PRINT April 1982


In-the year of our Lord 1798, on the seventh day of November, were the sketches of the freed serf Apelles Ziablov displayed, and not merely displayed, but forthwith deliberated upon. . . . and it was ruled that the morals of their maker had been sorely impaired by old age and infected by undertakings that are contrary to God and to the Law, and which the noble Arts can in no way tolerate. In response to such ruling, the aforementioned Ziablov hastened to further his foul and obscene behavior by declaiming some dark verse with the insolent intention of foully distorting historical perspective and besmirching the titles of the assembly members.

The firm and well-reasoned condemnation of these sketches will not only enhance the zeal of artists of renown, but will encourage others who .. .nourish hopes for governmental patronage. Appropriate and correct drawing .. . . may prevent a person from succumbing to vile and obscene behavior in which a man is easily rendered worthless. Therefore the. aforementioned Apelles Ziablov is to be given governmental subsidy for continual practice in the plaster-drawing class, under the supervision of an executor,. Lt. Colonel Rykov, who shall be specially assigned to him.

(From the Decision of the Minor Academic Assembly of Arts of St. Petersburg regarding the works of Apelles Ziablov. Written across the text of the Decision are the words “Ziablov hanged himself Wednesday morning between 7 and 11.” The signature is illegible.)

VITALY KOMAR AND ALEXANDER MELAMID are two artists who realized, from the beginning of their artistic production, that the holy quest for purity of expression (both formal and individual) had been run before. They were faced with the perennial Russian call to action, “What is to be done?” Dead ends are unacceptable, and pages cannot be left blank. Since they began working together in Moscow in 1965, this has been the question of Komar and Melamid’s art, one they inherited as a birthright: how to rescue unity amid what they have referred to as Modernism’s rubble heap of devastation. Their work performs a virtual archeological dig of this century’s ideological upheavals; for them memory has become a grab bag seamstress, and made a patchwork of time. Much of their work is like the day-dreaming of a Merlinesque art historian who, schooled in the ironies of Russian history, has developed a taste for a bloody joust. Past and future meet in the present, centuries play hopscotch and run head-on into one another on the way back from Heaven. The results have often been trenchant: an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup can restored as an ancient fresco (Post-Art #1, 1974); the Guggenheim Museum as royal ruin in an 18th century landscape (Scenes from the Future, 1974); the creation of “the first abstract painter,” an 18th century Russian serf named Ziablov (Ziablov, 1973).

Komar and Melamid’s work asserts that the continued possibility of a Modernist stance, and specifically the continued authority of pictures, requires recognition of the displacement that has been made our condition by a surplus of images. The mechanical reproduction of images has filled our lives with ghosts, which often seem more real to us than our neighbors. Travel photographs and postcards project us back and forth in time to places and lives that are not our own, reproductions inundate us with information on centuries of painting, film, TV, and magazines all bombard us with images—placing continual strain on our grasp of the here and now, and therefore of history as well. These images are our access to history, our ancestors, next of kin, companions in the present who promise to remain faithful in the unknown of the future; they are our visible collective memory clamoring for attention in the elusive hierarchy of present values. Like voyeurs rather than voyants, we live parasitically off them. As Komar and Melamid learned early on, overabundance—in the case of the Soviet Union, a surplus of ideology—produces not revolution, but apathy.

Historians, actors, and tall-tale tellers of the might-be and might-have-been, Komar and Melamid have played the roles of prophets, propagandists, legislators, businessmen, doctors, executioners, priests, archeologists, teachers, art critics, artists—a veritable tinker-tailor-soldier-sailor chronicle of public images. Ghosts too need reinventing to be apprised of their Modern status; thus, in one work, Komar and Melamid “unearthed” the Minotaur along with archeological “proof” of the former existence of ideal forms —all of which they constructed of human bones obtained from a mail-order company in India (Excavations on Crete, 1978). In another work, Komar and Melamid Inc., We Buy and Sell Souls, 1978–81, human souls were auctioned off in New York and Moscow, ensuring the immortality of the original owners.

Komar and Melamid’s most loaded portrait of all is their self-portrait—their functioning and status as one artist (they have worked together exclusively since 1972). This goes beyond collaboration, the technical how of creation and execution. They comprise their own society of two, a “trans-state,” which further complicates their figurative doubling through personas or historical styles. Remove one mask and another appears—the process is endless. All romanticism fails, shed like an old skin by the Socratic irony that establishes an elusive dialectic between the artists and their work, forcing the viewer to delve beyond the surface and unearth what appearances do not say.

Komar and Melamid began as Pop artists, propagating their own conceptual Soviet debunking of 20th century myth (they called it “sots-art,” sots being short for the Russian “sotsialisticheskii,” i.e. socialist), signing their names to Communist Party slogans, and painting themselves, in Double Self-Portrait, in parody of Lenin and Stalin. The task of creating Pop icons in a Soviet context involves an even greater degree of subversive political acuity than in the United States; there, Pop art is of necessity political science. This sensibility has carried through their work done in the West. Anti-individualist individualists, the artists are wary of nationalist sentiments and revivals in whatever form they may take.

Their current project, still in progress, is a series of fake “Socialist Realist” paintings—ironic re-productions of the academic, heroic/romantic realism that was the official program of both the visual arts and literature in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s consolidation of power in the ’30s. All of the five paintings completed so far are deliberately infected with the nostalgia for hierarchy which is characteristic of the period’s most effective creations. Through an elaborate compendium of referential images, ranging from retouched photographs in Soviet magazines to reproductions of the Old Masters, Komar and Melamid invoke in these paintings the situation in which the government, as the ultimate critic, is intimately involved with the artist’s brush—concerned not only with censorship but with the very generation of public images. The actual sources for the compositional elements (figures, objects, draperies, architectural details) in these paintings are manifold; consideration is geared to the overall effect rather than to the symbolism of individual detail. Quotations from Caravaggio, David, Vermeer, etc. are used in a conceptual rather than a historical sense and draw on a specific family of images, those of Western European painting up until Impressionism. Modernism has no place in this vocabulary, though in true Socratic form it is ultimately the subject.

The pre-Revolutionary academic curriculum of the Soviet art schools attended by Komar and Melamid provided them with the background of technique and preparation used in this series. Sketches are compiled, using slides, Xeroxes, and reproductions. In some instances the idea for a composition may be drawn substantially from one source, but a referential photograph is staged so that the placement of light and shadow on the figure fits in with the overall conception of the new painting. The individual images within the painting may be plucked from different centuries and media and subordinated to the artists’ overall scheme regardless of their original scale, medium, and context. Caravaggio’s artificially dramatic lighting glues each picture together—frequently, faces are starkly lit, contrasting sharply with those major portions of the compositions which are relegated to shadow. Before the final varnishing thin layers of transparent oils are applied by brush or rag to the canvas to bring out its grain and darken the entire painting, thereby approximating the natural darkening of pigments over time.

Although sources are deliberately fragmented and obscure to prevent the work from being perceived only as parody, the paintings are constructed to spark recognition, to look like something we might have seen or might think we’ve seen. Like the canvases of their Socialist Realist predecessors—in which party has-beens were airbrushed in and out of history and executed officials were painted over and replaced with their successors—these works are meant to be read as genuine, the objective correlatives of faith in a specific world order and in painting’s ability to embody that order.

Komar and Melamid cite Tiepolo’s Maecenas Presenting the Arts to Augustus (in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad) as the spiritual precursor of Stalin and the Muses, 1981. In this painting Stalin, standing with his back to a table on which are books, scrolls, his ever-present pipe, and a lamp, is attended by four muses clothed in the loose drapery of classical Greek sculpture. The Muse of Sculpture clutches a mallet, the Muse of Painting clasps brushes and a palette, while the Muse of Literature curves gracefully, offering Stalin a book. The fourth Muse is in the background, her esthetic territory unclear. Sunlight filters in through the open arch of a window at the left of the painting, radiantly spotlighting Stalin’s beneficent smile. A reproduction of a 19th century engraving was used as the reference scheme for the composition, but the artists have replaced a French military officer with a debonair Stalin. His facial expression and the lamp on his table are taken from A Memorable Meeting, 1937, by Vassily Yefanov, in which Stalin greets the wives of heavy-industry technicians. His uniform is compiled from two other popular Soviet paintings. A Poussin-inspired sky is visible through the arch, and the wind seems to be blowing Stalin’s coat back, adding an element of cavalier naturalism to the formal scene.

I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child, 1981, is the most subversively nostalgic painting in the series. Stalin is looking out of the back window of his car through a red curtain. His face is dramatically illuminated (one guesses by a street lamp not in the painting), and the rest of the image is only barely perceptible. This portrait of Stalin in his later years is based on a poster entitled For the People’s Happiness, which shows him voting. There are few other direct sources for this painting; rather, the light that falls on the leader’s face is the synthesis of all those representations of him (primarily in posters and paintings) in which he seems to emanate a divine light. But here he is framed in darkness, as if the rear window of the car were a movie screen and Stalin, the old man, were drawing closed the curtain on his public self.

In The Tempest—Collective Farmworkers, 1981, three women are shown leading their prize bull to shelter from an impending storm. The image of the women and their bull evokes a cliché frequently seen in the Soviet press. It is taken from the back cover of a special issue of Ogoniok (the Soviet equivalent of Life magazine) on the All-Union Exhibit of Agriculture in Moscow, in which grandiose pavilions and imposing sculptural monuments paid homage to collective farms and various other aspects of agriculture. Thus the columns in The Tempest . . . are not farfetched, but draw on the Soviet penchant for heroicizing labor and “the people” within the confines of a Western European iconography. Even the title, appropriated from Giorgione, functions as a prior image. One of the women wears the Gold Medal of the Hammer and Sickle, which is awarded to “Heroes of Socialist Labor.” The women are mostly in shadow and a shaft of light from the upper left of the painting falls on the bull, as if to say that he is the real hero of the moment.

The motif of red draperies running through the series is the heritage of not only painterly but also photographic, esthetic, and historical iconographies, and its dual symbolism serves to further blur ideological and genre boundaries. In The Tempest . . . it comes from Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, altered slightly to become the red banners that are paraded through the streets on Soviet holidays and that are synonymous with Party and State. In Girl in Front of a Mirror, 1981, the red curtain to the right of the young girl sitting on a sofa is borrowed from Vermeer’s Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window only the color of the curtain changed in its transformation into one of the makeshift “walls” that are an inescapable component of life in Russian communal apartments.

These paintings are primed to take their place in the ever-expanding universe of reproductions. They anticipate their own fate by setting out to confound historical classifications, to be pictures of pictures. The mask of the Socialist Realist painter has its roots in another Komar and Melamid work, Buchumov, 1973. Nikolai Buchumov was an artist whose work Komar and Melamid supposedly “discovered.” They did actually find a painting signed N. Buchumov on a Moscow street, and, unable to locate the artist, or to find out any information about him, they invented his life’s work and wrote his autobiography. According to it Buchumov was born before the turn of the century, and as a young man went to Moscow to study art. Dismayed by what he believed to be the decadence of avant-garde formalism, he returned to his native Russian countryside just before the Revolution. (In passing it must be said that the chronology of Buchumov’s life and adventures changes a bit each time the artists tell his story.) There he carried out the plan which was to be the work of his lifetime: to paint four landscapes each year, one for each season. Buchumov had lost sight in one eye after a brawl with a formalist painter during his Moscow days and, believing in realism, he faithfully painted the side of his nose into each of his landscapes. In the context of Komar and Melamid’s work one could imagine this new series of paintings as the creation of Buchumov’s heir or spiritual descendant. Having refused the progressive ideology of Modernism, this next generation strives to raise the “heroic principle to the throne of history” (as Nikolai Bukharin described the task of Socialist Realism in 1934).

Komar and Melamid’s work keeps vigilant watch over modern mythologies, whatever the source. Their reaction to recent revivals of expressionism was a life-sized Portrait of Adolf Hitler, 1980–81. This painting carries a sinister weight that photographs of Hitler can never equal—they remain notations of historical fact, the products of a mechanical eye, innocent of any attribution of meaning or intent. Here, Komar and Melamid’s relentless rationalism has pushed them, as Jews and Modernist artists, far beyond the stance of provocateur into the realm of the morally “unrepresentable.” In one picture they have assumed the entire burden of image taboos. The slashing of the painting during its appearance in 1981’s Monumental Show, by someone claiming to be tired of irony (as if to remove the image from history), was simply the completion of the work. This Hitler is a work of aggressive political Pop, whose transgression makes portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, or even Mao Ze-dong seem insipid by comparison.

Endowed with a very keen sense of the Modern of their time, the Russian avant-garde sought to break with tradition so profoundly as to cause a time warp in history. Only then, as the Internationale put it, could a new, fundamentally different world be constructed. Memory was to hold its breath and take the plunge into the timelessness of the eternal future, as art leapt into pure utilitarian form. We know what happened instead. In sorting through the “rubble heap” of Modernism Komar and Melamid pose questions which they leave us to answer. History charged us with the ideology of progress, the burden of innovation, of the clean slate, and then refused to be erased. In inventing the present as our past, Komar and Melamid show us that we must look back—and look back carefully.

Jamey Gambrell is the assistant editor of Artforum and has translated Komar and Melamid’s articles and texts from the Russian since 1978.