An empty recreation room at a border outpost in Belarus. TV is on; there is an abandoned chess game and an unfinished letter. The air is filled with uneasy silence. The setting is dominated by two ‘eyes’ of dark blue windows, through which chilly light streams into the warm interior.
Mai Danzig (1930-2017) was People’s Artist of Belarus, professor, participant in numerous exhibitions in the USSR and abroad. His works are part of the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery and the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, as well as private collections in Russia, Belgium, Germany, Israel, and the USA.
In a way, Dantsig’s genre still lifes are akin to novels, with the artist invariably staying true to himself and striving, first and foremost, to be an art publicist driven by content, idea and meaning.
Dantsig painted his Alert (in Russian, the word signifies the military command for full combat readiness) in the Grodno region, at one of the frontier outposts that were later named after WW2 military commanders. In June 1941, these doomed outposts took on the first blow of the fascist army, fighting to the death.
Reflexion in the window self portrait (1963)
A young man in a half-open window. The black eye orbits on a broad face; a caged bird; the grid of the window and, completely aside, against the background of a sash opened towards the bluish snowdrift, a stand with pencils. A self-portrait of artist Victor Popkov (1932-1974). He is a little over thirty; his Bratsk Builders has already been acquired by the State Tretyakov Gallery, he is member of the USSR Lenin Prize and State Prize Award Committee, participant in the 31st Venice Biennale, as well as exhibitions in Japan and Yugoslavia. He is talented and sought after, but there is not a single trace of reflection of the life of a successful Soviet artist in Reflection by the Window.
The art of Popkov is complex, profound and intense. He is interested in human life, its deepest moral meanings, its fragility and loneliness. There are no template solutions in his emotive work; his characters are always in sync with the surrounding world and society. Never featured in official catalogues of the artist, this self-portrait dates back to 1963. Eleven more prolific and vibrant years lie ahead for Popkov, with portraits of artists and lovers, landscapes and genre sketches, the famous Mezen cycle and Father’s Overcoat… He will be killed in 1974, at the age of 42 – absurdly, tragically. But in his works of outstanding mastery and sincerity he will leave behind an incredible artistic chronicle of the years between the Thaw and Stagnation, seen through a prism of his hopes and philosophical reflections.
Still Life with Peonies (1931)
The painter Alexander Gerasimov (1881-1963) was one of the most famous and successful Soviet artists of the mid-20th century. He was popular among ordinary people and government officials alike. Gerasimov was considered as Stalin’s favourite artist and founder of ‘heroic realism’. He is the painter behind some of the most famous portraits of Lenin and other revolutionaries in the romantic-heroic style, four times winner of the Stalin Prize and many other titles and awards.
Although he considered himself a portraitist, Gerasimov was just as skilful at landscapes and still lifes, revealing himself as a great master of colour and poet of nature. Perhaps those genres were for the artist pure pockets of inspiration, free from political and ideological constraints. Today, Gerasimov’s floral still lifes are part of many museum collections. ‘I’ve always loved painting flowers – roses and peonies, because I saw in them the ultimate concentration of the vital forces of nature and its charm. …Still lifes ‘clear’ the painter’s vision. Painting flowers is like resting after a tiring road with bumps and potholes’, said the artist.
The Mother of God (1912)
He could become the continuer of the family business – a shoemaker. Or a railroad worker, which was his childhood dream. He was, however, predestined for something else entirely. Painting and graphics, theatre design and decorative arts, drama, scenography, pedagogy – Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s (1878-1939) range of creative interests was astonishingly broad and multifaceted.
Throughout his creative life, the artist repeatedly turned to representations of the Mother of God. Examples are the church apse of the Orthopaedic Institute in the Alexander Gardens, the murals in the Cathedrals of Kronstadt and Sumy, and, finally, the easel work The Mother of God of Tenderness Towards Evil Hearts, completed in 1915.
The Mother of God is the artist’s response to the tragic events of WW1. The gentle, serene and wise look of the Mother of God seems to penetrate the very soul of the viewer. It is one of the most heartfelt and sublime images created by this remarkable artist, and a unique example of interpretation of iconographic canons in easel painting.
Masquarade ball in Paris
Constantin Korovin (1861-1939) was not only a foremost Russian impressionist. He was an artist who always stayed true to his style, vision and understanding of colour, despite the criticism and reproaches of conservative art academicians. He began painting in his own fresh, bright, bold and singular style long before his first trip to Paris and his acquaintance with the French impressionists. ‘The impressionists… In them, I found everything I was berated for back home, in Moscow’, Korovin would say later.
Korovin painted portraits and landscapes, still lifes and genre paintings; tundra and Crimea, Norway and Spain. The only subject he seemed to be avoiding was the city. Until Paris, that is. ‘In no other city… does the artist have before his eyes this perpetual struggle of artificial light with the sky, these subtle, surprisingly beautiful yellowish and bluish tones observed here’, said Korovin.
His portrayals of Paris could easily rival those of his French peers. He was able to convey everything: the night, the boulevards, the luminous advertisements, the street traffic, conferring to his artworks the lively and vivid vibes of Paris. Korovin fell in love with the city for life, and would move here for good in 1922, a few years after the Russian Revolution. However, he would never completely assimilate to the great city; he would love Paris with the love of a visitor and yearn for his homeland, where he could no longer return, to his last day.
Letter from the Front (1951)
At the 1946 USSR Art Expo, the first version of this painting by Alexander Laktionov (1910-1962) was, without exaggeration, a resounding success. Crowds gathered in front of the canvas, often obstructing the passage. Some just looked, others couldn’t hold their tears. A terrible war had ended the year before, leaving no Russian unaffected. Memories of long-awaited triangle-shaped letters from frontline soldiers, carefully read and cherished, were still fresh.
Laktionov’s first postgraduate work, the painting was inspired by a scene the artist had witnessed first-hand: a soldier returning from the front delivered a precious triangle-shaped letter from her loved one to a woman whose face lit up on the news. For his painting, Laktionov chose people he knew as his models: the soldier-‘postman’ was his neighbour who had fought at the front; the woman with the envelope – the sister of the artist’s mother Evdokiya; the children – his son Seryozha and daughter Svetlana. The most luminous character in the painting is the girl with a red bandage – the Laktionov’s’ neighbour. Filled with sunlight and warmth, the painting tells the viewer that there is a place for happiness even in the most difficult times.
Letter from the Front was universally loved: the artist was showered with collective and individual praise, congratulatory calls and telegrams from friends, relatives, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Following the exhibition, Laktionov received orders for artist’s multiples of Letter from the Front from a number of museums in the USSR and other countries. The painting was included in school textbooks, calendars and popular magazines. The nationwide acclaim culminated in the Stalin Prize awarded to Laktionov by the Soviet government.
Hammer and sickle (2003)
Geliy Korzhev (1925-2012) was People’s Artist of the USSR, academician, winner of several state prizes, Chairman of the Union of Artists and professor. Today, his paintings Raising the Banner, The International and Communists seem to represent quintessential Soviet realism art.
With compositions seemingly carved out of stone, perfectly sculpted figures, cinematic angles and a complex colour palette, Korzhev’s is a truly distinctive style. The artist managed to achieve a seemingly unattainable, unreal unity of artistic content, aesthetic form and painting style. An indisputable master, Korzhev is a broadly recognized figure in Soviet art.
Psychological still life is a special genre in Korzhev’s art, which he turned to frequently and willingly, solving compositional and semantic challenges of the pictorial art form. Throughout the existence of the USSR, the hammer and the sickle symbolised, respectively, the class of industrial workers and the peasantry. The precise iconography was established during the October Revolution of 1917. 1980s were a milestone period for Russia, when the movement for a renewal of Soviet power led, on the contrary, to its collapse… Still Life with Hammer and Sickle is Korzhev’s attempt to revalidate the overthrown symbols of the Soviet era.
Alexei and Sergei Tkachev
Good morning (1965)
The Tkachev brothers are a rare example of outstanding creative collaboration. Sergei (born in 1922) and Aleksei (born in 1925) were both bright creative personalities producing splendid joint and individual works. The Tkachev brothers were People’s Artists of the USSR, members of the USSR Academy of Arts and winners of the USSR State Prize. Part of collections of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum, their works were exhibited in the Art Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The brothers were born in a village near Bryansk. While each followed his own path towards pictorial arts, the two reunited for their career-defining studies at the Moscow Surikov Art College under the famous Soviet painter Sergei Gerasimov, who shaped an entire generation of remarkable Russian artists of the sixties. (In turn, Gerasimov had studied under Konstantin Korovin, Abram Arkhipov and Valentin Serov – an amazing tale of generational continuity in Russian art!).
Throughout their lives, the Tkachev brothers constantly turn to the images of the Russian countryside: “Our paintings are about our life. The characters are not fantasies: behind each work are real people, real events, stories told by our elders. Each painting represents a piece of our soul.” The Tkachev brothers’ canvases depict the perpetual cycle of rural life and its protagonists.
One such work is Good Morning (1965, oil on canvas. 76×87.5 cm), which depicts village girls riding on a two-wheeled cart on a chilly, sunshine-filled morning.
Demonstration on October 17, 1905 (1906)
A harbinger of change, the Russian Revolution of 1905 was a “dress rehearsal” without which “the victory of the October Revolution of 1917 would have been impossible.” The Manifesto of Emperor Nicholas II ‘On Improvement of the State Order’ was the first Russian Constitution in history. The promises of “unshakable foundations of civil freedom”, personal inviolability, freedom of conscience and speech were received with enthusiasm by the liberal circles in Russia. The painting by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), artist, teacher and a key figure in Russian realism art, is a snapshot of that pivotal moment in Russian history.
We see members of Russia’s progressive society: students, professors and workers. Full of enthusiasm, they are carrying red flags and singing revolutionary songs… They have lifted an amnestied prisoner on their shoulders, and this crowd of thousands is moving across a big city square in ecstasy of general jubilation. The artist sought to convey the excitement and state of mind of the crowd. Many of the characters are real historical figures.
In 1911, the painting was successfully exhibited at the International Exhibition of Art in Rome. Due to a censorship ban, the Russian public won’t see the work until 1912.
Peter Ossovsky (1925-2015) is considered as one of the founders of the ‘austere style’ in Soviet art. His departure from the canons of official socialist realism, portrayal of life without embellishment, focus on the human being and search of the highest truth were all quite new in the USSR of the 1960s.
While deeply national, Ossovsky’s art is accessible and understandable to all. Throughout his life, the artist wrote one sincere tale – a tale of the Russian people and their homeland. He was one of the first in his generation to turn to the life of a provincial Russian city and its inhabitants. With its pristine beauty and austere epic grandeur, beautiful nature and courageous people, the Pskov region, where Ossovsky would live for over 40 years, became a major source of inspiration.
The theme of the Orthodox Faith became important in Ossovsky’s later works. Church is a work dwelling on the return to Orthodoxy after many years of oblivion and profanation; on acquisition of the spiritual core that has underlain the faith of many generations of Russians. ‘Just raise your eyes to the blue homeland sky, and it will lean towards you with God’s love, because even in the most deplorable times, the temple road never got completely overgrown, and the prayer of the Russian man never trailed away.’
Collective Farm Market (1936-1937)
Fedot Sychkov (1870-1958) was born in a Mordovian village a thousand kilometres from the capital of the empire. While he completed only three years of secondary school, he was a gifted artist from an early age, painting icons and portraits of his fellow villagers. Sychkov’s fate was sealed with a chance encounter, when General Ivan Arapov, a local landowner and functionary at the horse breeding administration, spotted the young man. With the help of Arapov, 22-year-old Sychkov enters the Drawing School of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts in St. Petersburg and, 3 years later, the Higher Art School at the Academy of Arts. At 30, he is awarded the title of artist.
Throughout his remarkably long creative life both in the Russian Empire and, later, in the Soviet Union, Fedot Sychkov will remain true to the traditions of realism and the theme of the Russian countryside. The artist was, above all else, a brilliant master of the folk portrait. His peasant women are distinctive and beautiful. Almost every Sychkov’s work projects a soft, benevolent view of the world, sincerity and humanity.
In Soviet Russia, Sychkov’s art filled with manifest joy of human existence was quite in tune with the official art guidelines exhorting creation of life-affirming images of Soviet citizens. Nevertheless, Sychkov’s characters always exude sincerity and individuality. Regardless of the realities of the times and fashion, the artist invariably portrayed his models smiling, dressed in Russian traditional sarafans, bright scarves and beads. Until his last day, Fedot Sychkov worked with rapture and inspiration, creating paintings full of refreshing emotions.
And We Continue Fishing (1922)
“Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:18-22). One of the six works in the Sancta series is based on the gospel parable of Jesus and the fishermen. From the muddy waves of the sea of life, the good Fishermen strive to save and return drowning souls to the Light.
Mystic philosopher, traveller, archaeologist, writer, author of the Pact for the Protection of Culture (which formed the basis for the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage), founder of the philosophical doctrine ‘Living Ethics’ (on internal transformation and mastery of cosmic energy) – the scale of activity of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was akin to the titans of the Renaissance. Roerich as an artist combined realism and symbolism, paying great attention to colour. He almost completely abandoned oil for tempera, experimented with the composition of paints and used tonal superimpositions. The resulting style was innovative, original and unique.
And We Continue Fishing dates to the artist’s triumphant three-year tour of the Americas, yielding exhibitions in 30 cities and the series of paintings ‘New Mexico’, ‘Ocean Suite’, ‘Dreams of Wisdom’, and ‘Sancta’ with its six works on the lives of Russian saints and ascetics.
Partisan Ballad (1969)
The military theme occupies a special place in the art of the Belarusian painter Mai Danzig (1930-2017), as it does in the life of every citizen of Belarus, a country that lost a third of its population to WW2, and where partisan resistance against the Nazis during the occupation was tireless and nationwide.
Partisan Ballad is a take on the exemplary Roman story of a woman Pero who breastfeeds her father Cimon after he was incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. Like Pero, Dantsig’s female partisan rescues a wounded warrior abandoned on the battlefield and doomed to die. In the USSR of 1969, against the backdrop of the dogmas of socialist realism, Partisan Ballad appeared as an outright provocation. The painting was harshly criticized and rejected. ‘The critics did not even bother to understand the origin of the subject’, recalled Dantsig later.
Indeed, it was Peter Paul Rubens who inspired the artist to paint his Ballad. While admiring Roman Charity on display in the Hermitage Museum, Dantsig saw semantic parallels with the events of WW2, when the Belarusian Mother Earth became the fosterer for Soviet partisans. In the painting by Mai Danzig, the baroque plot became a symbol of the feat and self-sacrifice of Belarus during the years of the fascist occupation in 1941-1944.