The Moscow Times
December 19 - 29, 2003
By Gay Archer
WHO'S ATTACKING MODERN ART?
Artists Honor A Harsh Critic
The S.ART gallery's newest show, the First Axiom, is as much a personal introduction
to the controversial ideas of Mikhail Lifshits as it is an exhibition. One of
the most controversial art theorists of the Soviet period, Lifshits (1905-1983)
was a virulent critic of modernist art. In tribute to his legacy, S.ART has brought
together paintings, photographs and video by today's modern artists -- a group
of contemporary artists who say that Lifshits was in fact one of Russia's most
But it will be up to visitors to determine the strength of Lifshits' critiques
for themselves. Lifshits' views were squarely Marxist, and his hostility to modernism
absolute. While many of the Russian artists with whom he studied eventually emigrated
and helped defined modern art abroad, Lifshits remained in the Soviet Union to
rail against his contemporaries' transgressions.
Lifshits' supporters say that it was precisely his extensive understanding of
modern art forms that made him such an important critic. "He studied this
culture from the inside," said Dmitry Gutov, the exhibition's curator and
founder of the Lifshits Institute. "And so as early as the 1920s, he was
able to provide the highest level of criticism of modern art."
Today, the 12 artists featured in First Axiom argue that Lifshits' Marxist philosophy
of aesthetics needs to be examined anew. Rather than being a reactionary herald
to the halcyon days of socialist realism, First Axiom intends to stimulate fresh
interest in Lifshits' ideas. Most of the artists are under 40 and well practiced
in contemporary art forms. Gutov, for example, has worked with installations in
the past, and contributed a painting to the exhibit featuring a monkey reading
Lifshits' book, "Crisis of Ugliness: From Cubism to Pop Art." Meanwhile,
Vladimir Salnikov's "Portrait of Mikhail Lifshits," which is pictured
on this week's Metropolis cover, combines modernist technique with classical style
in a thoroughly contemporary way. Ironically, while some of the artwork has clear
realist strains, most is quite -- for want of a better expression -- modern.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Lifshits' books were widely read within the Soviet
Union, but not for the reasons that he intended. Much of the work that Lifshits
discussed was off-limits in the U.S.S.R., making Lifshits' extensive critiques
-- filled with detailed reproductions -- one of the only ways that Soviet citizens
could view the offending art. In a photograph in the S.ART Gallery by Konstantin
Bokhorov, for example, a copy of Lifshits' "Crisis of Ugliness" ironically
features a still life by Pablo Picasso on its cover. But Gutov hopes that exchanges
with the First Axiom artists will help refocus interest on Lifshits' actual texts.
First Axiom runs until Jan. 16 at the S.ART gallery, located at 14 Zemlyanoy Val.
Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 916-0366, 917-5454.