This summer, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art presents an exhibition of documents relating to the poetry of Igor Kholin (1920–1999) and Genrikh Sapgir (1928–1999), offering fresh insight into the work of two pioneers of Soviet nonconformist literature. Their names are often encountered together: in literary analysis, in publications on Russian contemporary art, and on children’s book shelves.
Kholin and Sapgir met in 1952 and became close allies. Both were members of the first postwar unofficial community of artists and poets, known as the Lianozovo group, and pupils of its leader, artist Evgeny Kropivnitsky. They worked alongside some of the key names in Russian postwar art, including Oskar Rabin, Lydia Masterkova, and Vladimir Nemukhin. Bohemians of the 1960s and 1970s, their avant-garde poetry was unpublishable until the advent of perestroika. They were heroes of the literary underground, pioneers of samizdat, and featured in the first issue of the samizdat poetry journal Sintaksis, published by Alexander Ginsburg in 1959. Both combined an innovative style of writing with a strong commitment to truth, and a genuine interest in the life of ordinary people. They fused expressionism and realism, with an acute sense of the tragedy of the everyday and the poetics of the absurd. Their funny and moving “barracks poetry” quickly became part of Soviet folklore, often quoted by people who had never read the original texts. Kholin and Sapgir led a double life typical of nonconformist writers and artists of the post-Stalin era: showing their work only to a small audience of friends and admirers, they took odd jobs to make a living. Kholin worked as a waiter at the Metropol Restaurant, while Sapgir was an engineer at the Sculpture Studio of the USSR Arts Fund. Both became famous as authors of children’s poetry, which was read by generations of Soviet kids. Sapgir also wrote scripts for a number of classic animated films.
Featuring recent acquisitions from Garage Archive Collection, at the heart of the exhibition are manuscripts and samizdat publications donated by artist Viktor Pivovarov, some signed by the authors and many including previously unpublished poems. These are exhibited alongside Pivovarov’s illustrations for Kholin and Sapgir’s unpublished works, and his sketches for the album Kholin and Sapgir Triumphant. The exhibition also features typewritten texts from the archives of Leonid Talochkin and Igor Makarevich, as well as photographic portraits of the poets by one of the chroniclers of the Moscow underground scene of the 1960s and 1970s, Igor Palmin. To provide a broader picture of the Soviet nonconformist literary scene and the lives of the two poets, the exhibition includes newspaper articles and journal clippings from Garage Archive Collection and photographs from the poets’ family archives, as well as recordings of Kholin and Sapgir made in the late 1980s by German researchers Sabine Haensgen and Georg Witte, which were featured in the multimedia collection Lianozovo School (1992).
Garage Library presents its collection of books featuring works by Kholin and Sapgir, including collections of poetry and prose published in the 1990s and 2000s; Kholin and Sapgir’s children’s books with illustrations by leading artists such as Viktor Pivovarov, Erik Bulatov, and Oleg Vassiliev; and animated films from the 1960s and 1970s scripted by Sapgir.