The Sculptor Lazar Gadaev: The Saga of Man

Natalya Apchinskaya

Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

- Why are you so incessantly pushing the stone?
To find what is in it?
- I wish to pass all the pain hidden in my heart into it.

Lazar Gadaev

Lazar Gadayev, who is one of the most interesting and original modern sculptors of European level with a highly individual sculptural style, belongs to the generation of artists who made a name for themselves in the 1970s. His art and consummate professionalism are an integral component of the Moscow school of sculpture. Yet, the artist’s originality is rooted in the nature and culture, ancient legends and poetry of his native Ossetia. The world of Lazar Gadayev’s images is simple and austere: man, earth and heaven, love, passion, loneliness and compassion, despair and prayer. The maestro never fails to express very delicately all the depths of the emotional turmoil and sufferings of his characters who often conduct a voiceless dialogue between themselves. The sculptor’s style - lean, terse, free of glitz but full of inner dynamism - accumulates the integrity of his uncompromising character.

Lazar Gadayev’s retrospective solo show, hosted last September at the Tretyakov Gallery, which is a keeper of a big collection of the maestro’s oeuvres, covered all the stages of his creative career. It became the prominent sculptor’s last exhibition held during his life-time.

Two early compositions by the Ossetian sculptor Lazar Gadaev may, to some extent, serve as a key to an understanding of his art. In one of them, “The Night Guest”, the sculptor is visited by a being that resembles Vrubel’s seraphim. Unlike his majestic “guest”, the sculptor is depicted as humble, with a lowered head, but he hears a mysterious voice and is ready to respond to it with his art. Unwittingly, one feels an association with the self-portrait by George Roux, “The Apprentice”, much loved by Gadaev, in which the French artist likened himself to the anonymous builders of medieval cathedrals. The well-known words of Henri Matisse come to mind: “When I am full of humility and meekness, I feel that someone is energetically helping me, making me do things beyond my comprehension.”

In the second work, “The Artist and the Model”, the characters stand side by side, but the artist is not looking at the model; he is lost in thought. It is precisely a “model” that is an object of reflection in all of Gadaev’s art.

Gadaev’s work is an original sculptural poem about a human being and his calling, about his submission to fate and his liberation from it by Christian faith. Gadaev places his characters between the sky and the earth, but in a concrete time and space. They may be Ossetian peasants, who keep connected with the patriarchal way with its spiritual and moral values that are indelible for the sculptor. Or it may be a lonely person of our own time, one who is lost in the world but finds his footing in a longing for the sky.

Lazar Gadaev was born in 1938 in the Ossetian village Surkh-Digora, not far from Vladikavkaz. He inherited his talent largely from his father, a gifted wood carver. He received his first professional education at the graphic department of the Art School in Vladikavkaz. In 1960 Gadaev came to Moscow and entered the Surikov Art Institute, where he was taught the sculptor’s craft by Matvei Manizer, a pillar of Soviet sculptural academicism.

However, the young artist owed his creative development to other teachers. In the 1960s, it was first of all Alexander Matveev, one of the outstanding sculptors of the 20th century, whose nude female figures became for Gadaev examples of harmonious sculpture, constructed, but yet full of life. Later Gadaev would discover for himself the avant-garde Italian sculpture of the middle of the century, but no less important for him were the monuments of national art. The earliest of these, dating to 1,000 BC, were bronze artifacts called “kobansky” after the place where they were discovered. The artistic traditions of Koban bronze were lost over the centuries, but the eve of the 20th century brought the art of Soslanbek Edziev, an artist who belonged to the new era but in many ways maintained a mythological mentality.

All of this art, regardless of the time and origin of its creation, helped Gadaev develop his understanding of sculpture as a plastic whole, as the embodiment of the author’s thought, and as something that lives by its own laws, autonomous from the model, given that the model remains almost the only source of an artist’s inspiration.

Working equally well with stone and wood, Gadaev nevertheless preferd the more pliable bronze. His style is unique: his images are at once constructed and intuitively whole. His works convey a sense of weight and volume while being quite free and expressive in their sculptural form. Having found his plastic language in the 1970s, Gadaev almost did not change it at all during the decades that followed.

For Gadaev, his Ossetian heritage was not only a biographical fact, but an important element of his art. Having lived in Moscow for many years, he maintained close contact with his native land and constantly revived images of its inhabitants. These images reflect a religious attitude toward life and a connection with nature that are not yet completely lost.

Gadaev, as he admitted himself, liked to read national epics and listen to choral singing, which finds reflection in his art.

Among the sculptor’s national characters is a slight elderly Ossetian who tries to lift a rock almost his size, demonstrating the scale of a certain life “lesson” (“Builder”). In “Shepherd”, the figure’s head is enclosed in the rectangle formed by hands holding a stick used for herding cattle (or for holding on to it). Thus by purely plastic means Gadaev expresses the thought that labour is both an individual’s duty and his support.

In other works, Gadaev’s characters, who were removed from patriarchal roots due to historical and life circumstances, continue to commune with birds and animals and reach out to nature, finding in it a source of internal balance.

One of the works most charged with meaning is a bronze group sculpture “Runners” (1988). It depicts a man and a woman, lonely in the surrounding world, almost grotesque in their weakness. But still they are moving forward, and the man, who can hardly keep his balance himself, is leading the woman, who is stumbling behind. The name “Runners” sounds ironic enough — the heroes of this piece are far from thinking about running; besides, Gadaev understood moving only as deviation from being stationary. However, he depicted the overcoming of motionlessness along with the conquest of disconnection, as a necessary condition of human existence.

The theme of destiny was especially meaningful for the artist. In “Fortuna” (1991), a small bronze statuette, the ancient deity appears anthropomorphous, almost abstract, and, as is customary, faceless. Next to the deity we see the famous “Wheel of Fortune”. In another composition, created a few years earlier, a boy, full of youthful hopes, is cheerfully rolling that same wheel. In yet another work, “The Wanderer”, a middle-aged person is traveling along the road of life, burdened by a wheel, while a crow (or a raven), which Gadaev considers another attribute of destiny, is pecking at his head.

Ossetians have a saying: “A crow in the house means misfortune”. Other peoples also consider this bird the herald of evil. The gloomy reputation of the raven is confirmed by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, and also by the fact that we used to call prison trucks that transported prisoners “voronki” (from “voron”—“raven”).

At times Gadaev’s hero falls under the blow of destiny. In the sculpture “Despair” (1992) a man, naked and down on his knees, touches the ground with his lowered head and crossed arms, but his bronze body, resembling an architectural structure, remains resilient and energetic. In another bronze sculpture the character is prostrated on the ground, forming an arc with his head, hands and feet at the base (“Defeated”). Like the previous sculpture, this piece embodies not only defeat, but also the capacity for resistance and revival.

As early as the beginning of 1980s, the artist created an expressive dual composition, and called it “Single Combat”. Gadaev’s hero is fighting a creature that is half-real, half-fantastic, and resembles not just blind fate, but the symbolic animals of the Old Testament. One remembers the lines from a well-known poem by Rainer Maria Rilke “The Man Watching” (translated by Robert Bly):

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
As things do by immense storm
We would become strong too,
And not need names.”

As in Rilke’s poem, a being from heaven elevates Gadaev’s hero to its level, similar to the biblical Jacob, who was fighting with the “Old Testament Angel”.

Freedom from the burden of fate is reached, at last, by longing for heaven.

Gadaev’s hero is reaching towards heaven; he is on the border of life and death, with a last desperate prayer, full of hope. (“The Prayer”, 1991). This work, one of the artist’s most expressive and wholesome pieces, has a remarkable image of a praying Christ (the image of the Saviour had appeared in his work already in the early 1980s).

The sculpture “Praying Christ” appeared during this period, and it expresses the exaltation of prayer, filled with suffering and an inexorable feeling of faith, with overwhelming power and truth. It is not by accident that this deeply personal work was followed by the bronze image of the resurrected Gospel Lazarus (1991), one of the most expressive pieces in all of Gadaev’s art. Entangled in burial shrouds, half-decayed, Lazarus is still immersed in the petrification of death, but is beginning to overcome it, awakening to a new life in front of our eyes.

In recent years Gadaev continued to work on this evangelical cycle. He added compositions of multiple figures to previously created statues —“Nativity”, “The Flight into Egypt”, and “The Last Supper”.

“The Last Supper” occupies an exclusive place not only among Gadaev’s latest work, but in all of his art. This piece signifies not an epic, but a psychological pole of the Ossetian artist’s work.

Gadaev’s Christ does not address the apostles, as in the famous Leonardo da Vinci fresco, but focuses intently on the sacrificial chalice, which he is holding in his hands. Christ is absorbed in His innermost feelings. The artist shows the depth of these feelings, as well as the magnitude and mystery of this being, which makes Christ the focus of the whole composition. The apostles, who are seated at the table, cast in bronze, are not discussing Christ’s words, as in da Vinci’s fresco, but are in a state of religious meditation (except Judas), communing with the Saviour at some higher level. Their innermost feelings are hard to express in words, and they resemble, as the poet put it, “the fire hidden in a vessel”.

Unlike his countless predecessors, who had been creating images of the Last Supper for centuries, Gadaev added one more character to its participants—the apostle Paul, who is the visitor from the future, and is holding the book of the New Testament in his hands.

Gadaev’s latest work on evangelical themes includes 14 big (on average 60 by 90 cm) bronze reliefs, dedicated to the stations of the cross. As the base for his images, the artist is using the Catholic tradition of depicting 14 stations of the cross on the way to Golgotha, beginning with Christ standing in front of Pilate, and ending with Christ’s body taken off the cross and laid upon the stone death-bed. In the first scene, Pilate questions Christ, who is detached and lost in thought, in an imperious tone. Perhaps the Procurator of Judea wishes to know if Christ had named himself “the King of Judea”, or perhaps he is asking his famous question: “What is the truth?”

Of the following reliefs in the cycle, the most powerful ones are dedicated to the Way of the Cross. They show that the truth is conceived not in philosophical discussions but in suffering and immersion in the endless depths of one’s own spirit, through which one reaches God. These scenes Gadaev developed mainly through composition, through a peculiar confrontation of Christ and his burden. Gadaev, following the sequence of the stations of the cross, showed how Simon helps Christ carry the Cross, and then shows Christ’s three falls.

In the first, the cross is supported by the two witnesses of the tragedy, a man and a woman. In the second one Christ appears to be spread-eagled on the cross, in the third one He falls down. We see His meeting with His mother, stricken with desperation; with the maidens of Jerusalem, who resemble an antique procession; with Veronica, who in irrepressible impulse reaches her arms to the sky with the tears streaming down her face. In one of the most powerful reliefs, crowning Gadaev’s theme of Golgotha, Christ carries the cross with no help. He is stooped, barely alive. And in His indomitable movement He seems to have conquered death even before dying.

Night Guest. 1984
Night Guest. 1984
Ceramics. 70×50×30 cm. Ministry of Culture of Russia
Despair. 1992
Despair. 1992
Bronze. 80×40×50 cm
Crow with a Piece of Cheese. 1991
Crow with a Piece of Cheese. 1991
Bronze. 25×40×15 cm
Builder. 1986
Builder. 1986
Bronze. 80×60×50 cm. Private collection, Paris
Runners. 1988
Runners. 1988
Bronze. 80×80×60 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Boy with a Wheel. 1986
Boy with a Wheel. 1986
Bronze. 37×25×15 cm. Private collection, Germany
The Resurrected Lazarus. 1992
The Resurrected Lazarus. 1992
Bronze. 140×50×40 cm
Defeated. 1982
Defeated. 1982
Metal. 20×50×15 cm. Private collection, Germany
Entreaty. 1991
Entreaty. 1991
Bronze. 53×35×17 cm. Private collection, Slovenia
Nativity. 2002
Nativity. 2002
Bronze. 75×65×35 cm
The Flight into Egypt. 2002
The Flight into Egypt. 2002
Bronze. 82×60×27 cm
Bearing the Cross. 2006
Bearing the Cross. 2006
Bronze. 90×60×15 cm





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