The 1920's and 1930's in the Soviet Period of Art
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
The large celection of revolutionary portraits which we have today was started early in the post-revolutionary years. The place of honor belonged to the portraits of Lenin, of course, made by painters, graphic artists and sculptors of the most different styles. Isaac Brodsky (1884-1939) developed his picture “Lenin in Smolny” from a drawing he made from life as far back as 1920. In his desire to preserve the living image of the head of the Soviet state for the generations to come, Brodsky painted Lenin with photographic accuracy and also took a pains to make an exact copy of the furniture.
Nikolai Andreyev (1873-1932) embodied his unforgettable impressions of his meetings with Lenin in a small sculpture “Lenin, Writing” (1920) which was originally modeled from life in white clay and then cast in bronze. Inspired by Lenin’s public appearances, Andreyev tried to get permission to do a sculptural portrait of him from life and, though Lenin did allow him to be in the study while he worked to do his sculpturing, he flatly refused to sit for him. With his quick, free manner of moulding, Andreyev made a good likeness of Lenin engrossed in writing. The pose and gesture are typical. Subsequently, Andreyev produced a cycle of close to three hundred sculptures and drawings of Lenin, devoting a number of years to this work.
The sculptural portrait of Narodnaya Volya revolutionary A. Zhelyabov (1928) by Boris Korolyev (1885-1963) and the image of the Bolshevik fighter S. Shahumyan (1929) hewn out of rock by Sergei Merkurov (1881-1952), both have a romantic ring evoking admiration for these heroes’ indomitable spirit. One of the most popular works of the 1920's was “A Cobblestone Is the Weapon of the Proletariat and 1905” (1927) by Ivan Shadr (1887-1941). The sculptor stresses the energy of the furious impulse in the figure and face of the young worker fighting for freedom. The tensely dynamic image is authentic in details and symbolic in character.
The main lines of development in painting and sculpture are clearly traceable in the graphic arts and watercolors of the 1920s.
Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva (1871-1955), a distinguished “World of Art” master, brought her valuable experience of watercolors and etchings into post-revolutionary Soviet art. In her watercolor “Fields of Mars” (1922) she glorified, with the lyricism common to her work, the majestic beauty and the everlasting life of the monuments of art in her native Petrograd. At the same time, her picture, painted during the Civil War, bears the unmistakable signs of the times: the great streets are strangely empty, and only in the distance you see Marine detachments on the march.
The talent of Nikolai Kupreyanov (1894- 1933) matured in the post-revolutionary years, and he was one of the first to explore the genre of Soviet industrial landscape. In the period of economic rehabilitation and the revival of railway traffic, he made a series of drawings which he finished in 1926 and entitled “Railroads.” These drawings have the irresistible appeal of poeticized energy, movement, and action.
Ignati Nivinski (1881-1933), an outstanding master of etching, creatively utilized the experience of the modern cinema in his work, especially the techniques of cutting, which enabled him to combine drawings, entirely different in character, into a single decorative whole. In his etchings devoted to the great construction projects launched in the 1920s, he underlined Lenin’s ideas of electrification and industrialization of Russia.
The work of Vassili Lebedev (1891-1967) is distinguished for its amazing wealth of imagery and keynotes. His talent found an outlet in satirical posters, in exquisitely poetic drawings, and in excellent illustrations for children’s books. His drawing, “The Nude” (1927), combines the barely discernable gradations of chiaroscuro with startling contrasts of deep black and dazzling white which, together with the fluent, melting outlines, produce a beautiful lyrical image.
Nikolai Ulyanov (1875-1949), a painter and graphic artist, painted a dramatic portrait of Alexander Pushkin, revealing with a depth of understanding the psychological state of a man hounded by the high-society mob. The atmosphere of the scene is built up by the unusual composition, the expressiveness of the silhouettes reflected in the mirror, and the sharp, nervous rhythm of the brush strokes.
The 1920's witnessed the brilliant development of woodcuts, whose leading masters were Vladimir Favorsky (1886-1964) and Alexander Kravchenko (1883-1940). In illustrating the biblical story of love and fidelity, “The Book of Ruth” (1924), Favorsky created a sublimely pure image, an embodiment of true femininity. Ruth lost in thought is kneeling before the tree of life. The moment is solemn and movingly lyrical. Favorsky achieves the impression by the perfection of his composition, the precision of his strokes, and the silvery glimmer of the finished work.
Favorsky’s superb skill and the philosophical meaning he put into his work had a very beneficial influence on the development of the book-illustrating art in our country. Actually he founded a new school which helped many original talents find their vocation. Favorsky’s work is also known and admired abroad.
Alexander Kravchenko was a virtuoso of composition in woodcuts. This temperamental artist, a romantic at heart, strove to fathom life, and present it in all its decorative beauty. One of his main themes was that of creative endeavor. His “Stradivari” (1926) is a hymn to life, to inspired work, to the harmony of being. He portrays the workshop of the celebrated maker of violins as literally flooded with streams of light.
The Tretyakov Gallery displays much of the work of many outstanding Soviet masters of the older generation, which allows viewers to trace the complex evolution of their art in the post-revolutionary period.