forth year: 2001/2002 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition / course participant's texts


Olesya Turkina
St. Petersburg's Neo-academism. Revival of the Great Story.

The art of the Great Story never died; however, during the 20th century, people became aware of it as something supplemental in relation to the narrative process. Politicians, scholars, and advertisers tell histories, whether this is the Great Story of the defence of human rights in an individual country, the mapping of the human genome, or the taste of a cigarette that unites the world. And although the Great Story has often served to justify the most cynical actions on the part of its authors, its positive, even therapeutic role, should be mentioned. The Great Story serves as a peculiar kind of a defensive shield against reality, ameliorating the traumatic effect of the rapidly-changing modernity. Great Stories permit the subject to locate itself within a nomadic space, to suspend time, to 'find oneself'. As a rule, Great Stories are formed at a certain initial moment, when History begins. It confirms the mythological truth, the non-transient, the eternal.

Neo-academism is the Great Story of Beauty, Identity, and Tradition. Neo-academism was founded in 1988 by the artist Timur Novikov in St. Petersburg (at the time it was still called Leningrad). At that time, a time of cardinal changes, all political, ideological, economic, and aesthetic orders compiled during the decades of the more or less stable semiosphere of the USSR were suddenly demolished. The Great Stories of the friendly family of peoples included in the multinational empire, the social justice of the socialist system, creative work of the socialist realism art crashed. In spite of the fact that during the last decade of the USSR's existence (approximately from the late 1970s onwards) these Stories already served as empty shells for an obsolete ideology, the death of the Great Story was painfully perceived by most of the country's population. The impossibility of inscribing oneself in a united Great Story, the loss of identity, generated nostalgia for the Great Story and the wish to revive what was lost were suddenly present. The restoration of the Great Story is inevitably accompanied by an appeal to the past, to the beginning of the Story in some golden age. If, during the first years of the perestroika period the most popular age was the epoch when the Soviet state was founded (the revolutionary romanticism of the 1920's) then at the start of the 1990's, this was replaced by an orientation towards the imperial tradition of tsarist Russia. Return, in the form of the state flag - the tri-colour of tsarist Russia, in the form of the coat-of-arms of the double-headed eagle (deprived of its crowns in the process of this 'restoration') as well as the temporary adoption of Mikhail Glinka's music from the opera A Life for the Tsar as the state hymn - all this pointed towards the desire to replace the representation of one lost empire (Soviet) with another - tsarist. In the process of rewriting the Great Story of the great Russian / Soviet empire, the return of the name St. Petersburg to the former capital in 1991 was very indicative. Neo-academism arose within a certain historical and geopolitical context. It can be said that this movement defined the pro-imperial moods in the post-Soviet society.

Neo-academism, founded by Timur Novikov, one of the most radical St. Petersburg artists, who, in his creative work, united the ideas of symbolic perspective and the theory of re-assembly (invented in the 1920's by the Soviet producer Lev Kuleshov) was initiated with a series of the artist's collages dedicated to Oscar Wilde. Sometimes the origin of neo-academism in Novikov's creative work is also placed in 1987, when the artist created the picture Boy with an Oar - a peculiar kind of neo-academist Kouros - a portrait of the artist Georgii Guryanov as a parody of a Stalinist garden sculpture. These two areas - collage, including a recognisable, beautiful image, and figurative painting, which (according to the founder of neo-academism Novikov) appeals to the neo-classical aesthetics, developed as a consequence of the two main tendencies of the new trend. The very concept of neo-academism, like the New Academy of Fine Arts, appeared in 1990, when the New Academy of All Kinds of Arts (one of the founders of this was also Novikov), was renamed, in order to appeal to the futuristic practices of the Russian avant-garde. The New Academy of Fine Arts proclaimed its task to be the revival of classical traditions which, according to its founder, had been lost, not only by the avant-garde artists, but also by the official Academy of Fine Arts (now the Ilya Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture), which existed in St. Petersburg from the 18th century onwards. Neo-academism arose thanks to the efforts of its creator, who remains also its chief ideologist. In the play The Secret Cult, written by Novikov in 1992 (in the style of Wilde's dramatic productions) the author speaks of the eternal values of art and about the lost golden age, when the ideal of the beautiful was accessible to viewers, and about the start of war in art, a war between the beautiful and the ugly. In the year 2000 Novikov definitively formulated the idea of the parallel existence of two histories of art. One was oriented towards some eternal image, whether it was Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, or Neo-classical. This tendency was confirmed not only in the creative work of contemporary artists, but also in fashion photography, consciously exploiting the neo-classical aesthetics. Another history of art begins in ritualistic, shamanistic practices. Artists who are assigned to the second group are given the name actualists, that is, trading the eternity of the beautiful for the temporality of the current. The actualist is the enemy of neo-academism who is periodically subject to being unmasked. The process of exposure sometimes takes place literally, as at the Nudity and Modernism exhibition in 1994, which took place at the New Academy. The motive of the exposure of modernism (which includes post-modernism) is popular in the ideology of neo-academism, as the desire to disclose the modernistic conspiracy, prepared by the secret services, appeal to the practice of opposites, when for the confirmation of the one, the correct one, two - incorrect - are used. All of this to a certain degree resembles the Soviet ideology in the field of culture, which seemed a successful pastiche in the recent past. At the same time such actions as, for example, the public burning of one's pictures and journals that belong to modern art arouses suspicions of neo-totalitarianism.

Neo-academism is based on the idea of the ideal image, which artists understand in different ways. In search of the ideal they turn to various epochs. In his textile collages, Timur Novikov reconstitutes the principle of the ancient Russian banner. Georgy Gurianov orients his creative activity towards the work of socialist-realist artists, such as Aleksandr Deineka and Aleksandr Samokhvalov. A series of Gurianov's pictures represent the heroes of a totalitarian utopia, as though they had descended from the screen of Abram Room's feature film A Stern Youth (1936) or Leni Riefenstahl's Olympics (1936). Sometimes the artist literally repeats the composition of this or that production of the 1930's-1950's. The heroes of Gurianov's pictures are ideal citizens of a totalitarian empire who incarnate the socially useful function of the Aviator, Athlete, Tractor driver, or Sailor. The idealism in Yegor Ostrov's paintings is related to the 'soluble' language of painting that he discovered, which allows him to retell the Great Stories of former ages (such as the Homeric epic, for example) in his own way. The artist does not narrate new histories, he makes the visual language more contemporary. The re-worked portrayal in a surprising image corresponds to the language of the Homeric epic, the geometric Greek thought, and the distinctive flatness - both in Homer's 'original' and in Ostrov's paintings, in which the action is developed in the real, bright, illuminated space, where the foreground and background are missing. Olga Tobreluts borrows images for her computer collages from the broad pantheon of history of art and the mass culture. She inserts heroes sanctified by the contemporary mass media into famous Renaissance paintings. Digital technology permits Tobreluts to unite various traditions. The digital proportions become a new means of achieving the ideal, which arises into the new era on the frontier of the mass-mediagenic. On the borderline of mass art, classical traditions and fashion, a glimmering of thought appears, the duality of recognition and non-recognition, related to the reformation of a well-known image. Thus the face of Leonardo di Caprio is inserted into a picture of Antonello da Messina. This production was subjected to censorship by the famous publisher Thames and Hudson, which in 2001 republished the book The Modern Movement in Art after 1945 written by the critic Edward Lucy-Smith. When the critic decided to print this work by Torbeluts from the series Sacred Figures as an illustration, the publishing house's lawyers advised them not to do this, since they were afraid that questions might arise about the copyright to the face of Leonardo di Caprio. Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kuznetsov create enormous pastiche paintings in the style of 19th century salon paintings, presenting themselves and their friends in a painted Arcadia, living in a mythological epoch outside time, in the Golden Age of ancient utopia. Often the artists create a literal mimesis, a movement towards a certain image. Thus, before approaching the depiction of a scene, they go to the State Hermitage in order to thoroughly study the position of bodies, arms, fingers and the direction of the gaze of the mythological persons.

Thus, neo-academism exploits a certain territorial and chronological context. This movement arose in St. Petersburg, which is considered the most European of all Russian cities, possessing the status of a cultural capital, famous for its Empire-style architecture, museums, classical ballet, sculpture parks, and it is also an international centre for antiques. Neo-academism in its own way reflects the aesthetic taste of the emerging middle class, the so-called New Russians. At the time when neo-academism appeared, Timur Novikov wittily christened it New Russian Classicism or classicism for New Russians, who endeavour to revive the Imperial style and collect antiques. New Russian classicism manifested itself as the official style of the new Russia in the1990's (in the neo-classical style of commercial structures, such as the business centre on Manezh Square in Moscow, or public monuments erected by sculptors Tseretelli and Klykov). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Russian classicism partly assumed the role of the lost imperial style, expressed through the cultural ideologies popular in the 1990's Russian revanchist moods, which could mean 'The Empire strikes back', according to the slogan that became popular due to the advertisement for the Yava cigarette. (This advertisement is addressed at the most mythologically reinforced achievement of the Soviet empire, at the area of space exploration, and the inversion of the opposition of the Empire of Good (USA) and the Empire of Evil (USSR) in George Lucas' series of feature films Star Wars.) According to Timur Novikov the New Russian classicism is a broader concept than neo-academism. New Russian classicism reflects a mass movement towards the classicistic image, regardless of whether this is performed in the advertising of banks, the adherence of the new middle class to a certain architectural style, fashionable designer brands and collecting. It is no secret that numerous Moscow galleries that concentrate on modern art receive their major income from the sale of antiques, and not from the productions of contemporary artists. According to Novikov, New Russian classicism is called upon to show the original face of the new Russian culture, which lost its distinction after the fall of the Iron Curtain and its acquaintance with the modern Western culture. New Russian classicism is the Great Story of the new, it stands in opposition to the American culture of Coca-Cola and McDonald's, it is a combination of high and low, mass and professional culture, based on the opposition of Europe and America. This area includes those artists who, not being immediate members of the New Academy of Fine Arts, use classical aesthetics in their creative work, whether it be the aesthetics of Russian academic painting of the 18th century or Soviet planned architecture of the 1930's. Thus, in the Novonovosibirsk (New Novosibirsk) plan, presented by Andrei Molodkin, Aleksei Belyaev-Gintovt, and Gleb Kosorukov, the totalitarian aesthetic image of the 1930's is exaggerated. This project consists of a series of planners' drawings, executed in ball-point pen on huge canvases, and represents sketches for future monuments, which can be created in the new capital of Russia, Novonovosibirsk. According to the artists' announcement Russia's new capital should be situated in the geographical centre of the country, in Siberia, not far from the existing city of Novosibirsk. The very idea of the search for the geographical centre of the country is the literal embodiment of the opposites of metropolitanism/centralism and provincialism/peripheralism. Moreover, the future monuments combine in themselves functionalism and allegory, both so familiar in the history of Soviet architecture of the 1930's, when in the plan for the House of Soviets in Moscow, the architect Ionafan proposed to execute the building in the form of a gigantic figure of Lenin, with the library located within the head. Molodkin, Belyaev-Gintovt, and Kosorukov suggested the foundation of their pantheon, with the Ministry of Education located within the gigantic head of the statue of Apollo, and the giant colossus of rye would house the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the pathos of the project is partly diluted by the fact that the sketches of the future monuments are drawn in a most democratic way. The ball-point pen, invented in the 1930's, had not yet penetrated the Great Story of the great tradition of European art. The project Novonovosibirsk acquires a pastiche character and becomes a neo-modernist project, in spite of the modernist claims to change the world.

The Great Story of Neo-academism, like the New Russian classicism, helps to adapt to the quickly changing reality. In part this movement imitates the new bureaucratisation of the state power in Russia. During the last decade the New Academy of Fine Art, with its developed bureaucratic apparatus including the Museum of the New Academy, the Museum director, the secretary of the New Academy, the professors of the New Academy as well as the orientation towards the Imperial style, played the role of a pastiche. At the same time, it was called upon to halt time, to appeal to its own European traditions, having demonstrated a resistance to the expansion of American culture, - all this reflected the general moods of a certain part of the country's population, who in search of identity turned to the Great Story of the Past. One could perceive the Golden Age as the period when Justice, Authenticity, and Beauty triumphed, i.e. the Soviet empire of the 1930's-1950's (as perceived by the left wing fraction), or tsarist Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as perceived by the right wing fraction), or the time when Christianity was adopted in the 10th century (as perceived by Kievan Rus). Depending on the political orientation, the process of the revival of the Great Stories took on different forms. Neo-academism with its appeal for the Eternal, Beautiful, and Traditional, played the role of a meta-story. According to its founder Timur Novikov, Neo-academism as such is over and will take over another shape in the nearest future, but the desire to go out of time, to revive the Great Stories is still alive.