The life's work of photography's great trickster and Ukraine's greatest artist
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The life's work of photography's great trickster and Ukraine's greatest artist
De la série « At Dusk », 1993.

by Jason Farago

PARIS.- A new nation needs heroes, but when the mayhem comes suddenly, you take whatever heroes you can get.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union lurched to dissolution and Ukraine prepared to declare independence, photographer Boris Mikhailov fabricated a new self-portrait, wearing a military uniform and looking straight-on like a Moscow official. But on his green jacket, traditional Ukrainian embroidery had been slapped on top of the Soviet insignia. The background was a sickly, pop-pink sherbet. The airbrushing was so over-the-top, the eyes so blue, the lips so rouged, that he looked like a porcelain doll. Here was a “National Hero” for Ukraine’s year zero, but he was not convincing anyone of his valor.

A counterfeit hero: I can think of worse descriptions of Mikhailov, Ukraine’s most influential artist, and the sparkiest and most unpredictable photographer to have emerged from Eastern Europe during the communist era. In the 1960s and 1970s, working in Kharkiv outside official Soviet structures, he devised a new photographic manner that availed itself of cheapness and low finish to discreetly disparage the regime.

Later, in independent Ukraine, he pictured the chaos of economic liberalization in visceral images that pushed the ethical complications of social documentary to the breaking point. His art is mordant. Untrustworthy. At times delirious. It is, also, some of the profoundest art made anywhere in Europe in the past 60 years.

“Boris Mikhailov: Ukrainian Diary,” which opened recently at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, is the biggest show of his life and — to spell it out — arrives as Ukrainian culture receives attention for the worst possible reason. It includes no fewer than 800 photographs, covering almost all of the series he undertook before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are burlesque self-portraits but also straight reportage from the 2013-14 Maidan Uprising in Kyiv, conceptual mockery of “lousy” Soviet pictures, aching collages of poetry and everyday snaps.

Preparations for the show were well underway when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and the war has reformatted “Ukrainian Diary” into a show of improbable resistance: to Soviet repression and now to Russian historical revisionism, to the fraudulence of official communist art and to the global market’s appetite for trauma porn.

Separately, two other Paris institutions zoom in on two series that Mikhailov shot in the first years of Ukrainian independence. The Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce has hung the twilit, blue-tinged panoramas of “At Dusk” (1993), whose wintry obscurity outlines the violent transition to a market economy. And Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve, in the Marais district, is displaying dozens of photographs from “Case History” (1997-98), Mikhailov’s most famous and most controversial series, in which the wretched, the drunk and the homeless of the new capitalist Ukraine take on the roles of martyred saints and holy fools.

This summer, after spending several weeks in Kyiv, I met Mikhailov and his wife, Vita, at their home in west Berlin. It was an anxious time for them: overloaded, disquieted, with overlapping pressures from work and home. Until the pandemic, the Mikhailovs had been regularly commuting between the German capital and Kharkiv, which lies just 25 miles from the Russian border. Now, Ukraine’s second city was being flattened; shells were landing daily, even as western Ukraine found an unsteady calm. The neighborhood of their Kharkiv apartment had recently been bombed; much of Boris Mikhailov’s archive is there, and they knew nothing of its fate.

“War kills our life,” Mikhailov told me in Russian, his native language — which his wife translated for me with varying degrees of fidelity. (A Times researcher translated Mikhailov’s quotes for this article.) “It kills the meaning of life, it kills the past, it kills the future. It kills everything. And now everything is different.”

He was leafing through a proof of the MEP catalog and asking himself if the invasion had nullified this summation of his life’s work.

“There are times when something stays, and times when it doesn’t,” he sighed at one point, doubting whether his images from the Soviet era would mean anything to young people today. “Maybe they will find something new. If not” — and here he switched to English — “bye-bye!”

But to judge from the crowded galleries in Paris this week, Mikhailov’s art has indeed found a young audience, not least for the experimental images of the 1960s and ’70s that filleted Soviet ideology with a light touch and acrid wit. I mingled with dozens of lycée students who were engrossed in his double-exposure color images that superimpose nudes, religious imagery and other forbidden material onto pictures of abundant wheat fields or Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. They pored over his “Black Archive,” shot clandestinely in Kharkiv between 1968 and 1979, in which young women smoke, grandmothers dance and Mikhailov poses nude in a chintzy living room, flashing a wicked grin.

These unofficial pictures were printed on cheap paper; they incorporated blurs and backlighting and too much headroom; the nudes, especially, could have gotten him packed to Siberia. Mikhailov, along with other artists of what’s now known as the Kharkiv School of Photography, could exhibit only in private, usually in friends’ kitchens.

“They were free artists,” Vita Mikhailov said, “because they didn’t think, ‘We should sell for money.’”

And the lack of public opportunities, not to mention a market, inspired a self-sufficiency guarded long after the Soviet censors faded from view.

Mikhailov was born to a family of engineers in Kharkiv in 1938, between two atrocities. A few years before his birth was the Holomodor, Stalin’s orchestrated famine, which killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians as collective punishment for their belief in cultural and political autonomy. By 1941, Mikhailov’s father (who was from the Donbas) had enlisted as a Red Army officer, while his mother (born in a shtetl near Kyiv) escaped west with young Boris just before the Nazis entered Kharkiv and slaughtered the city’s Jews.

He remembers the sirens from those early days, he said; the current invasion is not his first

Kharkiv, even more than Kyiv, had been the crucible of the Ukrainian avant-garde in the first years of the Soviet Union. It was the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proving ground of wildly ambitious constructivist architecture and the hub of a generation of experimental poets and writers. But by the time of Mikhailov’s youth, socialist realism had become the only permitted style, and imagery of the revolution had decayed into Stalinist kitsch.

Mikhailov’s series “Luriki” (1971-85) took found black-and-white photographs of anonymous soldiers and sailors, or of happy families who are all alike, and overpainted them with hand coloring — a common technique in the Soviet Union, where color printing was expensive. These were probably the first artworks in the Soviet Union to use found imagery to capture the Soviet zeitgeist and tweak the regime. Yet their garishness gave him an out with irony-blind censors, to whom he could always explain that he was just trying to make the sitters look prettier.

Frequently his conceptual subversion led him to turn the camera on himself, in performative photography like “Crimean Snobbism” (1982): In sepia-toned prints, we see Boris, Vita and their friends, posing like Italian movie stars at a Black Sea resort town near Yalta. The peninsula is now occupied by Russia, though I also felt another contemporary abrasion; even before perestroika the Mikhailovs and their friends were pouting and flexing like Instagram influencers, playacting as richer and freer than the dominant system allowed. Those desires would recur in his post-Soviet photography, notably the series “Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino” (2000-10), which bitterly skewered the free-market free-for-all of independent Kharkiv, its plastic furniture, its trashy clothes.

Now the war has sent Ukraine into an economic tailspin, and Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid threaten millions with scarcity and worse. Mikhailov never shied from misfortune and crisis, especially in the first years of Ukrainian independence, when the country fell into a spiral of hyperinflation that peaked at 10,000%. A new underclass of homeless people appeared in Kharkiv’s city parks, without any state aid to help them.

Out of that misery came the unshrinking “Case History,” for which Mikhailov photographed Kharkiv’s most desperate people and printed them at billboard size. He frequently had them pose nude, laughing or crying in the snow. He posed them in positions that recall a Pietà or the Descent from the Cross. He showed their chapped, burned, infected skin, their tumorous bellies and misshaped genitals; economic history is written on the flesh. Boris and Vita Mikhailov paid these subjects, and often invited them into their home — the 400 or so pictures of “Case History” were not reportage. They were a requiem for all of the failed promises of both communism and capitalism, a danse macabre on the grave of the 20th century.

The “Case History” pictures have compelled, disturbed and enraged viewers for two decades now, with a corpus of academic literature now trailing behind them. They certainly defy Ukraine’s current projection of itself through viral propaganda, although with their indictment of local corruption, the images in “Case History” also call forward to Ukraine’s two revolutions of the 2000s: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and especially the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, which pushed the whole country, Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking alike, into a new democratic era.

Mikhailov and his wife were in Kyiv during the 2014 revolution, and his images of Maidan display an atypical sincerity even as they bristle with the anticipation of war. He returned to hand coloring for these pictures: yellow outlines of placards, white stripes framing protesters. Black brushstrokes streak above the barricades and wipe across the neo-Baroque, 200-foot Ukrainian independence monument that lords over the capital’s central plaza.

I’d stood there in Kyiv this past summer, looking up at that kitschy angel, who looked back down onto the square that the invading army planned to parade through and never reached. To see it again, through Mikhailov’s eyes, was to see at last how all of the parts fit together: the trashy and the conceptual, the heroic and the parodic, the busted utopias of the past century and the Ukrainian bravery of 2022.

“Soviet history gave us a common culture, and we had a connection to Moscow, but less and less with time,” Mikhailov told me. “And this is why Maidan happened: because people waited and waited and did not get anything.”

He showed me a photo from Kyiv, one more ironic record from a lifetime spent under misrule, and said: “Whatever system there might have been, it was broken, and it brought a lot of grief. But on the other hand, that grief made the country.”

‘Boris Mikhailov: Ukrainian Diary’

Through Jan. 15 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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