Mosaics of the Former USSR


28 November 2017

The Russian art historian Boris Groys recently argued that the official culture of the Soviet Union and its satellites is so incomprehensible from a contemporary point of view that it is better compared to that of ancient Egypt than to anything in the 20th century.

Its official art – heroic sculpture, propaganda mosaics and reliefs, mass-produced architecture, children’s books – has sat for years in the dustbin of history, rejected in favour of work by dissident poets and authors, underground conceptual artists, and visionary film-makers once marginal or censored. This is gradually beginning to change as the system grows more distant, and a particularly interesting rediscovery from the Communist visual world is the mosaics that were applied to public buildings in the decades between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the fall of Communism in 1989-1991. Anyone who has lived in or visited a city or town in the USSR and in the Warsaw Pact countries will know the sort of thing. Set into the panel of a concrete apartment block, a geometric composition of a female holding up a test-tube, a male wielding a hammer, a stylised Lenin and a flying Sputnik all against a skyline of factory chimneys made out of innumerable pixels of coloured ceramic, stone, glass and metal. These mosaics are increasingly endangered, as much under threat from commercial development and neglect as from the iconoclastic programmes of de-Communisation that many countries have indulged in. Three recent books, focusing on Ukraine, Georgia and Poland, try to provide a guide to this obsolete art movement.

In form, mosaics vary from country to country. In Ukraine, they tend to be representational; in Poland, they are more abstract; while the Georgian examples lie somewhere in the middle. In their introduction to the photographer Yevgen Nikiforov’s Decommunised – Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics, Olga Balashova and Lizaveta German say that these mosaics “were hardly ever seen”, even when the ideology they represented and celebrated was unavoidable; they were just something you passed by. They argue this is because the USSR’s public sphere was inauthentic. That being “a totalitarian state playing at a welfare state, it imitated public spaces” but never really provided the freedoms of a true agora. This is a peculiar argument about historical public spaces, given that most streets and squares were in “undemocratically” ruled cities until the 20th century, but certainly, few would have imagined much outside interest in these artworks when the system collapsed in disgrace at the end of the 1980s. Much more decisive for the fate of the mosaics is the combination of the banality of their content with the shift of “urban spaces […] into private hands without a chance of becoming public platforms” as the Soviet Union fell. This neglect has turned into iconoclasm in recent years, with laws mandating the removal from public space of any Soviet symbols or imagery. Because of this, it is only really now that the mosaics can be seen again, brought into visibility by their very illegality.

Nikiforov has had to rush in order to photograph these mosaics, as those with hammers and sickles, red stars, or portraits of Soviet leaders are illegal images in Ukraine, for which prosecution is now possible (a Lviv resident recently received a suspended sentence for posting images of Lenin on Facebook). The photographer seems to have had a little assistance from NGOs and local enthusiasts, but otherwise faced general incomprehension that anyone would care about these “blots on the wall” or “colour shapes”. He could not get access either to Crimea, which is currently occupied by Russia, or the unrecognised “People’s Republics” in the Donbas, which is propped up with Russian weaponry, but managed to get locals in each area to photograph the mosaics for him. He divides the images into people and labour, ideology and history, sport and leisure, science and space, and nationalism (currently popular subjects such as Ukraine’s national poets and folk costumes were already ubiquitous under the USSR). Nikiforov credits the artists where possible – a handful were non-conformist artists doing jobbing work to pay the bills, such as the artists of the Transcarpathian underground, who designed bus-stop decorations as a day job, or the abstract painter Volodymyr Tsiupko, who created Youth, a haunting mosaic that depicts pensive children stood against a backdrop of subtly intersecting abstract shapes and stylised ships, installed on a school in Odessa. For most, though, this was their art.

The most interesting Ukrainian mosaics are in smalti, a mixture made up of tiny tinted pieces of glass, creating strange and vivid effects of light and shade, used frequently in Byzantine art, which was foundational for Orthodox countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Russia. Volodymyr Priadka’s smalti work on schools in Kiev builds up the mosaic figures into bulging bodies, often in high relief, striving and surging through the air as if weightless. These figures hold the world in their hands, such as in the Promethean mosaic on School #5 in Donetsk, or Ivan and Maria Lytovchenko’s décor for Shuliavska Metro Station in Kiev. They are demiurges, pulling coal, atomic energy and steel out of the ether with their bare hands and holding them aloft, metaphors for the worker’s power that allegedly existed in the Soviet state, and for its Faustian approach to technological progress. There is a clear narrative that can be built up here. Ukraine, originally the centre of the Orthodox civilisation of the 11th-century Kievan Rus’, is awakened as a nation in the 17th century; explicated in the poetry of Taras Shevchenko; joins in the revolution in 1917; industrialises in the 1930s; and fights heroically in the Second World War. Then its perfectly gender-balanced population spends peacetime playing football, exploring the cosmos, and participating in an international friendship of post-colonial peoples. From the Scythians to space, as the mosaic frieze that runs through Mariupol Airport has it. It is not true, but it is a truth about Ukrainian history. Like the Egyptian art Groys compared it to, it is not meant to be truthful as much as an attempt to will things into existence. Its belief in human possibility and progress is sometimes touching, especially given that the cost of the Soviet push to outdo the West in human lives and ecological destruction is invisible.

After a while, you can distinguish distinct periods and styles. Nearly all of the content from the three books comes after the condemnation of Stalin in 1956, so there are no examples of the strict classical realism that was the preserve of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. Works of the 1960s are in the “severe style”; a harsher realism of geometrically arranged, robotic, poker-faced figures. These works are often unpretentiously placed on the corners of slab-block housing or on gable ends. In the 1970s and 1980s this loosens up considerably into a more expressive style reminiscent of Mexican muralism, totally unafraid of any superheroic cartoonishness. Vaulting, plunging and soaring bodies burst forth as if out of the buildings and into free space, often positioned on prominent public buildings. These are also more technically experimental, with the smalti work on something like the frieze across the Kiev Jewellery Factory ingeniously formed into a complex pattern of intense melting blues and reds. You can see this effect beautifully in Oleksandr Kostyuk’s Space Constellation, a gorgeous pulsating abstract that is spread across a cinema in Zhytomyr.

Comparing these with the mosaics in Lost Heroes of Tbilisi shows that there was only minor room for manoeuvre across the USSR, even between two places as geographically and climatically different as Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia has more tolerance for abstraction, but the big smalti bodies and ceramic girls with Sputniks are all here once again. Lenin, however, is conspicuously absent. During its Rose Revolution of 2003 under Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia aimed to prohibit and erase its legacy of Soviet iconograpy. Lost Heroes of Tbilisi, a combined booklet and postcard book, depicts what was left afterwards. Its author-collectors, Nini Palavandishvili and Sophia Lapiashvili, sketch a short history of the ancient form. Although popular in the florid eclectic architecture of the late-19th century, it was subsequently neglected everywhere except in the USSR. The major Georgian mosaicist is Zurab Tsereteli, better known for his appalling monumental sculptures in post-Soviet Moscow and elsewhere (there’s even an example of Zurab’s particular flavour of bombast in Cannon Street). In the 1970s, he was a wildly talented if often tasteful producer of abstract mosaics in public spaces across the USSR, but especially in his native Georgia. The influence of his vitalist, organic approach leads to extraordinary menageries such as the mosaics on Tbilisi’s Trade Union Cultural Centre, described here in an essay by Lena Prents as a set of “fantastic and real animals”, presented in a scene where “different living creatures impregnate hares on mosaics”. Rather than seeing them as remnants of a lost civilisation, Prents points out their resemblance to “serious” Western precedents – such as Picasso, Miró and de Chirico – perhaps in an attempt to make these works seem respectable modern art rather than ideologically-driven exotica.

This pocket-sized book is meant to be used and carried, with maps on the back of each postcard showing you how to find such improbable delights as Konstantine Chankvetaradze’s pointillist mosaic mural on the inside of a suburban fire station, or Tsereteli’s works in Mzuiri Park, with abstract concrete grubs and snails coated in orange and lime smalti. Instead of a map, the last three postcards have the stamped word “NONEXISTENT” on them.

As with the Tbilisi guide, but unlike Decommunised, there are useable maps and descriptions of the current state of the works in Paweł Giergoń’s Mozaika Warszawska, and you are expected to go and look at them and make your own mind up – though you are occasionally warned about, for instance, the ageing proletarian clientele of the Bar Alpejski, eating their dinner under a minimalist mountain range.

Mozaika Warszawska is a substantial gazetteer of mosaics in the Polish capital; it is not available in English, although much of it can be found translated in a guide and app by the same author, Archimapa – Warsaw Mosaics. Giergoń casts his net wider than the title implies, also taking in straightforward murals, sculptural reliefs and sgraffito, and there are some socialist realist works from the Stalinist period, such as the heroic revolutionary groups you can find in the colonnades of Warsaw’s Constitution Square. The story he has to tell centres, though, on what happened to mosaics after 1953, when Polish artists took advantage of a “thaw” in the Stalinist system to rehabilitate abstract art, and produced their own highly original applied interpretations. At the House of the Peasant (now the Hotel Gromada), Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz’s mosaic is an epic composition of rubble and waste, often dirty organic (revealed by close-up photographs), with only the occasional bird referring to anything “real”. This work started a craze for an abstract expressionism cast in pebbles, pottery shards and broken masonry, which can be found in shops and public buildings across the Polish capital. Conversely, a trend towards a constructivist machine-made serenity was also adopted in the city, particularly in public transport. This runs from the early 1960s – as in Wojciech Fangor’s gradated mosaics at the Śródmieście Railway Station (which are grossly neglected) – to the end of the system with Jasna Strzałkowska-Ryszka’s elegantly rational mid-1980s ceramic panels on the first line of the Warsaw Metro, which opened in 1995.

For all their abstraction, these mosaics are still commonly described derisively as Communist, Giergoń notes with some pique – although Mozaika Warszawska is published by the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is a vehemently anti-Communist institution. These mosaics are, in fact, much more readily comparable to the recently rediscovered post-war public art of say, Britain, and the likes of William Mitchell, than they are to the Soviet examples. Yet they are – on a much larger and more confident scale – aware that they do not have to compete for public space. They’re cheap in their materials but luxuriant in their extent. In an urban landscape such as that of 21st-century Warsaw, dominated by western advertisements and where the only local contribution has been to translate the captions into Polish, they stand out all the more impressively. They are an encumbrance to that banal corporate world, using blank space that could be – and often is – covered with an ad for the latest German car. “History brooks no blank pages”, writes Yevgeny Nikiforov, who advocates that aside from providing explanatory panels on obviously propagandistic Communist mosaics, they should be left alone. There, he’s referring to didactic artworks, which forcefully proclaim things about a society. More softly, the equally endangered abstract mosaics of Warsaw say something rather more optimistic about what we might actually imagine public spaces outside the rule of private interests to be like.