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Leading Russian-born painter Erik Bulatov's largest retrospective on view in Moscow
Erik Bulatov (b. 1933). "Horizon," 1971-1972. Oil on Canvas. Collection of the Museum of Avante-Garde Mastery (MAGMA).

By: Joel Ney

MOSCOW.- The Central Exhibition Hall of The Manege, a massive building that is the dominant architectural masterpiece of the collective historical spaces that comprise the “State Cultural Establishment of Moscow's Museum and Exhibition Association Manege” (abbreviated in English as “MEA”), under the auspices of the Government of Moscow and the Department of Culture of the City of Moscow, opened on September 9th an absolutely staggering retrospective exhibition thoroughly examining of the work and career of the legendary Russian-born painter Erik Bulatov (b. 1933). It can easily be described as possibly the most historically important art exhibition of the year. In the museum show’s astounding scope in presenting works from every era and attention to historical detail & accuracy, it offers the very rare opportunity to view seldomn seen early transitional pieces borrowed from important private collections, and also amazingly has gathered some of the best-known large-scale canvases from Bulatov’s half-century career. The retrospective is so comprehensive and historically poignant, that it inadvertantly competes with Jeff Koons’ own heavily-publicized career retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art held this past summer.

The retrospective’s title is a very apt and clever anagram in Russian, borrowed from one of Bulatov’s famous pieces: “Zhivu – Vizhu”. This literally translated into English means “[I] LIVE [AND] SEE.” Indeed, the specific works included in this major undertaking are prime representative pieces, joined by never-before-seen supportive drawings and sketches that only confirm the paintings’ significance and momentum, arrive from every period of the artist’s entire creative career. The astonishing installation displays almost 100 paintings as well as about fifty select drawings drawn from museum holdings as well as from private collectors. At least a third of these works have actually never had the opportunity to be publicly exhibited before in the artist’s homeland (Bulatov lives in Paris since circa 1991) and most visitors will see them here for the first time ever. Knowing the tumultous history of the former Soviet Union and the artist’s emigration, it’s truly remarkable that these pieces, of paramount importance to painting and especially Russian history, have survived at all through decades of challenge.

Masterfully curated by Sergey Popov (a prolific art scholar with roots from The State Tretyakov Gallery, and the founder of POP/OFF/ART, one of Russia’s top art galleries), this Erik Bulatov retrospective actually does succeed in including many, if not most, of the most publicly recognizable images from the 81-year-old living legend’s life’s work. It’s in fact quite overpowering finding yourself surrounded all at once by the actual originals of such reknown visuals as those depicted in “Perestroika” (1989), “Revolution-Perestroika” (1988), “Freedom is Freedom II” (2000-2001), “DO NOT LEAN AGAINST” (1982-1987), and the “Soviet Cosmos [Brezhnev]” (1977), as well as the groundbreaking “Horizon” (1971-1972), generally referred to by art historians as the painter’s most important work that clearly established Bulatov’s own original artistic voice.

Despite a comprehensive and well-done catalogue raissonne has already been painstakingly compiled and published with the assistance of the artist himself (Erik Bulatov: Paintings 1952-2011, Vol. 1. Köln: Wienand Verlag, 2012), in curating this museum show Sergey Popov tapped into his own unique expertise and knowledge of the Nonconformist Russian art world and who remains from those tumultous times, and thus incredibly was able to uncover artpieces that had been hidden for decades and had not made it into the 2012 volume. One example that is indeed a historical rediscovery is “Portrait of N.S. Kasatkin” (1962), a fascinating painting created when the artist was about 28 years old and only now makes its first public and published appearance here. It is an exceptional work. This oil abstraction of post-modernist vision shows many aesthetic strengths in itself, but it is mind-blowing to see it in stark contrast to the much later world-famous canvases whose markedly original style incorporates elements of traditional realism, along with Bulatov’s unnerving mastery of conveying the intangible sense of distance & space, as well as cyrillic wordplay, often with anagrams or palindromes, for which the artist is best known in the art world.

Born in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in the Urals, Erik Bulatov is one of just a mere few contemporary artists whose name has amazingly overcome the various obstacles many other Russian-born artists are challenged with, resulting in their a lack of recognition elsewhere on the planet except in expert circles.

Although he has now become a worldwide commercial success, Erik Bulatov frowns upon the idea that his intention to create and the essence of his resulting artworks could be affected or influenced by money or fame. In 1990, The New York Times quoted the artist: ''After more than 50 years of isolation, we have come to take our place on the international scene. Nowadays we are in vogue. People want to see our paintings and to buy them. But is it good for our art?''

The sincerity of his artistic drive can be felt in observing the visual power in both his early or latest works (“Door” [2009-2011], is a masterpiece). Bulatov’s goals of creative expression are clearly of a strikingly non-worldly level that rather crosses into the ethereal realms of subconscious emotion as well as the philosophy of existence itself, challenges facing the human condition. “Art lives in its own space," Bulatov told The Boston Globe in 1989, "and much as it might resemble our own space, it's different."

Although Erik Bulatov’s oeuvre has lately been increasingly assigned to fall under the blanket of the “Conceptualist Movement,” or even has been described as part of “Sots Art” (pop art that intends to jab at political or religious propaganda), but, to be frank, a honest review of his artworks unambiguously validates that Bulatov fundamentally differs with the production of those respective artists who may fall under those labels and actually do compliment one another. With very rare exception – perhaps “Soviet Cosmos [Brezhnev]” (1977) - Bulatov stands apart simply by his work’s solitary visual language, so obviously his works are better understood when in solo exhibitions such as this tremendously successful retrospective - rather than uncomfortably appearing amidst (and by virtue of their nature itself, unintentionally dominate) artworks from a completely different approach and creative process.

“Russia herself bears much of the guilt for the West's conviction that Russian art does not exist, “ he told the popular online blog Russia Beyond The Headlines recently. “Exhibitions of Russian art are always put together in such a disgustingly talentless fashion, that you come to the conclusion that there is no art in Russia.”

Absolutely none of Bulatov’s work – even the one piece referencing Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev - is mean-spirited or bears a fierce political agenda or message. In regards to himself and his fellow artists now being glorified under the semi-heroic label of “Nonconformists,” he once brazenly wrote: “The creative independence of my generation is no more than a glorified myth. The idyllic picture of the life of unofficial artists which is being painted now has absolutely nothing in common with past reality.''

Bulatov’s imagery is said to have already influenced a couple of generations of artists, both during the Soviet Era as well as in the new Russian Federation. Undeterred by growing critical acclaim and the high monetary values his works are prized at (the artist is the second most expensive living Russian painter, according to auction records) Erik Bulatov has managed to remain a “best-kept secret” to many audiences in the West, even though his work is consistently prominently featured in almost every major group exhibition of contemporary Russian art: from The New Museum 2011 “Ostalgia” curated by Massimiliano Gioni (last year’s curator of the Venice Biennale) in New York City, to The Louvre’s 2010-2011 “Counterpoint” curated by Marie-Laure Bernadac. Suffice to say, Bulatov’s work is on permanent view in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

As can be expected, Bulatov was prominently included in The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s now-historic 2005-2006 exhibition “RUSSIA! Nine Hundred Years of Masterpieces”, amongst works by artists ranging from Ilya Repin to Kazimir Malevich (as well as fellow contemporary Russian-born names – to note, mostly émigrés from the Soviet era – such as the wildly popular former duo Vitaly Komar & Alexander Melamid).

Under the leadership of General Director Irina Tolpina and exiting Art Director Andrey Vorobyev, Elena Chernyak, a curator at the Moscow Museum and Exhibition Association Manege and art critic actively involved in the preparation as well as educational programming of this Bulatov retrospective (together with colleagues Irina Rekhovskikh and Svetlana Soloveva), arranged an unprecedented scholarly conference in the first days of the exhibition, that allowed scholars to critically examine and appreciate the painter's contributions to art history on several levels. The exhaustive results of the conference’s papers are expected to be published in early 2015.

Having long developed an instantly recognizable signature style that thoughtfully utilizes words, sentimental imagery, and an expertise of capturing the existentialist aura of space on a flat surface, Bulatov’s works masterfully show where traditional painting meets psychological innovation. “Formal freedoms first garnered through fleeting contact with West European Pop Art — particularly the unhinging of pictorial elements from 'normal' perspective and a preparedness to experiment with spatial distribution montage and abstraction — enabled Bulatov to view the picture as a complex spatial organism capable not merely of 'depicting' an official reality but of opening that reality to deconstruction (not then a fashionable word) and doubt,” wrote famed art critic Brandon Taylor in a contribution to “History Painting Reassessed: The Representation of History in Contemporary Art” (Manchester University Press, 2001).

Returning to the coincidence of the simultaneous 2014 retrospectives of Koons and Bulatov - sons of the East and West that have each achieved tremendous recognition as contemporary artists during their lifetimes - two years ago, the New York-based Hermitage Museum Foundation’s 3rd Annual Gala respectively named Jeff Koons and Erik Bulatov as 2012’s recipients of their lifetime achievement awards (given annually by the Foundation to a major living Russian-born and American-born artist).

Last year, The Nouveau Musée National de Monaco also honored the living legend’s 80th birthday with a smaller but important career retrospective, attended by Princess Caroline of Hanover, the eldest child of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer III. But, for those lucky enough to personally know him, the artist is equally admired for his sense of humility, generosity and wisdom. “Market success is totally irrelevant to art. Only time determines everything,” Bulatov told The Russian-language newspaper KULTURA late last year, further citing Futurist poet and cultural pioneer Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Come back in a thousand years, then we’ll talk.”

Elena Cherynak also noted the unusually large crowds the Bulatov retrospective continues to gather daily, amply showing a keen interest in the painter’s work by people of all ages, both Russian and foreigners. The chief Manege building, erected circa 1817-1825, commands a Neoclassical exterior of white and light yellow hues. First used as what its namesake means, manège, the mighty 180-meter long structure was a training ground for officers and horsemen and a training school for officers. Decades later, it became a venue of cultural attractions, including exhibitions and performances (French composer Hector Berlioz famously performed live here in 1867, before an audience of over 10,000 in attendance). A century later, this building was also host to the exhibition partly organized by the late influential painter Eli Beliutin (1925-2012), where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously trashed the abstract artworks as “degenerate art,” where, besides works by the (now critically acclaimed) artists Ernst Neizvestny (b. 1925), Ülo Sooster (1924-1970), Yuri Nolev-Sobolev (1928-2002), even the work displayed by recently-deceased and widely-respected Robert Falk (1886-1958) – by the way, a major influence in Bulatov’s development as an artist - were rejected with disdain. But now the building continuously holds major world-class exhibitions on a regular basis. Earlier this year, this same museum hosted Peter Greenaway’s custom multimedia project “The Golden Age of Russian Avant-garde”.

A retrospective of Erik Bulatov’s work is in particular poignant that it takes place at this majestic building, as it is literally steps away from Moscow’s historical Red Square and the Kremlin. The show is of such magnitude that it is goes beyond being simply an excellently-organized exhibition; the exhibition’s resonance and placement has automatically become a historic event in itself that will be remembered. The works achieve immortality and, even those that are aged 50 years, still remain fresh and of importance, as if they were all contemporary.

In the way the pieces are together staged here, they collectively become not just a meaningful reflection of the contributions of Erik Bulatov, but are a reflection of the history of Russia and its émigrés.

From featuring some gorgeous examples of the original drawings used in Bulatov’s many collaborative efforts with his lifelong friend, the late artist Oleg Vassiliev (1931-2013), in creating countless childrens’ books of fairy tales and folk stories that were widely distributed in the thousands throughout the USSR and helping shape the early visual imagination of a generation; then, guiding us through the late 20th century imagery of what was known as the Soviet Union and its blinding effect on the country’s people; to arriving to the most recent canvases that gently face the viewer with questions of introspection and existentialism. The retrospective can best be described as an experience. It is indeed epic.

Accompanied by a fully-illustrated exhibition catalog, the Manege show will run through October 8, 2014.

“You just asked me whether I'm interested in contemporary art,” Bulatov once replied to a reporter from Kultura Moskvi, “I am more interested in the art of the 14th & 15th centuries. Art is art, it’s always contemporary.”

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