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Russia's Self-Taught Artists
A New Perspective on the "Outsider"

January 14, 2003 to March 29, 2003

Since 1972, when Roger Cardinal chose the term “outsider art” as a rough English-language equivalent of Jean Dubuffet’s art brut, the concept has won a conflicted following in the United States. To be sure, the name proved a stellar marketing tool, as evidenced by the success of the annual Outsider Art Fair (which will celebrate its 11th anniversary at New York's Puck Building this year from January 23 to 26). But whereas the notion of the “outsider” plays to Americans’ ideal of themselves as individualistic mavericks, it also contradicts the equally cherished myth that, in our supposedly egalitarian society, there are no "outsiders." Critics have pointed out that some of the artists branded with the "outsider" label, especially African Americans, were operating very much within their own communities, albeit beyond the racially circumscribed purview of white society. To label an artist an "outsider" has, from this perspective, become an implicitly racist act, an unwarranted judgement by the dominant culture.

The lionization of the “outsider,” nevertheless, has a long and complex history in Western culture. The belief that societal norms and civilization in general have done more harm than good dates back to the Romantic era, which touted the “noble savage” as an exemplar of pure, untainted humanity. This belief acquired a specifically artistic focus in the late nineteenth century with the modernists’ rejection of the European academic system. Paul Gauguin found his “noble savages” in Tahiti, and many subsequent modernists, including Pablo Picasso, collected African tribal art, but the most enduring exponents of unadulterated “otherness” proved to be artists living and working within the confines of Western civilization. The idealization of untrained European and American artists threaded its way through the entire history of modernism, reminding the trained artists of their rebel mandate whenever academic rigidity threatened to reassert itself.

In a totalitarian state, however, the notion of the “outsider” has implications that make the rebellious antics of European and American modernists seem like bad-boy playacting. Whereas in the West, modernism gradually became the accepted mainstream art tradition, in Stalin’s Russia, modernism was forcibly replaced by Socialist Realism. Self-taught artists were not persecuted per se (unless they also engaged in more overtly subversive activities), but they were nonetheless ostracized. Yet at the same time that they were alienated from the Soviet system, Russia’s self-taught artists were completely innocent of Western culture: its television shows, films, fashions, rock music and the relentless bleating of the capitalist media remained largely unknown in the Soviet Union. The Russians were thus "outsiders" twice over.

Russia’s engagement with self-taught art both intertwines with and deviates from the history of the genre in the West. Like Western Europe, Russia had a longstanding folk tradition that began to fizzle in the nineteenth century due to encroaching industrialization. Russia was at this time also beset by a widening rift between its elite ruling classes, who had adopted European cultural mannerisms, and the peasantry, which still adhered to largely indigenous traditions. As political tensions mounted, the idealization and preservation of rural folkways became a way to cement national identity by isolating a kind of pure Russian essence to which all classes could on some level relate. By the turn of the twentieth century, avant-garde Russian artists had begun consciously incorporating folk styles and motifs in their work.

It was, in fact, a Russian, Vasilij Kandinsky, who became one of the most forceful advocates for adding folk art to the mix of non-academic influences favored by modernists in Western Europe. Like his European colleagues, Kandinsky also admired Asian and African imagery, believing that all these unconventional art forms provided access to a new means of expressing fundamental “internal truths.” His approach was distinctly different from that of fellow Russians such as Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Kasimir Malevich, who gradually turned away from the West. Rather than searching for internal truths, these artists felt that an entirely new formal language could be crafted based on the precedent of Russian folk art. In addition to incorporating elements from such traditional popular arts as lubki (broadsheets) in their own work, these artists organized exhibitions that included folk art and paintings by the self-taught Georgian master Niko Pirosmanashvili. The abstract and semi-abstract styles developed by Goncharova, Larionov and Malevich could therefore claim quintessentially Russian roots.

After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Soviet regime remained concerned with cementing national identity. Malevich and his colleagues were eager to help out, but it quickly became evident that abstraction held little mass appeal. Russian folk art was another matter: widely accessible, community-oriented and anti-elitist, it was an ideal vehicle for Soviet propaganda. Once brought under Soviet domination, however, folk creation lost its original character. Crafts traditions were preserved in state-operated workshops, which systematized the forms and means of production. Amateur art was promoted as a way of bringing creativity into the lives of ordinary citizens, but the permitted subjects were strictly controlled. All traces of individualism were prohibited, for this was deemed threatening to Soviet authority.

The attitude toward self-taught art began to change gradually in the 1960s, with the so-called “thaw” initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. For the first time, it became possible to criticize Stalin. Resistance to the Soviet regime, though still subject to harsh punishment, began to percolate slowly beneath the surface of public life. Artists and intellectuals allied with the resistance felt an instinctive kinship with self-taught artists, who were unwitting resisters. The inherent nature of great self-taught art—individual autonomy and imperviousness to external creative dictates—assumed a poignant new relevance. The political circumstances peculiar to the Soviet Union thus rekindled the turn-of-the-century alliance between self-taught artists and the avant-grade.

As the Soviet era drew to a close in the 1980s, the gap between public and private pronouncements widened, and the whole of Russian society seemed to acquire a split personality. Intellectuals became increasingly fascinated by the criteria distinguishing normalcy from insanity. Within this context, Russians for the first time developed a sustained interest in the art of the mentally ill as art (rather than as an outgrowth of psychiatric pathology). This interest found its initial expression in 1990, when the first public exhibition of work by mental patients was held at the Medical Museum in Moscow. From this evolved Moscow’s Museum of Outsider Art, which opened its doors to the public in 1996. Following the theoretical precepts of Jean Dubuffet, the Museum of Outsider Art complements the efforts of the scholar/collector Ksenia Bogemskaya, who has been studying Russian naïve art since the 1980s. However, in Russia, as elsewhere, the boundaries between art brut and naïve art are sometimes fluid, if not altogether meaningless.

It is no coincidence that all four artists in the present exhibition began working after the “thaw” and came to international attention only in the 1980s and ‘90s. Although their art and their biographies are consistent with the styles and habits we have come to associate with Western “outsiders,” these artists also incorporate distinctly Russian influences. The fact that none of the four would have been approved by the Communist regime does not mean that their Soviet upbringing did not affect them. Additionally, elements of older Russian folk traditions remain alive in the work of that nation’s self-taught artists. These elements may derive both from the artificial folk culture preserved by the Soviets, and from surviving authentic practices in outlying rural areas. Occasionally, one can detect non-Russian influences, which the artists picked up like flotsam on a beach.

Pavel Leonov, probably the most widely known artist in our exhibition, may in some regards be considered paradigmatic of the Russian “outsider.” His father, whom the artist has described as a “professional alcoholic,” was a government official in the provincial village of Volotovsky, south of Moscow. Leonov’s troubles with the law began with his father (who was not above turning the teenage boy over to the authorities) and continued when he fled to the Ukraine. Here he was prosecuted for fighting with an army officer. For this and similar minor infractions, Leonov spent the years from 1940 to 1955 in and out of labor camps. During this period and thereafter, he became an inveterate wanderer who pursued a variety of trades, including carpentry, road-building, farming, sign-painting and metalwork. In 1968, Leonov fell in love with a woman named Zina, and shortly thereafter they married and settled in the rural village of Mekhovitsy. Here they live in a primitive shack, beneath a rookery filled with raucous birds. Old age has not much softened Leonov’s fractious personality; he is beset by real and imagined grudges, undoubtedly exacerbated by his neighbors’ disdain for his artistic vocation.

Leonov has had a life-long interest in art. Prior to his first arrest, when he was living in the Ukraine, he attempted to teach himself drawing from a manual, but it was not until his final release from prison, in 1955, that he began to paint. Seeking the official certificate that would allow him to work as an artist, he enrolled in a correspondence course offered by the Extramural People's University of Art. His instructor there was Mikhail Roginsky, a noted “Pop” artist who, like many practitioners of unapproved styles, was forced to earn a living by teaching. Leonov makes a distinction between the style preached by the correspondence school—which he terms “naturalism”--and his own self-invented style, which he calls “constructionism” or “architecturalism.” Roginsky, for his part, knew to leave well enough alone and did not try in any way to influence Leonov’s direction. In 1970, the teacher arranged for his pupil's paintings to be shown at the school with other work by "amateurs." In 1988, Leonov was included in an exhibition of Russian self-taught artists in Paris and Laval, France (birthplace of the first “naïve,” Henri Rousseau). Exhibitions, both at home and abroad, increased considerably in the 1990s. Leonov has been shown several times at Charlotte Zander’s museum of naïve art in Bönnigheim, Germany, and in 1997 received first prize at the fifth Triennale of Naïve Art (INSITA) in Bratislava.

Leonov's “constructionism” can best be described as a grid system facilitating the combination of multiple vignettes, divided by vertical and horizontal crossbars that are analogous to architectural pillars and beams. Similar compositions, with vignettes separated by decorative borders, can be found on Russian folk objects such as chests, carpets and distaffs. Appearances to the contrary, Leonov’s vignettes do not form a single scene, but rather represent projections of parallel realities. He refers to these as “rooms” or “television sets.” Television is still a novelty to the artist, and he seems entranced by the idea that visions from a separate world can, in fact, be beamed into an actual room. The subjects that appear in Leonov's “rooms” and “televisions” include his beloved wife Zina, nudes, self-portraits and the ubiquitous birds, as well as glorified images of modern technology. Long parades of buses, airplanes, tanks and helicopters recall Soviet propaganda. Popular entertainments, such as carousels, circuses and theaters, as well as abundant water (in fact a scarce resource in Mekhovitsy) round out Leonov’s view of paradise. He knows these visions are not real, but he offers his paintings as a blueprint for a better society.

The paradox and ultimate downfall of the Soviet system lay in the fact that it promised a utopia it could not deliver. Socialist Realism was, in this sense, no more “realistic” than Leonov’s fantasies. Therein lay the danger of accepting the Soviet promise at face value, for the line between promoting an ideal society and critiquing the real one was fine indeed. This ideological contradiction lies at the heart not just of Leonov's work, but of an 84-page instructional booklet drawn by Nikifor Zaiatz in the early 1970s. Little is known of Zaiatz, who lived in remote Siberia. Over a period that may have involved many months or even years, he assembled his ideas on an array of subjects including farm machinery, fashion, architecture, industrial design, photography, art and behavior. Minimally educated, he resented the greater esteem and authority accorded those with more schooling. He believed in conserving valuable materials, opposed the use of fur, and felt women should dress more modestly. When he was done with his treatise, Zaiatz sent it to a Moscow publisher. The manuscript was of course unpublishable, and it ended up as a form of samizdat (forbidden literature), collected and preserved by the conceptual artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan.

Probably an outgrowth of Communist indoctrination, utopianism is an undercurrent in the work of many Russian self-taught artists. The contrast between the dreams put forth by Soviet propaganda and the harsh realities of Soviet life may have prompted some artists to seek refuge in an alternate spirit universe—despite the fact that the open practice of religion was strictly forbidden. This seems to have been the case with Rosa Zharkikh, a Moscow factory worker who began receiving visions at the age of 46, after suffering a near-death experience. Directed by an unseen external force, she started to draw. Several years later, Zharkikh retired from the factory and moved more completely into the world of her visions. Using thread and fabric, she tried to replicate the magical, flower-like costumes that appeared in her dreams, often working for several years on a single embroidery. She drew more quickly, eventually filling her tiny apartment with hundreds of colorful sheets documenting what she terms the “parallel world.” It is her goal to construct a bridge between this imaginary world and the real one.

Without adhering to any one spiritual discipline, Zharkikh combines references from Christianity and Eastern religion in her works. In the 1990s, as a result of improved communications between Russia and the outside world, she became intrigued by Tibetan philosophy, which she felt offered a model of spiritual transformation akin to what she, on her own, had been trying to achieve. Both her drawings and her embroideries use nested skeins of differing colors to represent graduated stages of consciousness and to enfold self-portraits and symbolic images. Lately, the artist has also been depicting “heroes” from the spirit realm, such as her deceased mother and sister. Zharkikh hopes to be reunited with these perfect spirits, and to this end she has adopted a precise regimen of personal improvement and purification. She eschews television, follows a strict diet and avoids contact with other people. Only grudgingly will she talk about her work, which she refers to as “children” rather than as art. Beyond the pictorial symbols, Zharkikh imbeds her drawings with messages in a secret hieroglyphic code that only she can understand, but which she refuses to translate. Public recognition would probably mean little to her, and in any case would be difficult to achieve on a large scale in Russia, given the ingrained suspicion of unconventional art that is part of the Socialist Realist legacy. Nevertheless, over the last ten years, Zharkikh has been supported by and exhibited regularly at Moscow's Museum of Outsider Art. She was also included in the fifth and sixth INSITA exhibitions in Bratislava in 1997 and 2000, as well as in the Biennale of Naïve Art in Jagodina in 2001.

Vasilij Romanenkov, the youngest artist in the present exhibition, hovers somewhere between the arcane mysticism of Zharkikh and a more accessible folk idiom. He was born in Bogdanovka, a remote village where vestiges of ancient folk traditions still survive. At the age of 15, he came to Moscow, where he was taken in by relatives and trained as a cabinet maker. After some years working on construction sites, he obtained his current job as a gardener for the Moscow parks department. (The artist's interest in trees and topiary is evident in his work.) Romanenkov began painting in 1975, at the age of 22. His earliest works, done in oil, usually depict large peasant gatherings in settings that suggest three-dimensional space. However, as he continued to work, his spaces grew flatter, his figures smaller and more stylized, his compositions more strictly geometric and symmetrical. Romanenkov also switched from paint to a combination of graphite, ballpoint pen and colored pencil. Typically, the artist pastes sheets of paper on a hard backboard, which allows him to achieve extremely crisp lines. His drawings are filled with an abundance of minute detail, the surfaces covered by a lace-like network of tightly intertwined lines.

As Romanenkov's work lost its folksy, narrative quality, his images have become more iconic and universal. Instead of painting a specific event, like a wedding feast, he now presents such rituals as generic markers in the passage from birth to death. Baptisms, childhood, old age and funerals reflect the life cycle that binds the generations. Romanenkov, who leads a solitary existence and believes that his hand is guided "by someone from the cosmos," seeks to depict the continuum linking the mundane sphere with the surrounding spirit world. His drawings often incorporate archaic motifs such as the tree of life, the sun and the "Earth Mother" (symbolizing fertility). The artist's stylized figures and propensity for creating triptychs and polyptychs also recall Russian icons. Some have seen a relationship between Romanenkov's intricate surface ornamentation and the geometric patterns found in Russian folk textiles, but he himself contends that these ornaments represent the internal thoughts and conversations of his characters. As with Zharkikh's hieroglyphics, these "conversations" are encoded in a language that only the artist can comprehend. Romanenkov's drawings were exhibited at INSITA in 1994 and 1997, at the Museum Charlotte Zander in 1999 and at the Museum der Stadshof in Zwolle, The Netherlands, in 2000.

From the outset, the promulgation of self-taught art has had a pronounced political dimension. European modernists in the early twentieth century turned to non-academic art in part as a protest against the social and artistic dictates of bourgeois society. When Dubuffet "invented" the idea of art brut in the 1940s, he was very conscious of the fact that Adolf Hitler had recently equated modernism with madness. Similarly, Russian intellectuals in the 1980s and '90s championed self-taught art as an expression of the creative freedom that was banned for so many years under Soviet rule. Over the course of the last century, the most vociferous advocates of self-taught art have often exaggerated its purity, its degree of remove from the surrounding culture. Some Americans, on the other hand, now complain that the notion of the "outsider" is antithetical to democratic egalitarianism.

The truth is that all societies endorse normative values of one kind or another. Humans, collectively as well as individually, are constantly making choices, and the act of choosing one thing invariably entails the neglect of something else. The hallmark of a truly free and democratic society is not an absence of value judgements, but the flexibility to assimilate disparate viewpoints and thereby to change. The appeal of "outsider art," by whatever name, is that it gives us access to aspects of our beings that we have previously been wont to repress. That is why homegrown self-taught art has had a more enduring relationship to the modernist aesthetic than the non-Western art forms once promoted by Picasso and his colleagues. The appeal of "outsiders" lies less in their "otherness" than in the things they can teach us about ourselves. Russia's "outsiders" in this sense have profound lessons to offer to those of us living in the West. For half a century or more, the Soviet Union was the biggest "other": the enemy, the antipode of everything we ostensibly stood for, the brunt of our sometimes misguided foreign policy. How amazing that we can at last explore our common humanity!

The present exhibition owes its genesis to the pioneering legwork of a number of colleagues. Three years ago, at the suggestion of the Dutch dealer Nico van der Endt, the Galerie St. Etienne first included Vasilij Romanenkov in a survey of European self-taught artists. This show caught the attention of Ksenia Bogemskaya, who in the meantime has become a loyal supporter and friend. Additionally, as a result of that exhibition, we met the Russian emigré photography dealer Nailya Alexander, who introduced us to the work of Pavel Leonov. (A show of Leonov's work, curated by Ms. Alexander, will take place at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum from February 1 through April 1.) Through Ms. Alexander, we also established contact with the Museum of Outsider Art in Moscow. The museum's director, Vladimir Abakumov, and his able assistants, Anya Yarkina and Andrea Rutherford, were instrumental in helping us obtain Rosa Zharkikh's work for the present exhibition. In addition to the foregoing dealers and scholars, we would like to express our heartfelt thanks to Irene Bakhchanyan, who showed us the samizdat collection of her husband Vagrich and provided a partial translation of Nikifor Zaiatz's manuscript. The literature on Russian self-taught art remains scant, and the portion in English is even more limited. Within this context, however, the writings of Ksenia Bogemskaya and Anya Yarkina are exemplary, and both these experts have been extraordinarily generous with their advice and assistance. For a more general grounding in the subject, Alison Hilton's 1995 book Russian Folk Art is indispensable.