Boris Orlov

Bouquet in Imperial Style


In Tate Modern

Boris Orlov born 1941
Bronze and oil paint
Object: 1060 × 530 × 225 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2014


Bouquet in Imperial Style 1988 is a painted bronze sculpture displayed on a black podium in two parts. The sculpture incorporates an array of forms which reference communist symbols, from the red star and hammer and sickle to military banners and medals. The ribbons in Bouquet in Imperial Style are reminders of political slogans from the Soviet era; not one in particular, but of political propaganda in general. They could be interpreted as excerpts from war songs or again from familiar Soviet slogans. For example, the word ‘Victory’ can be seen written in Cyrillic script on the left side of the sculpture and in the centre the Russian word Mir, which means both ‘Peace’ and ‘World’. The medals depicted are generic examples created by the artist and represent a general reference to military power and glory.

Orlov was closely associated with the Moscow-based Sots Art movement and was one of the few sculptors among the unofficial Soviet artists of the 1970s and 1980s. Francisco Infante, Komar and Melamid, Dmitri Prigov, and a few years later Leonid Sokov, Alexander Kosolapov, and Sasha Sokolov, were fellow students of Orlov’s at the Stroganov Higher College of Art in Moscow in the 1960s. Between 1972 and 1988 the Rogov Street studio where Orlov, Prigov and Rotislav Lebedev worked became a centre of unofficial culture in Moscow. While many of the Sots artists emigrated to the West, Orlov remained in Russia.

Like the earlier sculpture Military Person 1979 (Tate T14200), Bouquet in Imperial Style ironises the role of the ‘imperial artist’, taking as its subject the rise and fall of empire during the time of perestroika and shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Orlov interprets Soviet power via ancient Greek and Roman art, history and the myth of the hero, bringing irony to the fore in his creation of an empire that does not exist. His work undermines the notion of Soviet power in a way similar to that of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid; an approach seen, for example, in their painting Thank You Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood 1983, which draws upon a Soviet slogan of the time.

Referencing antiquity, archaic totem poles and the opulent Baroque architecture of imperial Russia, in addition to the utopian, constructive aspects of the Russian avant-garde, Bouquet in Imperial Style is characteristic of Orlov’s sculptures, which are underpinned by classical training. Orlov cites as a reference the French-born architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli (1700–1771), who invented an ornate Russian Baroque architecture that combined elements of Rococo with traditional elements of Russian architecture, characterised by multi-coloured and decorative ornamentation on building facades. The artist has noted:

I was immediately interested by the foundations of the imperial style: why, during a period of many thousands of years, were some models repeated time after time. Realizing that I live in an imperial time, I saw that some travelling subjects are blossoming again in the modern realities, but the framework which this exterior is pulled over has the very same structure. I began to study this framework, isolate it, and to search for it like an architectural model. Becoming infatuated with these architectural models, I ended up in Ancient Rome, and in the Byzantine Empire, and in Peter’s baroque. Here we have Rastrelli, David and Napoleon in flowing silk.
(Quoted in ‘Boris Orlov’s Biography’, Saatchi Online, undated, _name=breaking_the_ice, accessed February 2014.)

The artist created Bouquet in Imperial Style by first producing a plaster sculpture which was then cast in three variations in bronze with two editions for each variation, creating a total of six sculptures. Each bronze sculpture is uniquely painted. Four sculptures were cast in Moscow and the final two in Germany. This version was cast in Germany in 1988 and painted by the artist in Moscow the same year. The other versions of Bouquet in Imperial Style are held in private collections in Frankfurt and Moscow and in the Contemporary Art Museum, Moscow.

Further reading
Boris Orlov, The Host of Earth and The Host of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Moscow 2008.
Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960–80s, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London 2012, pp.324–33.

Juliet Bingham
February 2014

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Display caption

The sculpture incorporates an array of communist symbols, including the red star, hammer and sickle and military banners and medals. Made when the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution, it celebrates an empire that does not exist with deliberate irony. Orlov has investigated the idea of ‘imperial style’ in several works. It is, he says, the ‘showy façade,’ masking darker, dirtier historical realities; the play between the two is, in his words, ‘the essence of empire’.

Gallery label, February 2016

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