Erik Bulatov - The John L. Stewart Collection of Russian Contemporary Art London Friday, October 12, 2007 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist

  • Exhibited

    Kunsthalle Zurich, January 15 – February 28, 1988; Portikus Frankfurt am Main, March 24 – April 24, 1988; Kunsverein Bonn, May 2 – June 4 1988; Amsterdam, De Appel Foundation, June 11 – July 6, 1988; Kunstverein Freiburg, July 12 – August 19, 1988; Paris, Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, Galeries Contemporaines, Centre Georges Pompidou, September 28 – November 27, 1988; London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, February 22 – April 23, 1989; Boston, MIT List Visual Arts Center, May 6 – July 2, 1989; Newport Beach (California), The Newport Harbor Art Museum, July 27 – October 1, 1989; The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, October 8 – November 25, 1989, Erik Bulatov Moscow; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Prato, Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Artisti Russi Contemporanei, February 10 – March 14, 1990; Ridgefield (Connecticut), Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Adaptation & Negation of Socialist Realism, June 9 – October 7, 1990; Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Face à l’Histoire 1933-1996, December 19, 1996 – April 7, 1997; Moscow, State Tretyakov Gallery, Erik Bulatov, That’s It., September 19 – November 19, 2006

  • Literature

    C. Jolles, ed. Erik Bulatov, Zurich, 1988, n.p. (illustrated); E. Bulatov, C. Jolles, V. Missiano, N. Ouvrard and S. Zadora, Erik Bulatov, Paris, 1988, n.p. (illustrated); ICA Documents 8 Novostroika, Erik Bulatov, London, 1989, p. 43 (illustrated); R. Taylor, The Boston Globe, May 10, 1989, n.p. (illustrated); I. Levkova – Lamm, Contemporeana, October, 1989, p. 90-91 (illustrated); M. Tupitsyn, Margins of Soviet Art, Milan, 1989, p. 68 (illustrated); B. Groys, Artisti Russi Contemporanei, Prato, 1990, p. 83 (illustrated); J. Gambrell and Y. Barabanov, Adaptation & Negation of Socialist Realism, Ridgefield, 1990, p. 10 (illustrated); L. Beke, Face à l’Histoire, Paris, 1996, p. 393 (illustrated); N. Divona, N. Godzina, A. Kharitonova, I. Lebedeva, and A. Yerofeev, Erik Bulatov, That’s It., Moscow, 2006, p. 102 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    'Soviet Cosmos' is one of the most famous and perfected works of Erik Bulatov, a brilliant example of the non-conformist period of his creative life. Even for this artist who strives in each painting to give a complete description of the world, this painting is completely unique in terms of the ambition of the concept, the laconic brevity of its structure, the power, the wholeness, the fullness of the utterance and the filigree meticulousness of the execution. This is a genuine apotheosis uniting all the most important symbols of Soviet power: a portrait of the leader governing the Party that has subordinated the country, is depicted in the halo of the nation’s gold coat of arms, surrounded by golden loaves of bread (the symbol of fertility) and flags that comprise the Empire of the Republics of the Union. All the elements of the painting are too good: the coat of arms emits a gold illumination, the waving red flags of the republics are slightly distinguishable via national symbols, the leader gazes into the happy future – this painting can be just as easily read as either an orthodox Communist painting, or as a mocking one. If this is so, then the parody turns out to be so refined that it is easy to see in it the irreproachable triumph of the empire, the parade portrait of its leader L. I. Brezhnev, the praising of the system. The painting is no less or more parodying than its hero – the aging, decrepit power that keeps awarding itself. The paradox rests in the fact that this unofficial artist, never in demand in his homeland, always fearful about the fate of his paintings and forced to send them abroad – only there could they be preserved and find a viewer (as a result, in Russia there are virtually no paintings by Bulatov of this period – not in museum nor in private collections) and perhaps created the only genuine monument to the epoch. "Probably, one of the most provocative of my paintings is Soviet Cosmos from 1977. One specialist, having seen it, was surprised: 'My God, why aren’t you the winner of the State Prize and a People’s Artist of the USSR?' Actually, the painting is very similar to the posters of the Brezhnev period. In the middle of the painting is the gold coat of arms of the USSR, surrounding it are flags of the republics of the USSR, and in the foreground is the portrait of Brezhnev. The coat of arms turns out to be just above his head and turns into a golden halo. It is as though this is God, the Master of the Universe. In essence, all of these are ideological symbols. Namely, they turn out to be characters in the painting. Here it seems everything is in order. However, from the spatial point of view, the symbolism turns out to have strange correlations. Obviously, the coat of arms plays the role of the sun, the flags of the republics are the planets revolving around that sun. This is the image of the Soviet cosmos. But it is curious that the figure of Savaof is not included in the geometry of the cosmos. The cosmos functions all by itself and does not need Savaof. It is as though the figure was attached from the outside, as though some sort of stranger had walked up to it in order to be photographed against the background of the Solar System in the form of God. This reminds everyone of the familiar scene: the tourist who takes a picture against the background of 'La Gioconda'. The absurdity of this majestic scene is obvious, but only if we turn our attention to the spatial quality of the painting. If we seek irony in the depiction of Brezhnev, some sorts of caricature traits in his face or even simply some sort of social characteristics – we won’t find anything. Before us is a poster image that was quite ordinary for that time."(E. Bulatov “My Painting and Mass Media Production”, Moscow, 2006, p. 50). In the year of yet another anniversary of the Party Congress, when the image of the aging leader reading speeches from paper incomprehensibly literally didn’t leave the television screen and was turning more and more into a personage from an anecdote, Bulatov used his image not at all forsocialist mockery. The enormous canvas was done absolutely seriously, without the slightest desire to make us laugh, to shock, to frighten. Bulatov does not play with the system as do Sots artists, he studies it and describes what he sees honestly, using the language of the very system itself. Maintaining a distance, the calm view of someone from outside, not submitting to the system, not being squashed by it, Bulatov remains an observer and not a co-participant, and as such he achieves a great degree of estrangement and astounding precision in the depiction in a way that is not accessible even to its apologists. Bulatov does not criticize and does not engage in irony, he tells not about the Soviet nightmare, but rather about Soviet pride that has been transformed into banality along with the aging main hero and literally hangs in an incomprehensible space that exists according to its own laws of the universe – in a unique kind of way a perfect, seemingly unwavering system. Just as balanced and logical as the real cosmos, this system, it seems, exists according to physical and not social laws. The symbols, seemingly good only for posters and slogans and tarnished to the point of total emptiness by their merciless exploitation for decades, are reborn in Bulatov’s works; they acquire the power of the image. From former ideological material, an enormous picturesque formula, a genuine universe, all the parts of which are interconnected and interdependent, takes shape in which the entire world is encoded. Another world, just as realistic, did not exist at that time for the artist. The Soviet Cosmos has a very simple, geometrically clear composition that is simultaneously avant-garde and archaic. It appears to be very balanced even against the backdrop of other works by Bulatov who constantly strives for harmony and symmetry.The oval inscribed into the rectangle, the precise balance of color, the even background all resemble mindless poster schema and primitive art.The same is true of the color – very specific, coarse, the product of Soviet industry – it beautifully conveys the poster television quality of the deliberately unnatural painting. The artist operates with simple forms, simple bright paints, simultaneously making use of the legacy of the avant-garde – the experiences of the abstractionists, and the vivid and image-laden system of medieval Russian icons that has been highly elaborated over the centuries. This is not just the portrait of the regime; it is also the history of the art of the homeland in its most vivid manifestations. The lofty style and clear signs permit the attainment of iconic power, strong emotional coloration. In essence, this is the image of a new faith, a unique kind of system of world-building. As opposed to those resting on turtles or elephants, this system is built on the cult of personality, the idea of the leader. And although Bulatov talks about the fact that Brezhnev is almost mechanically affixed to the background – as is almost always the case in his pictures, the various planes are layered, the figure and the symbols exist in different planes – his place is special, it can be occupied only by another leader. This is like a detachable halo, like moveable glory that is attached to the office. Now, when the dissident heresy embedded in a painting is not that important, the concept of the artist has come to appear even more comprehensible, and his favorite idea of the juxtaposition of the social and the natural, the genuine and the artificial, can be read even more clearly. Filling up the entire center of the painting, the “cosmos” occupies the most important place, but at the same time this entire vivid decorative construction exists in emptiness, affixed to the figure of a single person. It is easy to see prophecy in the painting – the bravura, the seemingly perfect and eternal system did not last that long at all, it broke rather quickly after the death of the leader. After a few decades, when the photographs of Brezhnev, the coats of arms and flags no longer adorn stands and do not appear regularly on television, the emptiness of a system that was built on pathos and shrewdly manipulated symbols is particularly clear and comprehensible. - Faina Balakhovskaya


Breshnev, Soviet Cosmos

Oil on canvas.
102 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. (260.4 x 200 cm).
Signed, titled and dated “E. Bulatov Breshnev 1977 Soviet Cosmos [in Cyrillic]” on the reverse.

£750,000 - 1,000,000 ‡♠

Sold for £860,000

The John L. Stewart Collection of Russian Contemporary Art

13 October 2007, 6pm