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For Valour


Ithas been noted more than once that Vladimir Dubossarsky and AlexanderVinogradov, with their ability to portray the zeitgeist, havecreated instantly recognisable images of both the ‘naughty’nineties and the ‘stable’ noughties. Over the past two decadesthe collective unconscious of post-Soviet society, with its heroesand ghosts, its expressed and secret wishes, its phobias andnightmares, has appeared in the works of these two artists as if onthe Turin Shroud. At the end of the ‘noughties’ the artistsreined in their imagination and radically changed their artisticlanguage, moving from compositional and colouristic excess toasceticism, restrained use of colour, more limited subjects; arejection of the baroque sophistication of the allegories ‘PaintingsMade to Order’, of the comic drama of ‘Total Painting’ (2001)and of the postmodern irony of ‘Russian Literature’ (1996). Todaya typical work by the pair barely differs from a banal view from thewindow, with the emphasis on ‘banal’. The back yards of typical5-storey apartment blocks, assemblages of garages and kiosks, straydogs, unfamiliar girls with blurred features walking confidentlyalong grey pavements, all of these have crowded out not only thefamous faces of the previous decade - Alla Pugacheva, Boris Yeltsin,Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Natalia Vodianova - but also the signatureimage of the artists, idealised female nudes in heavenly groves. Allof this prompted rumours of artists in crisis, of a flawed conceptand of internal conflicts. Despite this, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’swork did not lose that for which it had always been valued. It’snot that the artists changed but that, to quote Hamlet, ‘time isout of joint’. Dubossarsky and Vinogradov felt, and set down oncanvas, an as yet unexpressed feeling of the end of history, thusbecoming the first Russian post-historical painters. The referencehere is not to ‘the end of history’ as described by FrancisFukuyama in his 1992 best-seller ‘The End of History and the LastMan’, with its emphasis on a ‘final’ society which will nolonger develop but instead build its riches, give itself over topleasure and enjoy democracy’s freedoms. The reference is to adeeply local context, our personal ‘end’, which is the result ofthe ‘Putin stability’ of the noughties - total apathy, a plateauof the habitual and the everyday. In the early 1990s, even residentsfelt that they were living in a moment of rupture, that worlds werecollapsing before their eyes, that beneath their feet were the blocksof history and that they could be not only witnesses to but alsoactors in this global drama, standing alongside Attila and Napoleon,Joan of Arc and Columbus, Lenin and Bismarck, Stalin and Hitler or,at the very least, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Today this feeling hasdispersed, the historical process has lost its ability to captivate,days blend one in to another and the majority has set aside itspolitical ambitions and lost faith in the historical process. TheDantesque inferno of the 90s, in which Christ appeared to the uncleanof Moscow - prostitutes, illegal cab drivers and pimps - to bring thegood news (Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s 1999 painting ‘Christ inMoscow’) has become a routine flow of life on the outside ofhistory. It is these processes which are reflected in the new worksby the duo, where not only the tone but the geography has changed.The natural paradise with features of the central Russian uplands orthe centre of the capital has been replaced by a border zone betweenMoscow and the rest of Russia, Khimki, to where the artists movedtheir studio from the centre. The imaginary heaven of ‘TotalPainting’ has been substituted for views of a real heaven from thestudio windows - an almost provincially sleepy square in front of therailway station with the alluring lights of the ‘Grand’ shoppingcentre in the distance.


Asalready noted above, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov said goodbye to theheroes of the previous age, knowing that in the new age there is noplace for the heroic, or even the extraordinary. This does not justrefer to the heroes of the mass media. Genuine, non-imaginary heroesare disappearing along with the last century. ‘For Valour’ takesas its theme these future losses, comparable in their tragedy toPavel Korin’s unfinished painterly requiem ‘Farewell to Rus’.


WorldWar II veterans, the heroes of the panorama ‘For Valour’, standagainst the background of a river similar to that in the bacchanaliaof ‘Total Painting’. This is not the Volga of a Russian birchparadise but a cold Styx, separating the world of the living from thekingdom of oblivion. It doesn’t matter that the celebration of 9May is painted in a major key, with happy smiles, flowers, presseduniforms, medals. This does not hide the fact that Victory Day isheading for the sunset, becoming a shadow of victory. The soldiers inDubossarsky and Vinogradov’s works are the last legion, almosthidden beyond the horizon of the 20th century. Soon their place willbe taken by new veterans of less ‘holy’ wars, such as thecolonial campaign in Afghanistan. Regardless of its poster-likesmoothness, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s image of victory is atodds with the imperative of patriotism supported by the government.The project is not so much an attempt to impress the descendants ofthe last, in the words of the artists, ‘righteous of the Russianland’, as a commentary on the modern history of Russia, where thosein power speculate with history rather than honouring it. While forthe Soviet population the events of 1941-1945 were a metaphysical‘holy war’ (as it’s possible that a victory by the enemy wouldhave been considered a real ‘end of history’), for the engineersof the new state ideology they are simply a kit of facts, names anddates with which it’s possible to create various narratives.


However,it’s not as if the war myth hasn’t been constructed anddeconstructed many times. Even by the mid-1940s there was a taboo ondiscussing the outcome of the war, on comparing Europe and the USSRand on personal versions of events. It was then that the strictlyheroic canon of images of war began to form, comprising the grandportrait, multi-figure composition, heroic pathos and strictattention to detail. Deineka was virtually accused of being aformalist for his ‘Defence of Sebastopol’ (1942) and, as aresult, the work was rarely exhibited. This continued until the1950s, when a generation appeared which related to many things,including the war, more intimately. The artists of that generationrejected this ‘varnished reality’ and a no less ‘varnished’version of history and began to reconsider their own experience orthat of their fathers. People began to write and discuss the war intougher terms. The official discourse included not only the victimsof the aggressors but also those who suffered from the disastrousdecisions of the government. In 1957 Sergei Smirnov’s ‘BrestFortress’ was published. This book, which was to be republishedmany times, described not only the heroism of Soviet citizens duringthe first days of the war but also the tragic fate of the survivingdefenders of the fortress, many of whom also survived imprisonmentand concentration camps only to become victims of the Soviet prisonsystem. The war began to be considered not only as an heroic victorybut also as a national tragedy. This was the background to works suchas Gely Korzhev’s series ‘Burnt by the Fire of War’ (1962-67),Viktor Popkov’s notable painting ‘Father’s Overcoat’ (1972)and his series ‘Mezensk Widows’ (1965-68). Brothers Alexei andSergei Tkachev identified the war as the beginning of a much moredramatic historical process - everyone went to war, they perished,no-one remains, villages die and so does Russia. The war myth wasdeconstructed both in official and unofficial interpretations. Thisdid not mean that the portrayal of the war as personal tragedy becamepart of the official discourse. Artists worked at the boundary of theofficial and the forbidden. ‘Father’s Overcoat’ was excludedfrom exhibitions on more than one occasion because the hero waswearing western-made boots (which apparently hinted at the artist’slack of patriotism). During perestroika Ilya Glazunov wrote anew chapter in the war myth, amazing the public with his large-formathistorical allegories in which all of the major heroes and villainsof the 20th century took part, as if in an opera production.


Thewar myth was deconstructed yet another time in recent years. Thathistorical credibility which historians, writers and artists from the1960s to the 1980s defended with such difficulty was cancelled out bya new officialness created by those brought up on Hollywoodstereotypes, which suggested an unoriginal but more modern-lookingimage of the soldier as superman and of war as a duel of heroes. Thisnew ideological construct was built on the rules of epic poetry witha nod to the fantasy genre. The new heroes of the age were Russiansaboteurs, charged with locating a base for German flying saucers inthe 2008 TV series ‘Spies. The Last Battle’; a ninja/KGB officerplayed by Alexander Lykov in the 2007 film ‘Saboteur. The End ofthe War’; and, the apotheosis of this style, army captain (or,rather, berserker) Kotov in the second part of Nikita Mikhalkov’sduology ‘Burnt by the Sun’.


Itseemed as if the myth of war had been privatised by the governmentand by those artists who were prepare to follow the instructions ofofficial ideology. It wasn’t easy to predict that contemporaryartists would choose the theme of war. Where they had touched on thistheme earlier it was strictly ironically and without historicalcontext. Take, for example, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s‘Inspiration’ (2000), where Russian special forces fight and diein a field of daisies, or their ‘Christmas. A Painting for theArmy’ (1995) in which an angel prevents soldiers from harming theVirgin and Child. The theme of war, and particularly World War II,appeared in Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s practice as a reaction tothe official. The artists themselves note that in the middle of thenoughties they felt a demand for this theme, honouring thecontribution of survivors and the dead with ‘In Memory of theFallen’ (2004). This modest image - an unpretentious bunch of wildflowers in a vase on an oilcloth-covered table - became an epigraphfor their panoramic project ‘For Valour’. Dubossarsky andVinogradov have returned us to reality. In creating a portraitgallery of people who are anything but heroic - frail old ladies,restrained elderly men bent by that which they lived through - theartists remind us that victory was secured not by supermen but by thesuperhuman strength of ordinary people who defended life ‘havingbeen raised from the dead’. Dubossarsky and Vinogradov took it uponthemselves not only to be moralising but also moral artists, revivingDiderot’s long-forgotten maxim that an artist requires twoqualities: a sense of morality and a sense of perspective. In thiscase the perspective is historical.



Maria Kravtsova