Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Ilya e Emilia Kabakov, The Happy Idea (detail), 2002. Collezione Lia Rumma, Napoli. In comodato a Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Napoli. Foto © Amedeo Benestante. | Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Happy Idea (detail), 2002. Lia Rumma collection, Naples. On loan to Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples. Photo © Amedeo Benestante.

Considered the father of Russian conceptualism, Ilya Kabakov (Dnepropetrovsk, 1933) attended art school in Moscow and, as an activist and theorist of the Conceptual Art movement in Moscow, in 1972 formed a circle of Muscovite intellectuals who frequented his Sretensky Boulevard study group. Though he had exhibited in Europe since 1965, the opportunity to leave the USSR came only in 1987. In America in 1989 he met Emilia (Dnepropetrovsk, 1945), a distant cousin and a concert artist. After their marriage, they produced all their later works together.

From the outset the artworks by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov favored a subtle interplay of relations between visual and verbal elements. Images and objects from everyday life are interwoven with personal experiences set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the totalitarian mythology and the conditions of life in post-Stalinist Russia, presenting an analysis of the universal human condition, often depicting dramatic aspects of life mediated through the filter of irony. Objects and images from everyday life are so stripped from their usual settings as to become symbols of the deep-seated contradictions in Soviet society and by extension of contemporary society.
The Kabakovs’ style exudes a poetic fantasy that expresses a dream world, probably shaped by his work as an illustrator for children in Russia in the 1950s. The works from recent years play on a radical transformation of space by means of striking theatrical machines that act by immersion on the viewer, altering the usual space- time coordinates. These “total” installations render by contrast bare and minimal places: an abandoned school, the interiors of apartments or hospitals, made using cheap materials and lit by dim lights, shaping a story at the intersection between art and life, where a skewed vision of history and the past encourages a critical investigation of the present.

The Happy Idea (2012) is a large canvas, seemingly inappropriately set on a pedestal, as if to challenge the third dimension. In reality, the back of the painting conceals some delicate silhouettes set between the stretcher bars: impalpable, they form snowy wings of paper. On the front a painter, viewed from behind, is seen painting at the easel in his studio. A traditional scene, and the pictorial rendering is equally traditional. The apparent normality of the scene, however, is disrupted by an incongruous detail: a white band painted in the left-hand corner of the work breaks with the realistic representation of the subject. When examined more closely, both sides of the canvas show a clear correspondence between the forms of the wings positioned on the back and the defect on the front, amplifying a deliberate ambiguity, destined to remain unresolved and heighten the sense of estrangement and the evocation of freedom in the work.

The Happy Idea belongs to the series of works dedicated by Kabakov to Charles Rosenthal, an avant- garde painter who died young in early twentieth- century Russia, as well as the artist’s fictional alter-ego. Over the years Kabakov has produced a body of work that corresponds to Rosenthal’s entire production, a selection of which was exhibited by Kabakov at The Strange Museum, a complex installation presented in Lia Rumma’s gallery in Milan, transformed for the occasion into a hypothetical late nineteenth-century museum.