Oleg Vassiliev - Important Contemporary Russian Art–Property from a Foundation London Wednesday, February 27, 2008 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Phyllis Kind Gallery, 1995

  • Literature

    M. Tupitsyn, ‘Eye on the East, Back in the USSR,’ in Flash Art, no. 141, 1988, p. 126 (illustrated); M. Tupitsyn, Margins of Soviet Art, Milan, 1989, p. 116; M. Tupitsyn, ‘Veil on Photo, Metamorphoses of Supplementarity in Soviet Art,’ in Arts Magazine, November 1989, p. 80

  • Catalogue Essay

    An icon of the epoch, painted in 1980, this work became the most famous, well¬recognized work by Oleg Vassiliev, an emblematic painting for all Soviet unofficial art.
    In Ogonyok the artist recreated in all its details a cover of the popular Soviet weekly magazine by the same name consisting of a photograph of a solemn meeting in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. The faces of the personages, diffuse either because of the effect of the light or because of the powerful magnification given the poor quality of the print, preserve only hints of ordinary portrait traits; but the official position and the place are more important here than personalities.
    The most important and exact element is the photographic red headmast containing the title of the magazine and the Order of Lenin stamp. Despite having copied the cover scrupulously and in great detail, Vassiliev doesn't aspire to realist objectivity, the creation of a picturesque photo-document; on the contrary, he destroys the image in the most absurd way, via a bright light coming from some unknown source that pierces the entire space of the painting. Powerful light rays coming from the four corners of the painting intersect at the podium, where the head of the state is making a speech – the General Secretary of the CPSU. An enormous cross of light cancels out all at once the entire Soviet pantheon and all its methods of assertion and propaganda. The leaders of a system that, in 1980 when the artist produced this painting seemed to be unwavering – nearly eternal, disappear and dissolve. In encountering a light that is obviously not of this world, the actual reality incessantly flickering across television screens, the photograph reproduced by the millions in newspapers and magazines, the cover of a popular weekly – all turn out to be unstable, an easily disembodied illusion. The superimposition of light rays in this way causes a reaction similar to an explosion of light destroying both the depiction of the Party bosses and the cover of a semi¬official magazine, along with the very idea of totalitarianism. The cross of light superimposed on the surface of the painting turns out to be the only genuine and steadfast essence.
    The semi-official photograph does not hold up when verified by the most important thing for Vassiliev, something that has been used in a multitude of his paintings; The rays of light in Ogonyok function just like they do in many other paintings by Vassiliev. As usual, the artist does not indicate the source of light, but neither does he insist on its mystical super-natural source; instead he interprets it merely as a source of illumination that is more powerful and vast than the surface of the painting. The light does not expose and harmonize the space as in the majority of Vassilievs other works, instead in Ogonyok it uncovers its imaginary essence.
    Unlike in the majority of Vassiliev's other works, in Ogonyok light does not expose and harmonize the space of the painting, but rather uncovers its imaginary essence.
    "For me the most important thing in understanding Oleg Vassiliev's paintings of and in part his entire life position (since it is often virtually impossible to separate them in our situation) is the understanding of ‘light' as illumination inside of the very consciousness of all the components of being, the illumination of all ‘that is real' from the darkness, blackness, non¬being, ‘invisibility.' (Ilya Kabakov taken from ‘Abot Oleg Vassiliev in Ilya Kabakov 1960s¬1970s... Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow, Vienna, 1999. pp.70-71).
    Many artists of the unofficial circle – including Vassiliev's friends Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, also experienced heightened interest in magazine production and all sorts of visual agitation. Vassiliev found himself at the dacha with a stack of old magazines. "Sorting through the magazines, I noticed that they contained normative instructions for everything that could happen in life: what paintings should be like, what people should be like, leaders, happy children, soldiers, what the monuments to wartime glory should be like... Each of my attempts to produce something in any genre turned out to have already been commented upon in Ogonyok from the perspective of the Soviet socium... The cover of the magazine Ogonyok for June 1975 served as a starting point for another work that was very important for me – the painting Ogonyok, 1980. It allowed me to find another point of view toward the space of a painting. . . one that gave me great freedom. Its upper part naturally fit into a square and into a lofty, aggressive space moving toward us. Here was Olympus, the place of the gods, the presidium with Brezhnev at the podium. In the lower part there were rows of chairs with delegates, a fragment of the meeting hall, and mentally one could even continue the rows right out into the foyer and onto the street..." (Oleg Vassiliev ‘Ogonyok' in Oleg Vassiliev Windows of Memory, pp. 97-98).
    The enigmatic Vassiliev avoids conversations about the political state of affairs of his work; his commentaries are aimed rather toward its plastic and metaphysical aspects. "When I painted it, I was not inspired by politics, but by the unusual spatial configuration on the cover of the magazine that had so astounded me. I suddenly saw clearly a hierarchy of various zones: ‘paradise', with the tribunals of the Politburo on the stage, and ‘purgatory', the darkened rows of the delegates of the Congress. Moreover, the scene of ‘paradise' is encapsulated in a perfect square that I delineated with light rays from the corner and shining in the centre where the figure of Brezhnev is located. The shadow of the theater pit with the delegates visually represented the fact that the entire world was not enclosed in the hierarchical square of Soviet nomenclature, there is still someplace left to hide..." (From an interview with Oleg Vassilev).
    Resolving the formal task, the artist constructs his own, as usual, meticulously drawn multi-faceted painting in accordance with his teacher Favorsky's concept of painting space – he mixes the methods of photorealism, symbolism, impressionism, constructivism. "Oleg Vassiliev is a figure that is central in our Russian contemporary art, because he connects the past with the present. In essence, it is namely his work that demonstrates the connection between the realistic art of the 19th century, the avant-garde of the 1920's and contemporary art and hence he proves the wholeness, the unity of Russian art." (Oleg Vassiliev ‘Ogonyok' in Oleg Vassiliev Windows of Memory, pp. 97-98).
    Painted in 1980 at the zenith of the epoch of stagnation, the year of the Olympics and the start of the Afghan gamble, of course, the painting could not be shown officially – only a small circle of close friends knew of its existence. It was published, exhibited and reproduced many times only after the beginning of Gorbachev's glasnost, after a large part of Vassiliev's works, along with the artist himself, were already in emigration in the West and the illogical absurd plot of the painting had come to fruition in real life. The artist who usually avoided inflexible assertions, who was not inclined to artistic and political provocations, this same Vassiliev who did not participate in artistic-political acts, had created a penetrating and memorable image of the epoch in Ogonyok.
    Faina Balakhovskaya


Variations on the theme of the Ogonyok magazine cover

Oil on canvas.
93 x 70 cm. (36 5/8 x 27 1/2 in).
Signed, titled and dated ‘O.Vasseliev 1980 VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF OGONYOK MAGAZINE COVER [in Cyrillic]’ on the reverse.

£80,000 - 120,000 ‡♠

Sold for £356,500

Important Contemporary Russian Art–Property from a Foundation

28 Feb 2008, 6pm