Grisha Bruskin: a 20th-century Russian “icon”

When the Iron Curtain fell it revealed a whole generation of contemporary Soviet artists. One of the greatest is the subject of a new exhibition at the Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Gallerie d’Italia in Vicenza

Alastair Smart


The year of 1988 is remembered as a momentous one by many in the art world for it was then that Sotheby’s held its inaugural auction in Moscow. This was the era of glasnost – or “openness” – a time when censorship was being relaxed and Soviet artists granted increased freedoms.

In one fell swoop, Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art from the USSR symbolised an end to decades of cultural repression and introduced a whole generation of artists to the West for the first time.

The auction was a huge success, its star being the Muscovite painter Grisha Bruskin (born 1945), one half of whose diptych, Fundamental Lexicon, sold for $416,000 – then a record price for a work of Russian contemporary art. The other half had been sold privately, not long beforehand, to the film director Milos Forman.

Fundamental Lexicon features 256 monochrome figures in grid format, each bearing accessories – painted in lurid colour – depicting the role that person had in society

Flushed with success, Bruskin moved to New York before the 1980s were out, soon gaining representation by the prestigious Marlborough Gallery and achieving an international renown that persists to this day.

Surprisingly, though, the two parts of his breakthrough work have never been seen together in public before – until now. For the next few months, Fundamental Lexicon is being shown complete at Intesa Sanpaolo’s Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Gallerie d’Italia, in Vicenza, as part of the exhibition Grisha Bruskin: Soviet Icons.

“This is a very special moment,” confirm the show’s curators, Silvia Burini and Giuseppe Barbieri. “Not even in Russia has the diptych been reunited before”. Fundamental Lexicon features 256 monochrome figures in grid format (128 per canvas), each bearing accessories – painted in lurid colour – depicting the role that person had in society: soldier, labourer, cosmonaut and so forth.

Giuseppe Barbieri, curator

Bruskin’s art can be heavily ironic, especially when it concerns his native land (he’s often associated with the subtly subversive Sots Art movement of the 1970s and 1980s), so it’s not easy to pin down his exact meaning in Fundamental Lexicon. However, it seems safe to say that his figures were partly inspired by the tradition of Russian icons, specifically those of the “menological” kind; paintings that essentially served as calendars and featured different saints (in grid-like form), marking each day of a month or year.

There was a modern twist, though. Bruskin’s figures also resembled the statues of archetypal Soviet heroes that proliferated in parks and squares, as well as on the facades of public buildings, across the USSR. With each figure displaying the same facial expression and empty look forward, Bruskin may have been mocking the rigid society and loss of individuality under Communism.

Michele Coppola, director of Art, Culture and Historical Heritage Head Office Department at Intesa Sanpaolo

“At our galleries in Vicenza, Naples and Milan we always try to stage shows connected to the bank’s art collection,” says Michele Coppola, ISP’s director of cultural activity, “and this is no different. Bruskin’s painting was clearly influenced by Russian icon painting, our rich holdings of which (from the 13th to the 19th centuries) are on permanent view elsewhere in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari.

“Our commitment as a bank isn’t only to the development of society from an economic point of view, but also from a cultural one. Our collection is renowned, above all, for its Italian pieces from across the ages, but at the same time we certainly embrace international work of major importance – as this Bruskin exhibition proves.”

Silvia Burini, curator

Since the Sotheby’s auction, highlights of the artist’s career have included an invitation by the German government, in 1999, to contribute a triptych (Life Above All) for the reconstructed Reichstag building in Berlin, as well as representing Russia at 2017’s Venice Biennale.

According to Burini, however, Bruskin’s masterpiece remains Fundamental Lexicon. “It represents a kind of alphabet or grammar of his country at that time, creating an art work that doubles as a system of Soviet signs – in the form of the statues’ accessories, which range from medals and maps to a model of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square.

“There’s undoubtedly an ironic contrast meant to be made here with menological icons. But instead of saints, we’re now dealing with types from Soviet ideological mythology.

With each figure displaying the same facial expression and empty look forward, Bruskin may have been mocking the rigid society and loss of individuality under Communism

“What’s also interesting is that the Communist regime that inspired Bruskin – and which was meant to last indefinitely – was actually disintegrated by history just a few years after he painted it [with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991]. It’s now consigned to the past as surely as the era of Russian saints. Fundamental Lexicon has taken on a fascinating, almost archaeological dimension.”, adds Barbieri.

The painting appears in Vicenza alongside some of Bruskin’s preparatory drawings, as well as a group of his sculptures (in porcelain and bronze) from around the same time. In the 30 years since that landmark Sotheby’s auction, the West has grown more familiar with Russian art and a vigorous market for it has developed. In Fundamental Lexicon, however, visitors to the Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Gallerie d’Italia have access to what must be considered a Russian “icon” of the 20th century.

Grisha Bruskin
(Moscow, 1945)
Fundamental Lexicon
part 1 (cover photo), part 2
Oil on canvas, 220 x 304 each
Shalva Breus collection

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