Viktor Pivovarov

It Was Dark on the Stairs ...


Not on display

Viktor Pivovarov born 1937
Original title
Na lestnitse bylo temno, navernoe kliuch tam i obronil
Enamel paint on canvas on fibreboard
Frame: 551 × 1002 × 43 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Acquisitions Fund for Russian Art, supported by V-A-C Foundation 2017


It Was Dark on the Stairs … 1994 is a painting in enamel on canvas mounted on fibreboard. The image consists of text in Russian script, presented in a broadly cross-shaped pink box with a dark border. The text, which gives the painting its title, translates as: ‘It was dark on the stairs, maybe that’s where I dropped my key’. The seemingly banal phrase points to wider issues regarding communal living in communist Russia, where long corridors and low lighting presented daily challenges to the inhabitants of apartment buildings, including the building in Moscow where the artist grew up.

The painting is from Pivovarov’s series of thirty-five paintings, Apartment 22 (Kvartira 22), and its use of text is characteristic of the series as a whole. Many of the paintings in the series combine comic-book style imagery with boxes of text (see, for example, (He) Hit Me with a Hammer and Burst into Tears 1992, Tate T14797). The series was produced between 1992 and 1996 in Prague, the city to which the artist had emigrated in 1982. The title Apartment 22 is a reference to the communal Moscow apartment where Pivovarov lived with his mother as a child. Most of the scenes are set inside the apartment building and several contain the image of the mother and the young Viktor. While Pivovarov generally excludes specific period references in these works, he has clarified that the setting is ‘Moscow in the 1950s as [my] own memory can remember it’ (Pivovarov in conversation with Tate curator Antonio Geusa, November 2014). It Was Dark on the Stairs … is one of several paintings in the series in which words form the focus of the painting, highlighting the essential role of words within Pivovarov’s art and his belief that an artist is simultaneously a poet.

While elements of the stories told in Apartment 22 are based on Pivovarov’s personal recollections of daily life in the post-war Soviet Union, the characters, objects and text in the paintings are not directly autobiographical. Instead they are based on extracts from a fictional diary written by the artist. The diary recounts the experiences of his invented character Grigory Sergeevich Tatuzov, an impoverished musician living with his partner Mariya in one of the rooms of Apartment 22. The diary takes the form of notebooks which survive as physical objects. The quotidian theme of the series is complemented by Pivovarov’s use of domestic materials such as enamel paint.

Pivovarov was one of the founders of Moscow conceptualism, an underground art movement that emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Apartment 22 series is one of his most famous works and incorporates key characteristics of his practice. The series has been extensively exhibited as individual works, in groups and occasionally in its entirety, including in Pivovarov’s retrospective exhibitions at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, in 2004, at the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, in 2004 and at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and 2011. Pivovarov was also part of the Sretensky Boulevard Group, a loosely associated community of artists with neighbouring studios in the Russian capital that included Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov. Like many Soviet nonconformist artists, Pivovarov also maintained a career as an official artist, and he was a respected and popular illustrator of children’s books and magazines. This experience is reflected in the style of Apartment 22, whose simplistic design belies an allegory that attempts to expose the underlying mechanisms of Soviet society.

Although created in the 1990s, Apartment 22 epitomises the ethos of Moscow conceptualism. Towards the end of the 1980s, after a period in the late 1970s and 1980s in which he focused more on geometric abstraction and surrealism, Pivovarov returned to producing work more closely linked to his earlier practice. The focus upon the private lives of fictional Russian citizens forced to undergo communal living is a repeated theme that he shared with his close friend Kabakov. This exemplifies Pivovarov’s belief that ‘the stronger the pressure from the outside, the greater the intensity of inner life’ (Pivovarov in conversation with Tate curator Antonio Geusa, November 2014). In Apartment 22 Pivovarov also picked up on his work of the mid-1970s that focused on the theme of loneliness. The artist has described his characters as experiencing the ‘fourth level of loneliness … the attaining of a true freedom and the joining with the infinite’ (quoted in Rosenfeld and Dodge 1995, p.321).

The intricate combination of image and text, particularly in the context of the mundanity of Soviet existence, is a defining characteristic of Moscow conceptualism. In the Apartment 22 paintings, the letters are made to look like rudimentary stencils on a noticeboard, of the sort that were encountered daily by Soviet citizens. The ambiguous relationship to reality is also a key aspect of Moscow conceptualism. While the series is based on a fictionalised account, factual references are woven into the narratives and the false sense of reality highlights the sometimes surreal quality of life in the Soviet Union. Rather than providing an idealised account of life – a feature of the official Soviet art of socialist realism – Apartment 22 instead focuses on what is missing from life. Pivovarov has stated: ‘Mine is not a nostalgic look at my personal past. I would rather say that “melancholy” is the key word to a better understanding of the whole series.’ (Pivovarov in conversation with Tate curator Antonio Geusa, November 2014.)

Two other paintings from Apartment 22 are in Tate’s collection: (He) Hit Me with a Hammer and Burst into Tears and This is Radio Moscow … 1992–6 (Tate T14798). In the former, the setting is an apartment room in which two women are shown sitting at a table, while in the latter, an empty room is shown with a book and half-drunk cup of tea providing the only signs of its occupant.

Further reading
Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge (eds.), Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience, 1956–1986, New York 1995.
Viktor Pivovarov, Oni, Moscow 2011, reproduced p.22.
Ekaterina Allenova and Peter Spinella (eds.), Viktor Pivovarov, vol.1, Moscow 2014, reproduced pp.173, 179.

Julia Tatiana Bailey and Antonio Geusa
January 2015

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