Oscar Rabine Forty Years On

Author John Spurling
Publisher Presses d'Art Diakom (2004)
ISBN 2846520070
Price £15.00
This publication is available for purchase from our gallery.

With the introduction written by John Spurling, the exhibition catalogue reproduced in colour the twenty-three paintings by Oscar Rabine, the major Russian Avant-Garde artist, shown at Peter Nahum At The Leicester Galleries in December 2004, in association with Marc Ivasilevitch, A & C Projects, Paris.

Soft cover - 66 pages, 26 illustrations in colour, four in black and white.
The introduction, biography and exhibition history are written in both English and French.

A Hero of our own Time

Orphaned in childhood, down-and-out at 19, employed for six years as foreman of a gang unloading heavy construction materials from railway trucks, subjected over at least a decade to interrogations, threats and arrests by the Soviet authorities for his attempts to exhibit his paintings, Oscar Rabine did not get much peace as an artist until he was over 50. It was then, in 1978, visiting Paris for the first time with an unexpectedly generous visa from the Soviet government that he found himself deprived of his citizenship and, though he still wished to return to his country with all its disadvantages, forced into exile.

Russias long record of autocracy has given every branch of its arts an inescapable political dimension, whether the artists, writers and musicians wanted it or not. Since every serious artist is an individualist, his work is bound to be seen by tyrants and their henchmen as out of line, critical or even subversive of authority. Under the last Tsars there was some relaxation in this perpetual struggle between the state and the individual, but with the Revolution and the reimposition of a particularly brutal form of autocracy under Stalin, individualist art was virtually eradicated for a generation. After Stalins death in 1953, in the brief thaw under Krushchev, it began to reappear, though the rigid system of recognising, paying and exhibiting artists through various state institutions (principally the Union of Soviet Artists) meant that it could only do so in holes and corners. Rabine, quite as determined to create and show his work as the State was to stop him - or at least convert him to Socialist Realism - was especially brave and ingenious at this game of cat-and-mouse, and was soon recognised as the leader of the non-conformists.
There is a classic passage in his fine autobiography, LArtiste et les Bulldozers (published in Paris in 1981), where during one of his constant confrontations with hostile bureaucrats he is asked why he paints barrack-huts, depressing neighbourhoods and in general whatever seems most sordid about Soviet life. Why doesnt he show the magnificent buildings and spectacular achievements of the USSR?

He replies:
I dont understand the drift of your question. Here in the Soviet Union the required style is realism and in my view I am a realist. I paint what I see around me. I used to live in a hut built for detainees, other Soviet citizens also lived there - indeed, they still do - and I painted the place. Why is that wrong? Now I live in a better neighbourhood and I paint the modern buildings around me. I am criticised for my still-lifes - bottles of vodka, herrings. Do you never drink vodka, never eat herrings? And if you do, do you conceal it? Not at all. Vodka is what people drink on festive occasions, including official ones. Foreigners recognise our vodka as the best and we are proud of that. Not to mention the fact that we drink a lot of it. Whether thats a good thing or a bad is another question. Its life. Should we be afraid of life?
What provided Rabine with some leverage - however puny - against the authorities was his growing reputation in the West. He was given a one-man show at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1965. Foreign embassy staff in Moscow bought his work and invited him to their receptions and - together with many Russians - were eager to see his and his fellow non-conformists work whenever it was shown in Moscow. Foreign journalists and broadcasters wrote and spoke about the attempts by the authorities to crush him and his colleagues. And on the most famous occasion of all - an open-air show organised by Rabine in 1974 on a piece of waste ground in the suburbs of Moscow - police thugs disguised as workers did literally crush the non-conformists paintings with their hands and feet and then bulldozers. One bulldozer even pursued Rabine himself. Clinging to the upper jaw of its grab arm he was rescued by the supposed workers and put straight into a police-car. The outrage this episode caused when it was reported all over the world forced the authorities to concede a small victory to Rabine and his colleagues A fortnight later they were permitted to exhibit their work in the Ismailovsky Park without interference and many thousands of Russians crowded to see it.

But for all the governments subsequent efforts to suppress, divide and divert the non-conformists by a mixture of pretended sympathy, open menaces and false promises, there was really no way that artists like Rabine who had once scented freedom could be reconciled with the rigidly controlled society of a totalitarian state. In the futile years of Brezhnevs period as Soviet ruler, several leading libertarians - the intransigent writer Solzhenitsyn, the courageous General Grigorenko and the great cellist Rostropovich as well as Rabine - were forced or tricked out of Russia and then deprived of their citizenship.

Twelve years after Rabines departure, of course, the Soviet Union was abruptly dismantled, and since then, during the 1990s, his work has been exhibited in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. There are also now paintings by him in both collections. But although he is free to return to his native country, he has chosen to stay in Paris. His work remains as Russian as it ever was, except that now, without the ideological filters of the bureaucrats who persecuted him, it looks simply what he always said it was, a form of realism, tempered with nostalgia, humour and autobiography. It is also, with the increased skill and experience of time and without the distractions of harassment and negative criticism, much more self-assured. The general appearance of his work - his idiosyncratic combination of still-life and landscape - has scarcely changed, and his motifs are the same too - bottles of vodka, herrings, goods-trains, houses seen in crooked perspective, religious symbols. His paint is still laid on in rough, tough, earthy impasto - one needs, as it were, stout boots to walk in these streets or landscapes. But the way they are constructed, the sense of space and of coherence between still-life foreground and distant landscape and sky, are hugely improved. It is as if, by being forcibly distanced from his homeland, Rabine has come to love and understand it more intimately and intensely. The foreground of many of these paintings may be French - a village, a shop with a French sign, a bottle of Rothschild champagne, the famous booksellers stalls along the left bank of the Seine - but the view beyond is most often Russian and the sky too, since it rises from the flat horizon of those endless plains, is surely a Russian sky.

These are paintings of exile, but not in a spirit of anger or sadness. They convey something much more universal than the exiles perpetual sense of grievance.
For Rabine, Russia is also his own past life and we are all, as we grow older, exiles from our past. In other words, the gritty present which Rabine painted when he was in Russia and which so much irritated the Soviet authorities has become his memory, his personal history, not lost or regretted but redeemed by the art of painting. People have often invoked Chagall when describing Rabines work, and indeed he does share with Chagall a particular rapport with the peasant, village part of Russian life, though not at all Chagalls optimistic, fairy-tale, sometimes sentimental side. A better comparison might be with Proust, whose remembrance of things past was awakened by the evocative flavour of a biscuit dipped in tea or by tripping over an uneven paving-stone. Rabines bottles of vodka (ironically labelled Rabinovitch or Antisemite) or salted herrings (there is an outsize one floating down the Seine like a Parisian barge) or a tin of democratic caviar or salami sausages or icons or family portraits or simply a vase of lilies-of-the valley are his remembrances. If there is also a tank on the Russian plain beyond and sometimes a pack of snarling wolves (KGB agents?) erupting into the foreground, those too are inescapable memories, bitter once, almost comical now, of the bad times he had the misfortune to live through.

But perhaps, after all, it was not such a misfortune. His tormentors did not break him , nor - as they no doubt hoped when they finally got rid of him - was he submerged in the raucous market-place of the West. Rabine is a modest, reasonable and retiring man. He never meant to stir things up, to change the world, to do more than paint honestly and passionately what he saw and felt. For me, he writes in his autobiography, it was not a political matter. It was my life and that of my friends who were being smothered like me. And that of all those who wanted to create freely. Their struggle became mine. That was what led me, timid as I am and alone, to confront the bureaucrats, with all their paperwork and their arcane communist dialectic which meant nothing to me.

So it was that those dishonest, malevolent, crafty, but ultimately stupid persecutors turned Oscar Rabine into the very opposite of what they intended: a hero of the Soviet Union and a crucial figure in the history of Russian art.

John Spurling 2004