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In Search of the Social Body of the Soviet Artist - An Interview with Tatiana Fiodorova

 

Tatiana Fiodorova's "In search of the social body of the Soviet artist"(2012) is a conceptual project focusing on the work of her father, Vasily Lefter, also an artist who worked as a photographer, painter and designer in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. Critically staging historical texts, interviews, photographs and reproductions of his body of work, Fiodorova brings to light the various challenges and meanings of being an artist in her native country during the late Soviet Period, as well as in the present time.

CA: What compelled you to return to your father's photographic archive after so many years? Is it somehow symptomatic of a larger generational nostalgia for the Soviet period or for analogue photography which has been but replaced by the digital? Or was your interest more grounded in specific historical-political issues?

TF: For me this project had more of a research focus. I never really related to the legacy of the Soviet past before this project. It has only been over the last two or three years that I have connected my artistic works to this by-gone era, which I remember from my early childhood. Also, I was not only interested in the photographic archive of my father, but in general, in the creative legacy of Soviet unknown artists, my father among them.

I think there were many artists such as my father - they were unsuccessful and unrecognized at the time, and many of them stayed in the shadows and remained obscure. I have also tried to put myself in his shoes. As an artist, I often ask myself, what would I have been able to do during Soviet times, which kind of artist would I have been? My father did not have a solo exhibition during his entire lifetime. This was despite the fact that, according to my mother he came back from work and spent entire evenings drawing and painting. What compelled him to do it? It seemed as if his works were not necessary to anyone outside our family, even though he dedicated almost his entire life to creativity, design, photography and painting. This completely astounded me.

Today things are different. Even if you are a student at an art institution, you can show your work, develop creatively....In my opinion being a creative person during Soviet times was an almost heroic gesture. In general, all the artifacts left behind by my father helped me to better understand and appreciate what it meant to be an artist back them, something which I had only known about from school. I don't hold any nostalgia for this past, I just have many questions. Who was my father? Why did he end up like he did?

Besides his photographs, drawings and paintings, he left behind a lot of interesting things: a box of homemade Cyrillic letters, a photocopies Soviet book on medicinal plats, stencils, sketches of Soviet-era propaganda posters. He also archived postcards and stamps, as I understand it for pragmatic purposes, as he worked as a graphic designer. For over 25 years all these things lay on dusty shelves on my balcony.

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CA: What were the conditions in which and why did you father begin to work in photography? What do you think photography meant to him?

TF: My father always considered himself an amateur photographer, photography was a favorite pastime for him. I still have childhood memories of the "magical" red bathroom where he printed and displayed his photographs. According to my mother he loved to make photographs. Often he would take his scooter and spend a weekend in villages and forests in Moldova, photographed scenic spots and painted outside. He often took photographs of our family as well. We saved many family photos because of this.

His photographs amazed me because of their documentary style and well-constructed composition. He captured ordinary, everyday scenes that were far from the Soviet reality presented in the official newspapers of the time.

It was also interesting to me that for him photography was both a way to preserve and archive Soviet reality, and a way to earn extra money. Since his wages were not enough to support our family, he bypassed the official channels and began travelling to Moldovan villages and photographing the people living there. During the Soviet period, I remember it was almost impossible to earn extra money, and, officially one had to be content with one's state salary. Many of these photographs which he took of villagers were never sold, because he passed away when he was 39 years old. I placed some of these portraits in the artist book which I created from his archive. His photographs did not espouse the party ideology; to me they are a more genuine document of the time. I consider them the work of a truthful photo-archiver.

Photography was also an important artistic toolkit, allowing him to develop future paintings. Photographs were a complementary working material, which could be useful for different projects, such as designing outdoor advertising (his archive includes a series of Moldavian agitational art).

He preserved Soviet photographic books on medicinal plants, which most likely were not available to buy during Soviet times, by making photo-copies of the books and then gluing them in book-blocks. To me they are an amazing photo-object. That is, photography was a necessary tool which could solve many things.

It is surprising that as an artist-designer working for the Ministry of Constructions and the ORGSTROY (ОРГСТРОЙ), he had a very modest salary. He spent most of his wages on photo-chemicals, photo-paper, books, canvases and paints. At the time we were very poor. But he could not imagine doing what he enjoyed the most.

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CA: In the Soviet Union, photography was not considered an art in itself, bur more of an ideological weapon. Despite this, many artists working in underground circles or unofficially dedicated themselves to producing art photography, beginning at least with the 1970s. For them photography was a form of art. Where would you situate your father's archive, was it more about art or photography?

TF: I consider the archive as a document of the time. And with each year, this document gathers new historical and cultural meanings, which helps us better understand and have a feeling for the Soviet period beyond ideological superstructures. At the same time, these photographs are very strong artistic images. I think sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish between these categories.

In contemporary photography today, there are fewer and fewer boundaries between art and documentary photography. While working on my own photography projects, I try to balance between these categories: engaging with reality, creating documentary artistic images.

Speaking of Soviet times, the view that photography is not art is prescribed by the Moldavian Academy of Sciences itself. Five years ago, I tried to write a Ph.D. thesis on Moldavian photography. My proposal was rejected on the basis that photography is not art, and it cannot be studied under the field of art.

It is almost impossible to find an art historical article about photography. It is difficult to show photography in the exhibition spaces in Chisinau. Due to this lack, photographers find themselves in a sort of lethargy. There is hardly any critical structure that could conceptualize the history of photography in our country, and give a direction, a vector of development for photography in the present. In my opinion, we are still working with the Soviet models of evaluating contemporary photography.

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CA: A number of photographers who worked in the late Soviet period that I interviewed explained to me that they began to practice photography by attending the amateur photo-club system supported by the state. In some cases their parents and grandparents had been through the same education. Was it the case with you father also?

TF: It is difficult to say. According to my mother, they met when he was 23 and he was then already taking photographs, developing and printing by himself. How and where he learned how to make photography is still a mystery to me. However, I did find in his archives several tutorial books with detailed descriptions about how to make photographs. So I assume that he taught himself to do it. I was part of a photo-circle during my childhood and did photography, but it lasted a short period of time.

CA: Was he part of an informal photo-network? I research several which existed in cities like Moscow, Leningrad, Minsk and Kiev. Unofficial photographers from these cities knew each other and invited one another to present their works in private apartments or squats.

TF: I believe my father had a circle of acquaintances, colleagues from work, whom he showed his works. I have little information about this, unfortunately. I do know that he wanted to be accepted in the Union of Artists of the Moldavian Union of Artists. If you were not part of the union, you could not be considered an artist. Unfortunately, he never managed to get in. According to my mother, he regretted this all his life. I would argue that he tried to get inside the system to be recognized as an artist. In order to participate in public exhibitions, it was necessary to pass a rigorous selection, according to criteria established by an official commission etc.

CA: What possibilities were there in Moldova at the time to show these photographs to a larger public? Or better said, who was the public for these photographs?

TF: He showed his photographs mostly to our family. My mother said that when he talked about his works, he also shared his impressions about what worked successfully in the composition and what didn't. He also showed them to other photographers that he knew locally.

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CA: It is easy to see that his photographs were aesthetically different from the images in the official press, and from the point of view of the subject matter - they do not depict heroes of labor or beautiful mannequins. They seem to me to function as a type of street photography and informal portraiture. Do you think you father was interested in building a new language through photography?

TF: I do not think he deliberately sought a new photographic language, but that intuitively, this language manifested itself, because he loved to photograph, and didn't think how to photograph in a correct or sanctioned manner. His photographs of official parades in Chisinau and other state festivities influenced his artistic composition. It is also possible that his experience with painting gave him a different way of seeing in photography. But these are only my assumptions. It has proved difficult to find his colleagues with whom he communicated.

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CA: The majority of the archive consists of black and white photography. Was working in this documentary style a conscious choice or did he not have the possibility to work in color? I was also wondering about the size of the photographs - most of them are small, fit for an album.

TF: Indeed, almost all of them are small in size. Perhaps this is due to the constant lack of money back then. There are some photographs which were printed in larger size, but not many. He kept photographs in small bags, packages. I think the use of black and white must have also been due to the lack of funds to purchase more expensive chemicals, equipment and color film. As far as I know, the technology of printing and developing a color film was more complex, and in generally it could not be made at home, but only in a photo studio.

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CA: Why was it important for you to produce the book "In search of the social body of the Soviet artist" which as shown with the archive itself in different exhibitions in Europe? Is the book like a catalogue for the exhibition, or is it an artistic object in itself?

I consider this an art object as a book, or an artist book. There are only two copies of this book existing, one in English and one in Romanian. My book quotes a Soviet era album "The human anatomy. Guide for artists," which I found in my father's archive. It included drawings by known masters and instructions on how to draw from nature professionally. I very much liked this book and decided to deconstruct it and give it a new interpretation: I made an album of the same size and instead of including reproductions of works by famous artists, I included reproductions from my father's works, making them in such a way that it looks like a book produced in the USSR. I transformed the title as well, because I was not researching a physical anatomy, but one created by the web of social relations of the artist and of the Soviet world. In contrast to the well-known publishing house "The Soviet Artist," I came up with my own - "The Unknown Artist" - which supposedly printed this book with reproductions of my father's work, photographs, graphics and paintings.

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CA: Can you explain the structure of your book, as it relates to your goal to get a glimpse into the world of the Soviet artist in Moldova?

TF: The book itself is divided along red and white pages. The red pages are dedicated to socialist art, taken from official sources and books about Soviet culture. On the white sheets I placed interviews with Moldavian soviet artists who were part of the infamous Union of Artists. It was important to me to not only present the works of my father, but also to create the historical atmosphere of Soviet times, to bring more understanding to the fate of artists working in that system. I was especially interested to learn to what degree these artists were free to choose what they wanted to say and what they had to say.

These two main sections of the book are not divided but are closely related. For example, interviews that talk about the freedom of the artist to select subjects for their paintings or photographs, are presented together with fragments of texts from Soviet publications related to these topics. In the book, I show two positions in this conflict between, on the one had the state, a machine that controlled and dominated the entire creative process, and the artists who were either in the system or looking for a way out of it. My father was not a dissident in this struggle, he tried to fit into the Soviet system but he didn't succeed. There were only a select few who succeeded.

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CA: How relevant is your book to the situation of the artist today, compared to the late Soviet period?

TF: The book* brings up contemporary issues as well, for which artists today do not depend on anything and are free? How much is an artist independent from the curators and the gallery system? To what extent can he/she work on critical themes, remain relevant and be in demand at the same time? How does the contemporary art system manipulate and use artists? Why is participating in a major biennale an unattainable dream for some artists, or even their artistic purpose? Why are some good artists invited to participate in major art events, while others, who are just as talented are not? Why are the works of some good artists in demand, while others cannot sell their works? By means of the Soviet past, I reflect on today's art world. What has really changed?

In Moldova today, there is still scarce support for artistic projects. Yet, I am planning to produce another photo-book, which will include my father's entire photo-archive of Soviet Moldavia. In the meantime, I have created a Virtual Museum of the Unknown Artist, dedicated to my father, Vasily Lefter (1943- 1982).

http://unknownartistmuseum.wordpress.com

 

A video presenation of the book "In search of the social body of the Soviet artist" can be viewed here.

 

* This book was produced with the support of the Salonul de Proiecte, affiliated with the MNAC (Thanks to Magda Radu, Alexandra Croitoru, Stefan Sava and Dana Andrei). Special thanks also goes to Aurelia Mihai, the curator of the exhibition "What We Destroy and Celebrate at the Same Time," who also supported the making of this book.

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: http://rci-rutgers.academia.edu/CorinaApostol Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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