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Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Riot of Paradigms


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:

The Riot of Paradigms

Artists who formed the conceptualist art movement in Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s had to work and exhibit their artworks unofficially because the movement ran counter to the state ideology of the USSR. They had shared views, features of creative expression, and even facts of personal biographies. Like many of his colleagues, artist Erik Bulatov received a good academic education and, in addition to his underground activity, worked as a children's book illustrator (Brockhaus), which contributed to his individual artistic manner. He also used Soviet propaganda visuals to deconstruct the narrative and rebuild surrounding reality. Considering the works of Bulatov in the context of the time and in comparison with some other conceptual artists'—Ilya Kabakov's, Viktor Pivovarov's—oeuvre, common features of professional biographies, creative inter-influences, societal and political influences can be singled out. Nevertheless, despite the fact that a researcher might turn to very similar, if sometimes not identical, points in analysis of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism artworks, each artist of the circle developed very recognisable, inimitable, and exceptional artistic style, reflecting on their surroundings and representing them in a unique manner. Despite publishing analytical and explanatory articles, Erik Bulatov said in an interview that art does not need commentary, setting this as an argument in opposition to his fellow conceptualists:

Although our conceptualists insist on commentary, I believe that visual art should be based on a visual image. The image is auto expressive. If an image requires a comment, then it is the comment that becomes primary, and the image becomes secondary, turning into an illustration. In general, it turns out nonsense, as the text becomes more important than the image. (Zhilyaeva, 2020)

This point of view leads to the conclusion that for the artist creative process, though based on theory and concept, focuses primarily on an image and its emotional comprehension. This may serve as an explanation for the distinct differences in the works of Moscow Conceptualists, despite the repetition of common formal methods and sources of inspiration.

Figure 1: "Cut" (Bulatov, 1965-1966).

In his early paintings in the 1960s, Bulatov explored the principle of interaction between surface and space (Arndt, 2011). In one form or another, this theme of revealing another space through the surface of the canvas or with the help of other media is found in the works of other conceptual artists. In particular, the exit into space from a room in Ilya Kabakov’s installation The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment (Podoroga, 2003), portals in everyday reality, opened as if by chance and exposing other unknown worlds, in Dmitry Prigov’s gouaches (Ozerkov, 2011), black and white “holes” in the walls in Irina Nakhova’s Rooms (Shmagina, 2011). This motif, if not always present in the art of Moscow Romantic Conceptualists, was central at least in some periods of their work. Predominantly, this exploration of the possibilities of non-conventional work with space within and outside the canvas came from professional interest and creative curiosity. However, the contrast between the inner freedom of artists who conquer new territories in their works and the closed society in which they were forced to exist remains evident. Soviet artists did not have opportunities to travel and interact with foreign colleagues or even work openly within the framework of Soviet ideology. Nevertheless, despite the ease of associating these factors with Bulatov's work, further analysis reveals more self-introspection than simply a pronounced reaction to a lack of freedom.

Bulatov himself singles out conceptual art as an opportunity for the artist and the viewer to separate the concepts of vision and knowledge for themselves, arguing that there is no equals sign between them (Albert, 2014). The basic means of propaganda is the levelling of these concepts and the evocation of thoughts through vision. Bulatov, through his art, as well as interviews and comments, emphasised the discrepancy between the visible and the understood or felt. In the 1970s, the artist began to work with the language of Soviet propaganda, taking monumental images out of their ideological context and immersing them in everyday reality. Ordinary life, as if deliberately having nothing in common with the glorified ideals of ever-building communism, in itself becomes the most vivid expression of the designated dichotomy. A striking example here is the Krasikov Street painting (1977), in which a giant figure of Lenin steps from a poster towards a flowing crowd of people and a busy avenue. Despite this apparent movement towards each other, the picture gives the impression of the impossibility of these two conceptually opposing phenomena meeting. The two worlds exist in parallel realities—distinguished compositionally by their placement on adjacent perspective lines—and these realities are not destined to intersect. The questions raised in this painting are emphasised by the general mundanity of the plot. There is no opposing figure that would stand out from the crowd and urge the viewer to pay attention to what is happening in the picture. It is the familiarity of everyday absurdity that becomes the main character here, charging the entire canvas with the spirit of rebellion against accepting the visible as the real.

Figure 2: "Krasikov Street" (Bulatov, 1977).

The conflict of the visual and the conceptual is not accidental in Bulatov's paintings. This is not only a feature of his art in general, but also an important element of each piece, which allows it to exist not only within the framework of aesthetics, but to be a catalyst for raising questions of local to universal importance. The visual depiction of issues in Bulatov's paintings is not immediately noticeable—they gradually and deeply affect the viewer. Thus, Bulatov uses a methodology of working with consciousness similar to the one that official propaganda successfully used. He puts into practice the ability of the mind to adjust when introduced to a concept in smaller doses. The result of viewing Bulatov's paintings is the realisation of all the hidden problems caused by the synthetic nature of social life woven from inconsistencies, and this new knowledge is implied to be liberation (Bulatov, 2007).

One of the first examples of the formation of Bulatov's distinctive style was the painting Horizon (1972). The artwork depicts, in a realistic manner, a group of textbook Soviet people walking along a beach in the direction of the sea, towards the horizon. This is how decent citizens were portrayed in movies, TV shows, books, and posters. The horizon itself, however, is not visible, because it is covered by a stripe painted to look like an Order of Lenin ribbon. Walking towards the sea, towards the sun, refers to the optimism of the socialist realist art of Stalin's time. The group is also dressed characteristically for that time but, unlike a standard picture of that time, they are depicted with their backs turned to the audience so that the faces of these "upstanding people" are not visible. Here one can argue that real faces are also not visible in propaganda visuals, since these images are stereotyped and devoid of real feeling; therefore, the image of characters from the back does not create discomfort for the viewer. On the contrary, this seems to act as an invitation to the audience to join. The ribbon covering the horizon blocks the movement of the group and flattens the image that would otherwise be dimensional. Being so simply superimposed on the picture, it reveals the fictitious planar nature of the artwork, destroys the spatial illusion created by the movement of the group and the scrupulous construction of the perspective. The horizon, receding as you approach it, commonly symbolises the deceitfulness of any human aspiration, any “progress” (Groys, 2013, p.43), and here, supplemented by the discovery of an optical illusion, it also reveals the false nature of communist ideals. Avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, acting as a mouthpiece for the cultural revolution, turned to the theme of the horizon and claimed that he had broken it by destroying the line limiting both the artist and forms of nature that do not have any straight lines (Gassner & Gillen, 1979, p. 73). Bulatov's painting, which establishes a new horizon line, hypertrophied in its massiveness, evokes visual associations with Red Cavalry (1932) by Malevich and, as it were, states the failure of the Soviet project to build a better new world for a better new society. Bulatov writes:

Malevich simply bans space. He abolishes it by a revolutionary decree. [… in Malevich’s art there is] a replacement of art space with social space. Art for the first time in its history set the society as its last aim, and the society killed it. (Bulatov, 1983, p. 26)
Figure 3: "Horizon" (Bulatov, 1972).

Bulatov, therefore, does not trust the naturalness of a three-dimensional realistic picture, whilst using its formal language. In a world saturated with ideology, there is no possibility to maintain a neutral position, so the artist takes the role of a creator and his surroundings become part of ideological language too. Not wanting to be a demiurge and an ideologist, Bulatov nevertheless realises that this role is imposed on him, and analyses it from the inside, demonstrating transitions from a visual image to ideological manipulation and vice versa. The disappearance of the horizon brought, instead of liberation, the need to recreate it for everyone at different stages of a personal or shared history as a symbol of aims, aspirations, and ideals (Groys, 2013).

In the early 1970s, Bulatov started creating his signature works in which he superimposed slogans or other texts often encountered in Soviet reality on landscapes (Arndt, 2011). His painting Welcome (1974) depicts an idyllic Soviet Moscow landscape with a girl at a fountain. Everything here is right, solemn, and hospitable in the Soviet way, including the festive communist-red inscription “Welcome” written over the landscape. In fact, this friendly inscription in the same recognisable font adorned many entrances of educational institutions, hospitals and sanatoriums, and often preceded the much less rosy reality of Soviet state life. Nevertheless, this imaginary and loud universal joy, broadcast, among other things, in slogans that the inhabitants of the country saw and heard every day, was familiar and did not differ from reality in the minds of laymen. Subsequently, these creative developments will split Bulatov's works into two groups. In one, the most recognisable, single words and text that resembles slogans exist in a painting as if taking the place of a landscape, against the sky. In the other, Bulatov compared not Soviet but global ideals with everyday life, depicting famous paintings against a background of everyday museum visitors (Arndt, 2011).

Figure 4: "Welcome" (Bulatov, 1973-1974).

Unlike most of his colleagues in the non-conformist movement, Bulatov never considered himself an internal emigrant, an alien element within Soviet society (Bulatov, 2007). He considered himself the same as everyone else and, accordingly, his view of the world was supposed to also be clouded by ideology. Trying to capture the features of this worldview, Bulatov writes a series of “wrong pictures” or images with fake visual and textual messages. Bulatov exposes the lack of freedom of general knowledge of the world and the absence of choice determined by the ideological machine that people under the regime shared. The slogans in his works, formerly used as tools for supporting this common ignorance, begin their own protest. As if being liberated, they acquire a new meaning or an opportunity to have many individual meanings for spectators.

In the artistic perception of Bulatov, Soviet pathos became irrational. Just a simple correction of perspective and an adjustment of accent, light or focus, and all the slogans, appeals, manifestos are destroyed and crumbled. The innovation of Bulatov's work lies in the fact that the author debunks the senselessness and emptiness of propaganda not theoretically, but figuratively, highlighting Soviet paraphernalia as a tool, giving it the right focus, and destroying its kitschy pathos. This art, however, is not ironic. Bulatov's paintings are not satire, and revealing the hypocritical and forged nature of propaganda materials is not a priority here. For Bulatov, it is more important to free himself and his viewer by freeing the visual or textual code from concepts imposed on them. Bulatov argued that his work was strongly influenced by American pop art (Albert, 2014, p. 42), and here a parallel should be drawn between Soviet socialist and Western capitalist societies, equally satiated and intense in the language of stimulating imagery, though different in content. In his textual works, Bulatov, following pop art artists, utilises language and text that dominate both everyday life and the space of a picture. However, unlike pop artists, he delves into a study of the links between textual meanings and pictorial properties of artwork. He is interested in how text interacts with an image (or other text) through overlapping as a grid, the formation of new visual planes by text passing through an image, anticipating it or conflicting with it, and the use of text in a variety of colours.

Figure 5: "Entrance - No Entrance" (Bulatov, 1974-1975).

Bulatov prefaces his article Surface – Light (1981/1999) with his explanation of what "the real world" means for art. In his understanding, reality is not the objective world, but rather how it is perceived by consciousness. Taking this point of view as the basis, it can be assumed that a transformation of perception within the framework of fine art leads to a transformation of reality. Thus, Bulatov, breaking himself out and tearing his viewer out of the framework of views programmed by society, is doing significant work in the transformation of this society. In fact, the letters in Bulatov's paintings are the same cuts or tears in the realistic fabric of the image that were in his early abstract paintings exploring space, only white and empty or evenly filled with colour. These are the portals created by a viewer’s consciousness in the inextricable fabric of being. People become accustomed to not noticing them, pronouncing and reading, skipping thousands of words and millions of images a day without being consciously aware of them. However, Bulatov seems to put the world on pause and observe this moment. That way the audience can discover the power of a word filled with artistic reflection. Like a carefully crafted image, this measured poetic word was taken with a slight but defining shift from everyone’s everyday speech and thus acquired its meaning.

At first glance, it seems that the word conflict does not apply to Bulatov’s art. His artworks are filled with monumental solemnity, and the manner of painting is not distinguished by expressiveness. There is not a single prominent pastose stroke, there are no dramatic turns in the plots, there is no element of ugliness in objects or people. However, often exactly in the center of the composition, in the place where the viewer’s gaze slips to every now and then, there is a textual funnel that evokes action, but the action is often not supposed to literally follow the text. This unexpected and powerful impulse of the spectator is not accidental—it implies that the viewer is unable to simply contemplate the painting and wants to move and to at least change their position. Bulatov, commenting on this effect, spoke about creating a sense of danger, and also about the fact that his works, despite their visually idyllic nature, cannot be boring (Erofeev, 2006). It is notable that Bulatov does not idealise freedom, putting this element of danger into his canvases. Freedom is a privilege that comes with great responsibility and risk, and the artist does not seek to hide this from the viewer.

Figure 6: "I'm Going" (Bulatov, 1975).

Even though Bulatov's art was largely shaped by a reaction to Soviet ideology and used its visual language as a source of formal solutions, the artist claimed that he had never been a political artist and that all he was concentrated on was the plane of visual and purely artistic tasks. Answering a question about non-participation in unofficial home exhibitions, Bulatov formulated his position as follows:

I have never participated in any of those exhibitions just out of principle. […] Participation in such events was a civil act and had nothing to do with art. You could bring whatever work you wanted, it really didn't matter to anyone. The very fact of participation in an underground event was important. I have no intention to judge anyone. [...] But I myself, by my nature, was not in a position to act so: I had to be either one or the other. And, having taken up political affairs, I would have been forced to give up art. (Ledenev, 2014)

Thus, a search for a political statement in Bulatov's works would not lead to any success. Nevertheless, the rebellious nature of the artist's works remains one of the key aspects of analysis, as if the pictures themselves rebel against the dictatorship of either the political regime or social norms, as though having their own will, showing the normal reaction of anyone faced with freedom. Bulatov gives his works the freedom to form their own meanings, and the viewer the freedom of interpretation, corresponding to their personal perception. Bulatov thus acts as an assistant, providing a connection between the viewer and the art. Art, for its part, takes all the work of forming meanings upon itself.

Bibliographical References

Albert, J. (Ed.). (2014). Moskovskij konceptualizm: Načalo. [Moscow conceptualism: The beginning]. [Ehhibition catalogue]. Nižnij Novgorod: Privolžskij filial Gosudarstvennogo centra sovremennogo iskusstva.

Arndt, M. (Ed.). (2011). Erik Bulatov. Paintings 1952-2011. Catalogue raisonné in two volumes, volume 1. Cologne: Wienand.

Brockhaus Encyclopedia Online. Erik Bulatow.

Bulatov, E. (1983). Ob otnoshenii Malevicha k prostranstvu [On Malevich’s attitude towards space]. A-Ya, 5, pp. 26-31.

Bulatov, E. (1999). Surface – light. In I. Kabakov (Ed.) 50-e – 60-e zapiski o neoficialnoj zhizni v Moskve [50’s – 60’s notes on the unofficial life of Moscow]. Wien: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach. Original work written in 1981.

Bulatov, E. (2007). Freedom is freedom. Berlin: Kerber.

Erofeev, A. (2006). Erik Bulatov kak razrshitel [Erik Bulatov as a destroyer]. Andrei Erfeev - Personal Website

Gassner, H. & Gillen, E. (1979). Zwischen revolutionskunst und sozialistischem realismus [Between the revolution art and social realism]. Köln: FisicalBook.

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. (2013). Gesamkunstwerk Stalin. Moscow: Ad Marginem Press.

Ledenev, V. (2014). Erik Bulatov: V neofitsialnykh vystavkakh ja ne uchastvoval iz printsipa [Erik Bulatov: I didn’t participate in the unofficial exhibitions out of principle]. Interview for Aroundart.Эрик_Булатов_В_неофициальных_выставках_я_не_участвовал_из_принципа_

Podoroga, V. (2003). Notes on Ilya Kabakov's ‘on the total installation’, Third Text, 17(4), pp. 345-352. DOI: 10.1080/0952882032000166189

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

Zhilyaeva, J. (2020). Erik Bulatov: Dver’ v buduschee otkryta dlja vsekh [Erik Bulatov: The door to the future is open to anybody]. Interview for Forbes Russia.

Visual Sources


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Eugenia Ivanova

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