Nikolai Efimovich Timkov


“Flowering Apple Tree” – Nikolai Efimovich Timkov 1973

There is an exhibition running now at the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC of Nikolai Efimovich Timkov, a prominent soviet landscape painter.

According to the exhibition website, Timkov was awarded the title, “Honorable Artist of the Russian Federation,” and his work can be found in the State Russian Museum and in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The exhibition should be interesting, and it’s good to see respect given to Soviet landscape painting. It is odd, though, that curator Alison Hilton points out Timkov’s attention to the spiritual and physical elements of landscape. While clearly essential, difficult and valuable, this ” dual conception of landscape,” is not rare, particularly in the strong tradition of landscape painting found in Russia. There were a huge number of master landscape painters working in Russia during the second half of the 20th century. The assertion of Timkov’s singular greatness by Hilton seems too certain for a painter whose contemporaries include Nikita Fedosev, Vyacheslav Zabelin, Yuri Kugach, and Olga Svetlechnaya, each of whose dedication and loving feeling for the landscape is surely stronger and reaches farther than in Timkov’s work.

The exhibition website features a quote from Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov on the approach to landscape. I feel that out of respect for the meaning of this statement, and out of love for the Russian landscape tradition I must reproduce that quotation here alongside a painting by Soviet landscape painter Olga Svetlechnaya. This painting of an apple tree I feel demonstrates the dimension I find in Russian landscape painting which I cannot find in Timkov’s work.

“One should paint with good sense, not for the effects or beautiful brush strokes, but for a deep and sincere expression of human feelings. Art is not just a profession, it is the highest duty of an artist, of a human being. Never try to deceive Nature, but approach it with all the love of which you are capable, as only then will it open its soul to you.”


“Garden” – Olga Svetlechnaya 1963

In the Timkov painting at the top of the page and in the Svetlechnaya painting here we have two paintings of an apple tree. And which painting do you feel has gone farther to open the soul of the space? Which painter has been less afraid, and more respectful when looking into nature? These reproductions are poor quality, but if you feel strongly about this question, please make a comment.

*Update 2/25/09: There is a very interesting debate going on in the comments to this post. Take a look.

Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

5 thoughts on “Nikolai Efimovich Timkov”

  1. I agree that the assertion that Timkov is the greatest Russian landscape painter of the second half of the 20 th century may be too much, but Timkov is certainly in a different class than the artists you are comparing with him. The artists Fedosev, Kugach and Svetlechnaya paint in a Socialist Realist style which is virtually indistinguishable from hundreds of other Russian artists from the period. Timkov’s early academic works were also in this style, but he later developed a unique post impressionist style which is immediately recognizable as Timkov’s.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      I disagree that the Fedosev, Kugach and Svetlechnaya have styles indistinct from the Socialist Realist status quo – and I feel that Socialist Realism as a movement is oversimplified as being without diversity. It’s true: Socialist Realism did limit creativity, but it also allowed artists to paint sincerely and selflessly at a time when novelty reigned in art. While much of Socialist Realist art, perhaps the majority, was completely stunted by the restrictiveness of the style, a number of artists were able to transcend it’s limitations. Socialist Realism, after all, was not a truly socialist doctrine, but a kind of corruption of ideas and beliefs that can be traced much farther back into Russian history than 1917. And so the true greats of the time period were often able to satisfy all of the guidelines of the movement without paying any real attention to them. While the rest of the art world focused on developing “immediately recognizable” ways of painting, painters like Fedosev’s distinctive styles arose from their attention to the “deep and sincere expression of human feelings.”

  2. As one who has seen and enjoyed both the Timkov and Kugach family shows, I tend to agree with Ivan’s comment. Timkov was less interested in photographic realism and more interested in color and impression. His lavender snowscapes and bright sunsplashed barns remain in my mind long after seeing them.

    The Kugach landscapes are also pleasing and well done, and I don’t disagree at all with Kelly’s comments about socialist realism art, or that this is an amazing family of painters. But part of what makes art memorable is not just developing an instantly recognizable style (see e.g., Thomas Kinkade), it is expressing something timeless and making the viewer want to see it repeatedly without getting tired of it. Russian avant garde painters, and theater designers (e.g., Bakst, Akimov), and the best of the Soviet non-conformists are able to do this with special creativity. It’s harder for a landscape painter I think, although Kuindzh and Roerich certainly managed it. Timkov is closer to those two, but maintains his own style.

    The comparison between Olga’s tree and Timkov’s (one of his least realistic) is not really a fair one. Olga’s is clearly a better depiction of a tree, but that is not what Timkov is about. Take a look at some of the paintings at the Meridien show, and you may see what I am trying to say.

  3. In response to Jeff’s comment,
    When you say that “Timkov was less interested in photographic realism and more interested in color and impression,” you imply that the Kugach’s, and all realist painters of the soviet union had some interest in “photographic realism.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, however. Soviet realists had an intensely rigorous academic tradition that stressed, above the likeness of an image to an object, the importance of an artist’s attention to the full three dimensions of an object. These artists truly made use of their two eyes; through unrelenting attention, painters like Svetlechnaya constructed deep, solid space in their paintings.

    With regards to the debate about Timkov, I believe that the voices on either side of the issue are approaching the artist with very different criteria for quality. Timkov, I believe, is much more likely to resonate with a western audience. Here in the west, the immediate distinctiveness of a painter is highly valued. The distinctiveness of an artist’s style is seen as a product of their distinctive vision – it’s a sign of the originality of their artistic approach. This audience values that Timkov expresses himself in an original way.

    To an audience whose artistic consciousness has developed under the guidance of Russian realist painters, and has invested in their holistic, transcendent approach to “mimetic” realism, I think Timkov’s work looks very different. In this tradition, what is looked for first is not style, but feeling, which takes precedence over individuality. Style, for these viewers, has to be justified as an expression of the subject, rather than an expression of the artist ( though the boundary between the two, in subjective space, can be hard to find). So these viewers, I think, find Timkov to be more concerned with expressing himself, than expressing something unique he has found in his subject. Whereas Svetlechnaya, places herself beneath her subject.

    I think that this difference in priorities can explain, in part, the different attitudes towards Timkov’s work.

    Also, in response to Jeff’s comment, I think that the comparison between Timkov and Svetlechnaya is as fair as any comparison between artists. The apple tree is a good representation of Timkov’s style. He is less concerned with the realism of his subject, and more concerned, perhaps, with the two dimensional arrangement of his painting, which is a perfectly valid approach to the subject, and one which alligns him with his contemporaries in modern western art. I don’t think, however, that it is an inherently better approach to Svetlechnaya’s.

  4. Barry makes some good points about Soviet realists (which I suppose would also apply to pre-Soviet realists like Shishkin as well), and I find especially interesting his comments on the difference between “Western” and “Russian” viewers’ criteria in evaluating art.

    But I certainly didn’t say that Timkov’s approach was “inherently better” than Svetlechnaya’s. I only meant that the particular example chosen of Timkov’s art is among his least realistic (or most impressionistic).

    It was the original essay that chose the examples of the two trees and then posed the question: “Which painter has been less afraid, and more respectful when looking into nature?” The implication there is that somehow Timkov is less respectful, or even disrespectful, of nature. That is what I am quarreling with.

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