Mikhail Lazarev

Magazine issue: 
#1 2011 (30)

The “Year of Russia in Italy” opened on February 16 in Rome with a major exhibition of the classic of Soviet art Alexander Deineka, whose oeuvre has become a part of the international cultural legacy.

In this issue we publish an article in which the famous art scholar Mikhail Lazarev offers an assessment of the great master’s artwork that differs from the prevailing one.

A unique figure in 20th-century Russian culture who played an active role at moments when this culture was going through dramatic changes, Alexander Deineka experimented with modernism in his young years, before later becoming one of the cornerstones of Socialist Realism.

In terms of his style, Deineka experienced at least three transformations: in the 1920s, in the 1930s and in the 1940s-1960s. Reality set out for him (as for others) its cruel rules, but he was probably the only artist to have made such radical shifts in his work.

Those memoirs that exist about him tell different stories. His fellow student at the Surikov Institute Nikolai Yeryshev recalled: “Deineka, as I see it now, was a hostage of the [political] systems; as a person incredibly gifted and, most importantly, sensitive to the spirit of the times, he was driven by an ambition to create a new, Soviet style of art ... based on the cult of health, sport, labour and what followed from it — a new life, new family, new way of life. <...> Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka was a leader. He could not see himself as anything other than that. Deineka was either revered or loathed.”1

The art scholar Andrei Chegodaev had different memories to share: “I knew Deineka for many years, very closely. For me he was different: a soft-mannered and cultivated person, shy and thin-skinned, with little taste for romantic words but a romantic to the core of his being, a person whose mind employed grand categories and ideas but who at the same time was able to lock himself up in a most intimate lyricism.”2

In art publications Deineka’s oeuvre has been treated, if not as a sacred cow, then as a paragon of perfection. His shifts from one stylistic mode into another are taken as a natural evolution. He was indeed a great master; even in his works of the 1940s-1950s, having polished up his Socialist Realist style to a state of full conformity with the standards of “the spirit of the Party and connection to the masses”, the artist elevated this style to a nearly “ideal” level and, because the qualities inherent in Socialist Realism were imaged so exhaustively, to the point of absurdity. Yet, even this was a manifestation of his ability to find a fitting solution for a problem. What is more important is that Deineka was a universally gifted artist and remains one of the brightest luminaries of the 1920s, most of all on account of his bold experimentation.

The myth of his creation features cities full of “light and air” (the Constructivists’ favourite image) filled with the masses lined up in files and marching in step. The same people take up sports en masse and are devotees of the cult of health, which Deineka relentlessly promoted to ensure that the masses procreate spry and cheerful builders of socialism. The artist wanted to be an oracle predicting in his art a happy future, but in fact he turned out to be only a romantic dreamer. Overall, his art lies at the intersection of the future and the past, and his utopian projects were being carried out at a time when the masses lived in misery and uncertainty. Deineka confused great poverty and heroic feats, depicting women hauling unwieldy wheel-barrows and forced to put on a cheerful smile toiling away at the construction of new industrial plants.

In 1921 Deineka finished Kharkov Art College after he studied in Kursk from 1916 to 1917. Then Deineka was admitted to Vkhutemas (the Art and Crafts Training Workshops) in Moscow. There, the teachers’ very diverse views on art defined greatly varied educational methods. Deineka chose the workshop of the head of the department of graphics and printing arts, Vladimir Favorsky, as his professor: both a theoretician and a practitioner, Favorsky had studied in Munich — first at the famous Simon Hollosy school, then, majoring in philosophy, at a local university — and went on to round off his education in art studies at Moscow University. That time witnessed the great popularity of the theoretical concepts of an exponent of the formal school in art scholarship, Adolf von Hildebrand. His book “The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture”, translated by Favorsky and Nikolai Rosenfeld, was published in Russia in 1914. Favorsky incorporated into his theory of composition several definitions and tenets laid out in the book. Under Hildebrand’s influence, Favorsky, who believed that space was the primary characteristic of an artistic image, and that world outlook was space outlook, put at the centre of his theory and practice the problem of the relation between plane and space. At Vkhutemas he lectured on the theory of composition. Deineka assimilated Favorsky’s theoretical principles, which became for him a reference point in his artistic explorations. In this respect he was a rare breed among Soviet artists because he constructed composition relying on a theoretical foundation, not empirically or emulating some classic examples. In his writings, Deineka more than once argued that artists in their work should link theory to practice.

The spring of 1924 saw the opening of the “First Polemical Exhibition of the Groups of Active Revolutionary Art”, which would go down in the annals of the history of world culture. The participating associations included the most radical groups, one of them “The Association of Three” whose members were students of the Vkhutemas institute’s printing arts department — Andrei Goncharov, Alexander Deineka, and Yury Pimenov. They exhibited illustrations, including illustrations for books and magazines, non-decorative paintings and graphic pieces, models of stage sets and sketches of costumes for stage productions.

Critics labelled the works of the three artists “expressionist urbanism”. Deineka put up on display the pieces called “Football” and “Two Figures” (1923). “The 1924 painted composition ‘Football’,” wrote Tatiana Malova, “is a kind of manifesto of the new association”.3 In 1925 Deineka left Vkhutemas without receiving a degree.

The creative focus of “The Association of Three” was largely the reason for the establishment of the grouping called “OST” (the Society of Easel Painters). The most forward-looking group of artists in the 1920s, OST was a fellowship of young creative individuals fresh out of college, and this fact had an impact on the content of OST’s charter — the “Platform”. Among other “lines of work”, the charter listed the following: revolutionary modernity and clarity in the choice of storyline; eagerness to achieve absolute perfection in figurative non-decorative painting, drawing, sculpture, in the process of further development of the recent achievements in the area of form; eagerness to create finished pictures; orientation at young artists. Thus, OST’s ideology completely coincided with Deineka’s artistic and political principles, many of which, in turn, were exactly the ones that saw the group come to fruition.

OST’s members came from varied artistic backgrounds, this diversity being one of the society’s main virtues. OST united both proponents of unrestrained and colourful picturesqueness, such as the admirers of the French paintings at the Museum of New Western Art, and advocates of austere graphic forms. Mutual support and heated discussions caused the artists to polish their skills. It was this environment of reciprocal exacting assessment within OST that shaped Deineka’s artistic individuality. Abram Efros, one of the most influential critics of the 1920s, noted that OST was the only group that could digest and incorporate into its work all that was meaningful in the most diverse “-isms”. This is especially true with regard to the OST artists’ earlier works, for instance, Deineka’s “Portrait of the Artist Konstantin Vyalov” (1923), which was clearly influenced by post-Cubism and slightly evocative of the work of Nathan Altman.

Critics friendly to OST praised the earnestness and innovativeness of Deineka’s formal experimentation, the sharpness and topicality of the goals that he set himself. But there were negative comments as well. The art critic Frida Roginskaya, who was a leading ideologue of the State-sponsored “AKhRR” (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), published in the “Art for the Masses” magazine an article very typical of the debates going on in the late 1920s-early 1930s. Often art “criticism” was in fact a political accusation in disguise, and the accusing critics went on to make brilliant careers by taking the helm of the Soviet Academy of Fine Arts. Roginskaya’s article too smacked of political accusation, although only in a small way: “The entire path of OST has been a zigzagging route, a meandering route. In this respect the social nature of its art, as an art of a group of intellectuals, shows itself with special clarity. OST first vacillated already at their second show, which was flooded with a stream of expressionist pictures, gloomy morbid grimaces and convulsions. It would be naive to explain this by the influence of the German Expressionists, whose exhibition took place in 1924.”4

Some of OST’s members, including Deineka, were influenced by a 1924 exhibition of German art in Moscow; it should be mentioned that such interest in German art was not accidental. The young German and Russian artists of that period shared common revolutionary convictions both in politics and in art. The Bolshevik leaders of Soviet Russia believed Germany was the “weakest link” in the system of world imperialism, the next country, after Russia, to be swept by a Bolshevik-style revolution — it was expected in 1925 — with the help of the Comintern’s agents. That was also the reason behind the cultural exchange: in 1922-1923 in Berlin the First Show of Russian Art took place, and in 1924 in Moscow the First Universal German Art Show.

As the former OST members would say decades later, they were immensely impressed by the German works — vehemently expressive, and politically and defiantly graphic as they were. With some of them, most of all Pimenov and Deineka, the works of the Germans apparently influenced their approach to composition and drawing style. But there is another aspect even more important. It is hard not to see emotional and partly thematic points of convergence between Deineka’s anti-NEP (New Economic Policy) drawings and George Grosz’s pieces full of grotesque satire. Igor Golomshtok offers this description of the images: “As in a silent movie, we witness a long file of grotesque characters born in the crucible of war and destruction: the pig-like newly rich with fat cigars, prostitutes with gaudy make-up and in furs, criminals, drug addicts...”5

Trained at Vkhutemas as an illustrator, Deineka worked from 1924 as a staff artist at the magazine “Atheist Labourer” (Bezbozhnik u Stanka), and later for such magazines as “Red Crop Field” (Krasnaya Niva), “Projector” (Projector), “30 Days” (30 Dnei), “New Generation” (Smena), and “Come On” (Dayosh). These jobs were not only a means of making his living for the artist, but, in the words of the author of a fundamental monograph about Deineka, Vladimir Sysoev, “working as a magazine illustrator, Deineka developed the stylistic approach to form that would become the mainstay of his artistic repertoire and become integrated within the holistic nature of his craft.”6

The “Atheist Labourer” magazine passionately crusaded for the replacement of one religion with another — namely, Christianity with Communism (here it is appropriate to recall Deineka’s alter ego in poetry, Demian Bedny, with his words, “Priests are freeloaders who live by hook and by crook”). Deineka created dozens of illustrations for this magazine, full of humour and sarcasm, and on the whole, the themes of his graphic pieces of this time were diverse.

Assignments from magazines meant that Deineka travelled extensively around the country accumulating impressions from real life. He conceived of the world around him as the sum total of its constituent elements. Historically, everyday life in the communal apartments of the 1920s as captured by Deineka is especially interesting. The sparse compositions featuring keenly observed marks of the times, on the street and in homes, are the very essence of Deineka’s imagery, and reveal a natural bond with the works of the best writers of the age — Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pilnyak, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Andrei Platonov, Yevgeny Zamyatin and even Daniil Kharms.

Sports occupy a special place in Deineka’s art. An athlete himself, he knew a great deal about the subject, which is reflected in many of his excellent pieces, such as, for instance, the famous drawing “Skates” (1927), which captures, very emotionally, the evening charm of a skating-rink in Moscow, with music, and with ice-skaters speeding along, their skates tracing white vignettes on the dark ice. All through his life Deineka was fascinated by the theme of sport as the cult of a strong and healthy body — he addressed it in his drawings such as “Near the Finish” (1926), “Skiers” (1927), “Hockey”, “Football” (both from 1928), and “Workers’ Neighbourhood on the Outskirts of a City” (1929). Arguably, this theme culminated in what can be called one of the best Soviet posters ever — “Woman Athlete” (1933). In several graphic pieces he created in the 1930s, united under the title “Cross-Country Race”, the robust blueeyed blonde runners definitely point to the artist’s fondness for the Aryan epic.

As was mentioned above Deineka forged his “grand style” in his drawings. In 1924 he went to Donbass, a visit that yielded such paintings as “In a Drift” and “Before Going Down a Mine”. In these pieces, the artist attempted to construct the typical appearance of the modern proletarian. Created in 1925, these pieces were displayed at the first exhibition of OST in the same year. The art historian Vladimir Kostin reminisced that “the artist entirely ignored the idea of painting as an art of faithful and exquisite harmonies of colour conveying the scenic richness of nature — the idea deeply entrenched in the minds of many of us, then-emerging artists and art scholars ... The big, nearly completely black figures of coal miners, as if taken from different backgrounds and different places, these black silhouettes against the white background of the canvas were depicted as if they were on a par with the mining machinery . In effect, not a single artist of that time was able to come up with an image of the worker that was so convincing and faithful to reality.”7

Working on the pieces exhibited at the first show of the OST group, Deineka was shaping his style. His long-standing interest in philosophy and the theory of art (inspired by Favorsky), especially the problem of space, propelled him to look for an almost scientific method in the construction of composition. Kostin believes that Deineka’s art was distinguished by graphic contrasts between white and black as well as by the contraposition of shapes, background and nearly monochrome colour schemes. Deineka became immensely popular immediately after OST’s first exhibition.

At OST’s second exhibition in 1926, the centre of attraction was Deineka’s painting “Building New Industrial Plants”, which not only reproduced the graphic style of his first two compositions but also deepened and elevated it so much as to herald the birth of an original monumental style. Kostin in his memoir writes that “[the painting] astonished many viewers with its verisimilitude, highly condensed imagery, visual vigour and specificity in the depiction of the new person.” Like some of Deineka’s later works, this piece cannot be called a painting in the full sense of the word. Rejecting traditional standards, Deineka created what today would be called an object — in essence, a large graphic mural definitely revealing avant-garde influences.

In 1927 and 1928 Deineka produced two new pieces, the remarkable “Female Textile Workers” and “The Defence of Petrograd”: some art scholars believe that the latter “went down in the annals of the history of Soviet painting as one of its greatest achievements”. To this day a debate continues about whether Deineka could have been influenced by a composition of Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) “Students of Jena in the Fight for Freedom Against Napoleon. 1813” (1908). The fundamentalist scholars claim the resemblance is “a matter of accident”. But this is far from being the case. One of the most insightful and knowledgeable critics of the 1920s Yakov Tugendhold wrote about “the impact of the Swiss artist Hodler, with his dynamically (sometimes even choreo-graphically) unfolding composition and rhythm of body movements — the impact that lends to some pieces created by the artists from OST not only monumentality but also a certain quality of affectation.”8

“Female Textile Workers” differs from Deineka’s previous pieces in that its imagery is distinguished by an even greater compression. The images of the tools evoke the techniques of geometric abstraction. In this painting the artist enhances the ornamental, decorative element in the representation of environment, in combination with, and as a contrast to, the persuasive figurativeness of the images of barefoot female workers. The “two branches” of art originating from the past — abstraction and realism — merged to become a single whole in Deineka’s work. “OST pursues the cause of the avant-garde,” was the comment in the 12th issue of “Projector” magazine from 1926.

However, the political atmosphere in Soviet Russia was changing for the worse, and divisions within OST escalated. In 1928 Deineka quit OST and left the “Atheist Labourer” magazine and, in cooperation with a group called “October” founded the magazine “Come On”, guided by the principles of Constructivism, to which Deineka was committed.

Both the “Come On” magazine (under the patronage of Nikolai Bukharin) and Deineka himself were criticised in the press ever more vigorously. One such piece of criticism reads: “Certainly, the fact that Deineka portrays people dancing the foxtrot is not the problem — the problem is how he portrays them. Representing this aspect of Soviet reality, Deineka seems to be in his element. There is still something that provokes his sympathy, he is lenient to some aspects of what he portrays.”9

“Comments” of this kind were issued by critics — “people of art” who would be completely forgotten later, such as Borzyatov, Vyazmenskaya, Tsirelson, Chetyrkin (see Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita”) — who were in control at the “Art to the Masses” (Iskusstvo v Massy) and “Proletarian Art” (Proletarskoe Iskusstvo) magazines, semi-official publications that were in fact the Party’s mouthpiece.

At that period, in the early 1930s, the nation, inspired by the “father of all nations”’s call to “fly highest of all, farthest of all, quickest of all”, was in the grip of aeronautic rapture. The Soviet Union was indeed very advanced in terms of its aviation. Such pilots as Valery Chkalov, Mikhail Gromov, Sigizmund Levanevsky, Mikhail Vodopianov, Vladimir Kokkinaki and many others were celebrated in the same fashion as Yury Gagarin would bask in glory 30 years later. Fond of aviation as much as he was of sports, Deineka made it the theme of a series of paintings featuring the human soul soaring over a chasm. Deineka mixed this seemingly purely technical idea with lively, exciting depictions of nature, examples of which include such paintings as “Rain and Airplanes over a Sea” (1932) and “Future Pilots” (1938). During those otherwise “blithe” times the most prominent Soviet aircraft designers, including their leading figure Andrei Tupolev, were being held in Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison.

According to an order issued by the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1932 “On the Restructuring of Literary and Artistic Organisations”, which aimed to ensure a more efficient management of artistic human resources, artists were organised into a sort of a collective farm named the “Union of Soviet Artists”. The remains of a humanist Russian culture had disappeared by then, its culture and exponents replaced by “Soviet culture” and the “great Soviet people”.

The writer Boris Khazanov characterised the sea change that happened in culture thus: “One can hardly fail to notice how quickly society transforms during 1925-1935 — the crucial decade in the history of State-sponsored literature. Faces are changing, educated individuals disappear, the language becomes simplified, thinking flattens... the regime becomes crystallised. The paradox of the variety of literature in cultivation becomes apparent: it pontificates about the new man and relapses into old, moth-eaten aesthetics. Uncompromising rejection of innovation is its main feature.”10

Undoubtedly, on the surface Deineka was a collectivist person who expressed the consciousness of the masses, and not the emotions of the individual. Yet, he was a completely “buttoned down” person and one can only guess what he was thinking more deeply inside himself. It was only at the time of such great troubles that Deineka suddenly displayed a truly human, astonishingly lyrical side. As if “insulating himself” against external reality, the artist took refuge in the world of humanism and beauty. The 1930s saw the flowering of Deineka’s talent as a painter. “Winter” (1931) is a true masterpiece where the artist captures with marvellous sensitivity the child’s experience of living through the wearying time of a short winter day, capturing the snow behind the window as well as the warm coziness of the room with a “Constructivist” window the length of the wall, which immediately lends to the picture a sharper modern feel. Deineka’s legacy includes only a few still-lifes (among them the “Dry Leafs” series created in the 1930s), but on the rare occasions he set out to capture a still-life, he did an excellent job, as in other genres. A case in point is the sunny picture “Sleeping Child with Cornflowers” (1932), filled with tender admiration and anxiety over the vulnerability of true beauty. (In Soviet art, a still-life without at least one token of the “Soviet” domestic routine was considered a leftover of the capitalist past).

Deineka regularly visited his favourite city, Sevastopol — the city of the sea, the southern sun, airplanes, seamen and ships. The pieces he created there, “Sevastopol. Evening” and others from 1934, are richly evocative of the Black Sea ambiance.

In 1935, by a sheer miracle, given that the USSR was then ever more tightly insulating itself from the outside world, Deineka visited Western Europe and America. One can only guess what sort of feelings he felt when he left his homeland, given the chance to draw a deep breath in an entirely different atmosphere, and to look around without fear.

Deineka’s French pieces, featuring Paris under its characteristic veil of pearly gauze, are magnificent. Equally charming are the views of Italian cities scorched by the southern sun — in them Deineka obviously used some of the techniques typical of contemporary European art. In Italy Deineka was enraptured by the work of Michelangelo, whose attitudes to the world and art he seems to have found congenial. The sharp portraits created in America are splendid as well.

In 1938 Deineka accomplished a monumental project he had long dreamt about — the mosaics for the Mayakovskaya metro station in Moscow. Arguably, this work, by the architect Alexei Dushkin, is a splendid example of the synthesis of visual art and architecture. But, as researchers justly point out, people today are unable to understand most of its visual symbols, which are too closely related to the age when the composition was created. From 1941 to 1943 Deineka worked on mosaics for the Paveletskaya subway station.

In the beginning of 1941 Deineka accomplished a major painting, “Left March”. Not unexpectedly, some critics praised it, but it did not stir up as much emotion as the artist had hoped for. Largely thought of as a large illustration to Mayakovsky’s poem of the same title, the piece seems transitional and internally inconsistent: an important political topic is treated in the painting style typical for the beginning and the middle of the 1930s.

This relative failure was made up for in 1942, when Deineka created his masterpiece of politically-engaged painting, “The Defence of Sevastopol”, where he deviated from historical truth to a considerable degree. The picture marked a sea-change in Deineka’s work — whereas “The Defence of Petrograd” had been dominated by formal and artistic aspects, in “The Defence of Sevastopol” a decidedly political concept was expressed with the language of exaggeration typical for the genre of battle scenes. The painterly expressiveness previously distinguishing Deineka’s imagery gave way to an expressiveness of gestures and poses in “The Defence of Sevastopol”. (As has been noted earlier, blue-eyed blonds always remained Deineka’s favourite models, especially in his sports-themed pictures.) Deineka evolved as an artist, and the sentiments of future generations of viewers of his work would also change too.

Deineka the artist paid all that was due to the theme of World War II. His wartime legacy includes an assortment of drawings, from quick sketches made on the front line to studio compositions that became historical documents of indisputable value. That period also yielded a series of paintings, the most famous among them “Outskirts of Moscow. November 1941” (1941). After the war Deineka’s progress as an artist was uneven. The period from 1946 through 1948 witnessed a new round of political repression in culture, and the entire nation was mobilised to fight Impressionism, a campaign that did not leave Deineka unscathed: in 1948, under the excuse that some “formalist” trends were to be found in his teaching method, he was demoted from the position of director at the Moscow Institute of Decorative and Applied Art to that of an ordinary instructor. However, he “exonerated himself” with his later work.

Let us leave aside his mosaics for the lobby of a conference hall at Moscow State University (1956) and the Palace of Congresses at the Moscow Kremlin (1961) — assignments that demonstrated the artist’s technical skills squeezed into the narrow mould of a public contract. His most famous post-war paintings are worth noting: “Relay Race Along the Garden Ring” (1947), “On the Vast Construction Sites Near Moscow” (1949), and “Opening of a Power Plant on a Collective Farm (Kolkhoz)” (1954) show an amazing symbiosis between Deineka’s typical monumentalism, on one hand, and a trend toward naturalist illustration coupled with false-looking enthusiasm of the characters, on the other. In “Conquerors of Space” (1961) the rockets look like toys; only the large size of these compositions recalls the “exemplary” works of the 1920s.

These pieces gained Deineka membership of the Academy of Fine Arts of the USSR; in 1962-1966 he held the post of vice-president at this institution and was awarded the honorary title of Hero of Socialist Labour. In 1964, he received the Lenin Prize for his mediocre mosaics “A Good Morning” and “Hockey Players” (both created 1959-1960). Alexander Labas, Deineka’s fellow artist from OST and one of the best painters of the 20th century, wrote about that period and the “petty and conservative” people around Deineka: “Little by little Deineka too became like them <...> Undoubtedly, in a different environment he would have developed different traits, which are pretty much extinct by now And perhaps the artist Deineka would indeed have become the greatest artist of our times.”11


  1. Yeryshev, Nikolai. White Geese on White Snow. Orenburg, 2006. P. 27.
  2. Chegodaev, Andrei. “Alexander Deineka". In: “Art in the Soviet Union". Moscow, 1984. P.41.
  3. Malova, Tatyana. ‘The Association of Three’. In: Russian Art. 20th century. Research and Publications. Moscow, 2008. P. 284.
  4. Roginskaya, Frida. “The Face of OST". In: "Art to the Masses". 1930, No. 6. P.9.
  5. Golomshtok, Igor. Totalitarian Art. Moscow, 1994. P. 51.
  6. Sysoev, Vladimir. Alexander Deineka. In two volumes. Moscow, 1989. P. 62.
  7. Kostin, Vladimir. “OST (Society of Easel Painters)”. Leningrad, 1976. P. 38.
  8. Tugendhold, Yakov. Art of the Revolutionary Era. Leningrad, 1930. P. 151.
  9. Konnov, F., Tsirelson, Ya. The Exhibition of ‘October’. Under the Sign of ‘Left’ Rhetorics. In: Art to the Masses. 1930, No. 7. P. 13.
  10. Khazanov, Boris. The Wind of Exile. Moscow, 2003. P.52.
  11. Labas, Alexander. Memoirs. Compiled by Olga Beskina-Labas. St. Petersburg, 2004. P. 67.





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