People’s Artist of the USSR and Stalin Prize winner Yuri Petrovich Kugach is featured as the cover image in a photo essay on Russia’s ubiquitous museum attendants. Sitting motionless and silent, in nearly every major room of Russia’s art museums, these attendants, usually older women, are like a kind of permanent performance piece. This series of photos, by photographer Andy Freeberg, focuses our attention on these often invisible participants in the Russian museum experience.
The first image in the series shows Kugach’s “Before the Last Dance.” One of Kugach’s most beloved works, it was preceded by many careful drawings and sketches. Several years ago Lazare Gallery acquired a beautiful study of the red haired woman from the Kugach family. The sense of form and the slight changes of color in her dress and in the luminous shadows beneath the bench made a huge impression on me at the time. It was only much later that I saw the final painting, but I still believe that this sketch could be considered a masterpiece in its own right.
Click here to view a large image of the painting at the Tretyakov Gallery’s website.
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.
“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.”