The vital and diverse artistic output of Mikhail Magaril is a successful combination of the rebellious aesthetics of the Russian avant-garde of the early 1900’s, the linguistic ambiguities of the early Soviet absurdist literature and the critically-minded playfulness of British and American Pop art of the 1970s. The pureness of color and elegance and simplicity of the outline in his work reveal a distinct influence of the preeminent Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstract art and originator of the influential Suprematism movement. An academically trained graphic artist, Magaril draws extensively on the visual culture of the Soviet avant-garde book illustration, where meaningful arrangements of the image and typography underscore daring linguistic experiments of poets and writers. The deceptive straightforwardness of the message is the artist’s tribute to the didactic aesthetics of Soviet propaganda posters. In his unorthodox reinterpretation of the historical context combined with rare technical refinement, Magaril revisits the theoretical and artistic principles of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

Respectfully appropriating experiences of his multiple predecessors, Magaril departs from their legacy to create a unique optimistic idiom that is full of solid historic references, maverick visual and psychological associations and side-splitting linguistic puns. The original, non-derivative imagery of the Communist past is the main stylistic component of the artist’s work. Ingeniously combined with laconic expressive composition and contrasting the pure palette of the Soviet propaganda poster, the paintings are produced with deliberate meticulousness and conformity of subject-matter and style typical of the pious Soviet artist, serving the needs and principles of the State.

Vehement rejection or denunciation of the Soviet ideology is altogether absent from Magaril’s work. The artist pays a highly personal tongue-in-cheek tribute to the merits of the socialist utopia. His affectionate warm-hearted nostalgia strongly manifests itself through constant reinvention of children’s reading tutorials, coloring books and puzzles and frequent integration of the found objects into the canvas. At the same time, he cautiously introduces the elements of the grotesque, the subconscious and the absurd into the idyllic realm of his rhetorical characters. Gradually, the fallacy of the founding principles of the system is exposed and the human vulnerable nature of its political leaders, cultural icons and regular citizens come to the surface.

In Mikhail Magaril’s tremendous philosophical and artistic undertaking, the Soviet paraphernalia serves multiple purposes: monumentalizing the artist’s lamentation of the demise of the great illusion, it simultaneously becomes a metaphor of ultimate submissiveness, apathy and peremptory absolutism. Drawing on outright familiar indigenous concepts, the artist transcends the national boundaries, bravely invading the universal territories of hypocritical political methods, double-standard practices and brainwashing techniques. Akin to his fellow Pop artists who concurrently idolized and satirized American consumerism, Magaril at once lovingly preserves the form and ruthlessly destroys the message of potent symbols of Soviet ideological coercion, exposing its deceitful nature. The political and cultural symbolism of a once feared state is thus stripped from its awe-inspiring qualities, bringing the Soviet travesty closer to international audiences.

The content of the artist’s work runs the gamut from playful farce as the licentious image of the instigator of the international Bolshevik revolution in Lenin in Paris, to sheer comedy, as in the wooden pink-hued clapping figure of the dreaded oppressor in Hooray from Stalin!. The artist consistently disrupts the original triumphant message of the Soviet iconography with suggestive renegade details. Vladimir Lenin, a non-smoker, is impudently puffing on a cigarette as in Aurora or a peasant—the traditional keeper of Russian soil and thus of fundamental values—is planting coins that will not produce any crops in Utopia, are frequent motifs in the artist’s work.

Even The Black Square, Magaril’s empirical teacher’s masterpiece, falls prey to the artist’s acerbic humor by becoming an integral part of the lemon vodka label. Placing the famous painting into such derisive context, Magaril effectively knocks down its iconic status, suggesting that the legacy of Kazimir Malevich has entered the list of the nation’s emblems, together with its preferred beverage. Occasionally, Magaril elevates his satire to a more dramatic scale, evoking the ghosts of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, viewed by the artist as the ultimate authoritative subversion of a natural world order. Such commonplace object as a cigarette pack with a German shepherd on the cover becomes the instrument of exposure of the similarities of the Soviet and Nazi repressive practices.

The artist proves his deep reverence to nature, endowing it with qualities of a powerful living being capable of mimicking, absorbing and violently rejecting the pervasive ideology. In the midst of the imminent thaw, one obstinate ice-hole retains the form of Joseph Stalin’s profile, keeping a peasant woman kneeling in the worshipful bow. Torn off its traditional solid base, the ubiquitous slogan Our Goal is Communism floats aimlessly in the wintery air. A black crow that stumbles out of the composition carrying a red flag becomes the symbol of the decay of the omnipresent dogma.

In consistency with the general humanistic disposition of his work, Magaril offers an insightful introspection into the personal and social condition of an individual affected by the inequities of the socialist system. Magaril equalizes a congregation of celebrating citizens with a can of peas that are identical in Happiness. He examines natural human instincts doomed to repression in Coloring Books and paralyzes an intrepid hunter with materialized childhood fear in the form of the looming image of Stalin in Hunt. The artist mercilessly erases the woman’s facial features in All People to portray the loss of individuality and submission to absurd principles of the state,

Produced with the highest degree of sophistication, the artist’s delicate mockery irreversibly sends the phantoms of totalitarian history into the realm of the past. Outstanding in its humorous quality, it reminds the viewer that laughter remains the most powerful weapon against oppression of any kind and the ability to withstand it is the ultimate manifestation of freedom of the human spirit.

— Anna Gurfinkel