The Russian art landscape is evolving. First appearing in the early 1990s, the artists leading the charge were attempting to push a new lexicon for artistic consumption after a long period of devastation following the fall of the KGB. At the time, artists weren’t so concerned with profitability – the point was to create art in spite of a lack of demand, which would hopefully ignite a new discourse in the country’s artistic circles. Different styles appeared unintentionally, created by artists whose most furtive goal was to create free from the shackles of commercial gain. The result was a call to action for Russian artists and enthusiasts, which renders Russian modern art in the 1990s as entirely altruistic.

Coupled with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the 1988 Sotheby’s auction – an agreement between the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the famed auction house, the first of its kind since the Bolshevik Revolution – was the first major event to bring attention to modern art in Russia and marked a turning point for many yet-unknown Russian artists. Artists such as Yevgeny Yufit, Olga Florenskaya, Aidan Salakhova, and Erik Bulatov emerged onto the scene, and began dialoguing with artists across the world. Artists from every corner of the earth would begin to gather in Russia, summoned by the country’s leading contemporary artists of the time.

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Luliia Melian’s “Russian Village” (2015).

Small galleries, new exhibitions, and experimental art spaces began to appear quickly, and closed almost as hurriedly due to a lack of funding and interest from Russian media and society. Modern art was still relatively difficult to understand and appreciate for most Russian aristocrats finding their way in a post-revolutionary Russia – radical and often gloomy, modern Russian art failed to engage every echelon of society. This failure to truly captivate new audiences is likely why it remains difficult to find works or information on Russian artists of that generation.

After radical and punk art fell to the wayside, Russia’s artistic Golden Age was given room to flourish. As a nation, Russia was trying to recuperate after another collapse – and the same occurred among its contemporary art circles. The 21st century ushered in a new era, which discarded some past aesthetics and kept others as a nod to the future. Artists were strongly identifying with all of the changes in the country, and their work was highly reflective and emotion-driven. For the first time in a long time, Russia was opening a window into its soul, and artists used that momentum to attract a new audience.

Young Artists Defined The Modern Russian Art Movement

Young Russian artists gave the older guard hope for changing perspectives. Again, small art societies began sprouting up in major Russian cities, and these societies brought big ideas to the Russian art industry. From 2000-2010, Russia’s largest cities experienced an artistic revolution: Former industrial plants were transformed into modern art platforms, like The Garage Museum and Oktybar magazine in Moscow, and with them, the Russian art industry skyrocketed: Suddenly, artists, galleries, curators, and historians had new opportunities. Marking the start of a new chapter in Russian art, the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art was held in 2005, an event that reverberated across the country and abroad.

Today, Russian art has developed non-uniformly, giving artists plenty of room to experiment. In fact, contemporary Russian art shirks convention so frequently that it’s almost impossible to distinguish what’s ‘mainstream.’ However, such instability also affects its viability – while the country remains focused on its external economic relationships, there’s little investment in the local arts scene.

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Nastya Varlamove’s illustrations are a departure from the radical, gloomy Russian art of the ’90s.

Nastya Varlamova and Luliian Melian, two contemporary Russian artists, understand that the current Russian art market has its limitations. Varlamova, an illustrator and lead creative at Veter Magazine who often collaborates with international brands like L’Occitane, produces colorful, strikingly graphic drawings of everyday of everyday objects and potted plants. Melian works mostly with watercolors, and is a graduate of the Andriaka Water Colour School and a member of the International Arts Fund. Here, they give Artrepreneur the lay of the land in contemporary Russian art, while addressing the challenges facing young Russian artists today.

AL: Is there truly a modern art scene in Russia?

NV: Of course it exists, but modern russian art does not get enough attention in comparison with the contemporary art landscape in the West. Because of that, a lot of modern artists remain in the shadows and do not know where they can go with their skills.

LM: I think Modern Russian art is certainly blossoming. This is likely due to a number of new opportunities, especially new technologies that have appeared since 2000 and influenced the landscape. Also, millennials have grown up and started to create new art, and have had the opportunity to learn from the senior generation, complete with their peculiarities from having grown up in the Soviet Union.

AL: Are there any distinct tendencies in modern Russian art?

NV: I think that most tendencies come to Russia from the West. We are copying the most popular tendencies from the West, but in our own way. We style, simplify, and follow the ideology of Western colleagues, but nevertheless, are trying to show our independence.

LM: At this moment there is a tight merging of modern art and the fashion industry. In addition, the various styles of painting that were developing in the 20th century have found their place in the 21st century.

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Luliian Melian’s watercolors pay homage to Russian art history and culture.

AL: What is the future of modern art in Russia?

LM: Russian art is developing slowly but in the right direction. Due to the numerous different exhibitions and installations that are held in the main cities in Russia, people have the possibility to consider works of famous Russian artists that have been well-known throughout the ages. Also, a lot of young artists come to recently opened centers of modern art to show their works. There, people can look at the works and get familiar with the perspectives of young creators.

NV: I think the future of art in Russia is quite simply, Simplicity.

AL: Is there an opportunity to develop the art industry in Russia?

NV: There are a lot of people and also possibilities in the independent art scene. Society has finally developed an interest in art, and the senior generation has pulled back a decline in abstract art. The general level of education in this sphere, to me, seems to be encouraging.

AL: Why is it difficult to meet Russian artists on an international level?

NV: We are not used to speaking about ourselves. Russian artists are modest and do not show their opinions. Also, nobody teaches us to speak about ourselves.

LM: I think that nowadays Russian artists are increasingly being heard on the international level. In 2014, there was an exhibition by Sergey Sapozhnikov of the V-A-C Foundation at Italy’s Poldi Pezzoli museum, curated by Francesco Bonami. Also, Cosmoscow, held in the Old Moscow Merchant Court, is the only international fair for modern art, and a lot of international galleries, as well as Russian artists and galleries, often participate and attend.

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Nastya Varlamova is also an art director at Veter magazine.

AL: Are there any prospects for a young artist in the commercial field?

NV: There is, in the case of an artist that creates a portfolio and constantly promotes themselves.

LM: Today, it is much easier for the young artist to find their connoisseur because of the transparency of the international market. It is very important for young artists to have their own style, rather than try to copy great artists, though it’s important to learn from them because that gives an artist the opportunity to find themselves. And if you know who you are and why you are doing this –there is always a person who will be fond of your works.

Which Russian artists do you follow? Let us know in the comments!

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