The East as an imaginary space of creative and spiritual inspiration and as a real place for life and work (the Soviet East was Central Asia) was changed over time. From the late 1920s it became, for many of the artists featured in this exhibition, a territory with special status: it was a place of exile; a destination to which people chose to move in order to escape the strict artistic control of the capital cities; and, for some, an imaginary territory emanating spiritual energy that offered psychological and emotional support in an increasingly totalitarian society. Artistic people involved in the pursuit of secret knowledge were now turning toward a “quiet creative life.”

The upheavals of that time were reflected in the journey of Sergey Kalmykov, an extraordinary artist who remains under-appreciated today. Born in 1891 in Samarkand, Kalmykov studied in Moscow and St. Petersburg, including under Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, and created bold, avant-garde works. In the 1930s, rumors began to circulate that he was of interest to the secret police and in 1935 he moved to Alma-Ata. This move was followed by a curious episode, on the nature of which his biographers disagree. In Alma-Ata it seemed that Kalmykov had lost his mind: he became something of a local madman, wandering the streets in clownish outfits and shouting strange words and phrases. Some believe that the artist simulated madness in order to continue painting abstract works with unearthly architecture and alien-looking fantastical creatures, none of which matched the Socialist Realist canon. Others argue that his madness was real and a form of protective escapism.

Later, Alma-Ata became home to another Soviet artist, Isaac Itkind. The son of a rabbi, Itkind also had a religious education, but chose to devote himself to art and specifically wooden sculpture. He worked in Moscow and Leningrad and was successful, but in 1937, after he took part in the Pushkin Anniversary Exhibition at the Hermitage, Itkind was arrested. Brutally beaten and tortured in prison, until 1944 he was believed to be dead. In fact, since 1938 he had lived in Kazakhstan, in a dugout on the outskirts of Alma- Ata. The locals thought he was crazy. Opinions diverge on the spiritual aspect of his work. In his article for this booklet, Alexey Ulko writes that, “Although Itkind never considered himself an esoteric artist, there is ample evidence that he may have been unconsciously enlightened and worked with the imaginary on the ethereal level, without the need to rationalize his approach.” Other researchers believe that Itkind may have deliberately kept the esoteric aspect of his work secret, knowing that it would not be accepted by Soviet art historians. 

Amaravella, a group of artists who practiced an intuitive approach to creativity and described themselves as “cosmists,” used the space of the spiritual and the unearthly as a receptacle for inspiration. Strongly influenced by Nicholas Roerich, they rooted their work, both in terms of form and narrative, in a wide variety of Eastern and Western mythologies. The story of Amaravella was a tragic one. Some of the group fell victim to the political repressions of the 1930s and 1940s (Vera Pshesetskaya and Sergei Shigolev), some were imprisoned (Aleksandr Sardan) or abandoned their creative projects (Viktor Chernovolenko), and (Pyotr Fateev and Boris Smirnov- Rusetsky) continued to work “quietly.”