View of “Absolute Beauty–Neoacademism in Saint Petersburg,” 2015. Photo: József Rosta.

View of “Absolute Beauty–Neoacademism in Saint Petersburg,” 2015. Photo: József Rosta.

“Absolute Beauty”

View of “Absolute Beauty–Neoacademism in Saint Petersburg,” 2015. Photo: József Rosta.

Shot in the Neoclassical splendor of Saint Petersburg, Russia’s Mikhailovsky Palace, Igor Bezrukov’s eight-minute-long film The Red Square, or the Golden Ratio, 1999, follows a would-be painter (played by gender-bending artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe) who, after carefully studying the Venus de Milo, paints a red square. Enraged, his teacher (artist Timur Novikov in a top hat and monocle, though he had recently gone blind) bends his pupil over and proceeds to spank the avant-garde out of him. The parable concludes with the student producing a perfect Aphrodite as the master looks on, beaming.

Screened as part of “Absolute Beauty–Neoacademism in Saint Petersburg,” Bezrukov’s film encapsulates the ambiguities and contradictions at the heart of the New Academy, an artistic phenomenon born of the cultural permissiveness of the perestroika period. The electrically charismatic Novikov had previously spearheaded the New Artists, a rowdy late-1980s collective that churned out aggressive expressionism on par with that of their colleagues in New York and Cologne, but one mired in a more complicated relationship to Pop. (When Andy Warhol sent the group signed cans of Campbell’s soup, Georgy Gurjanov tasted his, promptly declaring it “no better than Soviet slop.”) In 1989, Novikov concluded that the only radical course of action left would be a return to beauty, in its most classical interpretation. In calling for this aesthetic about-face, Novikov’s manifestos often flirted with fascist undertones, spiking cynicism with the genuine joie de vivre seen in The Red Square. Following Novikov’s lead, artists including Gurjanov, Andrei Medvedev, Oleg & Viktor (Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kouznetsov), Denis Egelsky, Bella Matveeva, Olga Tobreluts, and Andrei Khlobystin began to propagate a good-humored, hypersexualized Hellenism under the aegis of the New Academy.

Extending their aesthetic program into their social lives, many of the movement’s leading figures—Novikov among them—projected a sexually fluid identity, honed on the dance floors of Russia’s budding rave culture. The Neoacademists shared the ravers’ preoccupation with self-reinvention; while their methods and media varied, their output was primarily self-portraiture, both individual and collective. As the most prominent example, Oleg & Viktor’s seventeen-foot-long oil on canvas, Triumph of Homer, 1999, updates Ingres’s iconic 1827 painting to cast Novikov—by then already blind from the illness that would claim his life in 2002—as the epic poet surrounded by acolytes and admirers bearing the faces of Neoacademists but the bodies of Greek gods (except for Mamyshev-Monroe, who appears as a centaur).

A digital reproduction of Triumph of Homer hung in the stairwell of the Ludwig Múzeum in preface to “Absolute Beauty.” Curated by Ekaterina Andreeva and Khlobystin, the exhibition-as-primer dedicated most of the main gallery to Novikov’s own work, a series of smart tapestries like Apollo Trampling on the Black Square, 1990, green and gold brocade with a clipped image of Apollo Belvedere, perched atop the woebegone mascot of the Russian avant-garde; or Salome, 1992–93, sumptuous burgundy satin bearing a collage of what at the time was erroneously believed to be a photograph of Oscar Wilde in drag, with a portrait of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, the writer’s lover. Novikov’s tapestries neatly mediate the space between Gurjanov’s wistful paintings of marines and athletes and the salon decadence of the film and paintings of Matveeva, whose figures flow glittering and cold over paisley-patterned fabrics and fur-lined silks.

A separate gallery highlighted the stony-blue palettes of the New Serious, a New Academy offshoot without the irony. Here, Gurjanov’s dreamy portraits of athletes recall Aleksandr Deineka on club drugs, while Medvedev’s acrylic works send snow-white blimps or red-winged seaplanes flying out over the frozen Neva River. Their imagery is precise and clear; what remains unresolved is whether the sense of mourning is intended for those artists who died while young and beautiful—as so many of the Neoacademists did—or for those who were left to reconcile what remains when beauty fails.

Kate Sutton