Arianna Cantarelli dives into the work of the groundbreaking artist who became an underground cultural force
When nostalgia transports us back to the second half of the 20th century, one word quickly comes to mind to the tune of a pop-hit crescendo: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! From the rock’n’roll 60s to the punk movement of the 80s and the politicalisation of the 90s, this period saw daring subcultures relentlessly erode away convention to shape the society we know and thrive in today. But we too often find ourselves shying away from acknowledging the nonconformities of the Soviet Union — perhaps because of its reputation for rigid censorship. However, rebels and creatives were operating just as intensely on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and not without significance. One of the most influential names on this subject is that of Timur Novikov (1958-2002).
An artist, philosopher, writer and musician, Novikov became an active pioneer for the development of Russian art and culture during the 80s and 90s. He found his calling as a frontman for Russia’s wild youth, fighting for concepts that had always been fundamental to his native St Petersburg: innovation and modernity. Novikov was in fact the founder of two progressive artist groups — the New Artists (1982) and the New Academy (1989) — which in turn dominated the scenes of St Petersburg’s underground culture during the perestroika, encouraging young people to embrace contemporary art as a means of social rebellion.
To say Novikov brought change to Russia is an understatement. From his early years, the artist foresaw the revolutionary potential of uniting media and art with mass-culture. His aim was not only to liberate these from their traditional boundaries, but also to liquidate them to the everyday person as a form of self-expression. Novikov was in fact the USSR’s first recipient of a prize dedicated to film design for his work in Sergey Solovev’s experimental cult film AssA (1987), making him the first Soviet media artist.
Moreover, just like his Western counterparts, Novikov began to experiment with technology in the music sphere. He collaborated with the experimental electro group New Composers for example, and even invented his own futuristic, sculpture-like instruments like the utyugon, which was inaugurated as ‘the first Russian synthesiser’. Novikov was also the unofficial ‘band artist’ for Viktor Tsoi’s popular rock group Kino, whose song Перемен (Our hearts demand changes! Our eyes demand changes!) is still sung by buskers as an anthem to freedom today. Recognising music’s power in bringing people together, Novikov was one of the first to introduce rave culture to St Petersburg, organising subversive parties at Fontanka 145 that provided youth with a new space in which they could express themselves freely, without feeling bound by political ideology or local custom.
There is no doubt, however, that Novikov’s strongest legacy is his artworks. Shockingly progressive and unusual for their time, these works were initially showcased in hidden costal towns to avoid complications with authorities. It is arguably the wall-hung textiles developed alongside his own philosophy of Neoacademism that are most compelling; their invitation to become absorbed by classical beauty boldly opposes the Soviet Union’s rejection of decor in favour of practicality. Once again, they hail the city of St Petersburg, echoing its classical architecture, reinstating it as a gravitational centre for the Russian avant-garde. Novikov’s later developments of these compositions, which now featured bold block colour and simplistic symbolic imagery, are today considered to be the beginnings of modern advertising. Indeed, it was these works that would capture the eyes of big names in the Western world, including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.
In an interview with Joseph Brodsky, Novikov explains how the sharp horizontal lines that characterise his later works designate Petersburg as ‘a city on the edge’. At the time, this was probably a reference to a society that was on the brink of a century, looking towards that horizon, impatient for long-awaited changes… and perhaps he was not only talking about Petersburg, but about Russia as a whole. Twenty years on, Novikov’s works are not only recognised as catalysts for that cultural revolution he was fighting for. They also serve as striking reminders that beauty, culture and art never cede — not even under the pressures of government suppression or the bleakness of civil hardship.