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Bulldozing Soviet Art

A series of exhibits focuses on Oscar Rabine. Did his 1978 exile to Paris clear new ground for dissident art?

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Visa to Cemetery, 2004. (Oscar Rabine)

When I went to call on the great ex-Soviet artist and dissident Oscar Rabine at his third-floor duplex apartment and studio in Paris, I found rare confirmation of an ingrained conviction that, at least once in a while, someone somewhere should get what they deserve. Filled with light and hanging over a café, Rabine’s dwelling in an opulent Haussmann-era building given over to rent-controlled artists’ housing on the Rue Quincampoix, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Place Pompidou, is a perfect habitat for a painter of city landscapes, as well as a testament to the glory of the French Socialist welfare state.

Orphaned as a boy, Rabine entered both art and political history irrevocably and decisively on Sept. 15, 1974 as a principal organizer of the infamous “Bulldozer exhibition” held in a vacant lot in Belyayevo forest, during which undercover police dressed as city workers destroyed 40 artists’ work with water hoses and bulldozers. Two of his better paintings were damaged. Rabine and the rest of the artists faced the bulldozers steadfastly and heroically, and he himself had to plucked be by the secret police off the upper jaw of a bulldozer he clung to after it advanced on him. The ensuing international outcry made the Soviets backpedal and allow the group a 4-hour show freely attended by Soviet citizens in another park, with thousands cramming in to see the work.

A major retrospective of Rabine’s work that recently opened in Cannes is the first salvo in a series of exhibitions and publications throughout France and Russia commemorating Rabine’s upcoming 85th birthday. His art as well as the personal role he played in the shaping of the nonconformist movement’s resistance to totalitarianism epitomize the experiences of the Soviet artist in the 20th century. The movement had no common organizing principle or aesthetic values other than its own subterranean existence under the dominating ideology of Soviet Socialist Realism. It was the sum of everything that officially sanctioned art negated, and it amalgamated tendencies as disparate as the careening pop antics of Sots Art, the neoformalist abstractions of the Moscow conceptualists and the flagrantly Jewish experiments of the St. Petersburg-based Aleph group. Rabine’s paintings denoted a return of Russian art to an abandoned path of European expressionism. His depiction of the grim and grimy realities of actual proletariat barrack life exposed the duplicity of Socialist Realism’s insistence on the routine heroism of the soviet citizen, who in actuality was living a life of resigned desperation in communal housing in a Stalinist high-rise somewhere far outside the ring of the Moscow highway. Banished to Paris for the crime of painting the world as he saw it, Rabine become the pre-eminent Russian and Jewish exile in a city emblematic for its sheltering generations of deracinated Russian and Jewish exiles.

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Oscar Yakovich—his patronymic translates as “son of Jacob”—met me at the door with his customary understated graciousness and kindness. Wearing a modest but well-cut suit, he was gently stooped and had a neatly kept mustache, which, along with his aristocratic nose and everything else about his comportment, radiated a steely resilience and probity.

Rabine was born in late-1920s Moscow into a mixed Latvian-Jewish family of physicians who could not heal themselves. His hospital administrator father, having met his mother as medical students in prewar Zurich, succumbed to cancer when Rabine was 6 years old. His doctor mother died of untreated complications of the winter flu in the besieged, medical-supply-starved Moscow of 1941. (“The famine was nowhere near as bad as in Leningrad,” he rushes to assure me with characteristic self-effacement.) Left an orphan in the first year of the war at the age of 13, he spent the remaining war years shuttling between children’s dorms.

In the autumn of late 1944 he was sent to live with a Latvian aunt in newly freed Riga. (Having turned 16 by the war’s end, he was one year too young to have carried a rifle on the Western front.) It was in the Riga art academy that Rabine began his furtive, abrupt, and formally inconclusive training as an artist. He attended additional classes in the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow in the bleak postwar years but never completed his degree, instead working as the foreman of a gang of dockside truck loaders. Leading a marginal existence and dejected by the stifling atmosphere of 1950s Moscow, he fell in with the group of rebellious painters, poets, and intellectuals who could neither publish nor exhibit their works with official sanction, that had gathered around the magnetic painter-poet Evgeny Kropivnitski (who would later become Rabine’s father in law) in the grubby industrial suburb of Lianozovo. He tried and failed to join the painters union with its members’ privileged access to better brushes and canvases. “Some people would work in publishing, book design, or illustrating children’s books,” he explained. “Me, I could never do anything else.”

Moving to Lianozovo, he took up residency in a converted barracks, placed his considerable organizational talents in the service of the nonconformist movement, and swiftly developed his own unmistakable style. The Lianozovo period quickly bloomed into a cluster of ongoing salons. The authorities turned a blind eye until curious foreigners and embassy staff began making pilgrimages to the suburb, befriending the artists, lavishing them with Western accolades, and purchasing their works with hard currency. (Then as now, the quickest route to amassing a world-class art collection on the cheap is to work in an embassy in a totalitarian country.)

Upending the triumphal logic of socialist realism, Rabine began painting in an earthen, jaggedly “metaphysical realist” mode. With a muddy palate broken up by occasional streaks of effervescent, even corrosive, color he construed a bleak private iconography composed of gleaming samovars, decrepit power lines, vodka bottles, gutted herring, syncopated smoke stacks, and late-cubist dilapidated houses. His paint, densely slathered on the canvas, depicted a provocatively harsh reality beneath a panorama of expansively fiery sky. Using fragments of newsprint and official documents, he collaged photomontages into the canvas projecting an effect of pseudo-surrealism. Autobiographical themes, such as his wife’s portrait in the guise of a Byzantine icon and his monumental passport (more on this later) also reoccur continuously in Rabine’s work.

Though Rabine demurs when asked about his identity or Judaism—it is quite typical of his generation to see such discussions as indecorous, if not vulgar—the archly political and unconcealed Jewish leitmotifs that mingle with Russian-Orthodox Christian imagery in his work must have enraged the commissars. In one of his more famous paintings a pack of wild dogs growls menacingly at a crucified Jesus wearing a star of David. In others, a label on a brand of vodka reads “Rabinovich-[Zhid]ovskaya” (anti-Semitic jokes about a hapless Jewish “Rabinovich” character were a cherished Soviet genre), and Judaica is sprinkled liberally throughout the painter’s still-lifes with flowers and vodka.

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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Bulldozing Soviet Art

A series of exhibits focuses on Oscar Rabine. Did his 1978 exile to Paris clear new ground for dissident art?

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