Collection Spotlight: Peace I: Life of Tolstoy, Komar & Melamid

Komar & Melamid (Vitaly Komar; Aleksander Melamid,
(Russian, born 1943; Russian, born 1945)
Peace I: Life of Tolstoy, 1986
Color lithograph and photolithograph
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Curated Prints, Ltd. 2011.15.2

As artists in the Soviet Union, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid gained recognition for their ironic adaptation of Socialist Realism, subversively using conventions of official Soviet art as acts of protest. They met as art students at the Stroganov School in Moscow and began collaborating on projects in the mid-1960s. They participated in underground events, including the infamous open-air exhibition that took place near Moscow on September 15, 1974 and came to be known as the “Bulldozer Exhibit,” because it was broken up by police with water cannons and bulldozers. The artists were expelled from the Moscow Union of Artists for “distortion of Soviet reality and deviation from principles of Socialist Realism.” In the mid-1970s, they began sending their art to the United States, to an émigré friend in New Haven, Connecticut. Their first exhibition in the United States took place at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City in 1976.

Both artists emigrated to Israel in 1977, and one year later they came to the United States. In the mid-1980s, as Komar & Melamid gained international attention, they were invited to work with Vinalhaven Press, located on an island near Portland, Maine. There they created a series of diptychs, Peace I: Life of Tolstoy, the title of which refers to the author Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork, War and Peace (1869). Most of the images in the series reference Tolstoy (Russian, 1828–1910), who was considered by Russians to be not only a great author, but a cultural icon and national hero. A photograph of the author becomes a leitmotif, and disparate elements, such as a book and a fish, are introduced into the diptych. The format of two panels that co-exist side-by-side, but are not integrated, may also refer to the cultural displacement the artists felt. They sometimes considered themselves as “sitting between two chairs,” being part of different cultures, but belonging to none.

As Jews and dissident artists, Komar & Melamid were at odds with the Soviet regime, and they used art as a tool of subversion. The nostalgia and sentimentality of their symbols and imagery undermine ideals of nationalism and cultural authorities, revealing the emptiness of national symbols. Komar & Melamid also became known for a style they developed and called Sots-Art, an abbreviation of the Russian term for Socialist Realism (Sotsialisticheskiy realizm) combined with Pop Art. Iconic images of Soviet leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev, Vladimir Lenin, and especially Joseph Stalin often appear in their monumental paintings. In the mid-1980s Komar & Melamid continued to create social and political satires, responding to the 1984 election of Ronald Reagan with the monumental satirical painting Ronald Reagan as a Centaur. It appeared as the cover image of the Village Voice in an edition from November 20, 1984 titled The Daze After: A Special Issue on Reagan’s Dark Victory.

While many of their works are traditional in format—large-scale paintings, oil on canvas, prints or collages—their work was also often conceptual and performance-based. For example, they worked with musician and artist Charlotte Moorman (whose work was recently featured in the Block Museum’s exhibition and catalogue, A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s.) In 1976, Moorman played a cello piece, Music Writing: Passport, composed by Komar & Melamid. The artists assigned a note to each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. They then translated the notation system to regulations from the Soviet passport. Moorman performed the piece at the Feldman gallery on February 7 while musicians in other cities around the world, including London, Paris, and Moscow, played the piece at the same time.

Komar & Melamid worked together until 2003, and their artists’ statement explained, “even if only one of us creates some of the projects and works, we usually sign them together. We are not just an artist, we are a movement.”

—Corinne Granof, Curator of Academic Programs, Block Museum of Art

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

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