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Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Art of Heightened Senses


Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was a major Soviet underground art movement and the echoes of its influence still manifest themselves in the pacesetting and often rebellious contemporary art of Russia. Developed in the atmosphere of strict ideological conventionality of the 1970s Soviet Union, Moscow conceptualist art served as not only a form of protest but also a means of escape from artistic and personal constraints characteristic of the period.

This series offers an analysis of the most prominent names and artworks of the movement along with a discussion of such concepts as freedom, choice, and courage in a restrictive environment, as well as the ways they are presented through art. The series consists of six chapters focusing on the works of six individual artists who were categorised as part of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism movement by the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys (1979), and delves into the topics of protest, escapism and reciprocal influences of the artists and social phenomena:

  1. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Art of Heightened Senses

  2. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Riot of Paradigms

  3. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Resurrection of Romanticism.

The Art of Heightened Senses

The first conceptual works by Russian artists appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the popularity of the trend outside the Soviet Union had already reached its peak. In Russia, the movement had its own individual features dictated by the environment, which made it a unique form of artistic expression. Features of Soviet conceptual art were determined by various factors. Primarily, it was its status of unofficial art that put it in contrast with world trends. That factor created an atmosphere of secrecy which seeped from the way of making and exhibiting art—in the privacy of the artists' homes—into the artworks themselves. Exhibitions were usually held in the authors' apartments or workshops, visitors as well as critics were of the narrow circles of the cultural intelligentsia. This closed nature of the community, the necessity of staying underground, the absence of an art market made the concerns of Moscow Conceptualism very much concentrated around art itself and around questions that were puzzling the creators (Shmagina, 2011).

Figure 1: Irina Nakhova inside the installation "Four Rooms" (1987).

In the 1980s, a new genre of installations influenced by home exhibitions emerged in Moscow Conceptualism. It quickly became widespread, combining the practical convenience of exhibiting it in the accessible spaces of the authors' homes and its very form that was in line with the way artists were reflecting on the world. Everyday life objects and symbols were used and transformed to demonstrate the infinity of meanings that art could discover in essentially everything. The pioneer of the genre that would later be called total installation by conceptualist artist Ilya Kabakov (1995) was Irina Nakhova, who transformed the rooms of her apartment into art spaces. She presented one room, one of her total installations that did not have names, but only numbers (Room no. 1, Room no. 2, etc.), a year from 1983 and in total five of them were created. Each room had to convey a certain aesthetic function and was thoroughly redesigned to ensure art literally and absolutely surrounded the viewer. Nakhova created pictures the spectator was invited to enter. One of the most famous works by KabakovThe Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (1986)was created under the inspiration of Nakhova’s rooms (Bakshtein, 2004, p. 43). Kabakov later developed and mastered the art of total installations, making them a quintessence of the ideas of Moscow Romantic Conceptualism.

Nakhova’s installations, nevertheless, demonstrated the individual style of the author, which formed under a range of influences. Nakhova’s determination to become an artist was strongly affected by an introduction to Viktor Pivovarov’s artworks. In particular, his Projects for a Lonely Person (1975), which she encountered as a teenager, inspired her to adopt the concept of the solitary, ascetic and hardworking life of a true artist. This not only professional but also personal approach to creativity urged an everlasting search of ways of artistic expression (Tupitsyn, 2010). While receiving an academic education, she was initially immersed in the world of non-conformist artistic environment, rich in inventiveness and communication: “Those years were filled with creativity, work, play, reading, music and close communication with friends who remain so to this day. We met almost every day, talked about everything in the world, and everyone was genuinely interested in what the others were doing. These relationships constantly stimulated work in our close circle. The response to each piece of art was immediate” (Wally, 2004, p. 27).

Figure 2: "Room No. 2" (Nakhova, 1984).

The synthetic character of Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was also a catalyst for the formation of unique artistic styles. Painting and literature were intertwined especially tightlymany artists were also poets, and poets were artists who were working on the problem of identifying the commonality of image and text. Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov created the album genre; another conceptual artist, Lev Rubinstein, was engaged in visual poetry. The gravitation towards text, characteristic of Moscow Conceptualism, acquires pronounced visual forms in the work of Irina Nakhova. However, Nakhova’s work with text demonstrates an individual approach. The artist was making an attempt to put into words the problems of her own life and inner world, her imagination and emotionality, which made her artworks markedly sentimental. Nakhova was raising questions of philosophy and psychology, the nature and finiteness of being and soul, which made art present in all the aspects of the physical and emotional life of a human (Shmagina, 2011).

Like many of her fellow artists, Nakhova officially worked in book illustration and completed more than fifty books as an illustrator. That and her academic background, combined with a genuine interest in the history of art and classical creative heritage, brought another level of aesthetic discovery to her works. Painting was always a big part of Nakhova’s individual style even after turning to the genre of installations. Her spatial works still reflected on cultural tradition as well as other problems. (Shmagina, 2011). Literature, visual arts, philosophyall aspects of the formation of a united cultural space that keeps on inspiring and producingwere addressed by Nakhova to some extent. That was also reflected in the fact that spaces for creating and exhibiting art, which in the situation of the Soviet underground were the same, became more than just physical locations, but the territory of art, acquiring an almost sacred significance. Another concept that was worshipped in these apartments was the notion of freedom, unattainable elsewhere in the Soviet Union (Nakhova, 2018).

Figure 3: "Alphabet" (Nakhova, 1981).

Speaking of her rooms, which were unprecedented phenomena not only for Soviet art, but for worldwide tradition in general, the artist claims that they were a logical continuation of her studies of space in paintings: “Space became not only illusory, but also physical, three-dimensional. I had more surfaces to interact with" (Wally, 2004, p. 28). However, as art historian Olga Shmagina claims (2011), the main driving factor that caused this genre to manifest itself was the oppressive atmosphere of the culture of that time. This idea is supported by the following words of Nakhova herself:

Not only formal tasks moved me – [that was also] a desperate need to change something in a situation of complete stagnation of the worst years of the Brezhnev era. Nobody hoped for any change. The only thing I could change in my life was my immediate environment, my apartment. And I made this effort. (Wally, 2004, p. 28).

The strong effect that Nakhova’s rooms had on visiting artists was documented in the Collection of the Moscow Archive of New Art (MANI), created by artist, poet and theorist Andrei Monastyrski (2010). Artist Dmitri Prigov recalled his experience in one of the rooms as psychedelic (MANI, 2010, p. 284). Among other opinions was that it was similar to religious rituals or meditation (MANI, 2010). The overall intention was freedom of expression and reflection that the art provided and all visitors had their unique responses to this opportunity. Another very important aspect was the fact that the object-space created by Nakhova coincided with the territory where she herself livedthe artist lived in the next room. This was a forced situation as the artist did not have an independent exhibition space as a barrier, but it also created an atmosphere of absolute self-exposure, which in turn added to the ritual solemnity of these events. Finding the installation directly in the space of the artist’s life also affirmed its totality. In addition, becoming an integral part of her installation, Nakhova thus continued the line of relation and intercorrelation of the concepts of the artist and the hero of artwork, which was started by her inspirer, Viktor Pivovarov (Bakshtein, 2004, p. 43).

Figure 4: "Room no. 4" (Nakhova, 1987).

In her early installations, Nakhova started developing the theme of ruins, characteristic of her paintings as well (Bakshtein, 2004, p. 287). Black pieces of paper became either holes or the very surface of walls. That is why the audience often sees interruptions on visual planes as either black failures, or, on the contrary, as gaps in a black wall from which light emanates. Subsequently, ruins appear in many of Nakhova’s later installations and paintings. But, as in other work of the artist, when it comes to any features of space and elements of its destruction or heterogeneity, in addition to the visualmateriallayer there is also a metaphysical perception. The violated wholeness of space in the eyes of the viewer opens to the outside and there meets only emptiness, black or white, depending on the angle of the view (Shmagina, 2011). Spectators got the freedom of interpretation. To get confirmation of this, curator Iosif Bakstein interviewed artists who visited one of Nakhova’s rooms (at the exact moment when they were inside): “It was clear that it was important for them to share their obsessive states, their relentless fantasiesand, thereby, free from them. The clarity of understanding the idea of the artwork definitely increased after such a confession” (Bakshtein, 2010, p. 305).

In her interview about her work at the Venice Biennale in 2015, Nakhova spoke about her understanding of space, which can be applicable to all her spatial art:

Engagement with space is the most important element in my work. […] From my perspective, the key to this project is not what happens in the individual rooms, but the process of moving from one space to another. That’s why I pay such close attention to details: in order to produce a shocking contrast or a gradual movement through space, as well as from one time period to another. Every space of the pavilion contains references to the future or the past, or a concentration on the present, as in the central room, where we simultaneously observe what’s happening under our feet and what’s transpiring up in the sky. All of these references, tricks, and hints are meant for the viewer. But at the same time, and to an even greater degree, they’re intended for me. (Tupitsyn, 2015, p. 29)

Irina Nakhova courageously dedicated herself and her personal space to artistic transformations. Her installations combined both the principle of creation and the idea of destruction, which echoes the idea of physical existence. A large place in the artist’s work, regardless of genre, was always taken by painting, and such media as architecture and sculpture were also present in Nakhova’s installations. First using cuts of paper and paint on surrounding objects, then creating different-sized copies of things that suddenly appear in a space where they do not belong (inflated figures of animals or a huge head in a gas mask), she was constructing her own world based mostly on her emotions and understanding of things. In addition to using domestic space and daily objects, Nakhova was adding meanings to them by transforming them through creative techniques. Thus, she not only rearranged reality, but complemented it.

Bibliographical References

Bakshtein, I. (2004). Idi i smotri: O rannikh rabotakh Iriny Nakhovoj [Come and see: On early works of Irina Nakhova]. In B. Wally & L. Bazhanov (Eds.) Irina Nakhova: Works 1973-2004. Moscow: National Centre for Contemporary Arts.

Bakshtein, I. (2010). Problemy intensivnogo khudozhestvennogo prostranstva [The problems of intense artistic space]. In A. Monastyrski (Ed.) Sbornik Mani. Vologda: BMK.

Groys, B. (1979). Moskovskij romanticheskii kontseptualizm. [Moscow Romantic Conceptualism]. A-Ya 1, Paris, pp 3-11. (Original work published in the samizdat magazine 37, Leningrad, 1979).

Kabakov, I. (1995). On the total installation. Ostfildern:Cantz Verlag.

Monastyrski, A. (Ed.). (2010). Sbornik MANI [The collection of MANI]. Vologda: BMK.

Nakhova, I. (2018). Real Freedom in Your Apartment. TateShots. [Video]. YouTube.

Shmagina, O. I. (2011). Tvorchestvo Iriny Nakhovoj v kontekste pozdnego moskovskogo kontseptualizma [Art of Irina Nakhova in the context of late Moscow conceptualism] [Bachelor’s thesis]. Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia. Retrieved from

Tupitsyn, M. (2010, March 1). Irina Nakhova: “Russkiy medved predstavljalsja mne generalom KGB v otstavke” [Irina Nakhova: “Russian bear was seemed to me to be a retired KGB general”]. Art Chronika. Retrieved from

Tupitsyn, M. (Ed.). (2015). Russian Pavilion: 56th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale 2015. Köln: Stella Art Foundation. Retrived from

Wally, B. (2004). Interview with Irina Nakhova. In B. Wally & L. Bazhanov (Eds.) Irina Nakhova: Works 1973-2004. Moscow: National Centre for Contemporary Arts.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Eugenia Ivanova

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