Global and Local Art Wars

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Armenian Artists in the Exhibition “The Cool and the Cold: Paintings From the USA and the USSR, 1960-1990”

In the fall of 2021, an exhibition called “The Cool and the Cold. Paintings from the USA and the USSR 1960-1990, Ludwig Collection”[1] opened in Berlin’s prestigious Martin Gropius Bau Museum. The paintings, part of the Peter and Irene Ludwig Collection, also included pieces by two Armenian painters: Sarkis Muradyan’s painting “My Daughters” (1969) and Arman Grigoryan’s “The Knight of Kilikia” (1988).

An article about the exhibition written by Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times cites Arman Grigoryan alongside other famous names of modern art: “In the exhibition’s last rooms, the two worlds begin to visually converge in a broader mix of styles: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s street-inspired works are here, but so is the collage-like painting of Arman Grigoryan, mixing symbols, images and words.” Muradyan’s painting didn’t go unnoticed either as noted by the artist’s eldest daughter Gohar Muradyan, who posted a message from the museum on her Facebook page saying, “It is a great piece which was very popular with visitors.”[2]

The fact that this news appeared in our midst in such, an almost accidental and surprising manner, seems as logical and as odd as the side-by-side appearance of these two conflicting Armenian artists on a prestigious platform of global contemporary art. The exhibition’s concept also lies in the nexus of the logical and the odd: it is built on the revision of the stereotype of the discrepancy between capitalist and socialist art – two opposites formed by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

The exhibition’s curator Brigitte Franzen explains this curatorial experiment thus: “Studying the paintings from the Ludwig Collection, we collected all the works from the USA and the USSR and we placed them in chronological order, ignoring their site of creation. With this simple method, we ended up with a new sequence of American and Soviet art from the 20th century’s 60s to the 90s. This allowed us to see amazing parallels between the development of painting in the two countries.”[3]

The Ludwig Collection

In the late Soviet era, the Ludwig Collection became a significant phenomenon in the world of Soviet art. For the general public, however, it remained a mysterious window into the Western world and a unique cultural threshold between “us” and “them”. Taking into account the concept behind the “The Cool and Cold” exhibition and the collection’s history, the logic behind the choice of the Armenian part of the collection becomes apparent.

Chocolate magnates Peter (1925-1996) and Irene (1927-2010) Ludwigs were art historians by profession and art collecting for them was, first and foremost, a scholarly and cultural pursuit. Peter Ludwig is considered a symbol of the post-war German renaissance. The Ludwigs invested a great part of the wealth amassed by their confectionery business in acquiring, popularizing, and sponsoring works of art.

Their collection includes works of art from the antique, medieval, and pre-Columbus ages, from ancient Chinese, Indian, and African regions, as well as the Baroque and Rococo eras. According to art scholar Levon Chugaszyan, the collection also included a 13th-century gospel copied by scribe Varder and a 1613 gospel painted by famed miniature painter Mesrop Khizantsi from Isfahan. Ludwig purchased these from H.P. Kraus, a bookseller from New York and they are now at the Getty Museum.[4]

The collection’s keystone, however, is contemporary art, specifically American pop art. When the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns were first displayed at the 4. Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, West Germany in 1968, Peter Ludwig purchased them for his collection. Later on, the collection broadened its geographical scope to include global modern art regardless of political, artistic, or other limitations.

In 1976, the Ludwigs donated 350 pieces from their collection to the city of Cologne with the condition that a new museum is built for them. This museum opened its doors for the first time in 1986.

However, this wasn’t the first museum project for the Ludwigs. The art collectors donated art to various European cities. Thus, by creating a Ludwig Collection network of approximately 20 establishments, they spread modern art across Europe. Its main center is in the city of Aachen and is called the Ludwig Forum for International Art, which keeps nearly 3000 pieces from the collection. The rest can be found in Vienna, Budapest, Saarlouis, Koblentz, Oberhaus, Aachen, Beijing, Saint Petersburg, Cuba, and Hamburg.

A (Postmodernist) Look Toward the Socialist Bloc

At the end of the 1970s, the Ludwigs turned their attention to Eastern European and Soviet art, thus breaking through the Cold War barriers. They started actively filling their collection with art pieces from socialist countries, navigating not only through official channels but also through direct contacts with the artists.

This allowed them to get acquainted with the whole diversity of Soviet art, which, of course, irritated Soviet cultural officials. Correspondence between Peter Ludwig and Soviet officials and their interviews published in the exhibition’s extensive catalog shows that this was not an easy endeavor.[5]

By overcoming Soviet bureaucracy and ideological resistance and with the invaluable support of Vladimir Semyonov – an art collector and the USSR Ambassador to the German Federal Republic – the Ludwigs were able to create a unique collection of Soviet paintings from the second half of the 20th century, which reflected not only the official art of the Stalinist and Khrushchev’s “Thaw” periods but the underground and dissident tendencies as well.

Despite their considerable influence, respect, and fame, the collectors’ activities subjected them to ideological and institutional pressure also back at “home”, in the West. In this respect, the Ludwigs were courageous and prophetic leaders, who anticipated the fall of the Iron Curtain and the global changes that followed two decades before these events. “The Cool and the Cold…”, incidentally, was dedicated to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and is vivid proof of their progressive positions.

In the politics of art, the Cold War rhetoric also had a theoretical basis. In his famous 1939 article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, American art critic Clement Greenberg laid the foundation for the polarization between western avant-garde art and socialist realism art (whose aesthetic framework also included Nazi art), as “high” and “elite” in contrast to “low” and “popular”.

Soviet authorities, although hardly familiar with Greenberg and his views, strictly maintained the dividing line between abstract art and social realism through their policies which, of course, favored social realism. They had declared an aesthetic war against abstract art, which symbolized the ideological and political enemy.

Greenberg’s concepts remained dominant in Western art until the postmodernist turn and, besides their aesthetic impact, also influenced the institutional politics of art. As noted by theorist Boris Groys in the exhibition’s catalog: “Greenberg’s texts explain why, until now, it’s been so difficult to include socialist realist art into the system of representation in Western art museums.”[6]

The battle between abstract and figurative aesthetics or between the “avant-garde” and the “kitsch” as an arena of conflict between western-capitalist and eastern-socialist blocs was challenged in the 1950s with the emergence of American pop art and hyper-realism.

Although the main direction of American postwar art was abstract expressionism, the widely popular pop art developed as the aesthetic equivalent of a capitalist consumer society that was also rooted in realist images and figurativeness. It is telling that the exhibition’s aesthetic and conceptual axis is formed by iconic figurative works such as Andy Warhol’s “Elvis” and Dmitri Nalbandyan’s “Lenin”.

The legible and recognizable image has the capacity for quick and widespread impact across the masses. Hence, it is the pillar of poster-like propaganda art both in the context of socialist realism and, in its extreme manifestations, pop art as well. In both cases, abstract art remained on the opposite extreme.

The Ludwigs in (Soviet) Armenia

The Ludwigs first visited Armenia in the mid-1970s and again at the beginning of the 1980s.[7] This was a difficult, contradictory, and very interesting period in Soviet Armenian fine arts. It is sometimes described as “late-Soviet modernism.”

Still active on the scene were the artists of the Soviet mainstream, who, having already achieved a certain social status, where sensing the decline of socialist propaganda and the need to renew their art. Affiliation with the Communist Party had become a sign of irrelevance in art, while the doctrine of Socialist realism – having failed to define its aesthetic and thematic frameworks – had lost its power.

Global cultural processes were being absorbed through the Iron Curtain one way or another, bringing significant shifts to art both on the official and the non-official sides. Sargis Muradyan, one of the influential faces of official art, was no exception in this regard, while Arman Grigoryan was one of the leaders of the radical transformations in so-called “non-conformist” art.

Sargis Muradyan’s and Arman Grigoryan’s pieces in the “Cool and Cold…” exhibition could both be considered in the context of the Soviet, post-war narrative of youthfulness. Throughout the years of the Khrushchev Thaw policy to the 1970-the 80s, the narrative of youth was one of the focal trajectories in Soviet art. However, in every decade, the paradigmatic interpretations of youth changed dramatically in line with the global social-cultural shifts.

If Thaw era artists expressed the image of youth through nature-related allegories (allegorically formulated, sometimes naked, young bodies in nature) and the detachment of the image from any social context, by the end of the 1960s this typology was replaced by the emergence of the “thinking man’s” figure and a special kind of “Soviet existentialism”.

The Thaw’s innocent and vivacious creatures are sidelined by characters who are atypically contemplative, moody, and self-contained for their age. This shift is visible in Sargis Muradyan’s art. His red-clad “Daughters”, which was very much liked by exhibition visitors, is a striking example of this existentialist trend. Though symbolizing new life, the image of the slender young girls gives rise to a barely comprehensible existential anxiety. This portrait, created with tenderness but also an elusive sense of disquiet, became one of the iconic works of late Soviet-Armenian painting.[8]

Besides iconographic traits, we should also note the importance of the distinct formal language in this work. From the late 1960s to the 1970s, Soviet-Armenian painting was permeated by the so-called “linear realism”, which was mostly related to the Moscow school of painting and stemmed from the “severe style” (суровый стиль) of the period[9]

On one hand, it is associated with the dry and cool elegance of plain characters of the Northern Renaissance (the “My Daughters” painting gives rise to such associations), but on the other hand, paves the way for photorealism. The accentuated red outlines of the figures in “My Daughters” set against a black contrasting background resemble a religious icon, remarkable given the context of the Soviet 1960s.

From the end of the 1970s till the 1980s, the atmosphere of disquiet among Soviet and Soviet Armenian art circles, which can be read in Sargis Muradyan’s art of the late period, was justified. Perestroika was close, soon to be followed by the end of the Soviet Union, while Armenia went through a devastating earthquake and social-political upheaval.

During these times, the Armenian art scene was marked by the arrival of a new generation of young artists. The articulation of youth culture, subcultures, and current youth issues became the prerogative of the day, although this time, they appeared in an entirely different guise.

During Perestroika, previously tabooed “problematic” social and moral themes were pushed to the foreground in Soviet art (n Soviet art (and particularly in cinematography). The subject of youth’s dramatic rebellion against older generations, society, and the values they professed, filled the mainstream cultural sphere during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is crucial in the youth art of the Perestroika period, that it is the young artist (or the film’s hero) who speaks from their name and that of their contemporaries, and it’s not the artist of the “Patriarchal” generation who makes the youth into a sanctified object of his image. The new youth wanted to subvert the “icons” created by their “Fathers” and strived to free themselves from the obligation to follow established artistic traditions.

Arman Grigoryan became one of the leaders of the “3-rd Floor” movement – the Armenian iteration of these cultural shifts and new young avant-gardists.[10] His “Knight of Kilikia” painting is one of many works where at first glance images that have nothing to do with each other are fused using a collage-like approach.

Standing on the left side of the painting is the Crusader knight standing near its horse, replete with a cloak and a cross, their figures covered in a crimson color reminiscent of a fluttering flag evoking the romanticist spirit of the French Revolution. As if placed in opposition to the mighty knight, are the expressive rock musicians with their long yellow hair.

However, these figures are united by a shared romantic soul. Rock music is the “knightly ballad” of the youth. In between they are a dead dog – a typical image of Armenia’s “dark and cold years” of the early 1990s – further emphasized with stenciled-in words “dead dog”, as if it was some notable event.[11] Swooping down from the top is a frightening Egyptian vulture, who comes down with its predatory claws stretched out, almost like a parody of the Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit as a white dove.

Grigoryan often confuses the viewer who may try to decipher his “surrealist” allusions. With his “scribble-like” technique he erases, or declares a “crusade” against, the canonical image of traditional painting and contrasts it with trash art; symbols of street subculture – doodles and graffiti on the walls, are inseparable elements of Arman’s works.

In this way, he plays with the viewer, often presenting his own coded messages as writings by street hooligans. In the center of the painting “The Knight of Kilikia,” there is similar half-erased writing: INDEPENDENT. The anarchist imperative of this gesture in 1988 – three years before Armenia’s independence from the USSR – is all too transparent.

The launch of the “3rd Floor” movement is considered to be 1987. In the spring of that year, the first controversial exhibition by young avant-gardists took place in the 3rd-floor conference hall of the Artists Union – out of sight but visible – within the framework of a traditional youth exhibition.

The movement was later labeled “3rd Floor” as if to extol this condition of marginality. Meanwhile, Sargis Muradyan, who was one of the well-known figureheads of the Soviet art establishment and an activist during the growing Armenian nationalism of the 1960s and then later, during the Karabakh and independence movements in the 1980s, was the president of the Artists’ Union.

The exhibition of the young insurgents in the 3rd-floor conference hall at the Artists Union took place with his consent. It is in this historic junction where the representatives of the different generations of Armenian artists – Sargis Muradyan and Arman Grigoryan – come into contact. At the time, the meeting of their works on the same ideological platform was difficult to conceive. “The Cool and the Cold…” exhibition, however, revealed the possibility of such opposite extremes aligning.

Thus, the two artists are representative of two opposite poles of the youth narrative. However, what is more, interesting is the issue of the use of flexible language and media, which reveals signs of a secret rapprochement between late-Soviet “modernism” and the new avant-gardists.

Everything started when Muradyan began working with a spirit of “critical realism” during the Perestroika years and depicted the self-indulgent Soviet bourgeoisie-philistine class. We mean, more specifically, his famous and provocative painting “The Wedding” (1987).

In this and other works, Muradyan sought to vividly depict the primary symbol of the Soviet officialdom’s prosperity: the Volga car. The techniques of the photorealist style would have best expressed its shiny texture. Thus, as it turns out, Sargis Muradyan’s imperatives here were not that far removed from the critical targets of the American pop artists and hyperrealists.

However, the traditionalist master did not work with techniques of mechanical image transfers. Meanwhile, his students – the leaders of the 3rd Floor movement, had firmly included the epidiascope and the stencil in their toolkit. Arman Grigoryan says that Sargis Muradyan was a secret admirer of David Hockney’s art.

He remembers that during the first 3rd Movement exhibition, Muradyan was especially enthralled with the cars in Hockney’s “I am” and “Metal City 20” paintings. After seeing them, Hockney invited Grigoryan to his studio to get his opinion on the aforementioned black Volga in his “Wedding” composition. Arman, along with pop artist Eduard Enfiajyan (Popart Edo) visited his studio.

They convinced Sargis Muradyan to paint a foreign car instead of the Volga. In response, Muradyan retorted that an academic painter must paint local (as in Soviet) cars. Almost a decade after this ironic incident, not only foreign cars but mass Western culture in general, filled the former Soviet space with the onset of globalization. The black Volga became an archeological artifact embedded in the artist’s paintings.

Thus, the global context of “The Cool and the Cold…” exhibition allowed us to address local Armenian artistic realities that are no less contradictory, but, as we can see, interrelated – realities that remain misunderstood and neglected in our art-historical circles.

During the post-Soviet years, following the radical socio-political transformations, the legacy of Soviet art was rejected and ignored, which in reality, is infinitely more complex and layered than it is generally assumed to be.

From the historical distance of our present day, we can rid ourselves of the discomfort of studying Soviet art because we no longer need to place value upon it by this or that criterion. What we do need, however, is to fundamentally reconsider and rethink the Armenian artistic heritage of the recent past.

by Lilit Sargsyan EVN Report

Footnotes:

1- Notice the play on the double-meaning word cool which is simultaneously read as slang meaning “neat,” and “impressive” which seems to soften, warm, and add irony and humor to the word cold which is about the Cold War.
2- The author of this message Benjamin Dodenhoff from the Ludwig Foundation gave us interesting information which will be mentioned later in the article, and for which we give our sincere gratitude.
3- Brigette Franzen. “The Cool and the Cold” – on the concepts of the exhibition – “The Cool and the Cold. Paintings in the USA and USSR 1960-1990. The Ludwig Collection.” 2020, “Dom Publisher” (Russian edition), pg. 102 (The Armenian translation of this book here and later on in the article is ours. L.S.)
4- Descriptions of these manuscripts can be found in an article by Babken Chugaszyan titled “Armenian Manuscripts in the United States of America” (Banber Matenadarani, N 12, Yerevan, 1977, pg. 222, 256)
5- “The Cool and the Cold. Paintings in the USA and USSR 1960-1990. The Ludwig Collection.” 2020, “Dom Publisher” (Russian edition), pg. 10-68.
6- Boris Groys. “Cold War in Art.” – “The Cool and the Cold. Paintings in the USA and USSR 1960-1990. The Ludwig Collection.” 2020, “Dom Publisher” (Russian edition), pg. 72.
7- The Ludwigs chose 11 pieces from 9 Armenian artists for their collection, including Dmitri Nalbandyan (whose “Lenin in the Library” was one of the “nails” (մեխերից) of the exhibition), Sergey Hovsepyan, Ashot Melkonyan. Hakob Hakobyan, Sargis Muradyan (2 pieces), Lavinia Bajhbeuk-Melikyan, Zatik Zatikyan, Arman Girgoryan, Albert Papikyan (2 pieces).
8- According to Z. Muradyan, S. Muradyan’s youngest daughter, in reality, her father not wanting to part ways with his daughter’s favorite portrait made an author’s copy which is what Ludwig purchased. The original copy remains in the family’s collection and only differs from the copy with a section of Republic Square in the background.
9- Certain art scholars connect “linear realism” with Hakob Hakobyan’s art as well. However, the origins of the latter’s plastic language are quite different and could not have the centrist leaning of the Moscow painting.
10- The term “Avant-Garde” which we use about Armenia’s current art at the end of the 20th century is a result of Greebergian inertia. However, it is historically incorrect (because historic Avant-Garde refers to the first quarter of the 20th century), but is justified as a symbol of looking toward the west and getting rid of the socialist discourse; meaning progressive.
11- Soon after the 1988 earthquake, the Metsamor Atomic Power Plant in Armenia was shut down, leading to a catastrophic shortage of electricity and heating until 1997.

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