The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Separating the wheat from the chaff at two exhibitions of Russian realities from the 1960s to the present
The glib title of the main exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is attributed to Joseph Stalin. In all likelihood, he was as detached from Soviet reality as Vladimir Putin is from its Russian equivalent today.
That continuing historic tragedy merits far more insightful attention than the trivialisation of an innate irony by some PR harebrain in pursuit of a "strong selling point."
The early, groundbreaking promise of the arts and architecture of the Soviet period which dazzled the world was dashed with a great deal of wanton intellectual brutality as well as no small measure of stupidity.
The scars from that trauma are all too apparent in the work of many contemporary Russian artists.
They face a reality of fellow citizens being further brutalised by the machinations of a bunch of ruthless comprador oligarchs, the nouveau riche and a servile political elite.
Many artists may well bask in the ersatz liberty offered by the regime change in 1991. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, a good few are painfully aware of its horrendous social cost and are prepared to speak about it.
Vinkenti Nilin's large giclee ink-jet prints from The Neighbours capture a semi-naked woman, various men and and youth perched on the windowsills and balconies of a drab tower block who all appear catatonic, unaffected by vertigo or indeed any other sensations.
Snapped at various dynamic angles the subjects' passive resignation in the face of the abyss in front of them is perhaps a gloomy allegory of a nation's impending self-destruction.
Three women make an instant impact. Nika Neelova's seven-feet-tall scorched wood constructs Principles Of Surrender (2010) and Scaffolds Today, Monuments Tomorrow (2011) are symbolic remnants of wholesale destruction.
The burnt ropes that dangle in the first and the scattered large bell-clappers in the latter powerfully evoke times of desolation and defeat and sound a stark warning about the dire consequences of forgetting the past or unduly celebrating the pyrrhic victories of today.
Daria Krotova's vivid watercolour exploration of the shape and muscle of the heart demystifies the emotional attributes arbitrarily bestowed upon it since time immemorial.
Heart, Organ Of Love (Sometimes My Heart Turns Into A Chicken) 2011, delivers the final coup de grace by comically alluding to the physical similarity flagged up in the title between the dissected organ and a chicken on a butcher's counter. Or is it perhaps more an admission of Krotova's own - perhaps political - indecision?
Capital (2012) by Irina Korina perceptively condenses the political system into a glittering obelisk filled to overflowing with rubbish bags full of second-hand clothes, a mock apotheosis of capitalism's waste.
The destitute individuals populating the massive photographs in Sergei Vasiliev's Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia and Boris Mikhailov's Case History are to be found anywhere in the world including Europe and the US.
Stripped of dignity, marginalised economically and abandoned on the scrap heap of capitalist history they nevertheless proudly struggle to hold on to their humanity. Edifying - if only fleeting - glimpses of solidarity, attachment and love exempt these images from a sense of voyeurism.
Valery Koshlyakov dazzles with monochromatic painterly bravura. In a birds-eye view panorama triptych the Luzhniki national stadium in Moscow gloriously dominates the cityscape. It's reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, a gigantic crater or spaceship - a clue to a noble but failed past.
No such comfort is afforded the Paris Opera, painted with the same gusto but on discarded bits of flimsily held together cardboard. Laden with unmistakable disdain, it's an effective, anti-elitist statement.
Unlike the post-perestroika artists, those who preceded them in the '60s and '70s had it rough as the ossified political system allowed no dissent and debate was often curtailed.
Today much of their effort is of no more than historical value. Formalism of one type or another prevails and there is no trace left of Boris Ioganson, Isaak Brodsky or Arkady Plastov's great realist legacy.
The pretentious, self-hating gestures of Ilya Khabakov's aesthetically contrived vandalism of his own "socialist realist" canvases comes across as sedated, entirely lacking the required raw power of the rage it wishes to convey.
Similarly the piss-take canvases and objects of the gifted if toxic duo of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, designed to ridicule the vacuous pretensions of official propaganda in art, show the conceptual wear and tear of their age and the uncomfortable limitations of an entirely dilettante approach in fine art as entertainment.
Tucked away there is an unexpected welcome gem, the sombre and intimate still natures and cityscapes of Oskar Rabin. Painted with the enviable conviction of forceful, paint-laden brush strokes and employing the darkest of palettes, their crooked and twisted perspectives encapsulate the existential, bitter melancholy of bearing witness to a truly bleak time.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.