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Art History

The Versatile Talent of Lev Kropivnitsky
 Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Self-portrait 1964

When Nikita Khrushchev visited the art exhibition at Manezh on December 1, 1962, and excoriated the artists for being “abstractionists,” what he didn’t know was that there wasn’t a genuine abstractionist among the bunch. Lev Kropivnitsky, for example, one of the country’s main pioneers of abstract art, realized that to participate in the exhibit would be tantamount to espousing the Soviet socialist realist tradition and would thus compromise his individuality. For this reason, he did not display his work at Manezh that day.

Kropivnitsky had acquired that kind of wisdom in Stalin’s gulags, where a conformist regime taught him creative independence.

During World War II he was badly wounded and spent a year recuperating in hospitals after nine operations. Following the war, he continued his studies at the Institute of Applied and Decorative Art. A year later, he was arrested of “plotting Stalin’s assassination” and sentenced along with 10 of his fellow students to 10 years in the gulag.

A self-portrait has survived from this period. Kropivnitsky did it with colored pencils on a sheet of paper the size of a postcard and sent it to his parents. When the camp’s superintendent intercepted the letter and ordered Kropivnitsky to make it more “optimistic,” the artist added a tie. Satisfied that the new accessory gave the drawing the requisite optimism, the superintendent allowed the portrait to be sent.

In Stalin’s gulags, Kropivnitsky learned creative independence from a conformist regime.

When Kropivnitsky finally returned home in 1956, he discovered that the art world had not only undergone a thaw but had, in fact, reached a boil in both Moscow and the town of Dolgoprudny where his parents (who were artists as well) lived. In Dolgoprudny, Lev’s father had surrounded himself with free-thinking artists and poets. Moscow’s nonconformist elite would gather in Lianozovo to commune and create. Later this group of artists would acquire the name the Lianozovo School.

Year of the Horse 1971

Very soon Lev Kropivnitsky became a leader of the Moscow art world and the father of the country’s abstract painting with his innovative non-figurative compositions. He would recollect later that this was an attempt to purify himself from the horrors of the labor camps, which dominated his mind for some time. Later on, Kropivnitsky’s creativity self-expression took other forms, such as graphic works, illustrations, and mystic expressionism, as well.

To reproduce the deformed world of the camps, one had to invent a special artistic language as none of the existing idioms was equal to the task, and realism was completely out of the question. In the mid 1960s, the artist’s palette was quite severe and laconic — an expressive symphony of painting asceticism, a kingdom of gray color with its subtle harmonies, hues, and transitions from white to black. In his paintings the horrible and the chimerical rubbed shoulders with skepticism, irony, and ingenuity. The symbolic images of huge wistful cats, bulls’ faces, scarabs, nuns, and beaked creatures appeared on the canvas regardless of the laws of space and time. Each painting expressed a spirituality and a human soul that has no top or bottom, defying gravity.

One of his pictures was filled with images of bulls’ heads with phallic horns and amazingly intelligent expressions. The picture was interpreted as an embodiment of dark sexuality, the overwhelming power of animal eroticism, and the triumph of non-spiritual nature over the humiliated spirit.

However, according to the “laws” of Soviet absurdity these relationships between life and the spirit were perceived differently. One Party functionary viewed in the painting Two Bulls something more tangible than the apotheosis of blind passion. To the mind of the Soviet ideologue, the painting was not about an abstract force that drives the real world and its historic processes but specific, concrete individuals with their everyday needs. So Lev Kropivnitsky was accused of allusion and caricaturism, a desire to cast aspersions on the Communist Party.

Converter of Life 1962

His workshop at 18 Staraya Basmannaya Ulitsa was a gathering place for many in the creative set, and Kropivnitsky was known as a great host. An astrologist, Kropivnitsky would often perform astrological analyses of his visitors. He would entertain his guests by accompanying himself on guitar while singing romances or by reciting original poetry, which was an extension of his paintings and graphics. He would talk about eternity compared to which everyday social life became ephemeral. At a table filled with food, his guests could discuss everything from the architecture of the Middle Ages to African rites, from cigarmaking techniques to the secrets of the Knights Templar. Those meetings at Lianozovo were samples of freedom — civil, creative, spiritual — that destroyed the stereotypes of clichéd thinking.

But war and gulags had taken their toll on Kropivnitsky’s health: On May 26, 1994, he died at the age of 71. During his lifetime Lev Kropivnitsky was a classic; after his death he became a legend of Russian non-conformism. More of an esthetic than a political nonconformist, he never meant to disclose the ugliness of life directly. In this way his legacy transcends time and place to become universal.

Though most of his works have been dispersed among foreign museums and collections, his wife and daughter, Galina and Natalia Kropivnitsky, have kept their own collection. In 2004 the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val held a memorial exhibition that included paintings from its own collection as well as from the collection of the artist’s family.

Composition 1964

Golgotha 1989

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