“Odessa School of Art” and “The Odessa Group”

If the visual arts of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad) have become relatively known in the West due, mainly, to the continuous, successful sales of Russian art by major Western auction houses and to the fast developing internal art markets in Russia, the artistic life of the regions still presents a very fragmental and often much distorted view. Yet the art from the city of Odessa (Ukraine) has often been praised by art aficionados around the world.

Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea had been founded by the Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great) in 1794. Before the 1917 Revolution the city was part of Southern Russia and at present it is the territory of the Ukraine. Odessa has always been the city of sailors, merchants, musicians and painters.

Towards the end of 19th century a local school of art of the Southern Russian artists was established – "The Association of the Southern Russian Artists". They have originated their version of Impressionism – colouristically subtle "en plein air" painting mainly due to the unique natural environment of the Odessa region.

At the turn of the 20th century the artistic life of Odessa had been growing and developing at a rapid speed. The Odessa artists had close contacts with the cultural centres of Russia and Europe. Not being content only with their own developments, they were open to the new art movements. It is from Odessa that such Masters of the Art world as Vassily Kandinsky and David Burliuk had came from. Unfortunately the golden age of Odessa art was put down by the communists after the October Revolution in 1917 and came to an abrupt end followed by social and cultural catastrophes as a result of Bolshevism regime. Despite of hard times Odessa art life was not completely destroyed. As Artists could not continue with their innovations, their main task became preservation of traditional Odessa school of painting in particular fine impressionistic painting that had managed to survive.

Another milestone in art of Odessa happened in the 1960s in so called "Khrushchev's Thaw" times. Having had just a tiny taste of freedom, the country had started to show signs of a revival. Odessa, always dynamic and responsive had also made its contribution to the change. In the early 1970-s Artists had formed a group of young talents who refused to follow social realism style and who put all their creative efforts into developing their own style of art according to their vision and ideals. Gathering bits and pieces of scarce information on the artistic developments in the West, they experimented with the form and searched for their own artistic expression.

Towards the middle of 1970s, these artists became the object of the ideological process. Their creative search had been regarded by Soviet power as a decadent regression and equalled to the disloyalty. Confrontation between the authorities and the most active artists broke out. They were not allowed to exhibit their artworks in public places and they would not be accepted to the Union of Artists and that, practically, sentenced them to some sort of an illegal existence.

Soviet system provoked appearance of 'underground art' movement. The communism regime resulted in two groups of Artists: officially accepted artists – who were mostly the members of the Union of Artists, and among whom could be found many true masters of painting, and the nonconformists who often were young Artists dissatisfied with the social realism art. The "Apartment Exhibition" movement was born.

The Odessa artists, like their counterparts in Moscow, began to show their art to a selected audience initially in their private apartments and later in the apartments of their friends and admirers. Officially, nobody could prevent them and the organizers of such exhibitions from inviting their friends, relatives, colleagues and anyone interested to their homes to see the artists' latest achievements. This movement was a risky one often oppressed by KGB.

By the mid 1970s, in Odessa, a core group of nonconformist artists was formed. These artists continued to create and show their art privately despite of constant pressure from the authorities and hatred coming from the majority of the officially recognised artists. They had close connections with the Moscow centres of the underground art movement and were participating in the apartment exhibitions of nonconformist art in Moscow and in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). They also invited their Russian colleagues to participate in Odessa apartment exhibitions. That underground artistic movement created a number of forward thinking personalities who had offered their homes for these exhibitions.

The three periods concerning the development of the Odessa art mentioned above didn't evolve sequentially. In the second half of the 20th century there were those who continued the 'en plein air' tradition alongside the representatives of the so called "Severe Style" in Soviet painting - the 60s Artists, and, finally, the nonconformists, those ones who found themselves in unofficial art category.

In each of those categories there were true, devoted masters of painting while the majority of artists followed the trend, conforming to the ideological line.

The art movement called "The Odessa School" or "The Odessa Painting" refers to  en plein air, impressionist tradition, or often named "The Southern Russian Impressionism", among whom were  Kostandi, Golovkov, Dvornikov, Sinitsky,Konstantin LomykinGennadi Malyshev, A.Gavdzinsky and the more contemporary, Vladimir Litvinenko.

The term "The Odessa Group" defines the circle of the avant-garde artists and has been associated with the nonconformist artists who were the core of the Odessa underground movement in late 60s, 70s and early 80s. Among them were: Vladimir StrelnikovAlexander AnufrievValentin KhrushchVictor MariniukLyudmila YastrebStanislav SytchevEvgeni RakhmaninRuslan Makoev who were later joined by Vasiliy Sad, Vladimir TziupkoAlexander StovburValentin ShapavlenkoVladimir NaumetzVitaly SazonovValery BasanietzOleg VoloshinovAndrey AntonyukSergei Savchenko and others.

Aesthetically, these artists hold very different, diametrically opposite views to those followed by the more traditionalist Odessa artists.

Olga Savitskaya,
Art critic,
Odessa, St.Petersburg

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