Komar and Melamid - BRIC London Thursday, April 14, 2011 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artists; Private Collection, Europe 

  • Exhibited

    Moscow, State Tretyakov Gallery, Sots Art. Political art in Russia, 2 March – 1 April 2007; Paris, Maison Rouge, Sots Art, Art politique en Russie de 1972 à aujourd’hui, 21 October 2007 – 20 January 2008; Total Enlightenment. Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960–1990: Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, 21 June – 14 September 2008; Madrid, Fundación Juan March, 10 October 2008 – 11 January 2009

  • Literature

    Total Enlightenment. Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960–1990, exh. cat., Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2008, p. 153 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Double Self-Portrait by Komar and Melamid is a notable highlight in the history of Russian art of the second part of the 20th century. There were very few self-portraits of ‘non-conformist’ artists during that period, for social as well as artistic reasons. The genre of self-portrait occupies a very special place in an artist’s practice. It appeared in the Renaissance period, at a time when the position of an artist in society was shifting from being a member of a craftsmen’s guild to becoming what we now call a celebrity, and self-portraits were visual statements of the significance of this new role. In the USSR, there was no place for an unofficial artist to feel important, except among a small circle of colleagues and friends – and that circle seemed especially negligible when considered in proportion to the population of the country. Furthermore, non-official artists worked within a culture of modernism, and did not consider the genre of self-portraiture to be part of modernist art practice; for their circle, it represented the art of the past.
    Nevertheless, Komar and Melamid created a number of double self-portraits. The earliest one was the Double Self-Portrait made as part of the Sots-Art series in 1972. According to Komar and Melamid, Double Self-Portrait of 1984, the present lot, is ‘the author’s replica’ of the earlier version. However, considering the changes that the artists made in it, and the period when it was made, we can argue that it was not in fact just a ‘replica’, but a work with its own significant place in the history of Russian art.
    The Sots-Art series was not only a body of new work, but the starting point of a new movement in Russian art. The idea to start this movement came to Komar and Melamid in the summer of 1972, when they were working on an official commission to decorate a children’s camp. The very idea of Sots-Art, according to the artists, came at the moment when the camp’s overseer showed them a site where a statue of Stalin was buried. It triggered their realisation that this particular style of official ideology was past its time, and had become part of art history. As such, a contemporary artist could include it in a postmodernist game along with other styles of the past, such as Cubism, Impressionism or Abstraction. However, when the Sots-Art series was first made, it was something so
    shockingly new that the artists faced fierce critique even from their ‘non-conformist’ colleagues. The style of the series mimicked the imagery of Soviet propaganda, which had been massively produced by the machine of official ideology. But by contrast the subjects of Sots-Art works were of very private matters, such as Portrait of the Wife with Son, or Portrait of Father. Thus, Komar and Melamid appropriated the style of official ideology – as if playing the roles of fools who took the propaganda seriously.
    They were the very first artists to accept Soviet propaganda as an important part of reality, and to use it as a raw material for their work. Moreover, Komar and Melamid were courageous enough to understand that they themselves were part of the same system that produced this ideology. This discovery triggered a huge change in Russian art and literature in the early 1970s. All the important phenomena that determined the unofficial art scene in Russia during the 1970s and 80s originated from this discovery. Examples in literature include the poetry of Dmitry A. Prigov and novels by Vladimir Sorokin, while in fine art the impact of this idea was even greater; it was at the core of Moscow’s conceptualist discourse, gracefully developed in works by Ilya Kabakov, Andrey Monastyrsky, the Collective Action group, the Mukhomor (‘Toadstool’) group and  many more.
    In 1972, the Double Self-Portrait was a very important statement which proclaimed the starting point of this new strategy. It was like a visual manifesto, ironic and self-affirmative at the same time. Painted in a pompous style, borrowed from pseudo-Byzantine monumental tradition, it shows profiles of the artists with a red background in tondo format, as if they were ‘great leaders’. The inscription says: “Well-known Artists of Early Nineteen Seventies. Moscow”. The only detail that contrasts with all this over-the-top seriousness is the subtle smile on the artists’ faces.
    The Double Self-Portrait of 1972 perished in a fight during the infamous ‘Bulldozer Show’ on 15 September 1974, which was a milestone in Russian history.(1) Although the show itself was bulldozed into destruction by the authorities, and the artists beaten or arrested, it subsequently brought a certain freedom for the artists to exhibit their works.
    The Double Self-Portrait of 1984 was made in celebration of the tenth anniversary of that event. However, this version has two major differences from the original. Its inscription, instead of lauding “Well-known Artists”, says in the mixture of English and Russian: “Sots-Art”. The profiles of the artists face in the opposite direction to those in the original image. In the optical perception of a viewer brought up in the European tradition, the eye explores the picture from left to right. So, the movement from left to right of the picture is perceived as movement forward – and the opposite, as movement backwards. In the first self-portrait, the artists’ profiles are turned to the right, as if they are moving forward. On the self-portrait of 1984 they are turned opposite direction, as if they are ‘coming back’. And they are coming back after they have done something important: the inscription “Sots-Art” directly refers to this achievement. Although the text on the reverse of the painting says it is an “authors’ replica”, it appears to be a completely new self-portrait, made in a new stage of the artists’ evolution. In the version of 1972, the artists’ affirmation of themselves as “Well-known Artists” was a rather ironic expression of the desire to be famous. In the 1984 version, they knew that they were famous and that they had done something important for Russian art: Sots-Art had become a movement with such eminent representatives as Boris Orlov, Leonid Sokov and Alexander Kosolapov, Gnezdo (The Nest) Group and many others.
    This version of the Double Self-Portrait of 1984 by Komar and Melamid was chosen as one of the symbolic highlights of the recent and most important exhibition of Moscow Conceptual Art, curated by its major advocate Boris Groys. The exhibition, entitled Total Enlightment, was shown in Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt in the summer of 2008 and was a milestone in the understanding of 20th century Russian art history.
    1. The work was made in two versions, one of board, another on canvas. The canvas version was smuggled to United States in 1970s and is now in a private collection there.
    Dr. Elena Zaytseva


Double self-portrait

Tempera on masonite.
150 x 150 cm (59 x 59 in).
Signed, titled in Cyrillic, dated and annotated in Cyrillic 'Komar and Melamid "Double self-portrait" Artist's reconstruction of the 1972 work that was destroyed by the government on 14 September, 1974. This variant was made by the artists in 1984 for the 10 years anniversary of the “BULLDOZER EXHIBITION’'' on the reverse; further signed 'Komar and Melamid' on the stretcher bar.

£250,000 - 350,000 ‡ ♠


14 - 15 April 2011