Moscow-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid met in the 1960s while they were both students at the Stroganoff Art Institute. By the early 1970s, they were collaborating as Komar & Melamid, co-signing works and stating: “We are not just an artist, we are a movement.” That movement, Sots Art, appropriated and subverted socialist realist imagery and Soviet propaganda toward conceptual ends. One of the duo’s early and important works, Double Self-Portrait, from 1972, is coming up in the Contemporary East sale on 7 June. Ahead of the sale, Komar spoke with Sotheby’s about his work and inspirations.
KOMAR AND MELAMID, DOUBLE SELF-PORTRAIT. ESTIMATE £100,000–150,000.
Sotheby’s: Can you tell us about Double Self-Portrait and the inspiration behind it?
Komar: Like many works of Sots Art, Double Self-Portrait is an example of agitprop from Soviet Russia. We portrayed ourselves in the heroic style of the profiles of Lenin and Stalin. The conceptual eclecticism of this work combines the style of Byzantine mosaics with the text and flat red background of Soviet political posters.
S: Why did you decide to become an artist?
K: As a child, I stopped talking when I was two years old after my parents went to Germany and left me in Moscow with my grandparents. My wife, the poet and psychologist Anna Halberstadt, believes that my muteness might be the result of psychological trauma. In those years, I would examine at length the pictures in books in our library at home. In my mind, the books on art merged with family photo albums. Immediately after my parents’ return, when I was four, I began to speak again and also to draw. I believe that this was the exact moment where I started to derive pleasure from the process of work and the associated meditation.
S: What type of people do you think collect your artworks?
K: I think that my works and projects attract very different kinds of admirers because they are very diverse: from polystylistic paintings and sculptures to performance art, photography and music.
S: What's the greatest inspiration for your work?
K: Discussions about visual images inspire me most. These are not merely private conversations over dinner and a bottle of wine, but also questions from the audience after my public talks and slide shows for museums, galleries and universities. I am particularly interested in the most naive and unexpected questions from the audience, especially from younger students. In attempting to answer these questions I encounter new concepts and images. Verbal language activates visual language and vice versa.
S: Which work of art do you most wish you owned?
K: I would hang together, almost like a diptych, two works by Turner and Aivazovsky. When they were both in Italy, Turner dedicated a poem to one of Aivazovsky’s paintings. In their later works there is a premonition of the stormy dynamics of Kandinsky’s early abstractions.
KOMAR AND MELAMID, CIRCLE, SQUARE, TRIANGLE: ARTISTS' INSTRUCTIONS. ESTIMATE: £8,000–12,000.
S: How would you describe the contemporary art and gallery scene in Russia, how has it changed in the course of your career?
K: In the history of Russian art I have always been fascinated by the unique insights of Postmodernism. The specific stylistic duality and eclecticism of East meeting West, as in the transitional period between the mediaeval style of Orthodox iconography to the style of Western-European academia, and the transition from the avant-garde to socialist realism. In my youth, this duality pitted official art against non-official art. Commercial galleries did not exist. The state played the role of exclusive buyer and everything that it bought became the official art. In the history of non-official art or, more precisely, in the history of the postwar avant-garde, the most interesting period was the transition from social realism to Sots Art and conceptual eclecticism.
S: What advice would you give to collectors interested contemporary Russian art?
K: When Western art lovers and collectors look at the work of a Russian artist, they should not hurry. It takes time to feel and appreciate the fact that the most interesting works by Russian artists are not merely dialogues with other artists. They not only address the viewer, they also address the “censor.” Only by imagining yourself as the censor and taking the time to meditate will you be able to fully recognise and value the hidden messages and gestures of an artist conquering his muteness; a muteness caused by the traditions of totalitarian censorship.
The Contemporary East sale is on 7 June in London