Adelaida Pologova, Sculptor par excellence. "... And Keep My Trace Intact"
From November 2016 to February 2017 the Tretyakov Gallery presented an exhibition of the exceptional sculptor Adelaida (Alla) Pologova (1923-2008), the Tretyakov's first solo show of the sculptor's works and the first museum exhibition since Pologova's death almost a decade ago. The exhibition "... And Keep My Trace Intact" presented 47 sculptures created throughout a career that lasted for half a century, from 1956 to 2006, of which 23 came from the Tretyakov Gallery's definitive collection of Pologova's work, and 24 from the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and private collections, including that of the sculptor's family.
Once, when asked to name sculptors she admired, Pologova said: “Anyone who takes my breath away.” There is no doubt that she herself possessed that rare quality of a true master.
Pologova’s work was never fashionable, but always relevant, and always ahead of its time. Some of it receded with the legendary 1960s, but its true plastic artistry, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, evokes "kindly sentiment” and will always be there.
William Mayland, art scholar
Fellow sculptors always valued and admired Pologova’s work. For her contemporaries, her work was the gold standard of sculpture, and Pologova was the accepted leader of her generation, “sculptor number one”, as the artist Dmitry Zhilinsky called her. Many of her prominent fellow artists greatly admired her work; among them, Illarion Golitsyn, Andrei Vasnetsov, Daniel Mitlyansky, Dmitry Shakhovskoy, and others.
Adelaida Pologova with her son Alyosha and aunt Anna Pologova. 1955
Photograph. Family archive of Adelaida Pologova
Every one of her new creations is a moment of joy! The imagery! The originality! New space! New solutions! How could God fit so much talent into such a small woman? I burn with jealousy, but my joy quickly takes over: behold God as He reveals Himself to us in sculpture.
Daniel Mitlyansky, sculptor
Adelaida Pologova belonged to the artistic “generation of the 1960s”. After a long period of state control over aesthetics and artistic expression, Pologova and her fellow sculptors (among them Nina Zhilinskaya, Dmitry Shakhovskoy, Andrei Krasulin, Irina Blumel, Tatyana Sokolova) turned to contemporary themes and a new plastic language. Even her earlier works reveal her forceful disregard for traditional norms as she unleashed her creativity and developed her own independent idea of the world around her. Pologova, a free and profoundly original artist, created works that never fit into the narrow concept of the “Severe Style”, or any other definitions.
Pologova was the first to show to her fellow sculptors, artists, poets and members of other creative professions that the artist could remain true to him - or herself, not following anyone’s example, or joining any group if one has got one’s own substance and creative core.
Anatoly Kantor, art critic
Adelaida Pologova began her art education in her native city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in 1942. It was in Sverdlovsk that in 1923-1925 her father worked as a stage designer at the Lunacharsky State Opera Theatre, and echoes of early childhood memories of the theatre would later reveal themselves in many of Pologova’s playful works. In 1948 Pologova graduated from the department of painting at the local art school, and was immediately accepted to the Moscow Institute of Applied and Decorative Arts, the most liberal art school of the post-war period. In 1952, when the Institute was proclaimed a hotbed of formalism and was closed down by the state, Pologova was transferred to the Leningrad Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design. She graduated in 1955 with a degree in “architectural and decorative sculpture”. Her son Alyosha was born the same year; he would always remain her favourite model.
One of Pologova’s early works that drew the attention of both her fellow artists and critics was her large-scale sculpture “Maternity” (1960, concrete, paint; private collection, Moscow), which was exhibited at the notorious “30th Anniversary of the Moscow Union of Artists” show at the Manege Exhibition Hall. The sculpture was a traditional enough composition that still managed to irritate the bureaucrats “in charge of art”. A nude reclining female figure is gently embracing a small boy, who is reaching out for her; in the words of the sculptor Dmitry Shakhovskoy, Pologova’s work stood out among others because of “its serene, self-contained power of sculptural form”, further enhanced by the rather daring lack of proportion between the two figures. “Pologova was trying to create a contemporary, non-naturalistic image of the human body that was also far removed from the canons of classical sculpture,” wrote the art scholar Yury Gerchuk, her contemporary. The official criticism Pologova’s work received during the Manege exhibition was followed by other penalties: she received no commissions and had problems exhibiting her works. None of this, however, discouraged Pologova; even as a young artist, she was always “persistent, tireless in her pursuit of her own path and asserting her vision,” wrote her biographer, the art scholar Valentin Lebedev.
Pologova’s best early work is her sculptural portrait of the legendary pianist Maria Yudina. The sculptor would later acknowledge that meeting Yudina was the most important event of her youth - their long friendship started during the war, in Sverdlovsk, where Adelaida was attending the local art school and Yudina lived after evacuation from Moscow and gave piano concerts at the local philharmonic. At 80, Pologova remembered: “Back then, during the war, I simply brought her flowers and came to her concerts; it made me incredibly happy to see her. I was a very young girl then. Later on, after the war, I saw her again at the Favorskys. To me, everything about her was enchanting. I remember this one concert she gave at the Museum of Fine Arts; we left the museum together, and I do not remember what exactly we were talking about as we went down the stairs; she said: ‘My dear Alla, we are all Soviet martyrs!”’ Pologova’s sculpture “M.V. Yudina” (1967, bronze, Tretyakov Gallery) is one of her most powerful and tragic works - the figure of the older woman, monolithic, heavy, and stooping, seems to be constrained by an invisible enveloping force; with the urgent expressiveness of the great musician’s hands, the image of deep suffering, intensity and powerful energy is complete.
Tender lyrical images shape another important theme in Pologova’s art. “Birds Do Not Fear Him” (1965, earthenware, paint under glaze; Tretyakov Gallery) is a small sculpture of a reclining nude boy that creates the feeling of perfect calm, trust and fragile harmony - a state that, it would seem, only a child can achieve. As it glides over the glazed surface of the sculpture, the caressing light appears to envelop the figure with a fine cloth.
In her two-figure composition “The Boys (Alyosha and Mitya)” (1970, gilded wood and paint; Russian Museum) Pologova reveals the fragile, complex inner world of a child growing up. The poignant, elongated and slender figures of the 15-year-old Alyosha Pismensky, Pologova’s son, and his friend Mitya Derviz appear to convey that for the first time in their young lives they are confronted with a difficulty; the two boys are standing so close that it seems that their feet, right next to each other on the small base they share, are mirror images. The two friends are not looking at each other, wrapped up in their own, no longer childish, sad thoughts. The boys’ faces reflect the sculptor’s exquisite mastery of her medium - and the mother’s tenderness: by smoothing wood with sandpaper, Pologova adds softness and subtle colour to the surface. In contrast, the rest of the figures are executed with expressive, rough chisel strokes, with an occasional area of natural wood texture left untouched. Here, like in many of Pologova’s works, metaphorical meaning is expressed through the selective use of gilt. In 1973 Pologova’s “Boys” took their rightful place in the halls of the Grand Palais in Paris during the highly successful exhibition of sculpture from Soviet museums, “The Great Tradition of Russian Sculpture in Wood: from Antiquity to Today.”
Grigory Anisimov, an art scholar, told the story of the artist Viktor Popkov’s reaction to seeing Pologova’s sculpture (tragically, Popkov died in 1974, still a young man). “Once (I think it was in 1970) Viktor Popkov and I went to see an exhibition of works by young artists in Kuznetsky Most. As we were leaving the exhibition hall, in the space by the exit usually reserved for the decorative arts, we saw ‘The Boys’, a two-figure composition by Alla Pologova, modestly displayed in the corner. Transformed by Pologova’s hands, the gilded wood of the sculpture was radiant and vibrant. It was amazing to see how the artist created harmony, grace and music from the pedestrian lime wood. Pologova’s boys were not just two young humans - they seemed to be celestial beings that found themselves on Earth. Full of light, they projected extraordinary, heavenly sweetness, innocence and kindness.
“Viktor Popkov took a long time looking at the sculpture; he appeared pensive and intense. For a while, Popkov was lost in thought; eventually, he said in a quiet voice: ‘I would think that it is only in Heaven that one could come across such golden boys...’ His voice trembled; he sounded a bit sad, even tragic.”
Pologova’s sculptures are impressively diverse and remarkably innovative. Thus, “The Swimmer” (1973, bronze, metal, copper sheet, wood base; Tretyakov Gallery) creates an unconventional, slightly theatrical representational image of a pretentious “queen of swimming”, set against the backdrop of the sculptor’s gentle irony. Intentionally contrasting materials - the sharp, rigid plasticity of the bent metal and the soft, fluid bronze shapes - are wonderfully expressive.
“Self-portrait. Sculptor and Sculpture” (1977) is an unusual composition. This essentially genre motif of “rest after work” in this case does not speak of repose, but rather presents the viewer with a continuing dialogue between the artist and her beloved creation. “It is very hard for me to say goodbye to my works. For me, they become living beings. I feel like for a while they still stay with me, even after they have been taken away from my studio,” wrote Pologova. The moving outlines of the complex, unfolding composition is steeped in rotating rhythms and an unexpected variety of angles, providing a rare example of a sculpture within sculpture.
Pologova’s portraits are vividly expressive and personal. Most of her models were people of creative persuasions: the pianist Maria Yudina, physicist Alexander Kazansky, sculptor Gennady Lankinen, painter Alexander Bogoslovsky the younger, artist Boris Kocheishvili, and art scholar Valentin Lebedev. All of these portraits are memorable due to their unusual imagery and innovative techniques. Often, to draw the viewer’s attention to her models’ essential kindness, Pologova gives them wings reminiscent of angels: “Art Scholar V.A. Lebedev and His Muse” (1981), “Veterinarian Doctor A.V. Pimenov of the Village of Gremyachevo” (1987).
Pologova’s favourite genre was that of the full-size portrait sculpture. In her “Artist B.P. Kocheishvili” (1977, wood, levkas (gesso), paint; Tretyakov Gallery) the sculptor portrays her friend and student in a spirited conversation with someone that we cannot see: Kocheishvili is sitting across an armchair, surrounded by partitions that represent the interior of a room. He accompanies his animated story with energetic gestures of his thin, expressive hands. His dynamic figure draws the surrounding space into its orbit, as it is transformed by his powerful energy. Kocheishvili remembered that the sculptor started her work by carving her model’s hands with spread fingers; unfortunately, they “came out too short, and one of them fell off right away.” Kocheishvili, who was there to witness the creative process, “went to the forest and spend a long time there looking for ten twigs that looked like his fingers, made comparisons with his hands, and finally found what he liked. Alla was delighted with the idea and immediately replaced the thick wooden fingers of the sculpture with the twigs.” The composition “Art Scholar V.A. Lebedev and his Muse” (1981, bronze, Tretyakov Gallery) is dedicated to Valentin Lebedev, Pologova’s friend and the premier authority on her oeuvre, and his dog Artem. The sculptor gave one wing to each of the figures, which symbolizes both the unbreakable bond between the human and the dog and their typical state of exhilaration, when both feel that “wind at my back”. The dog reminds the viewer of the winged Pegasus, the symbol of inspiration and contemplation. In his left hand, the male figure is holding a rolled-up manuscript, an attribute of his profession. Indeed, Pologova’s works are full of masterfully chosen details, such as the wings in synch with the dog’s pointed ears and the man’s big finger resting on his right knee, cast in counter-relief.
Pologova’s ceramic sculptures are worth a separate mention - from the early 1960s, this ancient material became one of her favourites. Small ceramic sculptures filled all the shelves that lined the walls of her Vladykino studio. They served as a testing ground for her to try new creative approaches and techniques she would later use in her large-scale compositions, as well as experiment with shapes, colours, complex glazing techniques and other types of coatings (“Rooster on Egg. Cheese Bowl”, 1990; “Parca with Squirrel in a Spinning Wheel”, 1995). Pologova’s unbounded creativity flourished when she used this pliant material for her intimate, small-scale works.
Wood sculpture (the first wave of this medium’s revival dates back to the early 20th century, when Sergei Konenkov, Anna Golubkina and Stepan Erzya all worked with wood) is an important part of Pologova’s oeuvre. What sets Pologova’s sculptures aside is the use of paints in rich colours, following the Archaic, Ancient, Medieval, and Russian folk traditions of painted woodcarving. “For me, sculpture always comes in colour,” said Pologova. Sometimes she painted the entire surface of the wood, with a layer of levkas (gesso) underneath it, the result being a solid cover of paint, with no gaps. These highly decorative works (“Vitus Bering” (1987), “Spring on the Oka River” (1988)) project a joyous and vibrant feeling reminiscent of folk art. Sometimes Pologova combines rich colours with the decorative effect of warm ochre wood, as well as natural wood texture (“Make Time to Sing a Lullaby” (1983) and “Go and Keep My Trace Intact” (1987)).
The model for the sculpture “Veterinarian Doctor A.V. Pimenov of the Village of Gremyachevo” (1987, wood, levkas (gesso), paint; Tretyakov Gallery) was Alexander Pimenov, the sculptor’s neighbour - Pologova took up residence in Gremyachevo (a village in the Kaluga Region) when she converted a barn into a cozy house with a beautiful view of the Oka River. The young veterinarian is depicted in the middle of a happy stroll (he is carrying a piglet he had successfully treated), with a bright red wing on his back, likening him to a guardian angel. This metaphor, along with the vibrant colour, gives this portrait sculpture a feeling of joy; in the spot-on description of the artist Illarion Golitsyn, “Can a sculpture express a piglet’s happy squeal? Yes, it can. Alla Pologova made it happen.”
Pologova created many works dedicated to motherhood, and they hold a special and important place both in her oeuvre and at this exhibition. For Pologova, it is a key theme, tied to her childhood memories of her mother, whom she lost too early, and her own experiences raising her only son Alyosha, including a long separation after he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1982. At the time, Pologova created many works she titled “Lullaby” that embody her infinite tenderness and devotion to her son, whom she thought of as a blessing. “A lullaby creates a certain state of connection between mother and child, a state that probably bonds them forever. One has to give as much tenderness, playfulness and warmth to the child as is possible. It is important to be able to express it,” wrote Pologova in a letter. With these sculptures, gilt is not merely a decorative technique, but a metaphor for childhood as the “golden age” of human life.
Pologova’s talent reached its peak in the 1980s, the time when she created, according to Dmitry Zhilinsky, “the finest sculpture of our time”, “Go and Keep My Trace Intact” (1987, wood, levkas (gesso), gild, paint; Tretyakov Gallery.) This was her masterpiece, and its title is recalled in that of the exhibition. Pologova dedicated the sculpture to the memory of her mother, who died when the sculptor was still in her teens. The title of the sculpture honours “a mother’s farewell words that led to the creation of this new, familiar and yet unfamiliar Madonna, with the ultimate expression of the sacred idea of motherhood,” wrote the famous art scholar E.B. Murina. Illarion Golitsyn, who showed his works at the same 1988 exhibition in Kuznetsky Most where Pologova exhibited this sculpture for the first time, pointed to the mystical meaning of the “mesmerizing golden slope of the mother’s chest” and her wonderfully expressive hands that “are so alive, and appear to be holding and guiding, showing the way into the child’s world.”
Her rare natural talent helped Pologova create an inimitable sculptural language with the subtlest interplay of originality and tradition, reborn in a new context; the tender lyricism of her compositions coexists with poignant sculptural form and vivid decorativeness.
Pologova worked at the end of the Soviet era. At the time, our cultural life was quite complex, with carnival-like inventiveness, games, and sharp social commentary in full measure. Pologova was one of those artists who, while not in open opposition to the state, managed to avoid ideological pressure and continued on the path of creating their own world, which was filled with kindness and light in spite of the challenges presented by everyday existence.
From the 1990s and for the rest of her life Pologova stayed at the top of her game. It was during this time that she created many portraits of historical figures, such as “St. Seraphim of Sarov” (1990, wood, paint; Tretyakov Gallery), “Nikolai Gogol” (1993, wood, levkas (gesso), paint; Tretyakov Gallery), and “Alexander Pushkin” (1999, bronze, wood base; Moscow Museum of Modern Art). She did not for a minute hesitate to break away from the established iconographic traditions when portraying historical figures of the past; she reinvented their images in her own unique manner, a combination of vibrant colours, irony, and a deep, personal understanding of life’s spiritual foundations.
Thus, having travelled to see the places where St. Seraphim of Sarov lived, Pologova carved her highly unconventional, vibrant statue of the Venerable Seraphim, a hieromonk of the Sarov monastery, the founder and spiritual leader of the Diveevo convent. The spontaneous forward motion of the stooping figure, dressed in a flowing robe of white and grey, the expressive hand gesture pointing to the open silvery pages of the Scripture, and the magnetic gaze of his sky-blue eyes reveal “the fiery Seraphim’s” fervent faith. The plinth is inscribed with the first words of a traditional prayer to the Saint: “Oh wondrous Saint, Seraphim, the great wonderworker of Sarov, eager to help everyone who asks you! When you lived among us, no one ever came away from you ailing or desolate.”
Pologova also created an unconventional sculptural image of Nikolai Gogol - the above-the-knee portrait shows the writer wearing a top hat and a cloak, with a very white face and bright orange gloves in his hands. The image is reminiscent of a happy, brightly coloured wooden folk toy, while the inscription gives the viewer a quote from Gogol’s “Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends”, his more serious and even admonishing thoughts: “The seeds that we have sowed in our lives, we do not see or hear what monstrous fruit would come from them.” Illarion Golitsyn wrote about this sculpture: “His face is pale white and delicate; his nose is not too long. Think of how many of Gogol’s portraits there are, be they drawings, sculptures or paintings - in every one of them, he has this long needle-nose. And yet, Pologova’s Gogol, with his orange flower-like glove, his little moustache and strange gaze, is sharp and unexpected. Fun and lively - a new Gogol!”
Pologova began working on a sculpture of Alexander Pushkin at the beginning of the 1990s and cast the final version in bronze by 1999, the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth in 1799. It is possible that the sculptor was voicing a subtle disagreement with the way Pushkin’s legacy was interpreted by the Soviet ideological machine, which portrayed him as somewhat of an opponent of aristocratic society.
Adelaida Pologova in her studio with the composition “St. George” (2004, bronze)
Photograph by Y.S. Nazarov, Moscow
We should be proud, we should loudly proclaim that we have such remarkable sculptors - so little is known about them. Her creations are masterful and filled with this special energy that projects wit and sweet tenderness in any setting or place in the world; this tenderness, this humanism is present in all her works, something that today might be a source of embarrassment.
Illarion Golitsyn, artist
In contrast, Pologova shows the poet as an elegant, confident gentleman, very much part of the educated social circle in which he grew up. It was his talent that made him feel that he stood apart, so it is natural for his own words to be printed on the base of Pologova’s sculpture: “To be great, a man needs to stand on his own.”
Among Pologova’s final creations are the fantastical companion sculptures “King” and “Queen” (2002, copper, steel, bronze, glass; private collection, Moscow). The 79-year-old sculptor used an inconceivable combination of materials to create these human-size figures that delight us with their innovative audacity, creativity and unpredictability, as well as Pologova’s signature whimsical undertone. Miraculously, this composition revives the playful nature of folk art - sheet metal, studs, bottles and even the pedestrian three-litre glass jars (normally used for preserves) are put together to create svelte, beautifully dressed, glowing figures of a king and a queen as they ceremonially present themselves to the viewer.
Now, as the 21st century unfolds, we are happy to express our gratitude to and admiration for this amazing sculptor who worked in the previous one, and whose creations give us a fresh and subtle view of eternal moral and spiritual values.
- In 1921-1922 German Isaakovich Pologov (1900-1985) was a student at the State Yekaterinburg Free Art School.
- La grande tradition du Bois sculpte russe ancien et modern: collection des musees sovietiques / Galeries nationales du Grand Palais (France). Paris, 1973.
- Quote from “Alla Pologova. Sculpture”, preface by G.A. Anisimov. Moscow, 2004. Pp. 5-6.
- V.A. Levedev (1932-2010), Pologova’s biographer and the author of the first publication and only monograph on her oeuvre; see Lebedev, Valentin; “Les sculptures d’Adela'da Pologova // Guvres et opinions (Moscou)”. 1967. #5. Pp. 182-184; also, Lebedev, V.A., “Adelaida Pologova”. Moscow, 1974.
- Kapitolina Pologova, nee Fedorchenko, (1901-1938), Russian language and literature school teacher, died from tuberculosis.
Wood, levkas, paint, gilding. Tretyakov Gallery. Detail
Bronze. 38 × 20 × 28 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, paint. 68 × 118 × 76 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, paint, gilding. 150 × 55 × 60 cm. Russian Museum
Bronze. 80 × 100 × 34 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, paint, gilding. 139 × 41 × 67 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Author's replica of the 1965 piece (faience, underglaze painting). Limestone, paint. Wood base. 47.5 × 127 × 33 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 116 × 82 × 47 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 118 × 33 × 50 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Underglaze painting on chamotte. Wood base, paint. 47.5 × 44 × 44 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Painting on concrete. 112 × 165 × 97 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Bronze; base – brass, wood, paint. 133 × 57 × 32.5 cm. Moscow Museum of Modern Art
Bronze, copper sheet, wood base. 129 × 80 × 51 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 130 × 72 × 80 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 148 × 96 × 51 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 116 × 43 × 45 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Wood, levkas, paint. 120 × 64 × 44 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Copper, steel, bronze, glass. 170 × 112 × 52 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Copper, steel, bronze, glass. 175 × 75 × 75 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Wood, levkas, paint, gilding. 150 × 53 × 50 cm. Tretyakov Gallery