Passing on Russia's Artistic Heritage

Anna Ilyina

Magazine issue: 
#3 2012 (36)

The Moscow Union of Artists, formerly "MOSKh", the abbreviation for the Moscow Region Union of Artists is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its formation. Many outstanding masters of the Soviet fine and applied arts, design and photography have been members of the body. The exhibition marking this anniversary opened in the Manezh exhibition hall in Moscow in July. Just like the landmark show of 1962, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of MOSKh, it was intended to define the most important milestones in the development of the Moscow school of painting, sculpture and drawing, as well as related art forms.

The current exhibition might not have become such a notable event in our art and culture had it not been for its predecessor 50 years ago, which had such wide political and cultural resonance after the famous, or rather infamous, visit from Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer and denouncer of Stalin's personality cult, who had previously begun lifting "the iron curtain" but shut it firmly closed on that occasion.

50 years ago, the images, content, nature and the very meaning of creative developments in painting and the plastic arts were determined by the works of the masters of the 1910s-1920s (as if they were finally being brought back from oblivion), as well as those of the younger generation of artists, who made a name for themselves in the late 1950s and early 1960s; they were arbitrarily "pronounced" the founders of the "severe style", or "severe realism". The latter group includes Nikolai Andronov, Viktor Popkov, Pavel Nikonov, Tair Salakhov, Boris Thalberg, the brothers Alexander and Pyotr Smolin, Viktor Ivanov, Andrei Vasnetsov, as well as, with significant reservations, Gely Korzhev and Dmitry Zhilinsky. They became worthy successors of the tradition of the Moscow School of Painting and its brilliant earlier figures, such as Pyotr Konchalovsky, Ilya Mashkov, Alexander Shevchenko, Aristarkh Lentulov, Robert Falk, Alexander Deineka, Yury Pimenov, Alexander Labas, Alexander Drevin, David Shterenberg, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, Pavel Kuznetsov, and many other famous names. From the ranks of sculptors there were Nikolai Andreev, Boris Korolev, Sergei Konenkov, Vera Mukhina, Alexander Matveev, Sara Lebedeva, alongside masters of drawing such as Pyotr Miturich, Vladimir Favorsky, Sergei Mitrokhin, Alexei Kravchenko, Ignaty Nivinsky, Artur Fonvisin, and Mikhail Cheremnykh.

This lengthy list, however inadequate it may be to fairly represent the great masters of the "Moscow School", is necessary to remind the reader how complex and rich the history of the Moscow Union of Artists has been.

It is not possible here to give an extensive analysis of individual works of art in the context of the artists' full careers, or paint a comprehensive picture of how Russia's national art developed. So let us restrict ourselves to examining and stating the most notable, significant features of this exhibition. First, most of the works presented at the exhibition have been created over the last two decades; regrettably, some works shown at the 2008 exhibition at the Moscow House of Artists, were not part of the current show. This would have allowed an emphasis on the main merit of this anniversary exhibition, which convincingly endorses the resilience of the "Moscow school", regardless of what twists and turns history and fate had in store for various generations of its artists. Both the broad range of imagery and meaning, as well as the continuity of tradition, trends, and the wealth of individual styles and quests are truly impressive.

Another distinctive feature of this exhibition is the presence of artistic dynasties — Tsygal, Burganov, Bulgakov-Sitnikov, Glukhov and Sukhovetsky. This has long been characteristic of Russian art, evoking such names as Bruni, Benois, Miturich, Drevin, Rukavishnikov, Shmarinov, Bisti, Salakhov, Pereyaslavets, Kurilko-Ryumin, Manizer, Pakhomov, Chernyshov-Gorsky, Plastov, Bogorodsky, Solomin, Stekolshchikov-Finogenov, Zhelvakov, Prisekin, and Ponomarev, to name only a few.

All such names are inextricably linked with the nation's art and culture, with its past, present and future — the future experienced through Alexander Tsygal's metaphorical sculptural images which are evocative of the plastic art of Alexander Arkhipenko, Osip Zadkine and Naum Gabo without replicating the discoveries of these 20th-century masters. Natalya Sitnikova's painting "Jerusalem II" shows a new understanding of the symbolic significance of Abstract Expressionism and its means of expression; a unique urban romanticism is revealed in Natalya Sukhovetskaya's painting "Mirror City". There are many more such examples, expanding the horizons of future Russian art and essential to its progress.

The conceptual core of the exhibition is defined by the works of artists who are already well-recognized and familiar to both Russian and international audiences: large-scale canvases by Zurab Tsereteli, Viktor Kalinin, Nikolai Mukhin, Ivan Lubennikov, Lev Tabenkin, Alexander Sitnikov, Irina Glukhova, Vladimir Brainin; poetic landscapes by Yefrem Zverkov, Vladimir Zabelin, Vladimir Scherbakov, Vladimir Telin, Nikolai Borovsky; Sergei Gavriliachenko's nudes, Yury Shishkov's metaphorical painting in memory of Viktor Popkov, "Dancers" by Boris Messerer, Gennady Yefimichkin's epic works, the stylish floral motifs by Sergei Geta and Olga Grechina, Mikhail Kurilko-Ryumin's sketches for classical theatre decorations, sculptures by Vladimir Tsygal, Georgy Frangulian, Leonid Baranov, Viktor Korneev, Alexander Belashov, Alexander Burganov, Dmitry Tugarinov, Oleg Yanovsky; colour lithographs and prints by Nikolai Voronkov, Sergei Alimov's grotesque large-scale graphic works, Dmitry Ikonnikov's watercolours, and drawings by Vyacheslav Kubarev and Alexander Teslik...

Every single one of these masters possesses a unique, personal artistic style, worldview, and emotional energy. Their works are especially poetic, have a distinctive pictographic and plastic means of expression, a multitude of associations — and at the same time, retain a purity of feeling. Zurab Tsereteli's "Dima with Tonic and Gin" is expressive in a monumental way, and filled with optimism and the joy of life. Ivan Lubennikov's painting "The Accordion Player", with its grotesque mood, instantly betrays the unmistakable style of this extraordinary master. Nikolai Mukhin's painting "The Iberian Icon of the Mother of God" shows his spiritual connection to the ancient Russian tradition of icon-painting in a unique, original and vivid way: through this holy image, the artist was able to reveal his understanding of the eternal values of the Christian faith. Brutal force and energy, and an innate feeling for his material found a powerful plastic expression in Georgy Frangulian's bronze sculpture of a male torso. "She Who is Happy" by Viktor Korneev is a vivid sculptural composition in wood, which shows the harmony of a female figure in the virtual environment of the viewer's personal vision — the sculpture takes on new plastic and emotional meanings as it follows the viewer's imagination.

Various kinds and genres of art co-existed, overlapped and enhanced one another within the exhibition. Themes and stories joined in a peculiar polysyllabic dialogue of times, events, observations and feelings, regardless of their contextual concepts, individual style or artistic manner, technique or material — thus confirming the obvious fact that our imaginative perception of the world is not the same as its artistic implementation. There were practically no "commissioned" works at the exhibition, a factor that relates to both its strong-points and its shortcomings. The state gave the artist complete freedom of creative expression in his or her work; at the same time, the state has in a way removed itself from participation in forming and developing the nation's culture, or stimulating it economically. What gets forgotten is that though culture does not pay dividends and requires investment, it will be repaid in the spiritual health of future generations.

History has shown that the most significant works of art, the ones that came to be treasures of modern civilization, were mostly created on commission from monarchs, enlightened rulers and church hierarchs, heads of guilds, professional corporations and patrons of the arts — from those in positions of power and significant wealth, whether from the state or by social contract. This practice is just beginning to be revived; in the meanwhile, however, time passes and opportunities to reflect it in art at the appropriate historical scale are being lost. We believe this side-note to the traditional format of an exhibition review is needed to explain, albeit partially, the fact that the exhibition did not have works of epic vision, sweeping images, or works that would match the seminal changes taking place in Russian life.

Naturally, this does not diminish the artistic merits or ethical value of the anniversary exhibition; there were many timely and artistically innovative works that reflected the moral, ethical, patriotic and aesthetic benchmarks, achievements and problems of Russian society today.

Alongside the works already mentioned, others are worthy of in-depth analysis. Among them are Dmitry Zhilinsky's still-life "Our Heritage", a genre painting by Andrei Surovtsev "Solitaire", Vladimir Zabelin's landscape "Suburb of Sergiyev Posad", "Adam and Eve", a diptych by Natalya Nesterova, paintings by Tatiana Nazarenko, Irina Starzhenetskaya, Olga Bulgakova, and Alexei Sukhovetsky; "Defiance", a glass and metal installation by Yulia Merzlikina, Andrei Volkov's urban-themed canvas "Swimming Pool", "The Letter "T"", a designer object (print on canvas) by Konstantin Khudyakov, Ivan Balashov's sculptural composition in wood "Repast" — and last but not least "He", the conceptual and somewhat pop-art installation made of painted plaster-gypsum by Fyodor Vorobiev. Regardless of the technique, material used, genre or theme, these works of art in many ways pre-determine the keen perception of the current and future problems of modern society.

Thus, while Zabelin sees a charming (now disappearing) patriarchal Russian landscape in a poetic aura, Volkov's art draws a picture of a new, rational reality of emptiness: a swimming pool with no water — a symbolic substitution for the very spiritual space captured by Zabelin and portrayed by Nesterova with such philosophical depth and primal, unadulterated sensuality of colour and form in her "Adam and Eve". Another eye-catching work is Balashov's composition "Repast", with its religious imagery, associative power, emotional intensity and sophisticated refinement, as it brings together the notion of the eternal universe and the transience of life.

A number of works that express the artists' innermost need to consider their most closely held feelings, their moral priorities, and their deeply private attitude to their own home, family values and those who are dear to them, deserve special mention. Among them, there are works that are very intimate and touching — they move the viewer with their spontaneity and sincere empathy. One should mention here the emotional and expressive "A Future Pilot", a small-scale painting by Vladimir Pereyaslavets, the founder of a remarkable artistic dynasty. This work is painted with vivid brushstrokes, its palette reminiscent of the "Jack of Diamonds" group of artists and their followers.

In the vast circle of artists who, through their work, celebrate the eternal spiritual, moral and ethical values, the long-lasting traditions of family bonds, quiet happiness and subtle beauty of the home, two masters — Viktor Glukhov and Anatoly Lyubavin — stand out, very different in their temperament and special approach to painting. Glukhov's oeuvre can be characterized by a gradual development of imagery, stylistic and compositional principles — the path followed by Viktor Kalinin and Viktor Rusanov, artists of inimitable originality and a poetic, accentuated individual manner of painting, perception of the world and understanding of national artistic tradition.

Lyubavin's oeuvre (unlike Glukhov's romantic enthusiastic approach and resonant colours) with their very conceptual ideas and artistic background are all in line with the artist's personal ideal of harmony, of the duration of action in time and space so that the metaphorical is what prevails; the poetic tone of his works is marked by a certain mystery of the intimate, deeply personal empathy and contemplation of the people whom he loves, who are close to him, and of their destiny. The artist seems to be transferring their images from reality to an imaginary environment. While Glukhov always relies on real life, immediate impressions and builds his own poetic world with them, Lyubavin's art, by contrast, is characterized by a certain philosophical exaggeration of its intimate genre content, and the singular nature of his romantic reflections on reality. Lyubavin's palette absorbs the colours, techniques and traditions of both Russian and European art, and "fuses" them into his own, multi-layered colour range. At the same time, all these artists — Lyubavin, Glukhov, Kalinin, and Rusanova — are united in their incomparable love for art and their creative vocation.

Returning to the issue that we have already touched upon — that of creating large-scale, historically meaningful works of art commissioned by the state or demanded by society — it has to be acknowledged that, despite all difficulties, such works have emerged in recent decades. Such major, both in content and artistic value, works include the monument to Peter the Great and the Poklonnaya Hill World War II sculptural complex by Zurab Tsereteli; historical paintings by Sergei Prisekin and Vasily Nesterenko, which are dedicated to the military feats of our ancestors; monuments to Vasily Tatishchev and Mstislav Rostropovich by Alexander Rukavishnikov, and to Vasily Surikov by Mikhail Pereyaslavets; the monument to the heroic defenders of the Motherland during the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-1945 by Andrei Kovalchuk and Salavat Shcherbakov; and the monument to Sergei Yesenin by Vladimir Tsygal.

Also worthy of attention are Anatoly Bichukov's monumental ensemble "Sons of Our Motherland", dedicated to the glory of the Russian army, Tair Salakhov's epic paintings, Pyotr Ossovsky's majestic landscapes of Russia, Yevgeny Maximov's monumental frescoes, allegorical compositions by Alexander Burganov, Georgy Frangulian's monument to the poet Bulat Okudzhava, and many other important works of monumental sculpture and painting. However, the considerable lack of such works remains noticeable — they remain isolated exceptions. There is a strong need for them, both for the sake of developing civic consciousness and the spiritual revival of Russia.

The fundamental quality of this anniversary exhibition lies in the high level of professional culture and the creative potential of its participants. Another, purely retrospective exhibition of works by Moscow artists of different movements of the last 80 years will open at the Moscow Central House of Artists in November 2012.





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