Space in Soviet and Russian art (PICS)

Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight turned life in the Soviet Union literally on its head. Space exploration became the country's pride and joy, and a major theme in art, both official and unofficial.

The space theme was literally everywhere in the USSR: paintings, posters, building/subway mosaics, postage stamps. Artists drew inspiration from the image of Gagarin, cosmonauts in space suits, the starry sky and, of course, futuristic rockets. Here are just a handful of their cosmic creations.

1. Belka and Strelka Fly in a Rocket, 1960

The successful flight and return to Earth of the world’s first cosmohounds, Belka and Strelka, caused a sensation. They became so popular that their images were replicated everywhere from New Year cards (pictured) to matchboxes.

2. Alexey Leonov. Above the Black Sea, 1968

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov is known primarily as the first person to conduct a spacewalk. But he was also an artist, who depicted his flight in a series of paintings.

3. Boris Okorokov. Goodbye, Earth! 1970

Having been kept for many years in Poland out of public view, this monumental five-meter canvas was recently restored and returned to Russia.

4. N. Babin, I. Ovasapov, I. Yakushin. Glory to Soviet Science. 1977

These three artists co-authored many Soviet propaganda posters. They depicted the country’s achievements in the field of cosmonautics in official canvases that inspired national pride.

5. Anatoly Plakhov. In Open Space. 1977

Graphic art master Anatoly Plakhov was fascinated by cosmism, a space-themed philosophical movement that emerged in Russia at the turn of the 19th century. He created several works fancifully combining cosmic imagery with mythical objects and constellations.

6. Erik Bulatov. Brezhnev. Soviet Space, 1977

Erik Bulatov’s paintings resemble Soviet propaganda posters. That said, the artist was an exponent of Sots Art, and his hypertrophied depictions of Soviet symbolism are intended to ridicule the “abnormality of that life that our minds perceived as normal.”

7. Yuri Palshintsev. Cosmos mosaic panel in an underpass in Rostov-on-Don. Late 1970s–early 1980s

The southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don is famous for its underpass mosaics. Down there are some real masterpieces, recognized as objects of national cultural significance. One of these underpasses is entirely space-themed.

8. Petr Belenok. Untitled. 1980

The link between humans and space inspired unofficial artists, too, among them Petr Belenok. Through astronomical objects, he expressed his idea of the structure of the Universe.

9. Nikolay Vechtomov. UFO. 1983

Speculation and legends about cosmic objects and human connection with extraterrestrial civilizations quickly became a fashionable topic. Here’s avant-garde artist Nikolai Vechtomov's depiction of a UFO, the most popular myth in the Soviet world.

10. Mikhail Borisov. We Are Peaceful People. 1983

The working life of cosmonauts aboard the Mir ('peace' in Russian) space station was portrayed by artist Mikhail Borisov, who showed that, in addition to being heroes and important scientists, they are also ordinary people just doing their job.

11. Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid. To the Light. 1983

Komar and Melamid, the creators of Sots Art, which poked fun at the official art of Socialist Realism, addressed Soviet realities in a deliberately poster-like manner. It is not hard to see in this outstretched hand the allusion to Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, who were hailed as having brought the benighted country into the light.

12. Andrey Plotnov. Portrait of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. 1986

Andrey Plotnov painted one of the best-known portraits of Yuri Gagarin. Incidentally, he was personally acquainted with his subject, which gave his work special resonance.

13. Shalva Bedoev. Earth. Under a Peaceful Sky. 1987

In this diptych, native Ossetian artist Bedoev depicted a mirror image of space and Earth.

14. Gennady Shurshin. Humanity Will Not Remain Forever on Earth. 1988

Shurshin fantasized about the exploration of outer space and the colonization of other planets, even signing his work with a quote from the founder of Russian cosmism, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “Humanity will not remain forever on Earth.”

15. Mikhail Pyaskovsky. The Earth Listens triptych. 1988

Soviet artist Pyaskovsky paid tribute to space industry workers back on terra firma, who undeservedly remain in the shadows. Not as celebrated as cosmonauts, nevertheless they play an equally important role.

16. Evgeny Korneev. On the Way. Korolyov. 1988

The picture shows the moment before Gagarin’s flight. His final act is to shake the hand of the man who made spaceflight possible, Soviet engineer,  true genius, and the father of practical astronautics, Sergey Korolyov.

17. Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubossarsky. Blue Light at Shabolovka, 2010

Artists continue to reflect on the space theme to this day. One of the most famous contemporary pop-art duos, Vinogradov and Dubossarsky, here play with a real photo: Gagarin drinking a cocktail on a New Year’s TV show. A reminder that the hero cosmonaut is still a regular guy.

18. Doping-Pong Group. Gagarin, 2016

Members of the art group Doping-Pong create paintings and digital graphics in a retro-futuristic style. Their works combine modernity with Soviet aesthetics: pioneers, athletes and, of course, space.

19. Pavel Pepperstein. The Ear of the World. 2017

One of the most important figures in Russian modern art, Pavel Pepperstein imagined the year 2333 and what a center for the study of cosmic sound would look like.

Most of the above works are on display as part of the “Space As Art” exhibition at the ROSIZO Exhibition Center in Moscow till Sept. 26, 2021.

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