Claiming Space: Nonconformist Exhibition in 1970s Leningrad

Mentor: Cristin Cash

Abstract: Leningrad Nonconformists examines the exhibition practice of nonconformist Soviet art from Leningrad in the 1970's. Under Soviet censorship, Russian artists faced strict limitations on style and content. SocialistRealism - the sole sanctioned artistic style of the Soviet Union - required explicit promotion of the USSR as an industrialized communal paradise. When artists deviated from Socialist Realism, they faced serious consequences ranging from imprisonment to murder. Despite the risks, artists across the Soviet Union continued to pursue alternative artistic endeavors in secret. Nonconformist artists were especially active inLeningrad, the Russian capital prior to the Communist Revolution. Within Leningrad's many communal apartment complexes, artists crafted and displayed their art. Working in secret, nonconformist artists constructed an underground network of artistic schools and networks throughout the city. Artists displayed their work in apartments to avoid the wrath of the KGB, but there were no truly private spaces in SovietLeningrad. Communal apartments were the norm. Tenants had no more than two personal rooms while sharing the kitchen and bathroom spaces. In these compact living quarters, neighbors were known to spy on one another to inform the KGB of any dissident activity. Artists knew the only way to escape the constant fear of KGB harassment was legal public exhibition. Artists from a variety of backgrounds organized to pressure the Leningrad government to permit public display of nonconformist work. In the mid 1970's, artists finally obtained their goal. The Leningrad government sanctioned the 1974 Gaz Palace of CultureExhibition and the 1975 Nevsky Palace of Culture exhibition. After these two initial shows, collectively referred to as the Gaz-Nevsky exhibitions, artists became increasingly successful at achieving public display opportunities. Even one-man shows were rare but attainable. During the 1970's, Leningrad nonconformist artists accomplished amazing feats for artistic freedom in the USSR. Leningrad Nonconformists explores the vague boundaries between the public and the private sphere as experienced by nonconformist Leningrad artists during the 1970s. Refusing to give up their individual perspectives, nonconformist artists risked their personal safety to display their artwork. Apartment exhibitions were essential to constructing an artist underground, but public exhibition was necessary to achieve what artists ultimately wanted: artistic freedom. The Russian Communist Party attempted to control public and private space, but Leningrad nonconformist artists crafted their own environments in the dangerous socio-political landscape of the Soviet Union.Nonconformist artists offered beauty and alternative perspectives on art to an oppressed city, fundamentally changing the possibilities for future generations of artists.