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Art History

Leonid Berlin’s Roman Holiday
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Leonid Berlin

bandoned as infants, Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome, are said to have been raised by a she-wolf. A classical visual interpretation of their story shows the brothers suckling as the wolf stands guard over them. Just such an image, with white ceramic characters inscribed within a blue medallion, is part of the sculptural adornment of Rimskaya metro station, which is named in honor of the Italian capital (Rimskaya means “Roman” in Russian).

The sculpture is by the Russian artist Leonid Berlin, whose work is featured throughout the station. Bringing ancient themes to a modern venue, Berlin’s sculptures made of fire clay are an ultra-modern interpretation of the best examples of 14th- and 15th-century Italian sculpture.

Above one of the station’s escalators, another Berlin work depicts four horses pulling a quadriga (an ancient Roman chariot) through the Arch of Titus, an ancient Roman structure that still stands today on the Via Sacra in Rome. Two children frame the piece, cherub-like. Another of the station’s medallions, this one over the foot of the escalator, shows the Madonna and Child. The Catholic prayer to the Virgin is inscribed on the medallion’s edge, which — together with the Madonna’s shawl, breast, and hands — offers protection to the child. “For me this sculpture is a symbol of motherhood,” Berlin said of the work.

The Mouth of Truth
Photo Ben Berghaus

The theme of (re)birth is evident in another work displayed on one of the station’s landings: Two Corinthian columns, one standing and one fallen, form a playground for two sculptured children. “Sprouts of new life,” laughed the sculptor, describing the youthful figures. “Without them it was deadly ennui. They are a prospect for the future.” The flowers that decorate the capitals of Berlin’s columns further add to the sense of life emerging out of decay.

Other prominent themes in Berlin’s work are human suffering and social injustice. For example, the sculpture Artist portrays a naked man entangled in wire, to which cockroaches and other insects are attached. The bugs, powered by electricity, crawl over the body. The man holds a stick in his right hand, which might be a paint brush or a conductor’s baton, and continues to create as the pests torment him.

Another kinetic work, Wedge, depicts the destruction of the family, a comment on the brutal policies of the Stalin era. In this sculpture, a man and a woman are locked in a naked embrace, their bodies melting into a single organic whole. Suddenly, a wedge comes between them, bloodily tearing their unity asunder.

Berlin, who lost his father in Stalin’s purges, used his art to attack the Soviet regime. A favorite motif is the continuation of amid decay and destruction.


Berlin used his art to attack Soviet brutality. The artist’s drawings register the powdered façade of Soviet life while simultaneously revealing the horrors of its realities. It is no wonder Berlin was compelled to express such sentiments: His father was executed in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s purges.

Born in Moscow in 1925, Leonid Berlin rejected Socialist Realism, the artistic style sanctioned by the Soviet state. For this reason, during Soviet times Berlin could not exhibit his provocative works without risking arrest. However, some inventive friends suggested a clever way around this: Exhibit his works as illustrations to Bertolt Brecht’s plays. They even wrote original verses in Brechtian style as captions for the “illustrations.” Fortunately for Berlin, the party bosses who controlled art were hardly literati and didn’t bother to check Brecht’s texts to see if the “quoted” lines were authentic.

This approach enabled Berlin to depict the struggle of the people against the powers that be — embodied by listless party functionaries — right under the noses of these same party bureaucrats. One Party boss turned all shades of red as he walked from picture to picture at an exhibition of Berlin’s. He could discern in Berlin’s works the commentary on Party bureaucracy, but he couldn’t find a way to pin down actual grounds for accusing Berlin. “My art illustrated Brecht and nothing but Brecht,” Berlin recollected.

Which isn’t to say that Berlin was able to live and work in the USSR unmolested. Once, in 1974, some of his works were smashed and the pieces dumped over the garden wall of his dacha. With the advent of perestroika, he was free to create as he wished but continued to push the limits of convention. The artist died in 2000.

While Berlin is best known for his sculpture, he considered his graphic work equally important. In 1956, the artist illustrated a volume of selected poetry by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, a friend of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and an activist in world political and artistic communities throughout the 1940s and 50s (Hikmet is buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery). This work earned Berlin a silver medal at the 1958 World Graphic Exhibition in Leipzig. After that, publishers began to commission work from him.

Berlin injected his personality and sometimes even his physical features into his art. In Rimskaya metro station, the face of the sculpture The Mouth of Truth is Berlin’s self-portrait. “I didn’t make that face look like mine on purpose, but somehow all my pieces look like me,” the sculptor once admitted, with a smile.

Photo Ben Berghaus

The sculpture is a reference to the famous Bocca della Verita sculpture in Rome, believed to be part of an ancient Roman fountain. Centuries-old legend holds that any liar who dares put his hand into the gaping mouth of the sculpture’s round face will have it bitten off. The text inscribed around the edge of Berlin’s version in the metro is mostly in Latin, but there are two words in Russian: Dlya Donosov [For Denunciations].

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