Retrospective BORIS MIKHAILOV at The Hague Fotomuseum

Boris Mikhailov, National Hero series (1991), courtesy The Hague Fotomuseum

The successful retrospective Ukrainian Diary of Boris Mikhailov at the MEP in Paris 2022 and later at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, opened at the The Hague Fotomuseum on Good Friday. Mikhailov is considered one of the most influential contemporary artists from Eastern Europe and the most important contemporary artist from Ukraine.

Mikhailov (born 1938 in Kharkiv, Ukraine) taught himself photography, ensuring a pioneering and experimental attitude to his chosen medium, which breaks with many of the medium’s traditions. Add to this a rebellious streak and him not being afraid to challenge stereotypes or dictated rules and this results in a fascinating, moving and at times shocking retrospective.

Mikhailov’s subversiveness is clear from the very start. Take the first photo in this exhibition, a portrait of a soldier (Series National Hero, 1991). Here is what seems to be a military hero. But instead of a ribbon bar, this hero wears a patch of traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

Nearby are photos of slick, athletic young men combined with portraits of Stalin, Lenin and other Soviet heroes. But Mikhailov alters such Soviet propaganda by painting in his photo: the men wear lurid make-up. In other series, Mikhailov uses Soviet Red in provocative or insulting photos.

An accident of negatives sticking together, took Mikhailov into experimenting with superimposing and combining images. It led to his famous Yesterday’s Sandwich series (1966-1968). Other series show him experimenting with colours which have their own specific meaning for him. The exhibition shows examples from his 1991 blue, as well as his green series.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhailov continued photographing ordinary people, now facing a new challenge: capitalism. The regime changed, but people still faced hardship. This is shown in his photographic documentary series Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino (2000 – 2010).

Examples from more recent series can be found in the last few exhibition spaces which contain images from his series inspired by crematoria and Death in Venice (one of two video-installations in this exhibition). Or photo’s from his Theatre of War series (2013).

Starting as an artist under a regime that dictated what could or could not be photographed, means Mikhailov created his own ‘language’, his own codes. Perfecting ‘bad photography’, using overlapping images, applying colours or the lack of them, started as measures to prevent arrest, prosecution, jail-time. But over time, they also stress ambiguity and layers of meaning in images.

To try to understand the ambiguity and many layers in Mikhailov’s photos, one visit to Ukraine Diary may not suffice. Moreover, as during the official opening, the Fotomuseum promises regular life performances by Ukrainian artists – until the retrospective closes on the 18th August.   Kate  2nd April 2024

This exhibition was realized with assistance from la  Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) – Paris; curators Laurie Hurwitz and Boris and Vita Mikhailov.