ALEXANDER LABAS: “To See and to Understand This Mysterious and Enigmatic World…"

Natalya Apchinskaya

Magazine issue: 
#1 2011 (30)

An exhibition of Alexander Labas, one of the most original and talented Russian artists of the 20th century and an outstanding figure in the Russian avant-garde art movement of the 1920s-1930s, opened on March 15 2011 at the Krymsky Val building. “I was born at a surprisingly appropriate moment, this century suits me as no other," Labas wrote. The artist admired the achievements of modern civilisation, which he approached philosophically and which, he believed, revealed new depths in reality.

The exhibition features about 150 paintings and graphic pieces from the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, as well as from the private collection of the artist’s heir Olga Beskina-Labas.

The Tretyakov Gallery and the Foundation for the Promotion of Preservation of Alexander Labas’s Artistic Legacy express their gratitude to Rosneft for its financial assistance with the project.

The title of this article is a quotation from the outstanding Russian avant-garde artist of the 1920s-1930s and one of the most original and talented Russian artists of the 20th century, and encapsulates the mission of his art as he saw it.

Labas’s Jewish ancestors were from Vitebsk, and Labas himself first visited the town in the late 1920s, when the Belarus State Theatre toured there with “Duel Between Machines” a production that he had designed. The artist’s visit coincided with a Jewish holiday and, as he later reminisced, he was especially astounded by the fact that in spite of centuries of poverty the people’s faces had a look of “solemn heavenly calm and mysterious joy”1.

Alexander Arkadievich Labas (19001983) was born on February 19 1900 in Smolensk. His mother died when Alexander was a child, and he and his elder brother were raised by their father. The family had artistic talents: the father, who worked for a publisher, was an avid reader, played the violin and painted, while the elder brother was a musical wunderkind. Alexander himself had an excellent ear for music but painting was his real calling in life. He started drawing at a very early age, often depicting what he had seen in dreams. From the very beginning his images were marked by focused introspection and an aspiration to rise (sometimes literally) above everyday life. It was no coincidence the landscape that impressed Labas most strongly when he was a child was the panorama of Smolensk from the top of the Khramovaya Hill, where his family’s house was situated. It was there that the artist saw for the first time the global width and the ceaseless motion of the world.

Labas began his training as an artist at seven, at a private workshop in Smolensk, and continued at an art school in Riga, where the family moved in 1910. In 1912, the Labas family — the father and his two sons — settled in Moscow, where Alexander was to stay for the rest of his life.

In the 1910s and 1920s Labas studied painting and drawing (and the basics of applied art) at Moscow’s major art schools — the Stroganov Imperial Arts and Crafts College (where Stanislaw Noakowski was his favourite teacher), at Fyodor Rerberg’s and Ilya Mashkov’s studios, and at Vkhutemas (the Arts and Crafts Workshops), which were founded after the Bolshevik revolution at Pyotr Konchalovsky’s workshop. He took lessons from Philipp Malyavin, Konstantin Istomin, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Aristarkh Lentulov. He complemented his training with visits to Sergei Shchukin’s and Ivan Morozov’s private collections, where he studied French art, from the Impressionists and Paul Cezanne to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In the early 1920s he mixed with artists from a group called “Method” — Sergei Luchishkin, Solomon Nikritin, Kliment Redko, Alexander Tyshler. In 1924 he accepted Vladimir Favorsky’s invitation to teach painting and chromatics at Vkhutemas. Vkhutemas at that time had a laboratory where Labas and a group of artists and physicists made experiments based on theoretical explanations of optical phenomena.

In 1925 Labas, together with other artists, founded the Society of Easel Painters (OST), and started working as a stage designer. He created sets for productions of “The Trial” and “Krechinsky's Wedding” at the Vera Komissarzhevskaya Theatre, “The Army of Peace” at the Maria Yermolova Theatre, and “The Millionaire, the Dentist and the Poor Man” at the Moscow State Jewish Theatre (GOSET).

By the mid-1920s the artist had laid down for himself artistic principles which he would follow for the rest of his life. Following the manner of contemporary Western artists, such as the Fauvists, Cubists and Surrealists, and of ancient Oriental (Egyptian, Babylonian and Jewish) masters, to whom Labas, as he admitted, felt a genetic affinity, the artist perceived the world as one cosmic whole with a mysterious spiritual foundation; reproducing the appearances of things, he strove to show what lay beneath the reality that was visible to the eye.

Like other 20th-century artists, he arrived at an innovative idea about the painted image that actively interacts with its viewers, rather than lures them into its dreamed-up space. Labas believed his main goal as an artist was to combine the sweep of visual expression with the subtlety of pictorial language — a subtlety that conveys not only the details of reality but also the inner vibrations of life. Painting for Labas is the art of colour, where colour spots and colour contours lead like a melody in a Bach fugue.

Labas, who had lived in Moscow since his adolescence, eagerly watched as it turned into a 20th-century city. Whereas the French Impressionists had captured in their pictures of Paris the features of 19th-century urbanism, Labas, portraying Moscow, attempted to show the urbanism of the new century, where technological civilization, the offspring of scientific discoveries, played a special role. In the painting called “A City Square” (1926, Perm State Art Gallery) Moscow, like the Smolensk of the artist’s childhood, is viewed from a height. The sharp and thin lines and colour spots are used to delineate the figures of marching pioneers, the rows of various vehicles, the streetcar and — a relic from the past — a horse-drawn carriage. Unlike his French predecessors, Labas in this cityscape did not reference any particular locale: the city square seems to exist in a universe and, while featuring specific details, has a universal feel to it.

Introducing into paintings features of technological civilization, Labas was least of all interested in this civilization’s utilitarian and pragmatic functions. Reminiscing about the 1920s, he wrote: “There was a lot of talk then about Einstein’s trail-blazing theory of relativity. We all were very much interested in it, and even if something remained beyond our grasp, I personally learned that space, time, form, matter, and energy were things I wanted to look into closely. To see what was outside and what inside, in the deepest sense of the word. Inner dynamics, inner rhythm — all this, though invisible, is real.”2 Ultimately, Labas showed, not dead mechanisms, but almost animated creatures that were driven by an inner force and appeared to be relatives of their learned creators.

In the watercolour “Laboratory” (1928, Russian Museum) he employed delicate but very solid lines and liberally arranged colour spots to depict not so much scientists at work, as instead the process of thinking itself, incorporeal but permanent.

The piece “The Train Is on Its Way” (1928, Russian Museum) depicts the mysterious connection between time and space. The train is shown with nearly half of its form over the horizon (it is unclear whether it is departing or arriving), but its dynamism, linked to the flow of time, is lent to the semi-abstract space with the rail track that almost seems to collapse on viewers.

Among the images of new technologies created by Labas in the 1920s and 1930s, flying machines, both real and imaginary, are especially worthy of attention.

Antoine de Saint Exupery in his book “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Terre des hommes) wrote that aeroplanes were not just machines but instruments of learning as well. For Labas, flying machines first of all emblemized mankind’s aspiration to fly in space, as well as their exposure to a different reality of a higher order.

The piece called “They Are Riding” (1928, collection of Olga Beskina-Labas) features a huge glass capsule holding inside it ordinary Muscovites, some standing in different poses, others reading a newspaper. The mysterious missile carries them away into the unknown... In another painting created from the same year, “In the Cockpit of an Aeroplane” (Tretyakov Gallery), Labas elected not to feature the authentic details of an aeroplane and the space surrounding it. Instead, he conveys the extraordinary character of the scene mostly through the humans’ dematerialised elongated bodies that seem to be charged with energy (they have something in common with Giacometti’s sculptures).

Labas’s painting “The Zeppelin” (1931, Tretyakov Gallery), a true masterpiece, became symbolic of the entire body of his artwork. A huge radiant gold and grey zeppelin resembling a mysterious space ship is either about to take off or has just returned from a different world; the people filed up on the ground may be its passengers or aliens from outer space.

The equally acclaimed piece “The Zeppelin and the Orphanage” (1930, Russian Museum) features colourful figures of
children that seem to be materializing from cosmic space and, over their heads, the silvery arrow of the zeppelin shooting ahead as the promise of their future.

A less cosmic, but nevertheless a meaningful and visually expressive image is presented in the 1932 watercolour “The Zeppelin over a City” (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), which features urban buildings with solid texture and tree tops, filled with inner dynamism and emanating a strange light, forming one whole with the soaring zeppelin.

Although Labas in the 1920s was mainly interested in the marks of modern civilization, his artwork also regularly featured images of nature interpreted in a similar philosophical and visionary vein. In 1924 he created a series of watercolours “Sochi”, with one of the drawings titled “Telegraph by the Sea” (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). The slim telegraph pole highlighted with red co-exists with lush vegetation that seems to be the product of an inhuman, otherworldy energy. The remarkable 1928 picture “In the Evening, on the Way to the Aerodrome” (Tretyakov Gallery) also shows off the strength of this natural energy. High trees with roundish tops, a road, the earth under the grass — all this has a solid texture but at the same time twinkles, vibrates, blends with the surroundings and seems to be a materialization of spirituality which is also symbolized by an airplane shaped as an insect barely visible in the sky.

In the 1930s and later, when the campaign “against cosmopolitanism” was already underway, Labas could not avoid the repressive pressures of the state apparatus. Until the mid-1960s he was banned from participating in major exhibitions, and museums did not acquire his works. Later he wrote: “Intransigent and frank as I am, I did not fool myself and understood that under high-sounding slogans the political climate was changing toward reaction, and reaction would reign for many years”3. In 1937 his brother was arrested and executed on trumped-up charges. Throughout these years Labas was kept afloat morally by great love. In 1935, in the Crimea, he had met the young German artist Leony Neumann, who had previously studied at the Bauhaus School under Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee; soon they married, and Leony become his loyal wife and companion supporting him in his struggles to survive in life and in art.

As an artist Labas saved himself in the 1930s by working in the theatre and creating wonderful dioramas and panoramas that soon won international acclaim. At a time when high art was purposefully reduced to naturalism and simulation, Labas boldly elevated the inherently mimetic genre of the diorama to the level of high art. Synthesising the techniques of decorative painting, fresco, sculpture, stained glass, minting, wood, and majolica, the artist created fine works conveying the mysterious depths and panoramic sweep of their themes, and of existence as such. Such works include Labas’s diorama representing the Republic of Georgia at an allunion agricultural exhibition in Moscow, a panorama of the Soviet children’s camp “Artek” presented at an exhibition in New York, and a panel titled “Aviation” made for an international show in Paris.

During World War II Labas stayed in Tashkent, where he accomplished a series of watercolours featuring huge trees with sky- bound tops and colourful people who, in his own words, are endowed with “the characteristics of age-old noble-mindedness”. Labas wrote about the Tashkent of that period: “Sultry summer days under a dazzling sunlight that seem to be pouring from outer space — here the sky seems closer, and eternity more palpable. Colours here are different, unusual for the European eye. An absolutely different atmosphere, as if from the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. I wanted to convey the immortality and antiquity of Oriental beauty, which seemed vulnerable in those horrific years...”4

After the war Labas continued to paint Moscow cityscapes, the Moscow Metro with moving upward escalators, created many portraits, and worked as a book illustrator (in particular, he designed illustrations to Thomas Mann's novel "Joseph and His Brothers"). But perhaps the most distinguished pieces among his legacy from that period are the series of watercolour views of the Crimea, the Baltic republics and "Podmoskovie", the area around Moscow. Although free of the visionary quality of Labas's pictures from the 1920s and early 1930s, these images have the main characteristics of the artist's vision and captivate with the unusual freshness and beauty of their visual language.

The watercolour views of Dzintari from a series accomplished in 1970 feature a clear sky behind a layer of haze, or the sky at sunset over a strip of the sea and a beach, either deserted or crowded with vacationers. The artist lends to all of his pieces a cosmic feel and seems to be expanding the boundaries of his watercolour pictures.

In a watercolour from the “Last Summer. 1983” series the train leaves behind blurred spots of trees, the passengers on the platform form an amazing colourful bouquet, but, as usual, the whole scene takes place under a high and boundless sky. In this piece, created several days before he died, Labas remains his usual self — an artist in love with the world around, but also an alien who came to it from outer space.


  1. Quoted from: Labas, Alexander. A Memoir. Compiled by Olga Beskina- Labas. - St. Petersburg, 2004. P.45.
  2. Quoted from: Labas, Alexander. A Memoir. Compiled by Olga Beskina-Labas. St. Petersburg, 2004. P. 42.
  3. Quoted from: Labas, Alexander. A Memoir. Compiled by Olga Beskina-Labas. St. Petersburg, 2004. P. 49.
  4. From Labas's diary. Private archive of Olga Beskina-Labas.

The illustrations are printed with the permission of the copyright holder Olga Beskina-Labas.





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