Komar  and Melamid:

A Personal Diary
of the USSR
(1940-1960)


by Jamie Trexler,
 May 2000

 

 

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid have gained tremendous momentum in the past decade. The Russian-American artists became popular through their famous Painting by numbers/Most wanted, a collection of art based on the public opinion of aesthetic value.  Before the success of this global project, Komar and Melamid experimented in various genres including (but not limited to) impressionism, realism, and Sots art, "the Russian equivalent of American Pop art".  Although the duo did not choose any one artistic style, they did enjoy painting historical pieces, of which were primarily prepared through child hood memories.  Both artists were born in Moscow, and grew up in the height of World War II (Ratcliff, pg-14).  As a result, many of their paintings directly depict everyday life during the time period 1940-1960.

 

 In the beginning, both artists possessed a more eclectic impressionistic style of painting.  Throughout the 40's and 50's Modern art was forbidden in the Soviet Union.  Stalin did not approve of impressionism, and therefore many amateurs and colleagues viewed impressionistic art in basement galleries.  After this genre became accepted, Komar and Melamid agreed with Stalin that this style of painting was not true to life in the time period.  From this idea, the team began on a variety of different pieces in hopes to capture the era of their youth (Ratcliff, pg-30).  Many common themes run throughout their "Socialist realism" period, such as portraitures of Stalin, Hitler, and other leaders, a lack of light, children or child-like behavior, and fear. According to Komar and Melamid, all pictures of Stalin and Hitler were either lost or destroyed after the end of War World II.  Seemingly overnight, all propaganda promoting these men disappeared.  Large sculptures and artwork were buried underground if too large to destroy (Ratcliff, pgs-17-18).  Both artists felt a need to resurrect some of this portraiture to properly render the art created during the war (Ratcliff, pgs-125-126).  Critics question why two Jewish artists would want to glorify such figures in later portraiture.  Their motives are best described in a comment from Melamid: 

 

"Hitler was good for us Jews, a kind of Messiah.  He threw Jews out of Jewish history into world history.  Because of him, Jews are world-personalities.  Every nation needs its own Holocaust to understand what is going on in this world. The person without suffering is not a real person.  It says in the Scriptures that every evil is a messenger from God.  Hitler was a disaster for Germans. People forget that the Germans lost and the Jews won (Ratcliff, pg-125)."

 

 

 

In the silk screen, Thank you Comrade Stalin For Our Happy Childhood, Komar and Melamid want to reproduce the typical propaganda used in WWII. Judging by the title of the artwork, one could assume that the creators of the piece are being satirical.  On the contrary, Komar and Melamid thrive on the memories of Stalin's tyranny, a style very different from other avant-garde artists who gain inspiration through democracy and freedom. Komar and Melamid accept Stalin's contributions to history regardless the oppression, and mistreatment of the Jews.  This piece represents a historical record of events, as well as an attack on Soviet campaigning in the time period  (Ratcliff, pg-17-18).  

 

Another reoccurring theme in the "Socialist realism" period is a lack of light.  Both artists recall Moscow to be very dark during the post war years.  There were few street lamps and most light was dimmed for the sake of conserving energy (Ratcliff, pg-30).  Portraiture as well as low lighting are combined in the painting I saw Stalin Once When I was a Child.  The piece gives an accurate description of the city streets and sidewalks.  The car appears to be pulling off into the distance suggesting a momentary view of the Russian icon.  The light on Stalin's face leaves him looking expressionless and cold.  One might feel Stalin's power over the public, through his unyielding gaze.  This piece reveals another common element in the "Socialist realism" period: fear.

 

A Knock at the Door is a great example of this nationwide fear and panic. The painting takes a humorous look at a victim of a KGB interrogation (Ratcliff, pg-141).  Komar commented on the role of fear in the Soviet Union by saying, "During World War II fear in Russia was legal, so to speak.  It was patriotic to be afraid and to fight for the motherland out of this fear. For many Russians, this was the only time they felt free, when it was officially accepted to feel fear (Ratcliff, pg-41)." The fear created by Stalin, Hitler, and the KGB, worked as a motivator to the masses, to share the common goals of the collective.  As a result, many Russians relinquished their individual views and put trust into the government. 

 

Blind man's Bluff depicts everyday life in "Stalin time." According to the artists, this painting shows the presence of Stalin in the home.  These two elder people appear to be playing a game, reverting to childhood.  The portrait of Stalin overseeing these events, gives the viewer the sense that he is watching over, guiding, and protecting these people.  Stalin made everyday actions into heroic contributions to country and state (Ratcliff, pg-123).

 

Throughout their "Socialist realism" period Komar and Melamid created artwork that revisited the days of World War II, and the post war era. Within the themes discussed, portraiture, low lighting, fear, and  children, each theme represents an important characteristic of life and mentality in Russia.  The work of Komar and Melamid will act as a history lesson to later generations and future leaders of the world.  The pieces will provide a constant reminder of the oppressive rule inflicted on the citizens of Soviet Union.

 

Works Cited

1). Ratcliff, Cater.  Komar and Melamid.
Abbeville Press Publishers. New York.  1988 

 

   

   

        

 

 

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