Art & Photography

Exclusive Video: Club of Friends

A new exhibition brings the work of Timur Novikov’s New Artists and New Academy to the UK, together, for the first time

Club of Friends from PORT on Vimeo.

As this exclusive video clip shows, the two groups of artists who emerged from St Petersburg under the direction of the late Timur Novikov in the 1980s and 90s weren’t exactly wallflowers. Still, it wasn’t until perestroika, glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union that the painters, musicians, filmmakers and performance artists of the New Artists Group and later the New Academy would gain recognition at home and abroad.

“They were outsiders, there wasn’t a broad public audience for what they did,” says David Thorp, curator of Club of Friends, a new exhibition at London’s Calvert 22 Gallery, the first group showing of these two movements in the UK. “At the time of the New Artists it was still the Soviet Union and there was a union of artists – they got all the perks: state studios, access to materials, commissions. Anything more experimental was right out on the edges.”A hugely successful sale of mainly Moscow-based artist’s work, by Sotheby’s in Moscow in 1988, brought Russian contemporary art to the attention of the international art scene. But the New Artists did things differently: “Socialist realism was still very much the predominant form,” says David. “There were some young artists who were trying to do interesting things, but even then, a lot of it was satirising Soviet life and the regime. The New Artists weren’t involved in that at all, they were much more lyrical, more to do with feelings, more impressionistic. They weren’t overtly political.”

Where the New Artists were “wild, crude, naive, almost childlike”, the New Academy, formed by Novikov towards the end of the 80s, were polished neo-classicists with a stricter style. “I prefer the earlier work myself,” says David. ‘It’s more immediate, more spirited, more exciting. There’s a huge painting of a profile of someone with somebody else crawling out of the person’s nose. You think to yourself, ‘God, what on earth is that, what’s that all about?’, which I quite like.”

“Where the New Artists were wild and crude, the New Academy were polished neo-classicists with a stricter style”

What does he think their legacy will be? “I think they have a place in the debate about homophobia. Although they weren’t overtly asserting a gay agenda, they were obviously much more comfortable and ready to work in a fluid way across those boundaries between gay and straight, which I think is important and relevant now. I think they produced something very potent outside the system. That’s happened on occasions in Russia since the war, but it doesn’t happen very often.”

It’s tempting to assume, given the actions of the current administration, that the new breed of contemporary artists in Russia must be buckling under the weight of repression. Not so, says David: “The artists I meet, some of them are pissed off: they don’t like the oligarchs, they don’t like the control the oligarchs have over the art scene, but most, as far as I can tell, practice quite freely. Because ofthe complicated relationship between the orthodox church and the state in Russia, when Pussy Riot went into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, that was a very confrontational thing to do.

“My perception is, and I might be wrong, during the Soviet days, to be a Christian or adherent to the Orthodox Church was a dissident position, because Soviet Russia was an atheist state. So religion represented an alternative to that. You would go into artist’s studios and find a crucifix on the wall, which I found very surprising at the time. Nothing’s straightforward in Russia, there’s always an agenda. It’s so complicated, it really is.”

Club of Friends runs 2 April – 25 May at Calvert 22 Gallery, 22 Calvert Avenue, London, E2 7JP. More info HERE