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Art History

The Quixotic World of Silis and Lemport
Text Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Photos courtesy Nikolai Silis

Inside a two-story studio in northwest Moscow, the quixotic world of two Russian sculptors is preserved in bronze and other media. Vladimir Lemport and Nikolai Silis shared this workspace for years, creating art individually as well as in collaboration.

Lemport & Silis, Library facade, Ashhabad, Turkmenistan (1970)

Born in Tambov in 1922, Lemport fought the Nazis at Stalingrad and lived to tell about it. That survival, he said, “filled me with joy for the rest of my life — after the trenches, everything seems fine.” After World War II, while studying at the Stroganov Art School, he was given the opportunity to help decorate the new Moscow State University building on what is today called Sparrow Hills.

Details of library facade,
“Greece” and “Egypt”

Nikolai Silis was born in Moscow in 1928. After surviving the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, he also enrolled at Stroganov. But it was not until 1952 that the two artists began to work together. They were invited together with fellow Stroganov graduate Vadim Sidur, to design sculptures for the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland. Although the team created 20 sculptures, only two were installed — a result, they contend, of “monopolism” (the domination of all commissions for new works of art by a small group of artists who were highly placed in the Soviet art establishment). In May 1953, the three artists penned a ferocious article in Literaturnaya Gazeta entitled “Against monopolism in sculpture.” Although the piece delivered a blow to the monopolists, it also served to close the doors of the establishment art world.

Nevertheless, the three continued to work. In 1956, thanks to Khrushchev’s thaw, Lemport became a member of the Moscow Artists’ Union, and the trio staged an exhibition at the Academy of Arts. The same year, they collaborated to decorate the swimming pool at Moscow’s Lenin Stadium in Moscow. They created a ceramic relief that harmonized perfectly with the pool’s huge ceramic tiles. But the advent of the Brezhnev era revived the chill wind of censorship, bringing a deep freeze to the creative world. Silis and Lemport would not stage their next solo show until 1987.

After Sidur left the team in 1962, Lemport and Silis continued to work together until Lemport’s death in 2001. Rejection from the authorities notwithstanding, the duo viewed the Brezhnev years as ones of artistic growth and maturation. “Since we were heading against the wind,” Silis laughed, “the Artistic Council [of the Union of Artists, one of the bodies that had to approve works of art] did its best to drown us in a teacup.” Several projects were rejected. “The Artistic Council would often drop the price for our works by five times,” Lemport said during a 1995 interview, “only because our art is abstract, unlike Socialist Realism.” Despite — or perhaps because of this — the sculptors’ workshop was known in the 1960s as a popular gathering spot for artists.

N. Silis, Don Quixote on a Chessboard Lithograph, 1979

Amid their close collaboration, each artist maintained his own style, which was often in stark contrast with that of his partner. For example, Silis dislikes sharp angles and rough surfaces, while Lemport loves texture. “We are opponents,” Silis explained in 1995. “We’re constantly arguing, but people get together according to the principle of antipodes…I instinctively chose Lemport — I wanted to prove myself to someone. However, we share the same philosophy and our hierarchy of values is the same.”

Among Lemport’s work is a series of series of ceramic portraits that includes Albert Einstein and Dante Alighieri. An asymmetrical mosaic depicting Boris Pasternak in blue, green, and yellow was created in the 1960s, when the writer was persecuted for having published his novel Doctor Zhivago abroad. “I try to model my sculptures as if they were filling the whole of my head,” Lemport said. “There is a whole world in our head — infinite and unique. The challenge is to learn to sense it, to see and hear it.”

Silis, who early on worked in a realistic style before becoming increasingly abstract, reflected on his own artistic development: “The Lemport-Sidur- Silis team did monumental sculptures together for 15 years, but I don’t really think I succeeded in that genre. In 1962, I carved my first individual sculpture in wood. Since then I’ve considered myself a sculptor…The main thing for me in sculpture is form. Form alone can create the image of the artist. Texture, material, dimensions — all these are just attributes.”

Since we were heading against the wind, the Artists’ Council did its best to drown us in a teacup.

But Silis is not known for his work in sculpture alone. In 1976, he created a series of witty lithographs portraying Don Quixote in contemporary situations. “What I wanted to express in these engravings is Cervantes’ sarcasm, humor, and depth,” he said. So in Don Quixote on a Chessboard the character finds himself in a chessboard universe that exists in several dimensions at the same time. Unable to tell top from bottom, Don Quixote nevertheless maintains his fighting spirit, posed on horseback and holding a lance. “We’re all Don Quixotes in a way and may always find ourselves in surreal situations like that,” commented Silis. In the Ecological Don Quixote, Cervantes’ picaro is set against a big industrial town pumping out black fumes. He tries to hide behind a dilapidated wall, surrounded by garbage and broken bottles, but there is nowhere to go.

In the mid-1990s, both sculptors took some of their work created in more fragile media and cast it in bronze. “We entered the bronze age in our creativity,” they laughed. Lemport’s bronze sculptural portraits include Bach (with a wig composed of pieces of an organ) as well as Goethe and the deaf Beethoven in agony trying to discern sound. In 1994, two Lemport sculptures, Pieta and War, were selected for display at Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War on Poklonnaya Gora, which opened as part of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.

N. Silis, Lamentation Relief, 1970

V. Lemport, Ludwig van Beethoven Bas-relief, 1992

V. Lemport, Albert Einstein Bas-relief, 1964

Despite the pair’s success — between 1994 and 1996 Lemport alone had 15 exhibitions of his work — Lemport used to say, “We’re happy we couldn’t sell all our sculptures. The studio is full of them. It’s very important for an artist to have his works around him, to be able to talk to them.” In this way, they were able to maintain an external manifestation of the world inside their heads: “Our workshop is our home where we live. Of course, we leave it to go home for the night, but it’s our world.”

A book on the work of Nikolai Silis is currently available, and a companion volume on the work of Vladimir Lemport is in progress. For information, call (499) 142-1637

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