Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Celebration of Solitude
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:
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Celebration of Solitude
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Cultural Labour
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Art of Heightened Senses
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Riot of Paradigms
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Resurrection of Romanticism.
The Celebration of Solitude
Isolation is a state to which it is impossible to give an unambiguous description. It can be perceived as a blessing or a torture, as a person's natural sense of self or the result of a forced separation. A work of art or a series of artworks as a rule capture and describe one of these sides of solitude, and rarely does it act in all its versatility as a characteristic feature of an artist’s creative legacy. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism, in its intimacy and at the same time an almost all-encompassing ability of observation, is characterised by this capability to examine the concept of loneliness with very distinguishable curiosity and impartiality. Its main ambassador is Viktor Pivovarov, one of the people who shaped the art movement (Degot & Zakharov, 2005).
Figure 1. Viktor Pivovarov, Meditation by the Window, 1972. [Enamel paint, fibreboard]
Analysis of Pivovarov's works, which are often accompanied by text and have a comprehensible visual narrative, is facilitated by the generosity of the comments that the author provided in recorded dialogues (e.g., Nouril, 2020), his own books (e.g., 2002; 2004; 2016) and descriptions in exhibition catalogues. In particular, the artist discusses how he first applied and adopted the cinematic technique of adding textual lines to graphic images for the album Tears in 1975, as well as how the hero of his artworks underwent a transformation from an almost direct representation of Pivovarov himself to a separate entity from both the viewer and the author (Nouril, 2020). The pioneer of the Moscow Conceptualist movement Ilya Kabakov also identified Pivovarov as one of the creators who have the skill to distance themselves from their work and from themselves in their work, making it something independent and beyond the scope of the author's self-reflection (Groys & Kabakov, 2008). Thus, the first element of alienation lies in the artwork itself, which exists independently of its creator.
Pivovarov claims that he is not a thinker but a feeler and comprehends the world through the senses, not the mind. He also talks about the importance of exploring his inner world, resulting in the addition of a reappearing character in blue glasses to his paintings, which symbolises this glance inward and the process of personal spiritual work (Pivovarov, 2016). Pivovarov's 1979 album was titled Sacralizers — a new term that means special devices that, like amulets, protect the internal from the external. Everyday objects can be chosen as sacralizers, acquiring new meaning and functions only by the will of the artist. And only through this, at first glance absurd, endowment of the most ordinary things with sacred characteristics, does the viewer discover the scale of importance that is attached to the objective world in comparison with the realm of feelings. The next aspect of solitude is separation from the crowd due to the awareness of the fragility of the inner world.
Figure 2. Viktor Pivovarov, Sacralizers (List 1), 1979. [Watercolour, pencil, ink on paper]
Pivovarov was still an active member of the Moscow art scene in the 1970s, participating in closed exhibitions, shows, readings and parties. The late Soviet underground art community, comparatively small groups of like-minded people who opposed the framework of the official ideological line in their creative activity, was an important environment for dialogue and generation of ideas. The sense of affiliation catalyzed the development of a versatile and striking alternative art scene. There were periods in the 1970s when Viktor Pivovarov and Ilya Kabakov were meeting every day, discussing art, sharing information about foreign art tendencies and names that somehow seeped through the Iron Curtain (Nouril, 2020). Nevertheless, the very isolation of such a society from the larger body of the state with its rules, foundations and the tendency to bring everything to a uniformity that is easy to manage, suggested secrecy and detachment. Pivovarov, speaking about his Soviet viewers, agrees that they were primarily representatives of his circle (other artists, poets, musicians, etc.), as well as people who were “hungry, not in a physical sense but in a cultural sense” (Nouril, p. 83). The feeling of separation from the loud idealistic homogeneity and the solitude needed for the creative reflection by both the authors and the spectators contributed to the formation of especially intimate artistic worlds. Pivovarov’s artworks are some of the most illustrative sources for this phenomenon not only visually, but in many cases conceptually too (e.g., Projects for a Lonely Person series, 1975). In his interviews and memoirs (e.g., The Agent in Love, 2016) Pivovarov describes this state of mind as conscious loneliness, when a person still has an active social life and interacts with other lonely people (2016).
The album Projects for a Lonely Person (1975) includes sheets with projects for a biography, a living space, daily routine, and even the sky and the dreams of a lonely person. The biography project in many formal matters recreates the life of an average Soviet citizen, and the emotional experiences, scheduled according to this life plan somewhere between serving in the army and acquiring one's own housing, are also woven into this universal timetable. Nevertheless, in the midst of all this, the candidate for solitary people is invited to begin the experience of conscious loneliness, which is divided into four stages, leading from suffering to an infinitely joyful existence in free and absolute desolation. Physical death at the end of this path is indicated as complete liberation. An ironic contrast between the advertised loneliness and a predetermined life lies in the solemnity, thoroughness and again the total predictability of the organisation of life offered to the liberated person. Sleep Project, for example, prescribes dreams for six nights a week, with one dreamless night.
Figure 3. Viktor Pivovarov, Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man, 1975. [Enamel paint, fibreboard]
The indistinguishable line between irony and serious statement in Pivovarov’s art, however, does not transform it into satire. It is rather a reassembly of the objective language of reality into new game forms. This unconventional approach to the great and the mundane, the serious and the gamesome was too natural to be a protest, it was rather a form of preservation of an unclouded perception of reality, characteristic of children. The experience had to be strictly individual and not dictated by any expectations and norms. Pivovarov, like many of his colleagues and participants in the movement of Moscow Conceptualism, was engaged in children's book illustration as an official labor activity. He approached this work with no less curiosity and thoroughness than his experiments in the field of avant-garde art and argued that in children's literary works one could find depth lost in everyday reality (Pivovarov, 2016). Despite the artist's involvement in unofficial art scenes, some of Pivovarov's work was very well known and regularly seen by the whole country. He illustrated a popular children's magazine Veselye Kartinki (Merry Pictures) and was the author of the magazine's logo, which was one of the most recognisable designs in the Soviet Union (Kovalenko, 2007).
Speaking of the connection between his work as a children’s book illustrator and a creator of albums modelling exceptionally vivid new imaginative living systems, Pivovarov acknowledged the interinfluence, which was not obvious at the time, but naturally formed his individual style:
Apart from being aware that, if I had not been an illustrator, it’s highly unlikely that I would have made albums, I did not find any link between my work in the realm of children’s books and my own artistic practice. […] Later, considering general issues around childhood – childhood as a phenomenon, and its connections with artistic creation – I discovered these links. (Nouril, 2020, p. 83)
Figure 4. Viktor Pivovarov, Copy of the Veselye Kartinki children's magazine's cover, 1979. [Digital image]
This ability to look at objective and emotional phenomena from as many different angles as possible and with an intentionally intrusive approach allows the artist to reach and examine deeper layers of ideas. Both the works and the words of Pivovarov reveal another facet of the concept of loneliness – he sees it as a guarantee of freedom. The ultimate solitude in this case is the freedom from everything at all (Pivovarov, 2016). This is indeed primarily the choice of a creator, a poet, arising from the need to exclude any factors that interfere with the experience of pure creativity. Ideal conditions for a creative comprehension of reality conventionally imply the absence of obstacles and motives that are not solely related to the need to create art. Nevertheless, there remains room for argumentation on how ideological suppression can influence a categorical perception of loneliness as the radical manifestation of freedom, in other words, can the from the practical standpoint disputable choice of rejecting the benefits and attachments of social life be a reaction to external attempts at total control? In spite of that, loneliness in Pivovarov's works is not a punishment, but a choice, therefore it is devoid of helplessness or burdensomeness.
Pivovarov sees himself as a receptor and reproducer of signals, rather than someone who has a message to the world (Pivovarov, 2016). Perhaps this also has an element of reaction to reality, overflowing with slogans, in which he existed and created. The artist preserves himself and lets the spectator into his space of observation and study, without manipulating emotions or trying to provide information for reflection. Creating works in conditions of universally limited choice, in Moscow in the 1970s, Pivovarov managed to give both his heroes and his audience the luxury of absolute freedom of action, reactions and interpretations.
Figure 5. Viktor Pivovarov, Moscow Party, 1971. [Enamel paint, fibreboard]
The art of Viktor Pivovarov, thus, allows solitude to become a tool for fragmenting reality into numerous unparalleled, sometimes intersecting, and sometimes exclusively individual worlds, filled with the meanings and values of their creator and only formally resonating with the outside world. Ilya Kabakov used a similar technique, but his artistic reality is more integral, it is a single branched space that echoes of external stimuli periodically reach in the form of broken slogans, life-affirming propaganda melodies or evidence of the existence of communal neighbours (Degot & Zakharov, 2005). The creative and poetic worlds of Pivovarov, on the other hand, seem too mobile and adaptable for the heavy construction of social influence.
The heroes of Pivovarov's works often exist in minimalistic clean spaces, they fly or statically observe their surroundings in such a way that the viewer, together with them, experiences everyday life as if for the first time, like a miracle, like an event whose outcome is impossible to predict. Loneliness in this process becomes a necessity to maintain concentration and sharpness of perception and to protect oneself against any distractions from contemplation and co-feeling. The concept of conscious loneliness that the artist developed is a promise of freedom, both creative and personal. It is fully celebrated in Pivovarov’s artworks as the ideal state to navigate through the objective reality without losing the novelty of perception and the artistic resourcefulness of being vulnerable and open to experiences.
Degot, E., & Zakharov, V. (Eds.) (2005). Moskovskij konceptualizm. [Moscow conceptualism] Moscow: WAM.
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).
Groys, B., & Kabakov, I. (2008). Dialogi. [Dialogs]. Vologda: Biblioteka Moskovskogo Konceptualizma Germana Titova.
Kovalenko, G. (Ed.). (2007). Russkoe iskusstvo XX vek: Issledovaniya i publikatsii. [Russian art XX century: Research and publications]. Volume II. Moscow: Nauka.
Nouril, K. (Ed.). (2020). Dialogues: Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov, Stories about Ourselves. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Pivovarov, V. (2002). Serye tetradi. [The grey notebooks]. Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie.
Pivovarov, V. (2004). O ljubvi slova I izobrazhenija. [On love between the word and the image]. Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie.
Pivovarov, V. (2016). Vljublennyj agent. [The agent in love]. Moscow: Art Gid.
Figure 1. Pivovarov, V. (1972). Meditation by the Window. Enamel paint, fibreboard. Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom. (c) Photo: Tate. Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/pivovarov-meditation-by-the-window-t14800
Figure 2. Pivovarov, V. (1979). Sacralizers (List 1). Watercolour, pencil, ink on paper. Nancy and Norton Dodge collection, Zimmerly Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, Canada. Retrieved from: https://fineartbiblio.com/artworks/viktor-pivovarov/40827/10-sheets-from-sacralizators-album
Figure 3. Pivovarov, V. (1975). Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man. Enamel paint, fiberboard. Nancy and Norton Dodge collection, Zimmerly Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, Canada. Retrieved from: https://zimmerli.emuseum.com/objects/39230/plan-for-the-everyday-objects-of-a-lonely-man#
Figure 4. Pivovarov, V. (1979). Copy of the Veselye Kartinki children's magazine's cover. Digital image. Retrieved from: https://kulturologia.ru/files/u21941/219415496.jpg
Figure 5. Pivovarov, V. (1971). Moscow Party. Enamel paint, fibreboard. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Retrieved from: https://cdn-s-static.arzamas.academy/x/2024-pivovarov-LCvx3TKSzxkeqAf92U3twNUG6seB/img/pivovarov-2.jpg