Dmitri Vrubel: From Kiss to Bunker
August 29, 2022
  • Anna Tolstova 
    Art historian, art critic
Artist Dmitri Vrubel, who painted The Fraternal Kiss fresco on the Berlin Wall that became a symbol of the end of the Cold War, passed away at the age of 62 in Berlin. Anna Tolstova writes about how the famous work appeared and the various hats Vrubel wore before and after The Kiss.
Dmitri Vrubel began to be called a one-hit wonder as early as the 1990s, but he didn’t take offence – overall, he was of the rare artists unphased by criticism. He only regretted that he hadn’t gotten rich thanks to his world-famous work: out of inexperience, in 1990 he signed a contract with the manager of East Side Gallery by which he waived the rights to the image. When T-shirts, cups and magnets with The Fraternal Kiss were brought back from Berlin, he could only console himself with the fact that his Kiss was almost as famous as Klimt’s.

Vrubel made a number of easel copies of the Kiss, one of which is kept at the Tretyakov Gallery. As for the Berlin Wall, the only fee Vrubel received for The Fraternal Kiss came in 2009, when he restored, or rather re-painted, the fresco, which was peeling off and graffitied over so much that it had to be washed off.
The Fraternal Kiss by Dmitri Vrubel, 1990. Source: VK
The wall

Vrubel himself admitted that the work, which became a symbol of the era of change in Europe and around the world, came about by accident, the result of several fortunate coincidences. At the very end of 1989, someone brought him a Paris Match magazine from Paris with a picture taken by French photojournalist Régis Bossu in October 1979 during the visit of a Soviet party and government delegation for the 30th anniversary of the GDR’s founding: it was the ritual kiss of the general secretaries of the ruling parties of the USSR and the GDR, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker.

The Berlin Wall had already fallen, Honecker was already under investigation. Vrubel in those years was less interested in politics and was redrawing newspaper photographs of party functionaries as “ready-made pictures.” The disgusting shot [of Brezhnev and Honecker], as he said, caught his attention. What exactly – he himself couldn’t really say. It may have seemed like a monstrous parody of Giotto's Kiss of Judas. Or maybe he recalled the politically incorrect joke about the official ritual of fraternization among socialist leaders in the late USSR, where homosexuality was criminalized and sodomy could get you up to five years in prison: if men kiss in an alley, it’s gomoseki [Russian slang for homosexuals], but if it’s on top of the Mausoleum, it’s genseki [short for “general secretaries”].

One way or another, the Bossu shot seemed like good material: during the perestroika years, when Western gallery owners, collectors and curators started coming to the USSR, the aesthetics of Sots Art, which took Soviet ideological clichés to the point of absurdity, became popular among counterculture youth, to which Vrubel belonged. In this context, he began to make sketches based on the fortunate photograph.

The sketches were seen by the poet and conceptual artist Dmitri Prigov, who jokingly said that it would look good on the Berlin Wall. Not long after, Vrubel was invited to participate in an exhibition of the Moscow underground in the GDR, and in the spring of 1990, along with many colleagues from different countries he was already working on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall in the Friedrichshain district, where spontaneously, in the wake of the artists’ enthusiasm and the entrepreneurial spirit of the organizers an open-air gallery was created called East Side Gallery.
Vrubel liked to tell that at first the sketch frightened the gallery management so much that they allegedly decided to have it approved by the Senate of West Berlin: they were afraid that the Kremlin would get angry and not give the green light to the unification of the FRG and the GDR. In fact, Vrubel painted two frescoes for the East Side Gallery: one with a kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker accompanied by the inscription “My God, help me to survive this deadly love” in Russian, and another of the death mask of Andrei Sakharov with the inscription “Danke, Andrej Sacharow” in German. It was a sort of diptych: political officialdom against dissidence, the living dead against those who have been granted immortality by history. But the fresco with Sakharov – a remake of which, until recently, adorned the wall of the exhibition hall of the Sakharov Center in Moscow – failed to attract much attention, while in the blink of an eye The Fraternal Kiss became iconic.

Much in The Fraternal Kiss was new for Vrubel. He had painted only in oils before it and was working with acrylics on a huge surface for the first time – later he would fully switch to acrylics and fall in love with large formats. It was also his first involvement in a collective political action. Later he would get another taste as a builder of Anatoly Osmolovsky's The Barricade, which in memory of the 1968 Paris student protests blocked Moscow’s Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in May 1998. Most importantly, Vrubel, used to the artistic underground and being around others like him, brought his art out into the open for the first time – in every sense of the word.
"The Gospel Project" by Dmitri Vrubel and Victoria Timofeeva, 2008. Source: VK
After the Wall

Vrubel developed as an artist in the environment of unofficial art. He took private lessons from the masters of Moscow and Leningrad nonconformism. Having entered the art and graphic design department at the Pedagogical Institute, he soon dropped out, reasoning that it wouldn’t do anything for him and that his acquaintance with senior students like the Young Conceptualists Yuri Albert and Vadim Zakharov could be continued in a different setting.

From early on, Vrubel belonged to the alternative youth that would later be called the perestroika “new wave:” he was close to the Mukhomory group, including Sven Gundlach and Konstantin Zvezdochetov, was a member of the Avant-Garde Club (KLAVA) and set up a gallery in his own apartment in the mid-1980s.

This artistic life with apartment exhibitions and kitchen gatherings didn’t involve the general public – the audience was basically Vrubel’s circle of artist friends. Vrubel painted both frescoes on the Berlin Wall in one week, but the first reproductions of The Fraternal Kiss appeared in GDR newspapers even before the work was completed. The flurry of publications that followed seemed to knock him off his feet – it would take him an entire decade to swallow and digest the experience.

The 1990s were a time of change for him, both creatively and personally. He found a co-author: starting in 1995 he worked with his second wife, whom he himself taught to draw, and demanded that “Dmitri Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeeva” be recognized as the author of works made after 1995. However, the success of The Fraternal Kiss couldn’t be repeated. Vrubel had just turned 30 when he finished it. The era of globalism entangled the globe in the World Wide Web – in the clouds of the Internet, the socialist leaders clinging to each other on the Berlin Wall would forever be associated with concepts like “the unification of Germany,” “the collapse of the communist system” and “the end of the Cold War.”

Vrubel spent the 1990s understanding why one well-found picture gained Warhol-like fame. Disinclined to theorize about art, he began to think about the meaning of visual communication, the power of the media image, the nature of reproduction and the meaning of photorealism. He realized that his early experiments with redrawing party physiognomies from the pages of Pravda were based on something deeper than Sots Art sarcasm. Terribly proud of supposedly being the first private person who managed to get a photocopier into the USSR, Vrubel was fascinated by the new capabilities of the computer and the Internet as means of reproducing and distributing images. And, while giving credit to the intuition of photo editors, he thought about how a person depicted in the media – in newspapers, magazines or on television – becomes a media figure.

In the 1990s, the word chernukha – denoting the negative aspects of life and the commercial interest of the yellow press in such aspects – firmly entered the Russian language.
“Vrubel had a specific sense of color, and he was occupied with both the yellow and dark press."
Beggars, the homeless, destitute old men and women – the photographs of whom were used by newspapers and magazines in the post-perestroika years as a sign of the times – when painted and placed against a black background, acquired something Rembrandtesque.

Without false modesty, Vrubel said that he was in dialogue with Rembrandt and Warhol in his art. But he had no idea that he was also in dialogue with the Pictures Generation, the American artists of the 1970s and 1980s who played with visual quotes so that old media icons took on new political meanings. At the turn of 21st century, Vrubel and Timofeeva turned into political artists.
"The Gospel Project" by Dmitri Vrubel and Victoria Timofeeva, 2008. Source: VK
Power and media

However, at the turn of the century, many had illusions that contemporary art could become the designer for a new political regime, giving its right-liberal content a progressive form. Alternative culture festivals supported by the Union of Right Forces on the eve of the 1999 Duma elections offered hope for an alliance with the state.

The most striking expression of these illusions might be the colossal painting Meeting of the Federal Assembly by Farid Bogdalov and Sergei Kalinin (2004). The huge canvas was a remake of Ilya Repin's Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council, painted a century earlier – only in place of the tsarist dignitaries there was the political elite of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term. However, unlike the case of Repin, the work wasn’t ordered by the state, which allowed the creators to maintain a certain ironic distance in relation to those portrayed.

Vrubel and Timofeeva were among the first pretenders for the role of court painters. As early as 1999 the image of Putin as “judo master” arose: Boris Yeltsin's sporty successor in a white judogi, coquettishly open on his chest, sat half-turned on the floor, looking intently at something behind him – with a cunning squint, something between Lenin and spy, on an impenetrable face. The work, circulated in two versions – one on a black background and one on a blue background (the latter was called The Ideal Lover) – looked on track to become the official presidential portrait and found high demand among career-oriented connoisseurs of beauty. The judo master was placed on the cover of the flip calendar “The Twelve Moods of the President” issued by Vrubel and Timofeeva at end-2001 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Reminiscent of old physiognomic studies, the portrait gallery seemed to teach the loyal viewer to read the face of the head of state. The project gained the attention of both Putin supporters and critics: back in 2002, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung named Vrubel one of the creators of the emerging "Putin cult."

Besides Putinania, Vrubel and Timofeeva began to paint – of course, not from life but based on media-mediated images – politicians, oligarchs and show business stars, and by the mid-2000s they had practically monopolized the genre of political portraits. Exhibitions in the Federation Council and Duma, partners from Gazprom and the Office of the President, a project for the “revamped” NTV following the breakup of the so-called “unique journalist collective” – subsequently, the artists attributed their flirting with power to the fact that political art should be directly immersed in political life. Yet political life in those years was also marked by a much greater richness of color: a month and a half after the Beslan tragedy, Vrubel and Timofeeva arranged a charity auction and channeled all the proceeds toward the construction of an art school in Beslan – the auction was hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, then a popular TV presenter and now one of the most odious propagandists on TV.

The media success of their flirting with power led the artists to work more and more closely with Marat Gelman, a gallery owner, art curator and political strategist. On the one hand, the couple’s most unfortunate performances are associated with Gelman – for example, Vrubel and Timofeeva responded to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with a collage of dubious wit: a portrait painted from a photograph of the latter dying in a hospital ward accompanied by a phrase in the spirit of the well-known text picture of their friend Yuri Albert, “When I have a creative block, I lie on the couch all the time, I can't get up, I feel really bad.” On the other hand, Gelman acted as the producer for the couple’s best work, The Gospel Project (2008), in which Vrubel seemed to be summing up his 30 years as an artist.

The Gospel Project was based on the same principle as The Fraternal Kiss – in the inscription “My God, help me to survive this deadly love,” many heard biblical overtones, though there were no direct quotes from Scripture in the fresco on the Berlin Wall. This time, photographs found from news agencies or on the Internet were paired with verses from the canonical gospels, and those who are usually captured by World Press Photo – migrants, refugees, invaders, militants, football fans, protesters, police, drug addicts – were presented as the heroes of a single epic. The policeman dispersing the Dissenters' March looked like a Roman centurion, members of the Gopota_ru LiveJournal community like a crowd shouting “Crucify Him!”

The photographs with gospel captions were converted into “rapid-response” paintings: they were printed on huge vinyl canvases, such as are usually used for outdoor advertising, and painted over with acrylics. The technique was simple and effective: the momentary image took on a historical dimension – by increasing the size and adding words from Scripture, the artists forced the viewer to see real tragedy in shots from the news flow stream that have become commonplace.
“Vrubel and Timofeeva put on a different hat, moving from the camp of court painters to that of critical realists, successors of the Peredvizhniki."
Interest in how the contours of eternal history appear in everyday life, how biblical being manifests itself in banal everyday life, can be found in Vrubel's earliest painting, done at the end of 1970s under the strong influence of one of his teachers, Leningrad nonconformist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who was guided by the old masters with their gospel overtones and allusions in the everyday. But in The Gospel Project, this transposition of everyday life onto being was embodied in monumental form, which had not long before been tested by Vrubel and Timofeeva in the Big People project for NTV, when portraits of representatives of the political establishment were printed on banners and hung on the facades of Moscow buildings.

The Gospel Project would have looked much better on the facades than Big People, but in 2008 there was already no room for it in Russia’s public spaces. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of Gelman, the project was shown in museums and exhibition halls in Perm, Moscow and St Petersburg.
Dmitri Vrubel in Berlin, 2009. Source: VK
Emigration into virtuality

In 2010, Vrubel and Timofeeva left Russia for Berlin, saying that “the topics of politics and religion are taboo in Russia” and “the state has declared war on contemporary art.” Soon their open workshop Bruderkunst, which shared space with the famous Russian PANDA Theater in trendy Prenzlauer Berg, became a club and an apartment gallery, similar to Vrubel's Moscow residence during the perestroika years, but with a PANDA-like activist bend. Vrubel's publicist drive was realized in blogging: on his LiveJournal and Facebook pages, he was an implacable critic of the Putin regime. In recent years, he was fascinated by virtual reality and constantly came up with educational and activist VR projects, creating a public museum of world art, acquiring a collection for the virtual USSR Museum, showing exhibitions banned in Moscow, and together with the artist and art therapist Sasha Galitsky opening a virtual branch of the Silver Age Art Museum. He also dreamed of building different models of the “Beautiful Russia of the Future” in the Metaverse to subsequently select from – to implement offline.

The last work of Dmitri Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeeva that could be seen in Russia without VR glasses was made for the ЧА ЩА exhibition by the embattled curator Andrei Erofeev, shown in the Pirogovo Resort cottage village outside Moscow in autumn 2020. It was called Bunker and represented a total installation in a concrete cellar in the middle of the forest. Descending the stairs, the viewer was immersed in some sort of political TV show: all the walls and simple decor of the shelter – table, chair, bed, refrigerator – were pasted over with photo wallpaper featuring the faces of politicians and Portrait of the Era heroes once exhibited in the Federation Council and Duma, while from every teapot and felt boot their official speeches sounded. It was then you realized that it was almost impossible to survive this deadly love.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy