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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Arts

Soviet Art Before and During the Second World War
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

In the 1930’s a place of prominence in the world of Soviet art belonged to the book illustrators for Russian, Soviet and foreign classical literature. Many of our artists succeeded in rendering the uniqueness of the author’s style, the atmosphere of the period, the portrait likeness and psychology of the characters, and, what is more, giving a modern rendition of the classics from the more appreciative vantage of their day and age.

In his lithographic illustrations (1934-1936) for Romain Rolland’s Colas Bruegnon, Yevgeni Kibrik (1906-1978) produced colorful characterizations of the cheerful and robust French peasants. The illustrations of Dementi Shmarinov (1907-1999) for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment published in 1935-1936 are notable for his psychologically profound characterizations of the personages, and the dramatic portrayal of the typical details of living and the social environment in which their thoughts and feelings were shaped. Victor Konashevich (1888-1963) was a man of diverse talents, excelling in book illustrating and drawing. ‘Winter in Pavlovsk’ (1940), is beautifully done in black watercolor. The poetic mood of a mild day and the all but tangible softness of the snow are rendered with delicate skill and sincere feeling.

Dementi Shmarinov
'Peter the First‘

Evgeni Kibrik
‘Taras above Andry‘s Body‘

Victor Konashevish
‘Still Life‘

The 1930’s also marked a new chapter in the work of Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977) and Alexander Deineka (1899-1969) who had been members of the Society of Easel Painters. Both had studied at Soviet art schools and embarked on their professional careers in the early 1920’s. Yuri Pimenov grew away from his penchant for graphics and devoted himself to genre painting; landscape and portraits whose picturesque structure was clearly influenced by his infatuation with the traditions of impressionism, transmuted in an original way. In his picture ‘New Moscow’ (1937) he showed the city’s busy, animated life, missing none of the new features in the look of the people and the streets. The fragmentation of the composition enhances the impression of movement, while the blots of soft colors in the play of the silvery light produce a sensation of beautiful freshness after a summer shower.

Alexander Deineka had a very wide range of professional interests: He designed magazines and books, he drew pictures and posters and produced oil paintings and murals. In everything he did he demonstrated his sharp sense of contemporary awareness, his optimistic view of the world, and his novel handling of various idioms. His painting ‘Defense of Petrograd’ (1928) is regarded as a classic of the 1920’s. In 1932, Alexander Deineka turned to the eternal theme of motherhood, and in his painting ‘Mother’ embodied the ideal that had been created in the new Soviet world. This young mother is healthy in body and mind; she is full of dignity, tenderness and strength. By boldly simplifying and generalizing the forms, Deineka designs his picture like a fresco. The composition is clear and straightforward, the single silhouette of mother and child, given in close-up, is softly yet impressively outlined against the even, muted color of the background. The golden hues of the image are restrained, yet warm. The proud strength of the mother and the gentleness with which she is carrying the sleeping child are rendered by the simple means of accentuating the plasticity of her body. The human appeal of the image and the eloquent laconism of the painting are features of genuine monumentality. With Deineka as with other Soviet artists, the theme of the Great Patriotic War on Russian territory eliminated all other interests in the art world. I’d like to remind the reader that the war was happening on the territory of the Soviet Union and the country lost an overwhelming number of people, namely twenty million. You will hardly find a single family in Russia that did not lose somebody during the War.

Victor Konashevish

Alexander Deineka
‘On the Outskirts of Moscow‘

Alexander Deineka
‘Ode to the Spring‘

For his picture ‘On the Outskirts of Moscow. November 1941’ Deineka chooses a foreshortening method unusual for a street scene, with a fragmentary composition, pulsating with discordant, alarming rhythms. The harsh color scheme is of cold steelgrey and rusty hues and Deineka sharply outlines the houses along the road along with the ruins, and the solitary military lorry with the tarpaulin cover fl apping in the wind. The pointed contrasts of the fl at surfaces and the bulk of the objects, the different scale on which the various elements of the painting are drawn, are a means of bringing attention to the antitank concrete traps and the hedgehogs that seem to thrust up from the snow in a bristling paling to protect the city. The image of Moscow, prepared to repel the attack of the enemy and full of a grim strength, expresses the tense atmosphere of the time with the potency of a wartime poster.

One of the best pictures by Arkadi Plastov (1893-1972) is called ‘A Nazi Plane Has Flown Over’ (1942). The peaceful beauty of the Russian land, and the stillness and enchantment of autumn have been brutally violated by the enemy. A small dog is howling beside the body of a shepherd boy machine-gunned to death by the Nazi plane that has just flown over. The image throbs with pain and hatred for the enemy. Plastov’s painting was shown for the first time at the Great Patriotic War exhibition mounted in the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery in November 1942. In 1943, an All-Union exhibition keynoted as ‘Heroism at the Front and in the Rear’ was also held at the Tretyakov Gallery, and here people saw for the first time ‘The Mother of a Partisan’ (1943) by Sergei Gerasimov (1885-1964). The artist counter poses the spiritual grandeur of the ordinary Russian peasant woman against the brutal strength of the German Nazi, shown against the burning home which he has ordered to be set on fi re. The painting dramatically extols the heroism of Soviet people unconquered by the enemy.

Alexander Deineka ‘Mother‘

Alexander Deineka
‘Defence of Sevastopol‘

Sergei Gerasimov

The contribution to the large portrait gallery devoted to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War came from Soviet painters, graphic artists and sculptors, many of whom served in the Armed Forces and fought at the fronts. The sculptural portrait of Army General Chernyakhovsky, twice a Hero of the Soviet Union, was posthumously made in 1945 by Yevgeny Vetetich (1908-1975). The sculptor did more than give the portrait a perfect likeness; he created a dramatic, solemnly decorative composition affirming the hero’s strength of character and courage.

Arkadi Plastov ‘A Nazi Plane Has Flown Over’

Sergei Gerasimov ‘In Vologda’

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