As souls go, Andy Warhol sold his cheap. His Russian artist pals Komar & Melamid bought it for nothing in New York and then smuggled it into the Soviet Union where it resold for, get this, 30 rubles. That was not much even in the late 1970s when the transactions took place.
“Imagine what it could fetch at auction today,” laughed Masha Zavialova, curator at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA), where a certificate attesting to the sale is on view in “Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art, 1965-2011.”
Featuring 70 paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations and other work by 47 contemporary Russian artists, the show lifts a curtain on one of the least familiar aspects of Soviet-era history and culture: the expression of religious ideas and sentiment in a country that banned them.
Organized by TMORA, the show is on loan from the Kolodzei Art Foundation, an extraordinary hoard of more than 7,000 pieces of Soviet and Russian art spanning the past 40 years. The collection began in Moscow in the 1960s when Tatiana Kolodzei began buying or exchanging pieces with dissident or “nonconforming” artists, as those who refused to toe the Communist Party’s aesthetic line were called. Now based in New Jersey, the foundation organizes shows and cultural exchanges in the United States, Russia and elsewhere. The Minneapolis show is up through June 9.
But about Warhol’s soul. Its sale was, of course, a conceptual amusement cooked up by a team of artist provocateurs, Komar & Melamid Inc., who bought and sold souls as a “future investment.” As a financial scheme and hedge against eternal damnation, it was a latter-day version of the 16th-century papal indulgences. As always, the mischievous Russians were simultaneously satirizing capitalism’s eagerness to monetize everything and the official Soviet contempt for anything with a whiff of religion. More important even than Warhol’s spiritual remains, the show includes a rustic little shoebox-sized container in which is said to reside the soul of the late Norton Dodge, a rumpled economics professor who used his academic cover to amass 20,000 pieces of dissident art while visiting the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1950s. In its field, that box is equivalent to a suitcase for the Shroud of Turin.
These are mere digressions in the grand sweep of “Concerning the Spiritual,” however. The art is enormously varied, skillfully executed and often quite affecting.
A bit of history is essential to making sense of the material, said Zavialova, who grew up in St. Petersburg during the Soviet era, when religion was still banned. The country was atheistic from its start, Lenin having ordered churches closed and priests dismissed. Stalin continued those policies, although his views softened during World War II, when roughly 20 million of his people died defending their country.
After the war, Stalin’s policies changed and “he became easier on religion,” Zavialova added, but by 1948 only 8 percent of the pre-revolutionary churches were still open.
The next leader, Nikita Khrushchev, ended Stalin’s terror and persecution of dissidents, but again tried to do away with “religious superstition.”And so it went through various regimes until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
“For nonconforming Soviet artists, writers and intellectuals, religion occupied an oppositional space, like it was back in the first centuries of Christianity,” Zavialova said. Unable to exhibit in official sites, artists staged little shows in apartments and other low-key places, all under observation by the KGB.
Art in the show falls loosely into two periods, the Soviet era from roughly 1965 to 1990, and the contemporary Russian period, 1990 to the present. Few if any of the artists’ names will be familiar to American viewers, though many are legendary in their homeland. A black-and-white 1970 linocut by Oscar Rabin, for example, depicts a prayer book propped up under a bare light bulb before two burial sites: a Soviet-era war tomb topped by a hammer and sickle and an unattended cross in a desolate landscape. Although a bit moralistic, the image powerfully echoes the fate of the artist, who was exiled after he organized an outdoor exhibition of dissident art that was, literally, bulldozed.
Religious notions mingle with early 20th-century Russian avant-garde concepts in some paintings. In two 1990 compositions, Eduard Shteinberg codes spiritual allusions in abstract form, using a triangle to reference the Christian trinity, a circle for “divine completion,” and a line for eternity. Likewise Petr Pushkarev inserted outlines of bulbous church domes and crosses into dramatic paintings in the bold red, black and white hues associated with Constructivist art.
Other artists effectively employ the human figure. Dimitry Gerrman’s sculpture “The Last Journey” poignantly depicts an emaciated rower in a skiff struggling against a relentless current; Olga Bulgakova renders a tender “Return of the Prodigal Son” as two figures coiled in a forgiving embrace; and Natalia Nesterova creates a striking quadrant of heads concealed by playing-card masks.
Modernist angels are everywhere, all brilliantly conceived in novel ways. Alexander Sitnikov concocted a beautiful bas-relief that includes a silhouette of a head, a geometric pattern made of wood, and half a loaf of black bread, a staple of the Russian diet. Konstantin Khudyakov’s “Eye of an Angel” is even more spectacular, a huge multi-panel photo collage that looks like the faceted eye of a giant insect and is composed of hundreds of opalescent, circular images of the view out his studio window.
All this merely scratches the proverbial surface of a rich and complex show whose history, forms and imagery are a revelation.