosystems.”
Latvian artist Ojar Abols shows this from an aerial perspective, responding to environmental degradation during the 1970s and ’80s when rapid industrialization, poor resource management, and lack of regulatory enforcement were rampant. Some of the problems persist to this day, such as fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. While the rich texture and unnatural colors are rendered beautifully, in the best of landscape tradition, the smoky blues and scorched crimson are not the colors we associate with a green planet.
Fish created in a collage, “Polluted Water” by Galina Petrova, look skeletal and sickly, becoming the detritus they consume.
“What surprises me is how aware these artists were and the questions they were raising,” says Rogulina.
In her diptych “Subbotnik,” Olga Grechina addresses industrial pollution and waste management in cities. At first factory workers volunteered their time to clean up the streets, but soon the practice became mandated. Despite the relatively modest consumption habits and use of packaging material, the cities were overwhelmed with garbage. The women in the paintings are drowning in a mountain of waste.
For most of these artists, such subject matter was prohibited — artists who were not promoting the state were persecuted. The nonconformist artists, open minded and critical of the state, were forced underground. “Every artist dealt with it in a different way,” says Rogulina. “Some were getting commissions or doing children’s book illustrations to make a living but had their own creative lives on the side.”
Nonconformist artists may have exhibited in apartment exhibitions or outdoor performances and activities. In their desire to get their work out there, a group of these artists started an underground magazine, A-YA, published in Paris, and though isolated in their own country they were able to have an exchange with Europe and the U.S.
American economist Norton Dodge (1927-2011) is credited with single-handedly saving contemporary Russian art from total oblivion. He traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, studying the role of women under the Stalin regime, and became interested in dissident art, meeting clandestinely with artists and building a collection. He was invited to unofficial openings. During the Cold War, Dodge smuggled 10,000 works of art to the U.S. Today there are 20,000 works in the collection.
Sergei Iakutovich’s “Peace Bicycle Race” shows how, five days after Chernobyl, one of the greatest ecological disasters of the 20th century, a May Day bicycle ride went on as normal. It was more important for the government to downplay the scope of the accident, to save face, and hold this massive celebration.
“A Vibrant Field” includes examples of land art and performance art. “Studying art from the Soviet Union helps us broaden our understanding of artistic movements and phenomena,” says Rogulina. For those participating in performance art, “it diverted their attention from the minutia of everyday existence, providing the opportunity to gather and discuss and connect on an aesthetic philosophical project.”
Rogulina, a Dodge-Lawrence Fellow at the Zimmerli and third-year Ph.D. student, was born in the North Caucasus, not far from Sochi, and the exhibition came about as a result of an interest in her own cultural background and a fascination with Soviet nonconformist artists. Her family emigrated in 1999, and Rogulina grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, where her parents worked in microbiological research at Yale. Rogulina, who is fluent in Russian, studied Russian and art history at Vassar College, spending a semester in St. Petersburg, and worked as assistant curator at the New Britain Museum of American Art before entering the program at Rutgers in 2014.
“Our present day concerns shape how we look at the past,” says Rogulina. “What effect we humans have on the environment has been at the forefront of discussion for the last few decades. Different economic systems and political positions shape policy. I wanted to find Soviet artists who had an ecological conscience, and how they showed this relationship to the land.”
“Throughout modern history there’s been a desire to depict the landscape,” she continues. Russia may not compare well to the picturesque landscapes of western Europe, with scenic views of water meeting land and mountains, but there is pride in the vast forests and planes.
During the Soviet era there were so many pressing matters and challenges that environmental policies were sidelined. “In the 1970s and 1980s Rachel Carson’s work was being translated into Russian, striking a chord with national pride,” says Rogulina. “In the Baltics the fight for clean soil and water meant resisting Soviet industrial projects. But after the fall of the Soviet Union ecological interests subsided as there were new urgencies in nation building.”
The topic will be a focus of her dissertation, and she will travel to Moscow, Estonia, and Latvia this summer, pursuing further research. “The next step is assessing how important the subject is for artists working in Russia today,” she says. “Climate change is an issue for our species.”
A Vibrant Field: Nature and Landscape in Soviet Nonconformist Art, 1970s-1980s, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. On view through October 1. Free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.