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Art History

Artist Olga Bari-Aizenman: Story of Story of an Outstanding Family
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

A Pond. Bikovo. Oil on canvas, 1916

Interior. Raiki. Pastels on paper, 1913

hen the Russian art world threw off the obtrusive clichés of socialist realism, galleries and art critics began to focus on new names. One such name is Olga Bari-Aizenman.

A painter of extraordinary talent, Olga Bari was born into a highly educated and spiritual family. Her father Alexander Veniaminovich Bari, an engineer and enterpriser, was educated in Germany and Switzerland and fi nally found himself in the United States, where his brilliant career progressed rapidly and he became a millionaire. A talented industrialist, he became the chairman of the Philadelphia Engineering Society and designed all the pavilions for the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition, displaying technical achievements worldwide.

At the exhibition, he met a delegation of Russian engineers, including the young engineer Vladimir Shukhov. That acquaintance marked the beginning of a most astounding Shukhov-Bari creative duo, which finally brought the Bari family back to Russia where the two worked together until Bari’s death in 1913.

At first they provided all the engineering works for the Nobel brothers’ oil undertaking in Baku. Then in 1880, Bari decided to set up his own firm. It is hard to put a figure on the amount of work that Bari and Shukhov did together.

For the engineering constructions for 40 units in Moscow and the surrounding area, including the Metropol Hotel and the State Department Store (GUM) in Red Square, Shukhov designed all the complicated metal constructions while Bari financed the projects and brought them to life. Together they built over 450 railway bridges in Russia, modernized the water pipes in the largest cities and built the first tram station in Moscow and the School of Sculpture and Architecture.

Bari was also a great patron of the arts. He paid for the education of his employee’s children and helped the poor. During the First Russian Revolution of 1905 his Dinamo factory saw no strikes because he had created civilized conditions for the workers.

Bari married a German baroness, Zinaida Yakovlevna Grunberg, and they had several children, one of whom was Olga Alexandrovna. Olga Alexandrovna was born on February 7, 1879 in St. Petersburg.

Besides getting a good education at home, Olga Bari became a student on higher women’s courses and went to Italy every summer. She was going to be a historian, but her experience in Italy made such an impression on her that when she came back in 1903 she started to take private lessons from artist Leonid Pasternak, father of the famous poet Boris Pasternak.

Her talent was evident at once and from 1907 she began exhibiting her artwork with the World of Art group, the Union of Russian Artists and the Moscow Salon.

Olga Bari-Aizenman wrote a note summing up her memoirs of being a student at Leonid Pasternak’s studio: Pasternak wanted his students to be able to see the image – he never gave them assignments to draw from plaster casts, he never taught them how to construct a form. The image was the goal.

In Pasternak’s studio, Olga Bari mostly painted portraits, but later changed to landscapes. When she left Pasternak’s studio, they remained friends until the end of their lives. They continued to write letters to each other after the Pasternaks had emigrated to Berlin.

Despite her success in the art world, after 1918 her works were displayed only twice: in 1947 during the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Moscow – to decorate some shop windows on Ulitsa Gorkovo and in 1980 – at an event in the Painters’ Club on Kuznetsky Most.

At the age of 34, Olga Bari married lawyer Semyon Aizenman and they had two children. Their son Alexei Aizenman (profiled in a 2008 issue of Passport) became a brilliant painter while his sister was a well-known folk art critic.

Olga Bari-Aizenman’s main occupation was teaching painting. She herself could only afford to paint during the summer months. The creative potential and necessity was so strong in her that despite all the hardships of Soviet life – the Aizenmans always lived in a communal apartment in the center of Moscow – she was still painting several months before her death when she was already virtually blind. Her last drawings are not detailed, but the color is very powerful.

The artistic language of her works is very close to the World of Art group in its conditional and decorative qualities. It is easy to guess that she adored the artist Borisov-Musatov.

Beach at Gelendzhik. Pastels on paper, 1928

By the river Pakra. Pastels on paper, 1916

Olga Bari-Aizenman was very fond of the Italian Renaissance, studying it at depth. It is hard to say what is more important about her paintings and drawings: their decorative qualities or the catching of the elusive – snow, flowers or clouds, which fade in as the viewer steps back – but their high level of culture and mastership is certain.

Olga Bari-Aizenman died on March 31, 1954.

In the 1990s, when galleries and art critics were summing up 20th century Russian art, Olga Bari-Aizenman emerged from the family archive. However, the main keeper of her works is not a gallery or a museum, but her grand-daughter Olga Velchinskaya. In her book about the family history Velchinskaya describes the acquaintance of her grandparents Olga Bari and Semyon Aizenman. “My grandparents met in 1896 in a famous market in Nizhny Novgorod. The engineering company of Alexander Veniaminovich Bari, an American citizen and a successful Russian entrepreneur, commissioned the market pavilions. The author of the brilliant engineering projects was Vladimir Grigoryevich Shukhov and the organizer of the works was Alexander Bari. The employees of his company came to Nizhny with their families. Alexander Bari came with his elder children, among whom was Olga Alexandrovna. “When my 17 year-old grandfather, Semyon Aizenman, met my 17 year-old grandmother, Olga Bari, he fell in love with her at once. For the next 17 years he sought her love and only on September 15, 1913, they wed in the Archangel Gabriel church in Arkhangelsky Pereulok. I think that my grandfather had converted to Russian Orthodoxy from Judaism to continue his education. I have no idea under what circumstances my granny converted to Russian Orthodoxy from the Lutheran faith, but when she was baptized she was given 3 names - Vera-Olga-Amalia. During her lifetime everyone called her Olga and she celebrated her name day on St. Olga’s Day, July 24.”

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