Last Thursday, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) had the privilege of hosting Russian conceptual artist Vitaly Komar. Komar delivered a lecture entitled “Word and Image: My experience of being an artist in Soviet Russia and in the West” to a captivated audience, oscillating between profound political observation and the type of acerbic humor belonging almost exclusively to such observation. Born in Moscow in 1943, Komar founded a movement along with his companion Alexander Melamid called Sots Art. It’s an amalgamation of Soviet pop and conceptual art, based on the principles of Dadaism and socialist realism. Having grown up in the Soviet Union until his move to New York City in 1978, Komar has certainly lived a fairly tumultuous and fascinating life at the cross-section of art and politics.
His lecture traversed across both his personal and artistic history and the history of his homeland as a whole. A dominant theme was the pervasive duality of Soviet life. As a member of an informal collection of nonconformist Soviet artists in his youth, Komar lived in direct tension with the totalitarian Soviet government. As he described, “everything literally belonged to the government, and official art, sponsored by the government, invisibly hypnotized people.” In such circumstances, Komar resorted to employing “self-irony as a weapon to purify [himself] against the propaganda.” One of his first presentation slides showcased a statue of Lenin located in St. Petersburg, a classic manifestation of the propaganda Komar so combated. He commented on the sculpture, “People believe they can work with history and memory as if they were sculptors working with clay.” It was with the passing of Lenin that social realism found its ascent.
As a movement, social realism gestures towards the lives of the working and lower socioeconomic classes. It tends toward pointed criticism of the social status quo. Hence, Komar’s next slide of a naked woman sitting on a bust of Stalin represents an explicit subversion of the political order. Social realism is not only characterized by subversion but also by a proliferation of geometric lines, indicating the duality central to its themes. Along with ascribing to this movement, Komar also reflects what he has termed “conceptual eclecticism,” summated as the pairing of various often clashing concepts. As he states, “mythological creatures are the earliest examples of conceptual eclecticism,” citing creatures such as fauns as examples of this trend.
Each work Komar spoke of carried particular and profound meaning. However, I found his 1985 painting “The First Drop of Blood” particularly striking. A two-part work, it is divided by several straight lines making it appear as if it were a piece of paper only recently unfolded. The bottom half of the painting shows a military man holding a bloodied dress, with a youth on the other side inspecting the dress with her pants down. In the top, metallic-hued half, a skeleton carries a large silver plate. The painting carries universal symbolic import, referencing Freudian notions of castration, but it also carries specific importance for Komar. As he tells it, “When I was at school, my girlfriend told me a story that the same day that Stalin’s death was announced she found the first drop of blood on her pants. This moment of co-accident, when history coincided with personal life, inspired this painting.” Additionally, the color of red carries several meanings for Komar, being not only the color of blood but also an indicator of beauty in the Russian language. In fact, Komar attributes much of Bolshevik success to the insidious presence of their signature red.
Komar then turned his attention to the more explicitly satirical work he did once in New York City. The most memorable of his projects was entitled “We Buy and Sell Souls.” A project enacted by Komar and Melamid, it involved the purchase and subsequent sale of human souls. With an advertising campaign that infiltrated even the Times Square video display and was sponsored by the Public Art Fund of New York, the artists ultimately transacted several hundred American souls including that of Andy Warhol, who sold his for the grand sum of $0. The tongue-in-cheek maverick project was discontinued by Komar after he received a letter from his friend saying that it was illegal to sell something that does not belong to you.
Komar’s lecture illuminated a life lived outside the geometric lines of the art he has produced. Within his lecture he imbedded an important message: that this generation of art viewers stop attempting “to catch paintings as if they were road signs. Russian unofficial art needs more time. Russian art history books are like my family albums and I look at them with the time and care I would any album.” Once one is absorbed in the profoundly dark and yet incisively comedic world of Komar’s art, it would seem impossible to ignore his request that we, too, consider his work as such.