15 OCTOBER 1988, Page 45

Art in Russia

The bear in spring

Giles Auty

We are told we have this thing called freedom now, but nobody knows what it is.' These words, spoken by an established Russian painter, are the most poignant memory of a week spent recently in Moscow and Leningrad. While in the USSR I was lucky enough to be able to speak at some length with official and unofficial artists and with a brace of leading critics: Alexander Rozhin, editor of the Russian Union of Artists' magazine Tvorchestvo, and his former chief, the well-known historian Vladislav Zimenko. I first became aware of the latter's work when his book The Humanism of Art was published in an English edition in 1976.

Zimenko's critical analysis of the West- ern art then current seemed informed and perceptive although I was less happy about some of the Socialist Realist art with which he would have chosen to replace it. Soviet post-war art has been characterised by heavy-handedness and lack of pictorial sophistication. If, as I maintain, good art comes from a balanced conjunction of the activities of hand, heart and head, it is in the latter area that recent Russian art has been most notably deficient. Zimenko spoke to me of his visit to England in 1958 when he was impressed particularly by the then President of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Wheeler, who slid down the ban- isters of that institution during an official reception. 'You are so informal, you En- glish', Zimenko remarked wistfully.

There is little doubt in my mind that life for most artists in Russia has been regim- ented and grim. Good quality materials remain hard to come by, as they are in so many other areas of Soviet life. Paper, paint, canvas, mounting board, framing . . . in Britain our spoilt artists take quality and availability for granted. Other chronic shortages for our Russian counterparts include photographic film, coloured repro- ductions of paintings which artists might wish to study, and printing presses for fine art processes such as etching. Add to these problems the dulling hands of officialdom, plus artistic isolation and restriction, and one cannot but sympathise with the lot of many painters and sculptors in unreformed Russia. The thaw may be setting in now after a very long winter but I suspect it will be a fair while before much shooting new growth can be expected.

Like other British and American critics to whom I spoke on my visit, I found much of the Russian contemporary art I saw ill-made and disappointing. While visiting a collection of young unofficial artists in Moscow I was asked, 'Is Pop Art still popular in London?' by a painter who went on to explain that he really liked 'that style'. 'Of course we can't hope to keep up to date here, because of a shortage of Western magazines', another artist re- marked revealingly. I was sorry that none of those curators from Western museums, who believe that the same international artistic styles erupt simultaneously and spontaneously in several different coun- tries, was with me to hear this. For Zeitgeist read magazine-derived imitation; I fear we shall see an awful lot of the latter in post-perestroika Russian art, before, any worthwhile new identity emerges.

Last week I wrote of the existence of a phenomenon which might justly be called Nato art, except that the participating membership is smaller. The art 'treaty' is one whereby the museum hierarchies of the most economically powerful and Wes- ternised North Atlantic nations determine what is the most significant international art of the moment. This art is then praised and analysed extensively in the tame art press, bought for national collections and exhibited widely among the participating nations — principally the USA, Great Britain and West Germany. Italy, France, Switzerland and Holland enjoy associate membership, whereas Spain, Greece, the Scandinavian states, the Balkans, Eastern- bloc nations, Japan, the Middle East and entire Indian, Chinese and African conti- nents are all deemed 'non-countries' as far as significant art is concerned. Australia, Canada and South America enjoy slightly more privileged, semi-colonial status. The economic wealth of the dominant nations and their strongly established infrastruc- tures, comprising museums, auction houses and influential commercial dealers, ensure that the current 'Nato' hegemony will continue.

If, as seems likely, cultural exchange grows now between Russia and the West- ern nations, the rapid re-establishment of a genuine Russian identity in art could be a very welcome influence on this state of affairs. When writing about Russia in this column two weeks ago, I stressed the different critical emphases of West and East as being typified by form and content respectively. With the demise of modern- ism in the West, formally based critical language has become less and less relevant, while the need for some spiritual and affirmative content in art is becoming increasingly apparent. Russian art emerges from its cocoon at a time when the funeral rites for formalism are already complete. Artists of both sides need no longer hide behind their narrow artistic orthodoxies. Russia is fortunate in having two of the world's great collections in the Pushkin and the Hermitage; it is to these treasure- houses that Russia's artists should look for inspiration now rather than to trendy Western art magazines.

While in Moscow I was asked to write some articles for Russian art publications. This came as something of a surprise to me since in Britain I am generally believed to be too right-wing to be asked to contribute to art programmes even for our own `liberal' BBC. But perhaps I need not have been so astonished because a Russian to whom I was introduced at a party had already drawn me to one side and said, `Art critic, eh? I hope you're not one of those British Marxists.'

I extend my thanks for the help and superb organisational support provided by the British Council throughout my trip.