10 Artists that Defined the Soviet Jewish Underground

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Jewish artists were a pivotal force within the Soviet non-conformist group that emerged in the 1960s to 1980s and key players in the underground art scene that thrived in Russia during those years. The catalogue cover of Sotheby’s iconic 1988 auction in Moscow featured a work by Grisha Bruskin, the underground painter who most actively explored Jewish themes in his work. Thirty years later, Sotheby's dedicated online sale an important number of these dissident Jewish-Russian painters and sculptors. Click ahead to discover 10.

10 Artists that Defined the Soviet Jewish Underground

  • Komar and Melamid, Study for Plateosaurus from the Ancestral Portraits Series, 1980. Estimate $6,000–8,000.
    In the satirically biting Ancestral Portraits series artist team Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid depicted dinosaurs in the hackneyed poses of Soviet official portraiture, a dry commentary on the obsolescence of Communist ideals. “Few artists have rewritten the past in a mood of such desperate hilarity” commented art historian Carter Ratcliff in his monograph on the duo. The fossilized academic style of Socialist Realism of the pre-Khrushchev era was ripe for parody and Komar and Melamid were merciless in their caricature of the cult of the leader.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October

  • Lev Meshberg, Nude, 1989. Estimate $1,000–1,500.
    Lev Meshberg grew up in the city of Odessa, one of the centers of Jewish cultural history in the Russian Empire and home to a number of prominent writers, artists and intellectuals. Meshberg emigrated to the United States in 1973. He was principally a figurative artist and this delicate oil painting is a beautiful example of his restrained palette and use of impasto layers and comes to auction directly from the artist’s family.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October

  • Ilya Kabakov, Figures in Combat, 1963. Estimate $3,500–4,500
    Ilya Kabakov was a member of the Sretensky Boulevard group, a predominantly Jewish informal association that came together in the 1960s and included artists Ulo Sooster, Eduard Steinberg, Vladimir Yankilevsky and Erik Bulatov, whose works are also offered in the present sale. Kabakov was one of the first to express social criticism through his sharp description of life in a system that disregarded human dignity. Today, he is perhaps the best known internationally of the Moscow Conceptualists and recently featured at the Tate Modern in London exhibition Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October

  • Anatoly Brusilovsky, Two Ideas, 1984. Estimate $2,000–3,000.
    Anatoly Brusilovsky joined the non-conformist movement when he moved to Moscow in the early 1960s. His collages and assemblages often failed to pass censorship and were routinely banned from official exhibitions. In the late 19th century, the largest Jewish community in the world lived in the wider Russian Empire, and yet “Russians and Jews seemed to inhabit two distinct semantic spheres, no matter how much they interacted or intersected’. The oppositional activity of Jewish artists during the Soviet period therefore ‘was determined almost a hundred years earlier by their isolated position in Russian life.”1

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October

    1. Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, The Jewish Museum, New York, 1996.
  • Oleg Tselkov, Still Life with Wine Glass, 1988. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    The existence of a Jewish state outside the borders of the Soviet Union made it inevitable that Jewish identity in this period also implied laying claim to emigration. Oleg Tselkov moved to Paris in 1977, making him one the earliest Russian Jewish artists of his generation to emigrate. The community which subsequently formed in Paris — Oskar Rabin, Mikhail Roginsky and Erik Bulatov among others — established a permanent channel between the Soviet Union and Europe that allowed Russian artists to learn about Western cultural movements and trends.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
  • Ernst Neizvestny, Male Portrait. Estimate $1,000–1,500.
    Ernst Neizvestny emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976 and, after a brief period in Zurich, settled in New York. He had a studio in SoHo and a home on Shelter Island, where he created a sculpture park. His expressionist style has been linked to both Henry Moore and Jacques Lipchitz, though the present bust sculpture is an unusually figurative piece.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
  • Eduard Steinberg, Geometric Composition, 1980. Estimate $5,000–7,000.
    Steinberg’s geometric works began in earnest in the early 1970s and echo the non-figurative subjects of the Russian avant-garde of the 1910s. From 1980 Steinberg also worked in gouache and collage. Older Jewish artists such as Robert Falk who maintained their ties with the past provided a link with pre-Stalinist artistic tradition, establishing an important reference point for younger artists in the late Soviet era.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
  • Grisha Bruskin, Man and Woman. Estimate $30,000–50,000.
    Although his father spoke Yiddish, Grisha Bruskin grew up knowing that an active Jewish life was implicitly forbidden in Soviet Russia. At 23 he began to read all types of religious literature voraciously, acquiring books on the black market. The Jewish experience would come to take a prominent position in his work as he compulsively grappled with his heritage: “If I had been born not in Russia, but in Israel or America for example, I would never have landed on the Jewish theme in my work. It’s a natural and logical position for an artist in Eastern Europe and Russia I think."

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
  • Dmitry Lion, Untitled (one of three works). Estimate $1,200–1,800.
    Lion served on the Eastern front in the Second World War. He heard witness accounts of the Holocaust during his demobilization which made a deep impact and led him to articulate the spiritual beliefs and tragic history of the Jewish people in his art. Large scrolls featured in his early work, but for the main part ink on paper was his chosen medium and his drawings gradually became more symbolic in their fusion of Old Testament and contemporary history. David and Bathsheba are recurring figures in his work from the 1970s. His short light strokes are instantly recognizable and incorporate faint lines of text, illegible letters and unexpected faces and figures.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
  • Vladimir Weisberg, The City, 1979. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
    Vladimir Weisberg had solo exhibitions at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1975 and then the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1979. His refined still lifes are the very opposite of confrontational or political in terms of subject matter, but since they had no place within the dictates of Socialist Realism and were vulnerable to accusations of formalism they were rarely included in official exhibitions within the Soviet Union up until the late 1980s.

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    Escape Artists: The Non-Conformists Online
    20 September – 5 October
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