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Oscar Rabin (1928–2018)

Oscar Rabin, the Russian avant-garde painter who helped spur the second wave of Soviet-period nonconformist, or “unofficial,” art, has died in France at age ninety. Over a six-decade career, his ashen still lifes, landscapes, and interiors repeatedly chronicled the bleak realities of the USSR and its absurdities. Rabin’s departure from the state-enforced socialist realism and his organizing of alternative art events, such as the infamous 1974 “Bulldozer Exhibition,” led to pressures that resulted in his loss of Soviet citizenship and his emigration to Paris in 1978. Along with his wife Valentina Kropivnitsky, Rabin created the Lianozovo Group, a collective of underground artists and poets. 

Born in Moscow in 1928, Rabin trained at the Riga Academy of Arts in Latvia in the late 1940s. “I worked as if possessed, trying to paint slick, syrupy, ‘safe’ things which were easily within the reach of the understanding of the ‘powers that be.’ I then destroyed these paintings one by one. I just couldn’t bear to look at them,” he once said. He grew inspired by his father-in-law and mentor, Evgeny Kropivnitsky, an artist and poet credited with picking up the thread of Russian avant-gardism, which had been buried by the government in the 1930s.

Rabin began making his somber-hued canvases—which often have distorted perspectives and juxtapose everyday objects like bread loaves or roses with grim cityscapes—and gained notoriety as a robust organizer of unofficial shows that were often quashed by the authorities. “My imagery is simple because I live a simple life,” Rabin said in 1964. “I go nowhere and see nothing.” The “Bulldozer Exhibition,” staged outside in a vacant lot in Moscow, earned its name after the KGB violently broke up the event with bulldozers, dump trucks, and water cannons (Rabin allegedly clung to the blade of a bulldozer throughout the ordeal). From 1958 to 1965, Rabin and Kropivnitsky hosted Russia’s progressive intelligentsia in their Lianozovo home, a former concentration camp barracks. A documentary about the artist’s life, Oscar, was released earlier this year.

In Paris, Rabin’s work is widely exhibited, collected, and celebrated, though he still considered himself a Soviet artist after four decades abroad, and his later paintings remained engaged with his early themes and subjects. “My paintings are the life that surrounds me,” Rabin said in an interview this April, when a jubilee exhibition was held at the Grand Palais. “It is everything what is happening to me or my loved ones, my relatives. And by saying ‘relatives,’ I am using the word in the broad sense: this can mean the country, as well. It is my inner life captured in paintings.”