The Dodge Collection, “Nonconformism,” and Three Weeks Down

I’ve been in Europe for approximately three weeks now, and have just less than a month left. It’s amazing how quickly time flies, and how much can happen that makes posting to a blog so much more difficult. This blog post has been on my to-do list since the day before I left the states, but various obstacles, from lack of internet-access, through reading and homework assignments, to purposefully getting lost on the streets of St. Petersburg, have gotten in the way. But here I am, mere hours from an early-morning departure for a weekend in Moscow, finally getting one of these blog posts out of my system and off my conscience.

What is “nonconformist art”? That question is half of what my project is trying to answer. The term nonconformist art has been used mostly to describe the non-soviet art of the Soviet Union, and is often used as a synonym for dissident art, alternative art, underground art, unofficial art, and avant gard art, although its connection to the Russian avant gard art movement is weak, considering the fact that the Russian avant gard was strongest during the early 20th century, before the revolution. I’m finding that it is best to describe it by what it is not: Socialist Realist, an ideology, which glorifies the “Eureka” moment that delinquent Socialists have when they see the glories of Socialism, with the help of an experienced Socialist mentor. Because Socialist Realism was adopted as the “official” art of the Soviet Union, all art that did not fit the bill was considered illegal, and has since taken on the names listed above. I, personally, by comparing this art to Socialist Realist “Official” art, find that the appropriate genre is “Unofficial” art.

Whatever the name is there is no clear artistic trend or style between the art pieces, especially because so many of the paintings, sculptures, and installations are built on the irony of the Soviet Union. While some artists made very somber, religious works, that were deemed unofficial because the USSR was officially atheist, others made ironic pieces that used a style similar to the Socialist Realist style, but made a serious anti-government statement, and still others drew from foreign, modernistic styles to create masterpieces that simply didn’t fit the official plans. One of my favorite styles that I’ve discovered outside of the Socialist Realist official art, is Sots-Art, a movement which borrowed ideas from Andy Warhol’s Pop-Art, taking Party-Leaders’ faces and turning them Technicolor. (As an aside, working in New York in the 1960s, Warhol was friendly with some of the artists associated with the Fluxus movement. Funny how things go around!).

Luckily for me, there are plenty of opportunities both in the United States and here abroad to find examples of the seemingly never-ending supply of Unofficial Art. The biggest, and probably most important one, is located at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University. I stumbled upon the Norton Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art when I realized that almost every book published about the art style was out of Rutgers University Press. Norton Dodge is an American Economist who was conducting research in the Soviet Union in the 1960s through 1980s. As a side project, he collected pieces of illegal, unofficial art, and smuggled thousands of pieces out of the country. In the early 2000s he donated the collection to the Zimmerli Museum, and, as I’ve conducted my interviews, I’ve found out that anybody who knows anything about Unofficial art, knows about the Dodge Collection.

Since my flight to Vilnius was out of Newark, I casually mentioned to my mom that it would be a good research opportunity to visit the museum, and she agreed. With a couple of e-mails sent, I was able to get a tour of the exhibited collection from Dr. Adrian Barr, one of the curators at the museum!

We arrived at the museum around 2:00, and I pulled out a tape recorder, so I could preserve the tour without filming. Although it would have been a great addition to my documentary, I was unable to get rights to film the exhibition, but that didn’t matter to me. Just to be in the presence of all the art that I had read about was a phenomenal opportunity.

For the most part, I felt really professional when touring the collection. All of my reading paid off when my tour turned into a real dialogue of Russian art. Dr. Barr was really informative, and was able to answer some of the questions I had been wondering about. He told me that there were very few Nationalist trends in most of the art scenes, even outside of Russia, in the Baltic States, and that, although at times it seems like the artists are drawing from external artistic movements, they had very little connection to or influence from these other countries.

Now that I’m in St. Petersburg, I am getting to actually meet some of these artists, and explore galleries where the art is displayed. Having finally made contact with the people at Pushkinskaya-10 (more on that later) I was told of a new exhibition that’s taking place in Peter and Paul Fortress (one of the most important parts of the city) that will be displaying all sorts of art by the artists of Pushkinskaya-10. I’ve even been given full rights to film the exhibition opening next Monday, as long as I share all of my raw footage with the Art Center! The name of the exhibition? “St. Petersburg Free Culture in Russia’s Museums.” When I had the invitation in my hand and read the title, I squealed, and told my contact that it must be fate, because the title of my project, as of right now, is “Free Culture in the Former Soviet Union.”

As usual, I am ending this post with promises of more posts and more pictures. I have two big interviews coming up next week that I really need to prepare questions for on top of a three-day trip to Moscow. My project takes more shape with each day and I can’t believe that this city is real and that I am actually here for another four weeks.