Boris Orlov

Military Person


In Tate Modern

Boris Orlov born 1941
Wood and enamel paint
Object: 705 × 940 × 95 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2014


Military Person 1979 is a wooden relief painted in enamel. It depicts a Russian military hero bedecked in medals, representing a contemporary equivalent of nationalistic public sculptures. The hero’s head is depicted in profile, dwarfed by the volume of medals displayed across his chest. The sculpture was made in Boris Orlov’s workshop in Moscow, using wood and alkyd enamel. Orlov refers to the technique he used to make it as ‘montage’, with each element made separately and then glued together. The wood was ground before the paint was applied. The work belongs to Orlov’s series ‘Parsuny’ or ‘Military People’.

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 later sculpture Bouquet in Imperial Style 1988 (Tate T14199), Military Person ironises the role of ‘imperial artist’, taking as its subject the rise and fall of empire. 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 slogan of the time.

Military Person refers to the Baroque period of Russian formal portraiture (referring to the ‘personas’; that is, the Russian portraits of pre-Petrine times, almost secular icons representing tsars and nobility) as well as to antiquity, archaic totem poles and the Russian avant-garde. It is one of a series of painted wooden busts created by the artist in the 1970s and 1980s, including Red Parsuna 1977 (private collection, Moscow), Sailor 1979 (collection of the artist, Moscow), Military Musician 1979 (Vladimir Antonichuk Collection, Moscow), Bust in the Spirit of Rastrelli 1982 (Ekaterina and Vladimir Semenikhin Collection, Moscow), Totem 1982–6 (Vladimir Antonichuk Collection, Moscow) and General 1988 (Tsukanov Family Foundation, London), several of which include military imagery. Like these busts, Military Person comments ironically on the inflated status of Soviet officials through the use of an overblown imperial aesthetic.

In referencing the Baroque Military Person is characteristic of Orlov’s reliefs and 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 the beginnings of his interest in this style:

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.)

Orlov’s work has been exhibited internationally in group exhibitions at Le Centre culturel de la Villedieu in 1980, Kunstmuseum Bern in 1988, Stedelijk Amsterdam in 1991, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2005 and the Saatchi Gallery, London, in 2012–13. His work is represented in international collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, and State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 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

For most of the 1970s and 80s, Orlov worked at the heart of Moscow’s non-conformist cultural scene. This relief depicts a military hero in profile, highly simplified and dwarfed by medals displayed across his torso. The absurd exaggeration of the scale of these military decorations, which overwhelm and almost obscure the ‘military person’ himself, comments on the inflated status of Soviet officials. Orlov drew on various visual references including totem poles, early Russian portraiture in which the nobility were portrayed as secular icons, and the Russian avant-garde.

Gallery label, February 2016

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