Solomon Rossin is a legendary name from Leningrad’s unofficial artworld of the 70’s and 80’s. Official artists enjoyed social privileges in return for their loyalty to State ideology, requiring them to glorify the Soviet system with accessible, realist art. Non-conformists, however, insisted on their right to do whatever they wished and in particular to employ various forms of abstraction. Open conflict between artists and the State broke out in 1974 with the “Bulldozer Exhibition” in Moscow, when an exhibition of pictures on a waste lot was violently closed using heavy building equipment. Rossin produced huge format pictures on historical and contemporary themes, suitable for decorating public buildings rather than private homes. ‘History Painting’ was the most important genre of art within the Soviet system, and Rossin created pictures of this kind in a painterly, expressionist style. He devoted his vision and talents to representing the history and the desires of Russia’s marginalized citizens: The heroes of his gigantic canvases were opponents of the state like Emelyan Pugachev, who rebelled against Catherine the Great, and rebels against spiritual authority like Leo Tolstoy. They included oppressed Baltic Jews, nomadic gypsies, patients of psychiatric hospitals and the poor and destitute. In the course of his numerous journeys around the country he built up a valuable archive of sketches which provided him with motifs for his paintings. It would be wrong, however, to regard Rossin as an artist whose mission was social criticism – his work embodies one of Russia’s central cultural myths, that she is a refuge for the suffering spirit, a new site of expiatory sacrifice for the salvation of humanity

Vladimir Shinkarev is a cult writer and artist of the 1980s who shaped the thinking and the lifestyle of young people who no longer felt any connection with the Soviet. In the late 1970s Shinkarev’s generation preferred to use boiler rooms for their studios or workshops, so that the authorities would not persecute them as parasites and they would have a place where they could paint or write. Shinkarev became famous for his novels (‘Maxim and Fyodor’ and ‘Aborigine from the Honduras’) which, like Rossin’s paintings, offered accounts of Russian life on the margins. Shinkarev, however, preferred to present his social message from the intensely personal perspective of artistic work as the only activity of a heavy-drinking intellectual, who alone was able to write multilingual philosophical verse using the Babel of world dialects. Shinkarev’s painting presents the viewer with the entire varied range of the artist’s meditations on life: melancholy landscapes, ascetic images of nudes and still lives. Crucially, painting is understood as the soul’s only salvation in the world, painful as the artists’ effort may be.

Alexander Kliot was one of the members of the Sotvorchestvo Group, from St Petersburg, who aimed to push the boundaries of art into the spiritual realm. On completing his Master’s at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, in 1982, Kliot returned to the place of his birth to paint a series of portraits of the miners of Donetzk. We are not presented with a pictorial tableaux to glorify ‘the people’, we are instead given a series of single, helmeted heads, bringing us face to face with humanity. In 1992 the group held an exhibition in Aberdeen, sponsored by Mobile and the British Council, which eventually led to Kliot’s settling in London. As well as portraits Kliot also loved to paint landscapes, which he saw in terms of life and human activity, and his response to beauty or bleakness was always depicted as part of peoples lives. His spiritual understanding of the Russian landscape was also brought to bare on English scenes – his ‘Autumn, Hampstead Heath’ of 1995 a good example, not presenting us with a picture postcard view, but conveying the pervasive mood of an English Autumn. In 1998 Alexander Kliot’s life was tragically cut short when he died of cancer, contracted whilst painting the miners of Donetzk.

For all three artists, painting plays the role of art’s global conscience. This is why it is a matter of such fervour for Rossin, such humility for Shinkarev and spirituality for Kliot. The painterly exuberance and aesthetic sensitivity of work produced in conditions of such austerity is a remarkable achievement.