100 Years Since the Russian Revolution

While a trip to Russia sounds like the standard way to honor and recognize the centenary of the Russian Revolution, as an art lover, I would like to go to London. Currently at the Royal Academy of Arts there is an exhibit on called ‘Revolution: Russian 1917- 1932.’ This is the 15 year period when Russia was creating art that captured the optimism and the harshness of revolution and the aftermath. Artist giants included are Kazimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Alexander Rodchenko, and Lyubov Popova. However, some lesser known (but equally as important) artists in the exhibition are Isaak Brodsky, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, Andrey Golubev, and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. This show also brings to light how all artistic forms became the manifest of revolution; photography, literature, sculpture, film making, propaganda, and graphic design.

 Isaak Brodsky,V.I.Lenin and Manifestation, 1919.

      However, in 1932, Stalin’s oppression shut it all down. Socialist Realism became the only acceptable art form meant to serve the communist party line. Thus art had to be optimistic, realistic, and heroic, revealing what the future could hold. Essentially, propaganda to keep the masses loyal to the Soviet and Communist cause.

     In addition to this exhibit, Martin Sixsmith wrote an article for the Royal Academy which acts as an art history review of this 15 year time period. I highly recommend reading it, if like me you are unable to see the exhibit. In short, he shows you why (in more detail than the above paragraph) Kazimir Malevich went from:

 Kazimir Malevich, Red SquareKazimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915,  to Kazimir Malevich, Portrait of Nikolai Punin Kazimir Malevich,Portrait of Nikolai Punin, 1933.

     Side note- I have been fortunate enough to see the Black Square in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and White on White (White Square) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alas, by the time I got to Saint Petersburg, ready to see the Red Square in the State Russian Museum and complete some kind of art history trifecta, it was already on its way to London. So, I would REALLY love to see this show.

      At any rate, how does this connect to a 20th century Russian Realism blog? I will continue the story of Russian art briefly, where Martin Sixsmith left off.

         As we can see, realism fell from fashion in favor of something edgy and new to match the initial zeitgeist of the revolution. Representational Realism was out and avant-garde abstraction was in. During the anti bourgeoisie and tradition years, many of the Realists painters left for the countryside or painted in seclusion, as the Bolsheviks seized their schools. However, once Stalin and the Communist regime mandated Socialist Realism many of the avant-garde artists fell out of love with the revolution and consequentially, either fled or joined or died in the gulag. Stalin then saw the need for high culture to keep on par with the West, therefore, painters had to be educated. The Surikov Institute in Moscow became one of the greatest schools for fine and traditional art. So much so, that when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, artists and student were sent to safety in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

YK5013L.jpg Yuri Kugach, Samarkand, 1942

        While many artists did turn to and accept Socialist Realism, there were those traditional artists who rejected it, similar to the avant-garde artists. The Russian Realists did not want to be tools for propaganda but still wanted to paint in the realism cannon. They consistently produced work under dismal circumstances creating art that is representational and transcendentally beautiful due to their high technical expertise. Their work shows an organic pride for Russia as their subject matter tends to be the beautiful country side, old towns, and traditional Russian life. Socialist Realism is often too heavy-handed in the joys of Communism and Soviet life. What I believe it boils down to were those who were prideful of Russia versus the Soviet Union.

 M. Sokolov, 1958, A Mill on the River Ozerkye

     What I hope to show is that while the Constructionists, Futurists, and Supremacists dominated during the revolution years, they were not alone in countering Stalin after 1932. Russian realism presents its own rebuttal to Socialist Realism. But for 2017, it is important that we appreciate the efforts of those revolutionaries who were so daring and yet (initially) so welcomed in their extreme abstraction.

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. 

Kugach, Kugach, Kugach


“Thoughtful Woman” – Yuri Kugach 1956

Later this month, American University’s Katzen Arts Center will be holding an exhibition of paintings by Yuri Kugach and five of his relatives. Three generations of the Kugach family will be featured in the show, including his wife, son, nephew, and grandchildren.

Yuri Kugach is one of the premier 20th century Russian Realist painters. He is known in Russia and around the world for his paintings of the Russian countryside. He received the USSR’s highest honors for his work, taught at the Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow, and founded the Moscow River School.

Yuri met his wife Olga Svetlechnaya as a student at the Surikov institute. He was deeply impressed with her work, and has praised her as the family’s most talented painter. Their son, Mikhail Kugach recalled that his father worked to become an established painter in order to free his wife from concern for money or fame, and allow her to focus on developing her talent.

Mikhail Kugach is an important figure in Russian painting in his own right. He is Chairman of the Russian Artists Union, President of the Moscow River School, and Director of the Moscow Arts Institute.

Nikita Fedosov, Olga Svetlechnaya’s nephew, is one of Russia’s most loved painters, and Yuri’s grandchildren, Ivan and Ekaterina, are accomplished painters and teachers.

Lazare gallery has had a long relationship with the Kugach family and will be sending work to the show.

“Kugach, Kugach, Kugach – Three Generations of Russian Artists” will run through March 15th.

Link to Katzen Arts Center’s exhibition page

Link to Global Arts Network’s website

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.