In 2020, Russian artist Alyona Kirtsova donated to Garage Archive Collection over 1,500 documents related to the life and practice of her teacher, the underground artist Vasily Sitnikov, an iconic figure in the history of Moscow underground art and founder of an informal art academy. Kirtsova saved Sitnikov’s archive from destruction when, after his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1975, the artist’s relatives planned to dump his papers.
The earliest documents in this collection date to the early 1930s. The archive contains notebooks; diaries and manuscripts; notes and correspondence; sketches, drawings, and reproductions created by the artist; over 150 documentary photographs; business and invitation cards; personal documents; and newspaper cuttings featuring comments by Sitnikov.
Vasily Sitnikov (1915–1987) is a postwar unofficial artist whose practice cannot be defined within the framework of the art movements and creative collectives of the history of Soviet nonconformist art. His creative path was a hugely idiosyncratic art project. He is most recognized for a series of works featuring Russian monasteries in which they are juxtaposed in a paradoxical way with absurd plots and caricature tropes appropriated from Soviet everyday life. With humor inherent in his oeuvre, Sitnikov’s self-portraits show him as a holy fool. His landscapes depicting fields incorporate a metaphysics typical of artists from the Yuzhinsky circle, with whom the artist would later become acquainted. Sitnikov invented methods (“stretching” and “the ball”) for use in his graphic works featuring female nudes. Despite his creative isolation, he was a well-known figure among Moscow’s bohemians. He valued the artistic atmosphere, personal connections, and friendly relationships.
Vasily Sitnikov was born in the village of Novo-Rakitino in Tambov Governorate (now Lipetsk Oblast). His family moved to Moscow in 1921. He failed in his attempts to be admitted to the Academy of Arts and the Moscow Art Institute. From 1935 to 1937, he worked at Mosfilm Studios with the filmmaker and animator Alexander Ptushko. In 1938 he became a laboratory assistant at the Surikov Art Institute, where his responsibilities included displaying slides during art history lectures, hence his nickname Vaska the Lamplighter.
In 1941 Sitnikov was arrested on suspicion of espionage: during a search of his apartment, leaflets dropped by Nazi pilots and weapons that he had collected while digging defensive trenches were found. He feigned mental illness and was declared insane and sent to Kazan psychiatric hospital, where he remained until 1945.
After returning from Kazan in the 1950s, Sitnikov began shaping a school of his own and launched a “home academy,” where he accepted everyone and taught experimental drawing techniques that he had developed. Around the same time, he began compiling a collection of icons and church ware, the most valuable part of which he donated to the Andrei Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Art before emigrating. Sitnikov’s activity as an unofficial artist had a number of negative consequences: KGB officers could come to his apartment without warning and send him to a psychiatric clinic for compulsory treatment, and his official status as a disabled person prevented him from being officially employed or leaving Moscow without a carer. Exhausted by the constant pressure from the security services, Sitnikov decided to leave the Soviet Union and emigrated to Austria in 1975, before moving to the United States in 1980. There he led an ascetic lifestyle with a small number of students and a narrow circle of contacts. He exhibited works at tiny displays of Russian émigré artists and was almost completely isolated from the outside world. In 1987 he passed away in his New York apartment.