Bulldozing Soviet Art
A series of exhibits focuses on Oscar Rabine. Did his 1978 exile to Paris clear new ground for dissident art?
Four years after the Bulldozer exhibit symbolically broke through the armor of official Soviet censorship for the first time to give Soviet art its “half day of freedom,” the authorities hustled Rabine out of the empire. He was 50 years old and had never set foot out of the Soviet Union, and the authorities offered him what must have been an exhilarating opportunity to spend three months painting in Paris. The offer was sweetened with the casual threat of the commencement of juridical and criminal proceedings if he did not get on the plane.
After having spent a pleasant three months in Paris, Rabine went to the Soviet embassy for a routine renewal of his tourist visa, at which point the consul called him into his office and read out a telegram proclaiming that he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship by special decree of the Supreme Council of Soviets. When the shocked Rabine asked the consul for a copy of the telegram so that he could have something to show French immigration officials, the consul informed him that the telegram was Soviet property and that, as he was no longer a Soviet citizen, what he would say to or show the French was none of his concern.
Yet the émigré years were good to Rabine. These were the first calm times of his life and the first time he had experienced freedom. While he remained doggedly committed to the distinctive vision he had worked out decades before, a new symbology appeared in his repertoire—barges floating down the Seine and French cafés and wine bottles began appearing in his canvases. And though the gray village of the Moscow suburb had been replaced by the slightly distinguishable village of Montmartre, one could tell that these new painting were of his French period and not a complete departure from his old style. Set askance to Soviet reality, and now askance to the French reality, they nonetheless began exhibiting the telltale signs of the exile’s nostalgia for his lost homeland. I asked Rabine whether he thought the criticism of a lack of evolution of his work was legitimate—why there had there never been a late period? “Through history artists have moved around, Goya, da Vinci died in a foreign country. But there is no difference, they stayed the same artists,” he told me. “Time played its role. Impressionism, for example, was not a tendentiously political art movement by its nature, which is why it was not changed by politics.”
When I asked him how he compared his work to that of his peers in the nonconformist movement, he told me that they were all just pursuing their work in a logical direction and that “Conceptualism as a doctrine and a ‘named’ school did not yet exist.” And then, “Khomar kept saying that my passport was the true foundation of Russian pop art. But he was the only who said that and anyways, I did not insist.” For what it’s worth, I agree with Khomar: Rabine’s passport is to 20th-century Russian painting what Mayakovsky’s passport was to 20th-century Russian poetry.
Not having any living family relations in Russia (they are all in Queens, New York), and perhaps retaining something of his stance against the Soviets, Rabine chose to remain in Paris after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His explanation that the “structures of social relations are not yet settled there” is a testament to the fact that, as is the case with many exiles who have outlived the course of their exile, the home he lost no longer exists. “Journalists continuously ask,” he confided, “whether I consider myself French or Russian. But I am neither, I am a Soviet man. I spent half my life as a Soviet man.”
Such reflections are ironic in light of the fact that the post-Soviets very much consider Rabine a Russian. In April of 2010 the premiere of a documentary film about his life and art was held in the Russian Embassy amid a not inconsiderable amount of imperial pomp personally overseen by the Russian cultural minister as well as the ambassador to France. Rabine’s Russian citizenship was restored and celebrated with an official banquet at the personal bequest of the ambassador, though Rabine makes a point of emphasizing that the he never asked for it back, simply accepted the offer. The irony of superstar dissidents being claimed by the new regime as national treasures and progenitors of its newfound cultural legitimacy is not lost on Rabine. “Khomar, Erik Bulatov, Edik Shteinberg: Are all honorary members of the academy now,” he told me with a mischievous smile. “They have rehabilitated all the old Jews.”
Widowed four years ago when the artist Valentina Krapivnitskaya, his wife of six decades, died, Rabine now lives alone and continues to do what he has done with enduring and graceful composure. In his old-world bearing, his Spartan lack of pretension, and his attachment to a lost world, he is the archetypal spirit of the temperate passion that, in the words of another exile from Riga, Isaiah Berlin, at its best marks the Russian Intelligentsia “as the first class in world history held together by morality.”
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The author, like Israel, takes risks—and lives in opposition to nebbishy Jewish New Yorkers