BY Max Seddon in Opinion | 22 DEC 08

The Kandinsky Prize

Controversy in the Moscow art world as ultra-nationalist painter Alexei Belyaev-Guintovt wins the Kandinsky Prize

BY Max Seddon in Opinion | 22 DEC 08

With his black leather jacket and cropped silver hair, ultra-nationalist painter Alexei Belyaev-Guintovt looks more like a biker gang member from a sci-fi dystopia than a major contemporary artist. You would, in fact, have been hard pressed to find many who treated him as such until his surprise nomination for the Kandinsky Prize in November and subsequent victory shocked Moscow’s art world, creating its biggest scandal in several years.

It was as if Belyaev had become Russian art’s bête noire overnight. Ekaterina Degot, editor of popular art website, led a furious discussion in which she worried Belyaev would donate the €40,000 prize to ‘some kind of fascist party’, critic Alexandr Panov threatened to leave the profession in protest if Belyaev won, while jury member Andrei Erofeev suggested that, ‘They should give him the Leni Riefenshtal prize.’

The vitriol was such as to seem that, for many in Moscow’s close-knit art world, Belyaev’s nomination threatened their very sense of self. And it’s easy to see why. When most Russian artists attack or ignore the Putin regime, Belyaev actively embraces it. He is a member of philosopher Alexander Dugin’s slavishly pro-Kremlin Eurasian movement, which calls for ‘union with our great Eastern neighbours’ and anticipates ‘the blinding dawn of the new Russian Revolution – fascism as limitless as our lands, and red as our blood.’

His art is no less extreme: an advocate of ‘New Seriousness’, Belyaev unironically reinterprets Stalinist motifs in his ‘grand Statist style’. The prize-winning pieces, Daughterland (2007) and Brothers and Sisters (2007), emboss Stalinist Gothic symbols and Stalinist devotees in gold leaf so as to reclaim them for the present day. Belyaev’s earlier work includes portraits of fascist sympathizers such as Ezra Pound alongside the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini and Stalin, and ‘eschatological posters’ with slogans including ‘Glory to Russian Weapons!’ and ‘Burn Everything!’ He is even prepared to put his talents to state service. Invited to participate in the reconstruction of Tskhinvali after the Russo-Georgian War, Belyaev announced his plans to create ‘the city of the Sun, in the style of Stalin,’ because, ‘Stalinist architecture is the emanation of the sun.’


A heckler at the award ceremony

Perhaps the only unsurprising thing, in fact, about Belyaev’s beating out Sots Art legend Boris Orlov and Marxist Dmitry Gutov was the hysterical reaction it provoked. His acceptance speech was derailed after one sentence by 2007 winner Anatoly Osmolovsky’s screams of ‘Disgrace!’, causing general turmoil in the room and leading many to accuse the jury of awarding him the prize for his ideology rather than his art. But while the prospect of having Belyaev as Russian contemporary art’s official representative is justifiably troubling, the notion that he is representative and more contemporary than anyone else should be far greater cause for concern.

Here aesthetics and politics are necessarily intertwined. Simply judging by the former, Belyaev is not particularly significant – his work is uniformly over-the-top, stylistically simplistic and has little to offer behind its glossy exterior. But as an ambassador for the Putin era, it’s remarkably apt. Russian contemporary art’s rise out of the wasteland of the 1990s has, for all the dissenters in the ranks, been intricately tied with Putinism. The establishment of a legitimate art market in 2000 coincided with Vladimir Putin’s election, and its financial success over the past decade with Putin’s incorporation of wealth into the state apparatus and assertions of nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Belyaev’s work was unique among the nominees in reflecting this. While subtlety is not his strong point – the metaphors of ‘black gold’ and ‘red gold’ in the Daughterland cycle are as multi-layered as he gets – his reclamation of Stalinism for an era where money and power go hand in hand is a stark contrast to the unimaginative repetition and lazy juxtaposition of early-20th-century avant-garde and Soviet motifs that plagued the Kandinsky long-list. Even in the hands of a patently superior artist like Orlov, this seems inadequate grounds for winning a contemporary prize. His Parade of Astral Bodies (2008), in which Russian imperial eagles emerged from Kazimir Malevich’s omnipresent black square, was unanimously agreed by the judges to be the best of the three, but hardly differed from most of his work from the past few decades. Gutov’s Used (2008), which welded Soviet-era leftovers from his parents’ garage into metal grids, could likewise be mistaken for his early 1990s output.

But Belyaev, as the furore showed, is nothing if not relevant. The awards ceremony itself, a simultaneous celebration of the political épatage Russian art prides itself on flaunting and the nouveau-riche glamour behind it, seemed to confirm this. While Siberian duo Blue Noses, the self-described ‘most banned artists in Russia’, took compèring duties and devoted numerous segments to Russian art’s recent brushes with the law, the organizers shelled out for exclusive performances by Marina Abramovich and the Gao Brothers and sequestered a special zone in the audience for the ‘most valuable’ of the guests. Even though a dozen or so ‘leftist internationalists’ picketed outside, the enduring image from their anti-Belyaev protest was not their Swastika-studded banner and chants of ‘Shame on Kandinsky!’, but the frequency with which they had to make way for approaching luxury cars.


Events after the award ceremony

If Belyaev is persona non grata in Russian artistic discourse, he is perfectly at home among the oligarchs and jet-setters – he is represented by the appointment-only Triumph gallery, which he praises for its ‘metaphysical status’ and ‘palace style, reminiscent of a beautiful era.’ There’s absolutely no contradiction there. Belyaev’s glossy ultra-nationalism is a just winner as the only artist on the list who truly integrates Russia’s Soviet hangover with its hyper-capitalist present. His win is no triumph for Russian art – there is simply not enough case for him as a good artist – but insomuch as he has forced it to look away from black squares and stop cracking infantile jokes about Putin, Belyaev has done it a great service. What effect it has in the long term is up to his detractors to decide.