Andrei Filatov Brings Soviet Realism to London

Андрей Филатов

Andrey Filatov, Russian business leader, master chess player, billionaire and art collector is helping Soviet Realist painting to gain greater exposure in the west. Filatov is lending works of 20th century Realism to the Royal Academy in London for an exhibition focusing on work by Viktor Popkov in May 2014.

Filatov’s collection includes work by many of the 20th century’s foremost realists, including  Igor GrabarPyotr KonchalovskyKonstantin KorovinGely KorzhevArkady Plastov, and Yuri Kugach. He directs the Filatov Family Art Fund, which seeks to, ” bring together paintings, drawings and sculptures, which left Russia during the last century […]  to increase international awareness and understanding of this acclaimed, but less well-known, period in Russian art.” The upcoming exhibition of Viktor Popkov is a part of the foundation’s broader effort to disseminate and promote the work of artists obscured by the Iron Curtain.

*Update 10/29: The show has been moved from the Royal Academy to Somerset House

*Update 10/30: The Popkov exhibition coincides with the publication by the Filatov Family Art Fund of the first book on Popkov published outside of Russia. (pictured above) Link to article about the book at Russia Beyond the Headlines

Yuri Petrovich Kugach 1917-2013

yuri petrovich

Yuri Petrovich Kugach has died at the age of 96. A towering figure in the history of Soviet art, Kugach lived most of his life in the small village near the Repin Academic Dacha artists colony where he died this April. A love for village life, nature and simplicity pervades Kugach’s work. His son, painter Mikhail Kugach, and grandson, painter Ivan Kugach, both still live and work in Vyshny Volochok. 

Though most widely known for his large, multi figure compositions, through Lazare Gallery, I know Kugach’s work through his countless landscapes, portraits, still life’s and studies. 

Lazare Gallery first befriended the Kugach family through Ivan Kugach, a classmate of Jonathan Wurdeman at the Surikov Institute. Over the years the Kugach family and Lazare gallery have developed a close relationship. The work of Yuri, Mikhail, and Ivan Kugach, Yuri’s wife, Olga Svetlichnaya, and his nephew, Nikita Fedosov, has formed a great part of the gallery’s collection. The interconnected work of these artists is fascinating to see. The same buildings and landscapes and family members are seen from a variety of different perspectives over the course of multiple generations.

In 2010, I spent the summer painting at the Academic Dacha in the studio of Ivan Kugach. During my time there I was able to record interviews with both Ivan and Mikhail, but Yuri was too ill to accept visitors. I would have loved to talk with him about the changes he had witnessed in Russian art over his lifetime. It saddens me to know that I will never have the chance. Fortunately, however, Yuri Kugach left behind an infinitely richer and more moving account of his thoughts on art, life and Russia. From his student days in the 1930’s until this past spring, he was painting work of profound beauty.

From the Lazare Gallery Website:

“Recognized as one of the preeminent Russian artists of the 20th century,Yuri Kugach leaves the world a better place through his unwavering search for honesty and excellence in his paintings. He strove for aesthetic perfection by unraveling the language of beauty and transforming it into something useful. He was able to deepen representational art’s spiritual and passionate depth at a time when these characteristics were largely abandoned elsewhere. Mr. Kugach also influenced younger generations of artists by playing an instrumental role in passing on master painting traditions. He and his beloved wife, Olga Svetlechnaya were founders of the renowned and still active Moscow River School. Yuri Kugach’s paintings hang in major Russian Museums and private collections throughout the world. He was the recipient of numerous awards. He was treasured by his extended family & many friends including Lazare Gallery owners, John & Kathy. With gratitude, we remember and celebrate his life and works.”

Kugach’s work from Lazare Gallery:

 

Kugach’s work at Artlib.ru

Women in Soviet Art at tMoRA

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A new exhibition of soviet art focusing on women is on display at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.

“Women workers were prominently featured in Soviet art reflecting the Soviet government’s claim to gender equality as well as the wide-ranging involvement of women in the Soviet economy. Based on the Marxist claim that the foremost class oppression was that of the female by the male, the Soviet Constitution of 1918 proclaimed equal rights of men and women in all spheres of life. At the same time, the Soviet state limited personal freedoms and imposed new burdens. Soviet women had to learn to handle the demands and dilemmas of the communist rule and rapid modernization. This exhibition will explore the unique situation of a Soviet woman balanced between official claims and experienced realities of Soviet woman’s life.”

The exhibition will run through November 11th. If you’re in the twin cities area, be sure to check it out!

Link to exhibition website

Russian Masterworks Site

Lazare Gallery has created a new website to showcase the most significant pieces from their collection of 20th century Soviet Realism. The site features beautiful high resolution images of each of the 400 pieces. The collection includes work by many of the most significant artists of the period, including Yuri Kugach, Arkady Plastov, Alexander Gerasimov, Olga Svetlichnaya, Viktor Tsyplakov and Nikita Fedosov. The website is available in both English and Russian.

Click to visit Lazare Gallery’s Russian Masterworks site. 

Vasili Nechitailo at TMORA

The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, as a part of their 20th Century Russian Masters series, is showing the work of Soviet realist Vasili Nechitailo. Here’s an excerpt from an article by the Star-Tribune:

“Beautifully installed in spacious galleries, the show at first seems merely to celebrate the work and life of a man largely unknown outside his homeland. A much more compelling story emerges, however, thanks to Zavialova’s insightful labels about the hidden tragedies and suppressed conflicts in Russian life during the Soviet era.”

Like much Soviet Realism, Nechitailo’s idealized compositions of labor masked the often brutal reality of Soviet life, particularly in Stalin period. However, even for former soviet citizens who experienced this time firsthand like the museum’s curator Masha Zavialova, the work can be viewed outside of this context.

” ‘Before I just looked at the [Nechitailo] subjects and they were oppressive to me,’ she said. ‘Now, I look at the canvases and brushwork and find them very interesting and they’ve stopped being threatening. They’re just objects of history. Think of your own childhood. It’s completely gone and nowhere to be found. That’s something you understand only with years. It’s the nature of time. Now I love his work.’ ”

The full article from the Star-Tribune is definitely worth checking out. It’s rare in that it neither completely vilifies the Soviet artist who toes the party line, nor glosses over the complicity of much Soviet art in the oppression of the Soviet system.

The show will run through February 27. There is a small gallery of images from the show available on the exhibition website.

Hymn To Labor

On August 5th a new exhibition opened at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg focusing on the theme of labor in Soviet art. Here’s an excerpt (in somewhat broken English) from the exhibition’s website:

“The exposition includes about 200 art works from the collection of the Russian Museum. There are presented the paintings, graphic works and the works of applied art of the 1910–1970’s connected with the industrial theme. The most part of the works is presented for the first time.

The industrial theme had the great ideological significance and was one of the mayors in the Soviet art. The exposition gives viewers the opportunity to feel the atmosphere of the Soviet epoch, to walk along the improvised alley of the labour heroes and to see the works having the monumental sonority and civic inspiration. The heroes of these works are showed in the course of the labour on the metallurgical plants, factories, oil-extracting fields or on the industrial building projects. The basic ways of development of the Soviet art in the 1920-1930’s are reflected in the industrial landscapes by K. Bogayevsky, A. Kuprin, V. Rozhdestvensky and in the paintings by A. Deineka, K. Petrov-Vodkin. A. Samokhvalov, V. Pakulin and the other masters.”

Update 8/18:

This article (in Russian) has a small gallery of images from the exhibition.

Soviet Realism in Rhode Island

“The Monastery” – Mikhail Alexandrovich Kuznetsov

Estates Unlimited  in Cranston, RI held an auction of Soviet Realism on Saturday February 13th. The online catalog shows a mix of Soviet kitsch and small, but serious plein air sketches. The sale was made up of 160 lots taken from two small Massachusetts collections. Many of the painters represented were included in Matthew Bown’s excellent book A Dictionary of Twentieth Century Russian and Soviet Painters. 

The Timkov Collection

A collection of work by painter Nikolai Timkov will be on display at The Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda Maryland through February 20th. The collection was assembled just after the fall of the Soviet Union by collector Timothy Wyman. At the time, Soviet art was unknown in the west and under-priced. Collector Matthew Bown reported recently on his blog that, “When I bought the late Nikolai Efimovich’s work, circa 1990, I acquired the best canvases at $100 each.”

You can find a full write-up on the show here.

Saving the Art of Socialist Realism

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*image courtesy of exhibition website

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new exhibition of Russian art is drawing attention to a marginalized, controversial movement which has been hiding for two decades in “basements and corners” across Russia. That movement, oddly enough, is Soviet Realism. “Behind the Iron Curtain – The Art of Socialist Realism” at the Jeschke-Van Vliet Gallery in Berlin re-examines Soviet Realism at a time when avant-garde and dissident art commands most of the art world’s attention regarding the Soviet period.

Gaia Fusai, one of the collectors involved in the exhibition told the New York Times that after Gorbachev came to power, “The paintings were put into basements or corners, or thrown aside as if that part of the past had no meaning. But that art is part of the former Soviet Union’s history. You can’t just blot it out. So a group of collectors decided to go about trying to find these paintings. It is about saving the art of Socialist Realism.”

The exhibition aims to draw attention to this fading piece of Soviet culture for its historical value, but also to restore the movement’s artistic legitimacy. Socialist Realism is often condemned as an oppressive style, useful only for expressing surreal visions of a socialist utopia; the words “Socialist Realism” conjure images of monumental works depicting Lenin and Stalin – but this is only a side – albeit, the most visible side, of Soviet Realism. An excellent article by Judy Dempsey in the New York Times discusses some ways in which work included in the show works around the restrictiveness of the Socialist Realist style:

“Inevitably there are the paintings of the big, collectivized farms. But not all show contented tractor drivers. “Wheat Harvest,” painted in the late ’70s by Kodev Petr Ivanov, a Ukrainian born in 1899, shows a combine harvester, but well in the background. In the foreground, the wheat with all its texture and colors is where the artistic freedom shines through.

A painting by another Ukrainian, Vosnyuk Petr Stepanovich, shows a teacher observing young students in a woodworking class. The boys wear the scarves of the Young Pioneers, or young Communists. But the eye focuses more upon the wood carvings and details in the painting that was completed between 1968 and 1970.”

Dempsey picks up on an important, but often overlooked pillar of the Socialist Realist genre – academic study. As much as the movement emphasized “political consciousness,” it demanded an intensity of observational drawing and painting not seen in many other 20th century styles. This aspect of the movement had strong ties to pre-revolutionary Russian Realism, and the beauty of careful observation is undeniable in much of Soviet Realist art. Just as there are works which focus chiefly on the political goals of the movement, and tend towards pure propaganda, there are works which focus on the movement’s academic side. Perhaps more than the monumental works of Russia’s leaders, it is these landscapes and portraits – memories from almost a century of Russia’s past – which are in danger of being forgotten.

Ms. Fusai responded to Dempsey’s analysis of these largely a-political works saying, “That is what this exhibition is about. It is more than just propaganda. It is about a time in the Soviet Union. That is why we want to show these paintings to a wider audience. We want to fill the black holes of history. ”

The organizers have a complete exhibition catalog and a press release with a brief outline their goals, as well as interesting background on the restoration process available for download in English here, on the exhibition website. The show will run through November 30th.

Matthew Bown

Matthew Bown is a gallery owner and author of four books on Soviet art. He was born in London where he received an art degree before he began traveling to Russia in the 1980’s. His books on Socialist Realism are indispensable to the student of 20th century Russian art; they are among the few books, in English or any language, which take on the challenge of understanding and appreciating Soviet Realist art, often dismissed outright as morally and aesthetically bankrupt propaganda. Below are reviews, excerpts, and synopses of these four important books, which are becoming harder and harder to find these days.

Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One-Party State, 1917-1992

Maybe the best introduction to Art of the Soviets is, well, the actual introduction, lifted from Google Books. (Only some sections of the text are available online.)

In Art of the Soviets, Bown proposes “a shift of emphasis away from the work of the ‘avant-garde’ which has long preoccupied western art historians, in favor of a broader, more inclusive scheme that recognizes the existence of many types of art, some modernist but some deeply anti-modernist, but each to a greater or lesser extent guided by (sometimes coerced by) the apparatus of the overarching state.”

He goes on to explain how, “According to one long-standing Western orthodoxy, Soviet history – and, give or take a year or two, culture – can be divided into just two opposing periods: the ‘revolutionary’ period of 1917 to 1924 ( the date of Lenin’s death), deemed a period of classic revolutionary struggle and utopian aspirations, and the period of  ‘corrupted communism’ which succeeded it, in which the great ideals of democracy, emancipation, and the ‘withering away of the state’ ( Lenin’s phrase from his 1924 book State and Revolution) became grotesquely inverted. This inversion – Stalinism – is generally held to have given birth to the cultural dogmas of  Socialist Realism, and it is still the conventional view that Socialist Realism dominated Soviet art and culture right up to 1985 and the beginnings of perestroika (reconstruction) – despite the heroic resistance of the artistic ‘underground’ – and moreover the art produced under this doctrine was stylistically monotonous and aesthetically inferior.

This book advances the idea that Soviet culture was less monolithic, more heterogeneous, and, quite simply, more interesting and important than this simple stereotype suggests.”

Art Under Stalin

Here’s a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher’s website:

“Bown’s analysis focuses on the art of the Stalin era, from 1932 to 1953, and includes discussion of the pre- and post-Stalin years. The author illuminates the political and social framework of the time and provides an expose of Stalinist aesthetics, socialist realism in art and neo-classicism in architecture, the Cult of Personality, art-world debates, and isolationism.”

A Dictionary of Twentieth Century Russian and Soviet Painters 1900-80’s

This book compiles information on about 13,000 20th century Russian painters. It is 327 pages, has 350 plates ( over 300 in color) and as of June 6 this year, the distributor had 8 copies left.

Socialist Realist Painting

Here’s an excerpt from a 1998 review in Artforum International:

“The last uncharted territory in twentieth-century painting, Soviet Socialist Realism has something for everyone – historical pathos, political minimalism, modernist hubris, postmodernist irony, mixed-media extravaganzas, pop iconography, mad conceptualism, proto-photorealism (among fifty-six other varieties of figurative art), and a host of unknown masters. It’s an altogether underleveraged franchise – although Matthew Cullerne Bown’s massive Socialist Realist Painting makes a strong bid for a friendly takeover.

Socialist Realist Painting is a lavish, albeit physically unwieldy, amalgam of scholarly history and deluxe picture book. If the text exudes a sense of mission, it may be because Socialist Realism has been doubly repressed
Being subjected to or characterized by repression.
. Almost from its inception, the mode was ridiculed throughout the non-Soviet world as an egregious form of soul-destroying, Stalin-worshipping kitsch. Even in the Soviet Union, classical Socialist Realism became, as Boris Groys wrote in The Total Art of Stalinism, ultimately and officially “no less taboo than the art of the avant-garde” it had supplanted. Indeed, during the thirty-five years between the death of Stalin and perestroika, the two tendencies might well have been crated up and hidden together in Soviet museum basements.”

(full text here)

These books can be found used on Amazon and Ebay, and, more inexpensively, through interlibrary loan services. Matthew Bown is also the author of an excellent blog on Russian culture –  IZO – featuring posts on everything from museum exhibitions and global politics to the most everyday trivia about Russian life.