Russian Art & Soviet Nonconformist Art

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Paintings | Sculpture | Works on Paper | Decorative Arts

The Zimmerli’s Russian and Soviet nonconformist art holdings contain over 22,000 objects and provide a unique overview from the fourteenth century to the present.

The Imperial era of Russian art is represented through George Riabov’s 1990 donation. This part of the collection spans styles and subjects that represent Russia’s diverse artistic heritage, genres, and visual cultures. The Zimmerli holds the largest collection in the world of Soviet nonconformist art, based on a donation from Norton and Nancy Dodge in 1991. Over 20,000 works by more than 1,000 artists reveal a culture that defied the politically imposed conventions of Socialist Realism. All media are represented, including paintings on canvas and panel, sculpture, assemblage, installations, works on paper, photography, video, artists’ books and other self-published texts called samizdat. This encyclopedic array of nonconformist art extends from about 1956 to 1986, from the beginning of Khrushchev’s cultural “thaw” to the advent of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Work created during the Gorbachev era (through 1991) is also represented. In addition to art made in Russia, the collection includes many examples of nonconformist art produced in the Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. A recent generous gift by Claude and Nina Gruen extends the Zimmerli Russian art holdings to post-perestroika work produced since 1986. Many of these artworks were made by former Soviet artists now living in the diaspora.


Russian Orthodox icons introduce viewers to ancient Russian art. Created in wood, metal, or stone, icons contain a fixed iconography, the earliest example is a carved stone icon depicting the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, from the fourteenth century. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits show individuals of varying social status, painted in the academic styles that Russia adopted during the era of Peter the Great. Several important paintings by members of the Itinerants, or Wanderers group, concentrate on the realistic representation of life from the mid-nineteenth-century on, among them works by Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky and Nikolai Dubovskoi. Landscape paintings also dominate; exemplary scenes are a winter landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky and a forest view by S. Platonov. The early twentieth century is represented by Russian painters who adapted a restrained modernism, from Dmitrii Stelletsky to Nicholas Roerich and Boris Grigoriev. 

The Zimmerli’s Soviet nonconformist art extensively documents the careers of such first-generation unofficial artists as Oskar Rabin, Lydia Masterkova, and Vladimir Nemukhin. Many others are also represented in depth, often with more than 50 works, including pioneering abstract artists Mikhail Kulakov, Leonid Borisov, Evgenii Mikhnov-Voitenko, Evgenii Rukhin, and Eduard Shteinberg. Another dimension of this history is represented by Sots Art, so-named in 1972 by the artistic duo Komar and Melamid. The Zimmerli contains works of historical significance by these artists, as well as important works by Grisha Bruskin, Alexander Kosolapov, Boris Orlov, and Rostislav Lebedev. Another highlight is the museum’s extensive holdings of Moscow Conceptual art, which range from documentation of early performances by Collective Actions (1976–present) to installations by Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov, as well as a full re-creation of an AptArt, or apartment art, exhibition created by Nikita Alekseev, Sergei Anufriev, and others.


The Imperial era is represented by an important bronze sculpture (ca. 1880) by Evgenii Lansere depicting in superb detail a Cossack couple on a horse. Other important works are Mephistopheles (1880) by Mark Antokolsky, a portrait bust of Leo Tolstoy (1899) by Pavel Troubetskoy, and Vladimir Stenberg’s impressive constructivist sculpture of the early twentieth century. Within the Soviet nonconformist holdings, early trends toward expressionism and abstraction are seen in the sculptures of Ernst Neizvestny and Vadim Sidur. Sots Art and Conceptual works are represented in diverse forms and media.

Works on Paper

A majority of the Russian and Soviet nonconformist holdings are works on paper (16,700). An important group of maps show the historical growth and changes of national and internal borders. A significant collection of nineteenth-century lubki, the popular folk prints of Russia, reflects the moral, religious, literary, and other social concerns and interests of the Russian people. An important focus of the Imperial and early Soviet periods is theater, opera, and ballet stage set and costume designs by major Russian artists of the early and mid-twentieth century. Designs by Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, and Natalia Goncharova for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909–1990) are strengths. Constructivist stage sets include those by Alexandra Exter; surrealist-inspired designs by Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman also stand out. A large group of propaganda posters and broadsides by leading artists such as Dmitri Moor and Viktor Demi extend from the pre- to post-revolutionary periods. Posters for movies and the theater include the well-known but anonymous poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s film October.  

Postwar nonconformist works on paper are wide-ranging, with individual artists often represented by full series and portfolios of prints and drawings. There are extensive concentrations of works on paper by such major artists as Valentina Kropivnitskaia, Vladimir Nemukhin, Erik Bulatov, Francisco Infante-Arana, and Raul Meel. Important albums by Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, and the group Medical Hermeneutics are represented in their entirety.

Soviet photography is represented by more than 3,500 pieces, from art photography such as work by Aleksander Slyusarev to documentation of artists’ installations, such as the Rooms series by Irina Nakhova, conceptual photography by Boris Mikhailov, and street shots documenting life of Soviet people by Farit Gubaev and Alexander Lapin. The collection also contains major works from the 1920s and 1930s by avant-garde masters Aleksander Rodchenko and Arkadii Shaikhet.

Artist-designed books and book covers are well represented within the collection, including a number of important works by such artists as Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitsky. Important Zimmerli holdings of children’s books are illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, Evgenia Evenbach, and Mikhail Tsekhanovsky. 

Decorative Arts

Noteworthy Russian and Soviet decorative art objects held by the Zimmerli are hand-painted ceramic plates from the early Soviet era, with imagery ranging from Suprematist abstraction to Communist propaganda.