Martin and Ursula von Walterskirchen, Switzerland
Acquired from the above by the present owner
London, Tate Modern; St Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum; and Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future, October 2017 - January 2019, p. 124, illustrated in colour
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, trans. Robert A. Maguire, London 2004, p. 134-35.
Holiday #1 offers an extraordinary example of Ilya Kabakov’s intricate layering of fiction and reality, where on the surface of his canvas the social, the conceptual and the ontological powerfully collide. The present work forms part of a series of twelve canvases entitled Holidays, executed in 1987, in which the artist explores the sense of dissolution and psychological contradiction he felt growing up amidst the geopolitical turmoil of Soviet Russia. Kabakov asserts, “this awareness began in my early childhood: a feeling that the outside is not coordinated with, or is not adequate to, what’s taking place inside… my problem was how to learn to have a double mind, a double life, in order to survive, so that the reality wouldn’t destroy me” (Ilya Kabakov cited in: Boris Groys, David A. Ross and Iwona Blazwick, Ilya Kabakov, London 1998, p. 11). Indeed, Holiday #1 reveals its own mercurial contradictions, through its intense compositional layering, diverse mediums, as well as the painting’s introspective references to the masters of nineteenth-century Russian literature. As one of the foremost figures of Moscow Conceptualism, Kabakov is celebrated for his canonical ‘total installations’, yet his works in oil on canvas are strikingly rare, only thirty-one of which exist from this crucial period of artistic development in the late 1980s. Just last year Holiday #1 was exhibited at Tate Modern in London and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as part of the seminal show Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future, and immense recognition for this celebrated period of work has followed.
In Holiday #1, Kabakov’s viewers are immediately struck by the severity of a colossal Stalinist building meticulously rendered in oil paint. The architectural structure irrefutably evokes the Seven Sisters, a group of seven skyscrapers built in Moscow during the post-war period in an elaborate combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles. In Kabakov’s work, this Stalinist construction is juxtaposed against a second pictorial layer of a romanticised pastoral landscape. This image is distinctly reminiscent of a conventional Kolkhoz, or collective farm, which played a crucial role in the agrarian economy of the Soviet era. However incongruous, both scenes recall the commissioned images of Soviet agricultural and architectural achievements in propaganda iconography of the 1950s and 1960s; here Kabakov’s methodical reinterpretation of such iconography appears acutely formalistic, even mundane. The final layer of the composition, superimposed over this banal landscape, is both unexpected and entirely contradictory. Here uniformly placed blooms of foil candy wrappers shine and glimmer against the painted canvas. In Soviet Russia such sweets were one of the few consumer products abundantly available, and thus the multi-coloured wrappers become a profound signifier of memories for Kabakov; the fabricated joy of the wrappers seeks to mask the prosaic reality beneath, and the artist’s contrasting mediums become a palpable metaphor for the desire to see and experience life beyond Soviet realities.
Throughout the Holiday series, Kabakov poignantly experimented with notions of authorship and identity. The artist himself professed, “…from the very beginning these paintings were done not by an artist, but by a ‘personage’, by ‘someone’…it is assumed that a nameless hack artist, approximately thirty years ago, received an order to make this series of works for decorating either the House of Scientists or the House of Culture... For some reason, the paintings were never sent and remained in the studio until recently. Again dragged out into the light of day... a new impulse emerged for the artist: to renew the series, to return to it once again those qualities that it once possessed, to re-inject those feelings of joy... and he runs to the strangest method for injecting joy – namely he sews on these flowers” (Ilya Kabakov cited in: Renate Petzinger and Emilia Kabakov, Eds., Ilya Kabakov: Paintings 1957-2008 Catalogue Raisonné, Vol I, Bielefeld 2008, p. 199). From Kabakov’s own words, it is clear that his compositional layering becomes a philosophical proposition: we live in a world of ceaseless decay and renewal, and we incessantly yearn for the restoration of joy. Yet Kabakov’s foil wrappers offer further implications. In the form of unwanted garbage, they provide a remarkable post-modernist reflection upon the gravity of an artwork as an object, as well as the use of every-day objects as art, notions indebted to the modernist gestures of Duchamp and Magritte.
In the Holiday series, Kabakov’s expressions of inherent sorrow and joy offer compelling parallels to the famed storylines of Russian literary masters Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol. Both manifested inner dialogues about “the infinite sadness and hopelessness of the Russian provinces” (Boris Groys, op. cit, p. 45). A central element of Gogol’s writing in particular is its deeply personal vision of reality, which Kabakov re-interprets within the milieu of the Soviet era. Both Kabakov’s visual language and Gogol’s writing lament the conditions of their societies and dream of the outside world, and this impassioned yearning to glimpse life beyond Russia is made manifest in the title of the present work, as well as in Kabakov’s series as a whole. Indeed, the very notion of a holiday implies the great desire to escape reality, even for only a short while. Thus the paradoxes and contradictions central to Holiday #1 exemplify the complexity of Russianness during the Soviet era: “We had come here to escape but, with tender irony, Kabakov had reconnected us with the pains and the neglected pleasures of reality” (Ibid., p. 89).
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