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the exhibition “Utopia amiss” presents a comprehensive selection of work by mikhail magaril over the last decade. His influences range from the early russian avant-garde art of the 1920s to the american Pop art of the 1960s. turning the defunct Soviet vernacular into visual symbols, the artist transcends parochialism to address universally relevant issues from the toil for our daily bread to the disillusionment in fading doctrines. Born in leningrad in 1950, mikhail magaril received his degree from the moscow Printing institute. like many other unofficial Soviet artists of the period, magaril made his living as a book illustrator collaborating with leading leningrad publishing houses. in 1990 mikhail magaril emigrated to the United States. in 1991 he began working at the Center for Book arts, New york. in 1998 magaril founded Summer garden editions, a private press devoted to limited editions of his livres d’artiste. the most recent exhibition of his paintings was held at the Contemporary art Center of Virginia. mikhail magaril’s work is included in the permanent collections of the metropolitan museum of art, Brooklyn museum, the State Hermitage museum, as well as rare book collections of the New york Public library, the library of Congress, yale, Harvard, and Cornell Universities, the British National library, the russian National library, and numerous private collections.

Mikhail Magaril

Mimi Ferzt Gallery New York 1

first time, I felt the freedom of the American artist. Originality of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, and Jasper Johns felt close to my heart. I could not imagine paintings of a Socialist realist artist at MoMA. America is the country of individual endeavor. How were you influenced by political, social, and cultural aspects of the Soviet times? Do you view the past with irony? I feel that censorship in an unfree society stimulates creativity. Constant confrontation with the government impassioned the creative minds. Personally, I feel no angst about those oppressive times. My work is not satirizing the Soviet system. It has more of an ironic stance. I have an ironic personality, and in irony there is often humor. While in the Soviet Union, I simply did not notice it. I would constantly revisit the Russian past, but only in terms of its aesthetics. The irony in my work is not directed at the Soviet history, but is reserved for its utopian ideas. How do you deconstruct the Soviet mythology in your work?

6 Questions with Mikhail Magaril Where do you draw your inspiration? My primary inspiration is the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920s era who designed posters and illustrated children’s books. The state publishing house of children’s books DETGIZ collaborated with a number of important artists. Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Lebedev, Vera Ermolaeva, Alexander Rodchenko, Olga and Galina Chichagova, and Vladimir Tambi were able to continue to publish avant-garde work in children’s books even after the style fell out of official favor. I am interested in art that came before Socialist Realism; it had a fresh lively feeling. I never liked Socialist Realism, not just because of its propagandistic content, but mainly because I detested its lifeless academism. I am fascinated by the ideas of the avant-garde graphic artists, who never violated the surface of the printed page or a canvas by imitating three-dimensional objects. As I live, I discover. When I arrived in New York and visited the Museum of Modern Art for the


I was brought up to look for reality by reading between the lines. Propaganda posters of Soviet Russia promoted lies. We were bombarded by messages to the point they became the “truth” and we believed them. True, everyone happily worked for the state. True, there was plenty of food for all. There was a joke about a man visiting his doctor complaining about his health: “Doctor, I don’t see what I hear.” There was a major gap between the poster propaganda and reality. The Soviet population was indoctrinated from childhood. The myths worked. And the more the propaganda affected people, the more fiction replaced truth in their minds. These absurdist mind games is what I am occupied with now.

the book medium and applied the visual language I developed in Russia to the books I was now free to create. Later, when I decided to focus on painting and sculpture, the structure of a book had become important to me. This structure frequently appears in my paintings. A book is a dynamic object that develops in time and space. In my paintings, I often choose a polyptych format, using a similar time-based approach. What is the significance of found objects incorporated into your paintings? Found objects in my work are a tribute to the aesthetics of Russian avant-garde and American Pop art. I am also interested in the use of collage, lettering, color, geometric shapes, and mixed media. The use of found objects gives the viewer a sense of immediacy. A recognizable shape that appears in a number of my paintings is the red rectangle. It represents the Soviet red flag, but without detail: i.e. no hammer and sickle. The Soviet flag was ubiquitous on public buildings, but unlike most nations of the world, Russians never displayed it on their homes. I use the red rectangle as an abstracted symbol of the flag, as a device to question the allegiance to the Communist state. How do you describe your contribution to modern art? What does your work offer our society? Each artwork creates a new connection, a transference of ideas between different social and historic realities. Objects are symbols only and should not be taken at face value. I am introspective about Soviet times. It was more of an unattainable utopia than real life. My artwork may be summarized with an adage: “There is nostalgia for something that never happened.”

How does the methodology of your bookmaking parallel your concept of creating painting and sculpture?


During the decade of my tenure at the The Center for Book Arts in New York, I did a thorough research of the development of the book as an art form. Throughout the 20th century, it underwent tremendous transformations, from its virtual disappearance to resurrection in electronic form. I embraced

op p osit e Hunt (detail), see p. 15

2009, archival digital print, 36 × 24 in. (91 × 61 cm)

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Utopia, (detail), see p. 12

Limonnaya Square 1988, oil on canvas, found object, 46 Ă— 36 in. (117 Ă— 91 cm) Iconic Malevich Black Square is incorporated into this lemon vodka label, suggesting that the mysterious painting has become a cultural commodity.


Mikhail Magaril The vital and diverse artistic output of Mikhail Magaril is a successful combination of the rebellious aesthetics of the Russian avant-garde of the early 1900’s, the linguistic ambiguities of the early Soviet absurdist literature and the critically-minded playfulness of British and American Pop art of the 1970s. The pureness of color and elegance and simplicity of the outline in his work reveal a distinct influence of the preeminent Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstract art and originator of the influential Suprematism movement. An academically trained graphic artist, Magaril draws extensively on the visual culture of the Soviet avant-garde book illustration, where meaningful arrangements of the image and typography underscore daring linguistic experiments of poets and writers. The deceptive straightforwardness of the message is the artist’s tribute to the didactic aesthetics of Soviet propaganda posters. In his unorthodox reinterpretation of the historical context combined with rare technical refinement, Magaril revisits the theoretical and artistic principles of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Respectfully appropriating experiences of his multiple predecessors, Magaril departs from their legacy to create a unique optimistic idiom that is full of solid historic references, maverick visual and psychological associations and side-splitting linguistic puns. The original, non-derivative imagery of the Communist past is the main stylistic component of the artist’s work. Ingeniously combined with laconic expressive composition and contrasting the pure palette of the Soviet propaganda poster, the paintings are produced with deliberate meticulousness and conformity of subject-matter and style typical of the pious Soviet artist, serving the needs and principles of the State. Vehement rejection or denunciation of the Soviet ideology is altogether absent from Magaril’s work. The artist pays a highly personal tongue-in-cheek tribute to the merits of the socialist utopia. His affectionate warm-hearted nostalgia strongly manifests itself through constant reinvention of children’s


reading tutorials, coloring books and puzzles and frequent integration of the found objects into the canvas. At the same time, he cautiously introduces the elements of the grotesque, the subconscious and the absurd into the idyllic realm of his rhetorical characters. Gradually, the fallacy of the founding principles of the system is exposed and the human vulnerable nature of its political leaders, cultural icons and regular citizens come to the surface. In Mikhail Magaril’s tremendous philosophical and artistic undertaking, the Soviet paraphernalia serves multiple purposes: monumentalizing the artist’s lamentation of the demise of the great illusion, it simultaneously becomes a metaphor of ultimate submissiveness, apathy and peremptory absolutism. Drawing on outright familiar indigenous concepts, the artist transcends the national boundaries, bravely invading the universal territories of hypocritical political methods, double-standard practices and brainwashing techniques. Akin to his fellow Pop artists who concurrently idolized and satirized American consumerism, Magaril at once lovingly preserves the form and ruthlessly destroys the message of potent symbols of Soviet ideological coercion, exposing its deceitful nature. The political and cultural symbolism of a once feared state is thus stripped from its awe-inspiring qualities, bringing the Soviet travesty closer to international audiences. The content of the artist’s work runs the gamut from playful farce as the licentious image of the instigator of the international Bolshevik revolution in Lenin in Paris, to sheer comedy, as in the wooden pink-hued clapping figure of the dreaded oppressor in Hooray from Stalin!. The artist consistently disrupts the original triumphant message of the Soviet iconography with suggestive renegade details. Vladimir Lenin, a non-smoker, is impudently puffing on a cigarette as in Aurora or a peasant—the traditional keeper of Russian soil and thus of fundamental values—is planting coins that will not produce any crops in Utopia, are frequent motifs in the artist’s work. Even The Black Square, Magaril’s empirical teacher’s masterpiece, falls prey to the artist’s acerbic humor by becoming an integral part of the lemon vodka label. Placing the famous painting into such

derisive context, Magaril effectively knocks down its iconic status, suggesting that the legacy of Kazimir Malevich has entered the list of the nation’s emblems, together with its preferred beverage. Occasionally, Magaril elevates his satire to a more dramatic scale, evoking the ghosts of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, viewed by the artist as the ultimate authoritative subversion of a natural world order. Such commonplace object as a cigarette pack with a German shepherd on the cover becomes the instrument of exposure of the similarities of the Soviet and Nazi repressive practices. The artist proves his deep reverence to nature, endowing it with qualities of a powerful living being capable of mimicking, absorbing and violently rejecting the pervasive ideology. In the midst of the imminent thaw, one obstinate ice-hole retains the form of Joseph Stalin’s profile, keeping a peasant woman kneeling in the worshipful bow. Torn off its traditional solid base, the ubiquitous slogan Our Goal is Communism floats aimlessly in the wintery air. A black crow that stumbles out of the composition carrying a red flag becomes the symbol of the decay of the omnipresent dogma. In consistency with the general humanistic disposition of his work, Magaril offers an insightful introspection into the personal and social condition of an individual affected by the inequities of the socialist system. Magaril equalizes a congregation of celebrating citizens with a can of peas that are identical in Happiness. He examines natural human instincts doomed to repression in Coloring Books and paralyzes an intrepid hunter with materialized childhood fear in the form of the looming image of Stalin in Hunt. The artist mercilessly erases the woman’s facial features in All People to portray the loss of individuality and submission to absurd principles of the state. Produced with the highest degree of sophistication, the artist’s delicate mockery irreversibly sends the phantoms of totalitarian history into the realm of the past. Outstanding in its humorous quality, it reminds the viewer that laughter remains the most powerful weapon against oppression of any kind and the ability to withstand it is the ultimate manifestation of freedom of the human spirit. —Anna Gurfinkel

The Bird of Revolution 2005, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) The winter scene features a horse-drawn sled with a passenger, whom an attentive viewer will recognize as the leader of the proletarian revolution, Vladimir Lenin. Below is a jet-black crow carrying a red flag in its beak. This work is the artist’s ironic commentary on the origins and destiny of the revolution. Russian folk tradition endows crows with various contradictory traits. The bird is known for its propensity to pick up anything shiny and worthless, and is also a symbol of decay. The crow walks away with the red flag (a symbol of the revolution), while the sled heads in the opposite direction with the revolutionary leader aboard. opposite Hunt (detail), see p. 15 ov e r le a f

Thaw, (detail), see p. 11



Thaw 2000, oil on canvas, 60 × 48 in. (152 × 122 cm) A peasant woman in a red kerchief kneels before an ice hole in the shape of Stalin’s profile against the backdrop of crimson skies. The hole retains its contours, while the ice around begins to melt. The painting is the artist’s tribute to the relative liberalization of Soviet society after Stalin’s death known under the historic term “The Khrushchev Thaw” (Ottepel). The term refers to the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were partially reversed and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from the Gulag labor camps, thanks to Nikita Khrushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization.


Aurora 1991, oil on canvas, triptych, 30 × 90 in. (76 × 229 cm) Each panel: 30 × 30 in. (76 × 76 cm) The triptych is a derisive deconstruction of the revolutionary Soviet mythology. The central panel depicts the Russian cruiser Aurora stationed in St. Petersburg in October 1917. According to the Soviet myth, on October 17 the Aurora, refusing an order to go to sea, fired a blank shot sparking the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. According to other accounts, there was no shot fired, or the crew was simply not sober enough to load the forecastle gun. The artist flanks the glorious cruiser with the smoking profiles of two Communist leaders, Lenin and Stalin, symbolizing the absurd course of Russian history.


Utopia 2007, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) The peasant farmer in Utopia is seen planting golden coins into the black soil with the abbreviation CCCP (U.S.S.R.). According to the artist, the painting metaphorically represents the devaluation of the value of human labor in the Soviet society.

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Chernobyl III 2008, oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. (122 × 122 cm) According to numerous Russian intellectuals, including such diverse characters as Peter Stolypin and Leo Tolstoy, nation’s prosperity is grounded in its connection to the land. The artist portrays the peasant as the character of crucial importance to Russian history. In his multi-panel painting the central panel is ominously empty. Another element that is missing is the seeds in the hand of the sower, suggesting difficulties in realization of the Communist ideal.




Hunt 2000, oil on canvas, 60 × 48 in. (152 × 122 cm) In the snowy forest, a dark profile of Joseph Stalin looms over a lonely hunter and his dog. In the artist’s mythology, the iron-fisted ruler of the Soviet Union is a materialized childhood fear that lingers into adulthood.


A Friend of the Guard 1987, oil on canvas, triptych, 30 × 90 in. (76 × 229 cm) Each panel: 30 × 30 in. (76 × 76 cm) For the centerpiece of the triptych the artist recreates the design of the Friend brand cigarette pack. Produced in the Soviet Union after Word War II, these cigarettes enjoyed tremendous popularity because of the strong flavor and affordability. German shepherd, the breed featured on the cover of the box, was used as a watchdog both in the Soviet and German concentration camps. The gaping muzzle of the dog proudly stands put against the crimson backdrop of the cigarette box dividing two groups of children, the one on the left enjoying their downhill skiing and the one on the right finishing the snow image of Vladimir Lenin.



Happiness 2007, oil on canvas, 48 × 72 in. (122 × 183 cm) Combining a picture of a crowd cheering one of the Communist leaders and an open can of green peas, Happiness is a commentary on the nature of the past of Soviet society that boasted its ability to provide contentment and satisfaction to all of its citizens. The artist equates the glee of being a member of the regulated social order where everyone is equal with the sameness of the peas in the can. The word “Happiness” in Russian is misspelled to suggest the deceitful nature of this concept in its totalitarian interpretation.


Young Pioneer Nurses 1999, oil on canvas, diptych, 24 × 60 in. (61 × 152 cm) Each panel: 24 × 30 in. (61 × 76 cm)

Coloring Books Series Smoothly introducing forbidden subject-matter incompatible with the happy childhood of a Soviet kid (children and sex as in First Erections, burgeoning homosexuality as in Friends, children and death as in Young Pioneer Nurses), the artist turns the innocent children’s development exercise into a slant on Freudian interpretation of pervasive Soviet hypocrisy.

Friends 1999, oil on canvas, diptych, 24 × 60 in. (61 × 152 cm) Each panel: 24 × 30 in. (61 × 76 cm)

Thinking about Lenin: First Erections ( detail opp osit e) 1999, oil on canvas, diptych, 24 × 60 in. (61 × 152 cm) Each panel: 24 × 30 in. (61 × 76 cm)



All People 2008, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) In the image of a faceless woman holding a red banner that is simultaneously a rake, the artist crystallizes the deceptive nature of Soviet democracy, which in fact resulted in the shift of the classic social roles and individuality.


Daily Bread 2008, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) The artist evokes the 1986 nuclear Chernobyl catastrophe in the Ukraine, viewed by the artist as a major man-made cataclysm disrupting the sensible order of nature. Instead of nourishing of the nation, nature takes the form of a toxic desert of unnatural colors populated by lonesome peasants and vanishing birds of prey.


Pioneer’s Oath (d e ta i l o p p os i t e ) (Puzzle), 2010, oil on wood, 40½ × 40½ in. (103 × 103 cm) In the artist’s version of this Communist-themed puzzle, two Young Pioneer boys are tied up in a whimsical composition by a red star coming out of their mouths. The artist alludes to the text of a Pioneer’s oath, solemnly pronounced by a 12-year-old in front of the fellow students. A would-be pioneer pledged to unconditionally love his homeland and to live according to Lenin’s teachings. The artist frequently depicts Soviet children engaged in regular childhood pastimes (playing, studying etc.), with the Soviet totems distorting this peaceful childhood environment.



Pyramid 1999, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) opposite

Sphere 1999, oil on canvas, 48 × 72 in. (122 × 183 cm) In Sphere and Pyramid, the artist combines the style of Soviet coloring books with illustrations from the geometry tutorials. He depicts groups of schoolchildren surrounded by elementary geometric shapes, the ball and the pyramid, that are floating in the air defying the laws of gravity. The artist suggests that Communist ideas are incompatible with the basic laws of nature.


Ellipse 1999, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) Ellipse depicts a young boy dressed according to the Soviet children’s fashion engaged in scrupulous drawing of this complicated geometric shape. In the young artist’s interpretation the ellipse, a closed curve with symmetrical horizontal and vertical axes, takes the shape of a lock alluding to the prevalent atmosphere of caginess in the Soviet society. Having the little boy draw a figure of paramount importance in Euclidian geometry, astronomy, physics and mathematics, the artist presents the incongruity between the boy’s age and the difficulty of his task. op p osit e

Kazbek 2004, Oil on canvas, matchbox 36 × 36 in. (91.5 × 91.5 cm) Produced in 1930s, “Kazbek” cigarettes were named after one of the mountain peaks in North Ossetia, and their box design featured a horseman galloping against the snow-white mountain. The legend has it was Joseph Stalin who personally endorsed the cigarette box design, implicitly promoting the bogus concept of friendship between various nationalities of the former Soviet Union. The artist substituted the original snow-white mountain with the red triangle, an abstracted symbol of military triumph popular with the avant-garde Russian artists of the early 20th century. Adding distinct bullet marks to the horseman’ torso, the artist turns the cigarette pack design into a personal pacifistic statement.



Our Goal—Communism! 2005, oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm) This chilly winter scene depicts a procession of sleds moving uneasily through the snowy Russian landscape towards the red banner hanging in the air with the eponymous slogan written across. With one of the peasants sitting passively at the edge of the sled, sipping vodka from the bottle, the achievement of the goal seems to be remote, perhaps unattainable. op p osit e

Lampochka Ilyicha 2010, glass, epoxy, 7 × 7 × 4½ in. (18 × 18 × 11 cm) In the project of a monument to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the artist incorporates a base of light bulb, reminiscent of those primitive bulbs without a lampshade used by the Soviet peasants in the 1920s, lovingly called “Lampochka Ilyicha” after the revolutionary leader. Communism, according to Lenin, was not achievable without providing even the remotest parts of Russia with electricity, which would give a tremendous boost to the Soviet industry. Hence, his famous formula: “Communism is the Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” A popular joke derived from the mathematical nature of the phrase proposed that electrification was the Soviet power minus Communism.



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Celebration 2010, oil on canvas, 52 × 40 in. (132 × 102 cm) In this painting, a luminous red flag breaks into the bleakness of a typical St. Petersburg courtyard. The artist borrows the subject matter from American everyday life, where it is customary to decorate private homes with flags during national holidays. This tradition did not exist in the Soviet Union, where very few families owned Soviet paraphernalia. Merging the details of the two different worlds, the artist subverts the myth of Soviet patriotism.


Lenin in Paris 2010, archival digital print, 18 × 26 in. (46 × 66 cm) A sarcastic commentary on the hypocrisy of Soviet propaganda deconstructs Vladimir Lenin’s righteousness, one of its central myths. During the years of 1909–1912, Lenin spent four years in political exile in Paris. According to official history, he spent these years in ardent preparation for the 1917 uprising, dedicating himself entirely to reading, writing and organizing fellow communists. The frivolous movement of the dancer and Lenin’s excited smile depicted in this photo collage suggest that the future leader of the Great Socialist Revolution chose somewhat less virtuous pastimes. Historic evidence suggests that it was in Paris where Lenin had an affair with the French Communist leader Inessa Armand, Lenin’s only known romantic interest outside his marriage.

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Palace of Culture 2010, archival digital print, 36 × 24 in. (91 × 61 cm) Palace of Culture is a Soviet term describing an establishment for recreational activities of Soviet citizens. A typical Palace of Culture would contain a movie hall, a library, a dancing hall and a lecture hall as well as a number of rooms where amateur artists, musicians, actors and engineers could exercise their skills. A common attribute of such an establishment is the statue of Vladimir Lenin, which would decorate the entrance to the palace. Many of them were demolished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the artist’s version, Lenin’s statue is finished in fragile gold leaf, suggesting that its real value is as unsubstantiated as the Socialist idea itself.


Hooray from Stalin! 2010, wood, acrylic, 23 × 16 × 15 in. (58 × 41 × 38 cm) Portraits of the prominent members of the Communist Party in the form of children’s toys are a frequent motif in the artist’s oeuvre. This ridiculous clapping pink-hued mobile sculpture of Joseph Stalin, is a blow to his fearsome image, suggesting that the époque of this totalitarian regime has reached its climax and vanished from the face of the Earth.


Published on the occasion of the exhibition



October 28–November 14, 2010 mimi ferzt gallery 81 greene Street New york, Ny 10012 telephone: 212-343-9377 fax: 212-343-9469 Virginia Kinzey andrew Sarewitz angelica Semmelbauer Design: misha Beletsky exhibition Coordinator: angelica Semmelbauer artwork © mikhail magaril, 2010 text © anna gurfinkel, 2010 mimi ferzt gallery has represented the art of russia, Ukraine and the Baltic States since its inception in 1993. the focus of the gallery is to present a definitive view into this field of world art history. from the unofficial, non-conformist movement to the emerging artists of this new century, the gallery’s goal is to create a cultural dialogue to broaden the exchange of ideas through exhibitions, publications, symposiums, and charitable events. Printed and bound in the U.S.a.

m i m i f e r z t ga l le ry

Mikhail Magaril: Utopia Amiss  

Born in Leningrad in 1950, Mikhail Magaril received his degree from the Moscow Printing institute. Like many other unofficial Soviet artists...

Mikhail Magaril: Utopia Amiss  

Born in Leningrad in 1950, Mikhail Magaril received his degree from the Moscow Printing institute. Like many other unofficial Soviet artists...