Vitaly Komar Interview with David Glasser: The Yalta Conference

This year Komar and Melamid’s Yalta 1945, first shown at documenta 8 at Kassel in 1987 and later at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, will be on view at the Ben Uri Gallery in London.

Since 2003 the artists have worked individually, but images of the Yalta Conference continue to appear in the works of Vitaly Komar.

Ben Uri Chairman, David Glasserr, met with the artist.

David Glasser (D.G.):

Vitaly, tell me how the Yalta theme first appeared in the work of Komar and Melamid?

Vitaly Komar (V.K.):

Oh, that’s a long story.  I was born in Moscow toward the end of World War II.  When I was just over a year old, the Yalta Conference, that famous meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, took place in the Crimea. The Allies were preparing for victory in 1945 and were negotiating the future world order and the founding of the United Nations.  Many years later, after I immigrated to New York, I saw a photograph of that meeting for the first time.

Quite unexpectedly, the photograph enchanted me. It felt as though some inexplicable power plunged me into a kaleidoscope of contradictory images and impressions from my past and present, my life in different worlds: in the world of Stalin, the world of Roosevelt, and the world of Churchill.

This eclectic, and sometimes absurd, kaleidoscope has appeared on and off in my work, both individual, and together with Alex Melamid.  The best known work on Yalta theme was the multi-panelled Yalta 1945, shown at documenta 8 in the late ’80s.


This year Yalta 1945 will be shown at the Ben Uri Gallery. How would you describe the concept of the installation, and the images in it?


Yalta 1945 is a polyptych consisting of 31 paintings.  Each panel is a 48-x-48-inch square, but the mediums vary: you have oil, tempera, mixed media and assemblage.  Some are on canvas, but a number are on wood.  The different styles of the paintings reflect changes in mood, as well as different periods of art history, which in turn reflects the larger conceptual eclecticism of contemporary consciousness.  For me, eclecticism is synonymous with pluralism and tolerance. All of us have divergent images and conceptual opposite coexisting in our minds. We believe in Darwin, and in God.

My mind is like a ‘Russian salad’ filled with wide array of tastes and textures. I love the art of very different and what you might think are incompatible artists, styles, movements, times and peoples. 

I view the history of art as a whole as an eclectic polyptych, full of contrasts and contradictions. The triptych at the heart of the Yalta photographs is just as contradictory and eclectic as art history, if you think about it. We have the three allies sitting next to one another: the King’s Servant, the Democratic President, and the Bloody Dictator.  For me, the image in this photograph has become a visual symbol of what I call ‘conceptual eclecticism’.

The polyptych begins with the images of Churchill and Roosevelt drawn from the Yalta photograph, but executed in a painterly, expressionistic style; in the second panel Stalin is painted in a traditionally realistic style, and the panel fades into darkness to the right of him.

Next is a conceptual, pop-art rendering of the superpowers’ names abbreviated as a mirror image: US/SU. Then comes a classical ‘Judgment of Solomon’, which was a frequent subject in Renaissance painting. The figure of a soldier holding an infant and a sword symbolizes the post-war division of Europe that emerged from the Yalta Conference.  There is a large industrial fan, symbolizing the ‘winds of history’ in one of the lower panels.

The squares in Yalta 1945 remind me of blocks or puzzle pieces in a children’s game, where the order could conceivably be changed. The images change, but the panels follow a pattern reminiscent of a path through a labyrinth.  In one square an illustration of a Russian children’s story shows a fox holding a roasted duck on a tray, as if carrying it toward the next painting, which depicts a huge nose. A subsequent composition incorporates images of medieval Russian icons into Russian avant-garde motifs. This is followed by an erotic female nude that metamorphoses into an abstract expressionist panel, and then op-art-like geometric ornamentation.  Images follow in quick, sometimes absurd succession like a kaleidoscope version of hopscotch: there’s a pink fish, its head and tail on different squares; a menorah; a panel of fur; a three-dimensional spherical mirror—and all are interspersed with a variety of yellow, green, blue, and red monochromes.

The piece ends with the hybrid image of a blindfolded skull—an attribute of Justice overlaid on the emblem of Vanitas.


Why is the work called Yalta 1945?  The conference was held in secret, but it is well known now that it took place in 1944.


Because 1945 was when the plans made at the conference came to fruition. The Allies won and even though Roosevelt didn’t live to see the end of the war, the idea of a new world order and the creation of the United Nations was victorious.


Why did the photographs from Yalta captivate your imagination and evoke so many contrasting images? Can you recall their origins, or explain the reason for this fascination?


Very well.  I’ll try to play archaeologist and dig down to the earliest layers of my consciousness.

From childhood I was surrounded by images of Stalin, even in my bedroom.  When I was five years old, my parents divorced, and Mama exchanged the photograph of my father hanging next to my bed with one of Stalin.  Like my father, Stalin was dressed in a military uniform.  Moreover, one of the most common honorifics for Stalin was ‘Father of All the Peoples’.

I started school at age seven.  On the first day, the entire class had to proclaim loudly: ‘Comrade Stalin, Thank You for Our Happy Childhood!’. The same slogan hung over the entrance to our school.  The background was red and the letters and exclamation mark were white.  In 1953, when I was ten, the Father of all the Peoples died.  The people were orphaned.  The new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered statues of Stalin to be destroyed and banished his image.

After Stalin died, Mama substituted a picture of the Mona Lisa for the portrait of Stalin in my bedroom.  The previous year, everyone had celebrated the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth.  Almost as many pictures of Mona Lisa, with her famous smile, were printed for the occasion as portraits of Stalin and his famous moustache.  Gradually, the succession of portraits that hung over my childhood bed merged in my muddled head.  Today, when I see Marcel Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa, I am reminded of my happy childhood.

For over 20 years before Stalin’s death, his image surrounded every Soviet person, not just me. Portraits of Stalin were everywhere: in books for children and adults, in magazines and newspapers, in the movies and at exhibitions, on each floor of my school, on the walls and roofs of buildings, and even in the sky.  I later realized that this visual propaganda had been firmly ‘imprinted’ on my young brain.

One time, when I was six years old, I actually saw the real, living Stalin.  Not in my bedroom, but on Aleksei Tolstoy Street.  My grandfather and I were walking somewhere.  Suddenly we were stopped by guards.  A line of identical black cars drove out of the gates of Vyacheslav Molotov’s gothic mansion at high speed. As they passed me, I caught a glimpse of that well known face.  Our eyes met.  Then Stalin disappeared.

My grandfather was an old man, a Jew who had been deeply frightened by the Soviet authorities.  Today I understand why he asked me not to tell anyone about the incident, and tried to convince me that it wasn’t Stalin, just some soldier with a moustache.

Many years later, when I had become a professional artist, memories of that ‘mirage’ were transformed into the painting I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child (1981-82). It became part of a series of paintings that Alex Melamid and I called ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’. Today that piece is in the collection of MoMA in New York.

During my childhood Stalin was often portrayed together with Lenin or other heroes of Soviet history, sometimes even with people whom he had never actually met, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  But I had never seen the photo of Stalin with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt — his allies in the historical victory over Hitler.  As a young man I visited the Crimea, and Yalta, which is a wonderful city on the Black Sea.  I have marvellous memories of the place.  But even in the palace/museum, where the Allied leaders met, there were no photograph of them.


How do you explain this strange absence?


It was probably one of many decisions taken by Soviet censorship during the Cold War.  In those years, Soviet people were shown Churchill and American presidents through the frightening, surrealist lens of political satire.  Gloomy, humourless black-and-white drawings portrayed the Western leaders as evil swine and goat-like devils. It was quite some time before I realized that the mirages of my childhood world were dangerous illusions.

As I said earlier, the first time I saw the photograph of Yalta was in 1978, in New York.  The photograph suddenly plunged me into a kaleidoscope of images that were directly and tangentially connected to different aspects of my life.  I saw the three allies as emblems, three personifications of the three different and incompatible concepts that stood behind them.

I was struck by the conceptual eclecticism of this ‘metaphorical triptych’.  Some of the earliest appearances of this type of symbolic eclecticism were the hybrids in ancient mythologies that combined images of man and beast. In our historical time, photographs of the Yalta meeting combined juxtaposed political mythologies. I saw the image of these three men as a single creature–a three-headed, multi-armed ruler, who combined the contradictions of monarchy, tyranny and democracy.

What brought such different people together as allies?  The answer is simple: a common enemy.  And in fact, one of the first paintings on the Yalta theme, was ‘The Yalta Conference: Excerpts from a Future History Textbook’ (1982) where Hitler appears as a participant in the Yalta Conference, standing like a shadow figure behind Roosevelt (as ET) and Stalin.  Like I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child, this work was part of the ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’ that Melamid and I produced together.


Images of Yalta have appeared at different times in many of Komar and Melamid’s works, including the series ‘50 Public Mural Projects for the United Nations Building in New York’, (1987-95), which I find particularly interesting.  Tell us a bit about that project.


That series originated in a big drama. In 1990, we submitted three mural proposals for a public art work at the U.N. One of them was chosen and approved by the CITYart Foundation, which was overseeing the project. The Yalta image was part of that mural proposal. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the neighbourhood Community Board, which also had to approve the final choice.  At the time, I met with one of the members of the Community Board and he told me that many former Eastern Europeans lived in the U.N. area. For them, he said, Stalin was the incarnation of evil, and they wouldn’t want to see him portrayed at the U.N.  I pointed out that even in Catholic churches depictions of Satan were allowed.  But my argument had no effect. That was when I realized that in America, censorship moves from the bottom up, unlike the Soviet Union where it came from the top down.

Even though the mural project wasn’t accepted, the subject was intriguing, and those first mural proposals grew into the series ‘50 Public Mural Projects’, which we exhibited at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in 1995 in honour of the 50th-anniversary of the end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations.


In 2003, you and Alex began working individually, yet Yalta continued to appear in your work, for instance, the ‘Three-Day Weekend’ project.  Why was that?


Whenever I looked at the actual photographs of the Yalta ‘troika’, my imagination ‘secreted’ three strands of unexpected images.  This ‘secretion’ is similar to the conditioned reflex of salivation in Pavlov’s dogs.  But these visions often seemed absurd to me, and I couldn’t explain their connection to the Yalta Conference.  For example, in one painting based on that photograph, Roosevelt’s body appeared with the head of the alien ET, from Steven Spielberg’s popular film; or in a number of polyptychs from the “Diary” series (1984-85), including The Minotaur as Participant in the Yalta Conference.

Many years later, I began to understand the connection between Roosevelt and the image of ET.  I found a long-forgotten photograph from my childhood, where I am sitting between my parents, in the centre of our ‘familial troika’.  I am in the middle, like Roosevelt in the Yalta photograph. My mother is in the place occupied by Stalin. I think it’s possible that living in America I subconsciously felt that I myself was a sort of ET — an infantile creature from another world, an alien from another planet and another political system.

Once I understood this connection, I began work on the ‘Three-Day Weekend’ project. [In 2006, part of this project was exhibited at the Ben Uri Gallery, D.G.]  In that project, images of the Yalta conference combined with my childhood family photograph and emblems of different religions.  I saw the eclecticism of utopian ecumenism as being connected to my personal biography.

My mother was raised in a family with Jewish traditions, and my father in a family with Christian traditions.  But in the Soviet Union, the country of ‘atheist fundamentalism’, my parents became members of the Communist Party.  Thus the culmination of this project were works in which religious pop symbols were united with political pop emblems like the Soviet hammer and sickle, a symbol of social utopia.

A similar combination can be seen in Austria’s state emblem — a two-headed eagle holding a hammer and sickle in its talons.  It would actually be a good symbol for Putin’s Russia. It’s an old tradition: in the Metropolitan Museum I saw a similar combination in an ancient Byzantine relief carved in ivory: Adam holds a hammer, and Eve a sickle.

Vitaly Komar

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell