AICA, Moscow-Tbilisi, 1989

Sarah Wilson, AICA, Moscow-Tbilisi, September, 1989


The AICA trip to Moscow and Tbilisi in 1989 was unmissable :  retrospectively it marks a historic moment in AICA's past, yet one with continuing repercussions.  I kept my AICA bag full of souvenirs, while the black  pottery vase all participants were given in Gerogia, is still loved, as is my commemorative  medal (the bottle of excellent Georgian wine was consumed rapidly). 1989 was a paradigm-changing year : we visited the USSR after the events of Tiananmen Square, Eastern European turmoil and in the midst of Gorbachev’s reforms. We stayed in Moscow in  the Hotel Rossia ­ — as required for foreign tourists

(it is now demolished for reasons relating to asbestos, if not dark stories).  The AICA Administrative Council arrived on 17 September  and held meetings the next day in the Central Artists’ House; that very day I met Alex Sinodov, who would be our English guide, an erudite lover of literature, who became my host for further visits to Moscow and is my close friend. The next day we discovered the Novodevichy Convent complex, with its links to Boris Godunov, the  Kremlin,  its Armoury and on-site monasteries. With Brandon Taylor I went to the Mayakovksy House Museum: not realising at the time the extraordinary importance of the ‘Constructivist’ helter-skelter installation of real documents and fascimiles cascading down a spiral ramp from the room in which Mayakovksy committed suicide.[1] After the Kremlin and Armory , I headed off to the Pushkin with Phyllis Braff, my new American friend.  The meeting with Moscow artists and art critics planned for the Central Artists House is scored out on my programme… but I headed off to see ‘Georgy’s studio’: the studio of the artist George Pusenkoff, already a Moscow-trained computer expert and member of Moscow’s Gruppe 88. It was Georgy and his friends who so generously gave me the Russian Malevich  retrospective catalogue, co-produced with the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1988-89). Pusenkoff would be invited to emigrate to Cologne in 1990, to continue his postmodernist, digital adventures.



On 20 September we departed promptly for Tbilisi on a chartered flight paid for by the Soviet national section. We were greeted with carnations :  the contrast with Moscow was startling in terms of impressive, undulating landscapes graced with huge Soviet-style monuments of female warriors, concrete winged insignia and  complex and impressive memorials, long before one learned that many had been designed by our host, the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. He provided a huge hillside  banquet with many a pomegranate and raw cucumber : fresh vegetables were still rare in the north.  Tsereteli signed his  massive monograph for me — unaware of his future key role in Moscow as Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s quasi-official sculptor, the patron of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and President of the Russian Academy of Arts. A much longed-for siesta preceded a reception with dancers, hosted by the USSR and Georgian SSR Union of Artists  in the midst of a Rufino Tamayo retrospective.


A very formal opening ceremony in the ‘Maly Hall’ of the Shota Rustaveli theatre  included speeches from AICA President Belgica Rodriguez, and A. Vasnetsov, Chairman of the Soviet National section. It was during our discussions around ‘Traditional Art and the Avant-Garde’ and ‘Boundaries and Criteria of Art’, that the Pushkin curator Alexander Yakimovich spoke both movingly and apocalyptically: he would become my most important academic contact and friend, and a visitor to England  in 1990, where he gave lectures at the Courtauld Institute, London, the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow, Winchester College of Art,  and the University of Ulster, hosted by several AICA-UK members.[2] When I gave my own talk I recall  audience members rushing to take photographs of the screen with my French socialist realism slides, as I contrasted the academic David-inspired realism of André Fougeron and Fernand Léger’s modernism. ‘No lunch’ : the papers were too long, to exciting : and ‘no dinner’ too, I recorded, as the King Lear performance, put on in our honour at the Rustaveli Theatre,  was fabulous.   Presumably it was the following day that we discovered Tbilisi, from the naive artist Niko Pirosmani’s own museum to vibrant street art,  and were taken to Stalin’s birthplace museum in Gori.


Retrospectively, the impact  on my own career has been inestimable, involving Moscow colleagues and friends, work on Franco-Soviet relations and later Moscow Conceptualism, plus Courtauld student visits to Moscow — again hosted by Alex Sinodov and Alexander Yakimovich : thank you !  While we discovered this country with its richest and varied range of artistic traditions with wonder and gratitude, we could not fully frame our trip within the spectrum of events in Eastern Europe and the USSR that would herald the ultimate collapse of the superstate, marking the end of the Cold War. Nor could we see it through the eyes of  contemporary specialists such as John Bowlt, who could state confidently in  December 1989:  ‘At long last, Soviet art and art criticism have reconnected with their glorious past. They have also entered into a fruitful dialogue with the West and terms such as Postmodernism and deconstruction now grace the pages of Soviet art and literary magazines….’[3] The congress was covered by the Soviet periodical Tvorchestvo, 1989, no 8. At our  50th anniversary conference in Paris, in 2017, many striking alternative personal recollections were added to mine, which should be cherished and compiled. The 1989 conference was a turning point. 



[1] This experience would be the catalyst for Brandon Taylor’s crucial publications Art of the Soviets. Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one-party state, 1917-1922 eds. Talyor and Matthew Cullerne Bown, Manchester, 1993 ( to which I contributed) and Art and Literature under the Bolsheviks,  vol.1, The Crisis of Renewal 1917-1924 and vol. 2, Authority and Revolution, 1924-1932, London, 1990, 1991.

[2] See itinerary, correspondence between Sarah Wilson and Henry Meyric Hughes, 16 March, 1990 (my object was to offer Alexander a ‘green’ Oxford May Day to contrast with his normal ‘red’ USSR experience : we had a dramatic time together !).

[3] John Bowlt, ‘Some Thoughts on the Condition of Soviet Art History, The Art Bulletin, vol. 71, no 4, pp. 542-550.