The Russian expressionist painter, Oscar Rabine, is known best to the anglophone world for being the primary instigator of the infamous Bulldozer Exhibition of 1974. However, it is his late wife, Valentina Kropivnitskaya, who is the subject of this documentary. Framed against her family life, state persecutions and other tribulations, In Search Of A Lost Paradise charts Kropivnitskaya’s development as an artist in her own right. Garnering interviews with friends and family, many of whom are noteworthy artists or writers themselves (Oleg Tselkov, Ludmila Ulitskaya), the film succeeds in painting a picture of a creative life, little known outside of its immediate circle.
Growing up in an artistic family, Kropivnitskaya first developed her creative side as a poet, before experimenting with etchings and other printmaking techniques. However, it was the apparently benign media of coloured pencil and watercolour that resonated with the artist. Forfeiting the polemic representation typical of her husband’s work, Kropivnitskaya focused instead on developing a rich and vibrant world populated by dreamy anthropomorphic creatures. The closest comparisons one can draw would be to the work of artists like Henri Rousseau or Frida Kahlo, both of whom are known for their ‘naïve’ styles, but neither of which match Kropivnitskaya’s delicate approach.
Strong sanctions against the arts were commonplace in the Soviet Union. Unless one was a member of the Artists’ Union, which required one to paint the party line, there was little hope of exhibiting artwork publicly. Even though Kropivnitskaya’s drawings and paintings didn’t openly criticise the state, they would have been censored nevertheless. She had exhibited her work in London following the family’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, in the late 1970s, but this did little to bring the artist out from obscurity.
In Search Of A Lost Paradise is the result of a four-year research process initiated by its writer and producer, Alexander Smoljanski. Working together with the BAFTA-winning documentary filmmaker, Evgeniy Tsymbal, the pair weave a compelling narrative. In terms of its style and delivery, the documentary is very traditional, but its stylistic austerity actually benefits the story, because there is little to distract the viewer from the subject. Rabine’s presence is prominent throughout and it is, at times, difficult to refrain from comparing his work to Kropivnitskaya’s. However, this film does offer a window into the history of the Second Russian Avant-Garde. It has already been awarded Best Feature Documentary and Best Editing at the Portsmouth and Southampton International Film Festivals respectively and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the rare and idiosyncratic arts.