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Art History

Aizenman’s Love Affair with the City is Ours to Share
Text Olga Slobodkina-von BrØmssen
Photos courtesy of Olga Velchinskaya

he end of the 20th century saw the start of an interesting process in the artistic worlds of Russia and Eastern Europe: Artists who had been repressed by the Soviet regime emerged from the shadows, and works that had been packed away for years once again saw the light. The public viewed them; critics wrote about them; and museums, galleries, and collectors all over the world bought them. Among the artists who came to light during this period is Alexei Aizenman.

Aizenman rejected Socialist Realism, hewing instead to the traditions of the Impressionists and Expressionists, who were in such disfavor among the Soviet establishment. Working without the goal of building a career or the notion of selling his art, Aizenman depicted the Moscow of his time, a Moscow that no longer exists. This is in part what makes his work valuable to viewers today, especially to the Muscovites among them who are daily witnesses to the rapidly changing urban landscape of their city.

While artists often claim to work in many genres, in reality there is usually only one genre in which the artist is truly in his or her element and which informs the rest of his or her body of work. For Aizenman, this genre was the cityscape, and the subject was Moscow. Taking his cue from the 19thcentury Impressionists, Aizenman could paint the same street or urban corner very different ways, with contrasting interpretations of color and light.

Spurning the Socialist Realism of the Soviet establishment, Aizenman hewed instead to the traditions of the Impressionists and Expressionists.

Born in 1918, the young Alexei took his first art lessons from his mother, who had studied under the tutelage of the remarkable Silver Age artist Leonid Pasternak (father of the novelist Boris, author of Doctor Zhivago). Aizenman received his professional training at the 1905 Institute, under the outstanding exponent of Moscow realism, Nikolai Krymov. Aizenman adored Krymov, whose death in 1958 was a great personal loss for his student. It did, however, allow Aizenman to escape the powerful influence of his mentor and acquire full originality in his own art.

“This is Spring” (1980s), tempera on cardboard

“Exhibition Hall on
Ploshchad Vosstaniya” (1953),
oil on canvas

Between the early 1942 self-portraits and the Moscow landscapes of the 1990s, Aizenman’s work underwent significant stylistic developments. Although he was a realist painter to the core, in his different creative periods the influences of French Impressionism and Russian Silver Age art can be strongly felt. In his early works, when Aizenman was mainly experimenting with color and juxtaposition of hues, Krymov’s realist influence is apparent. In his later works, the intensifi cation of ornamental characteristics becomes pronounced. His landscapes progress in tone from lyrical to more decorative, the colors more incongruous and the palette broadened.

Constant experimentation meant that Aizenman was never constrained by a single formula that would render his work instantly recognizable or traceable to him. On a single canvas, Aizenman could mix Art Nouveau ornament — such as the silhouettes of trees and houses in the foreground — with a great sense of depth, combining these two seemingly contradictory approaches into a harmonious and expressive whole.

“Spring on Ostozhenka” (1964), oil on cardboard

“My the Yauza Gates” (1981), oil on fiberboard

He found poetry in the most mundane things, drawing inspiration equally from a street corner with a van in the foreground or from a quiet Moscow yard surrounded by several apartment blocks. As the 1971 painting “In Potapovsky Pereulok” exemplifies, he could transform familiar places into something extraordinary and almost fairy-tale like. He would paint in places where he was risking his life, such as in the middle of a busy road, but inspiration was always stronger than fear. His daughter, Olga Velchinskaya, recollected an episode when her father was painting on a windowsill at the entrance to an apartment block where important Party bosses lived. “He just liked the view from there,” Velchinskaya said. He was promptly taken down to the police station, blissfully unaware of the fact that he had intruded into forbidden territory.

Aizenman was uninterested in the material side of life and made his living by teaching painting at the People’s University of Arts. He cared little for the fate of his artworks after he fi nished them; for him, the creative process itself was the only thing that really mattered. His daughter related an anecdote that illustrates this attitude. Once, his studio was fl ooded, ruining hundreds of works. When his family plucked up the courage to tell him what had happened, they were surprised that Aizenman was not at all upset. “I had such fun painting them,” his daughter remembered him saying.

“My Favorite Square” (1990), tempera on fiberboard

“Courtyard on Maroseika” (1965), oil on canvas

“He was an optimist,” commented Velchinskaya, who today looks after her father’s work and gladly shows it to visitors to the family’s Moscow home. “It was enough for him to go out onto the street and see the sunset to recover his spirits and find inspiration. He could see things as if for the first time and imparted that ability to his students,” who continue to mourn his death in 1993 even today.

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