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      Leningrad 80s >>

Da Da Majakowski

Dionysus Gallery, Rotterdam, 25 March – 8 April 1988

Da Da Majakowski press reviews - summary

With over eight hundred visitors, Da DA Majakowski was a very successful show for an off-space gallery. The exhibition was widely covered by the press, both local and national. The articles I have been using are

1 – Schilderen op plastic tafelkleedje (Paintings on Plastic Tablecloths), Bas Roodnat, 25 March 1988, NRC Handelsblad.

2 – Cynisme uit Leningrad (Cynism from Leningrad) by Rob Vermeulen, R.N.; newspaper not identified,

3 – Verboden kunst uit Sovjetunie naar Dionysus (Forbidden Art from the Soviet Union at Dionysus), Het Vrije Volk 17 march 1988,

4 – Underground kunst uit Leningrad in Rotterdam (Underground Art from Leningrad in Rotterdam), Cornée Jacobs 1 April 10988, U.N. (not identified),

5 – Jonge Groep Schilders uit Lenignrad (Young Group of Painters from Leningrad), Menno Schenke, AD 26 March 1988 (not identified),

6 – Russische kunst illegal naar Nederland (Russian Art Has Come to the Netherlands Illegally), Leidsch Dagblad, 22 March 1988

7 – ‘Niet-erkende’ Russische kunst in Rotterdam (‘Non-Recognised‘ Russian Art), Utrechts Nieuwsblad, 25 March 1988

8 – Sovjet Graffiti in Massstad na Bliksemactie ( Soviet Graffiti in the City on the  Meuse in an Ad-Hoc Action), Volkskrant 19 March 1088

Articles 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 also refer to the exhibition of Moscow artists Hermitage in Holland in Amsterdam, running parallel to Da DA Majakowski.

Without discussing in detail how the works were reviewed, I will nevertheless single out two aspects that caught my attention, because they are those that stand out in the articles: the label “Friends of Mayakovsky” and the conspiratorial smuggling of the exhibits.  

Friends of Mayakovsky

Almost all reviews refer to the New Artists exclusively as “Friends of Mayakovsky” (Vrienden von Majakowksi), which is understandable given the title of the exhibition and the fact that the press release speaks only of “Friends of Mayakovsky” and not of "New Artists“.

The abridged version of Timur Novikov’s text about the New Artists from 1986 (or, perhaps, early 1987), which was also included in the press release, nevertheless uses the name New Artists several times and Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky only once, at the end of the text. Cornée Jacobs is the only journalist stressing the concept of “new”, quoting a passage from Novikov’s article: “new in the sense of ‘brand-new trams, taking the place of obsolete, worn-out models on the metal track’”. The respective passage from the London catalogue is:

    The ‘New Artists’ are based mainly in Leningrad. They strive for innovation but this can’t be considered the goal of the group. They term themselves ‘New’ as indication of age. They are like brand-new trams, taking the place of obsolete, worn-out models on the metal track. more >>

Admittedly, if the metal track is the same old track, Novikov’s concept of novelty isn’t really revolutionary: it is like pouring new wine into old wineskins. But the sentence was translated with some lack of accuracy. Novikov used the image of a bus, not of a tram: “они так же новы, как новенький автобус, сменяющий на линии устаревшую изношенную модель.” / “They are like brand-new buses, taking the place of obsolete, worn-out models on the [same bus] line.” The image of a tram, created by the translator, evokes a much stronger association with "beaten tracks" than that of a bus serving a bus line.

Yet the difference between the two names "New Artists" and "Friends of Mayakovsky" is important, because even “relatively new” artists are looking to the future, while “friends of Mayakovsky” are looking to a hero of the past. Of the two concepts, the first is primary for the Leningrad group of artists – the New Artists – and the latter is secondary. Thus, in Novikov’s text we read “The ‘New Artists’ formed the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky …“

Paradoxically, Novikov’s statement was twisted right around in the article in Utrechts Nieuwsblad and in the Leidsch Dagblatt: “The Friends of Mayakovsky founded the New Artists in 1982”.

The concept of the New Artists acting as an informal group using the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky as their administrative branch was indeed difficult to grasp. On top of it, the English translation contains a fundamental misinterpretation that blurs the difference between the two concepts:

    The ‘New Artists’ formed the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky with the purpose of strengthening and developing a patriotic, innovative tradition. Almost all the artists joined along with composers, workers in the new theatre and cinema, several rock musicians, art experts and collectors. The club [sic] has no official status but manifests itself through various official youth organisations. In this way the artists preserve their informality and save themselves from inevitable bureaucratism and official obligations. more >>

Here, instead of what would have been the correct translation “The New Artists have no official status …” we read “The club has no official status… ”. I wrote about this problem in my article about the London exhibition. more >>

Consequently, the sentence “The club has no official status …” led to such a strange conclusion as calling the “Friends of Mayakovsky” a semi-legal group, as did Rob Vermeulen in his article “Cynisme uit Leningrad”  (Cynism from Leningrad).

By contrast, the reason why Timur Novikov registered the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky with the local authorities in 1986 was to formalise the New Artists’ informal structure and to operate with both names simultaneously – with the New Artists as an informal structure and the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky serving as a formal or legal structure.

Such a legal structure, he was hoping, would give the New Artists public support. The Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky was therefore entirely legal, and we may compare its structure with the legal person of a Dutch stichting, for instance the Dionysus Gallery, although the Mayakovsky Friends Club never arrived at a point of successfully operating on such a legal basis. For lack of public support, Novikov soon stopped pursuing his administrative strategy and kept the name “Friends of Mayakovsky Club” merely as a label to promote the New Artists, first in Leningrad and then abroad. I discussed this point in my article The New Artists. Timur Novikov: Roots – E-E Kozlov: Cosmos, Chapter 2. Perestroika, the Mayakovsky Friends Club, and pop art, 2020 more >>. Addendum 2022: In 2021, I analysed the subject matter in detail, see article The New Artists and the Mayakovsky Friends Club, 1986-1990 more >>.

On the other hand, the deliberate connection of the Rotterdam exhibition to avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky doubtlessly helped promoting the show: its title Da Da Majakowski was much more colourful than the neutral formula 7 Artists from Leningrad used in London. And to those who didn’t know Mayakovsky, Da Da still created a link to the avant-garde of the early twentieth century.

Mayakovsky offered journalists a possibility not only to discuss those of the works that featured Soviet symbols relating to perestroika, but to set such features into the context of the Russian avant-garde as well, although rather to Malevich and the black square than to Mayakovsky and Rosta Windows (see also: Art into Life: Agitprop and Vladimir Mayakovsky >>). Only Rob Vermeulen mentions the stencil painting of the Rosta Windows commonly associated with Mayakovsky, present in the works of Andrey Khlobystin. Considering the important number of Malevich’s works in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the preference given to Malevich is not surprising.

Thus, Cornée Jacobs notes that many paintings display a black square, and Bas Rodnaat (NRC Handelsblad) interprets the painting with the white square and the worker described earlier as the fight between avant-garde and social realism, with the latter winning over the former. Rodnaat interprets this as a reflection on Russian art history and, on the whole, approves of the Leningrad works. Consequently, he remains critical of the Amsterdam exhibition of Moscow artists, accusing them of what he perceives as those rather poor results coming from their following (apolitical) western trends.

A conspiratorial “touch”

We would certainly not expect anyone from outside the Soviet Union to grasp the nuances between different degrees of acting legally or illegally within a communist system – all the less when during perestroika, many artistic activities that had been censured or forbidden for decades started being tolerated, especially in the field of literature, visual arts, and rock music.

This doesn’t mean that by 1988, artists had obtained the right to organise by themselves an exhibition of their works abroad – that was still the prerogative of state and party institutions. We speak of a general restriction concerning recognised and non-recognised artists alike. In the Soviet context, “non-recognised” did not mean lack of success, but lack of a professional status – a status denied to those artists who were not members of the Union of Artists  – so-called “amateur” artists or non-official artists.

Therefore, having their works smuggled out of the country was not at all unusual for non-official artists, provided there was a demand for such works. Around the same time, in early 1988, American rock singer Joanna Stingray organised several “Red Wave” exhibitions with New Artists’ works in Los Angeles. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times from 28 January 1988, we read:

    While Stingray did have to conceal her rock tapes from customs officials, she said she traveled more freely with the artworks, all given to her by the artists.
    "Either our suitcases weren't checked, or the customs agents would look at a piece and laugh and say, 'Take it!' They didn't consider these works, many of them graffiti-like or picturing primitive, dinosaur-like figures, to be art." External link >>

What changed in 1988 was that for important exhbitiions, Soviet institutions would no longer work with members of the Union of Artists exclusively: they would – reluctantly – accept exhibitions of non-official artists if the initiative came from the West, and that was the case with the exhibition Hermitage in Holland. Those Moscow artists shown in Amsterdam were actually just as “non-official” as their Leningrad colleagues shown in Rotterdam (Sergei Shutov was even considered as a member of the New Artists), but with the Technical University of Eindhoven, the Moscow group of artists had an important institutional partner on the Dutch side that gained the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and that of the Ministry of Culture on the Soviet side. Consequently, there was no need to smuggle their works to Holland.

In the eyes of the Dutch public, however, it made those Moscow artists look like official representatives of the Soviet state: “Another exhibition of contemporary visual art (but of recognised artists)…” (Utrechts Nieuwsblad). In this way, what was merely an organisational difference created a false opposition between the Moscow and the Leningrad groups of artists – of “recognised” Moscow artists and “non-recognised” Leningrad artists. Bas Roodnat calls the first “artists” and the second “dissident artists”. The headline of the article in Het Vrije Volk” is even more explicit: “Forbidden art from the Soviet Union at the Dionysus”.  It also helped to explain – so it seemed – why most “Rotterdam” works were not signed, something noted in most reviews.

Looking at the reproductions of Moscow works in the catalogue Hermitage in Holland, we wouldn’t say that these works are fundamentally different from those of their Leningrad colleagues at Da Da Majakowski. Yet for a Dutch art critic, there were numerous signs supporting an antagonism between “official” Moscow art and “dissident” Leningrad art; for instance the fact that unlike the “anonymous” paintings from Leningrad, many of which were painted on cheap material or plastic, the painting of Moscow artists were framed and all supplied with artists’ names (“ingelijste schilderijen […], alle voorzien van bordjes met de namen van de kunstnaars.”,  Bas Roodnat, Handelsblad).

The conspiratorial “touch” of the smuggling – all reviews mention the smuggling right at the beginning – made Da Da Majakowski definitely attractive, especially in combination with a second catchword – New York. The works were said to go to New York, and Rotterdam was the last chance to see them in Europe. As a result, Da Da Majakowski easily upstaged Hermitage in Holland.

Four months later, it was the Leningrad New Artists aka Friends of Mayakovsky who became official, at the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, in an exhibition and festival organised by the Stockholm cultural administration and supported by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, the Swedish Institute, the Soviet Embassy, Stockholm, the Leningrad Komsomol, and the Swedish General Consulate, Leningrad. The exhibition De Nya från Leningrad (The New from Leningrad, more >>) presented the group with their original name, as New Artists, and their works with name tags – including those anonymous works that came from Rotterdam.

An element of conspiracy was nevertheless present in the Swedish exhibition, too. Contrary to what the Swedish organisers had expected, Leningrad artists travelling to the Stockholm had decided to take all exhibits as backdrops for a Pop-Mekhanika concert. In this way, artists’ works arrived undocumented, and since only part of what they brought with them was actually displayed at De Nya från Leningrad, no one knows what exactly left Leningrad in the summer of 1988. But this is a story yet to be told.

Hannelore Fobo, 12 November 2020

Uploaded 12 November 2020
Last updated 26 January 2022