The Leningrad School of Painting
It is well known that two principal movements in the 20th century’s
art – namely, abstract art and the art of socialist realism – emerged,
found their classics and took the shape of theoretical systems not only
in one and the same country but also in the same center of European culture.
Both movements should be attributed to St Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad.
It is far less known that both movements fed upon the tradition of
Russian art and sprang from the same art school. By the middle of the
20th century Leningrad had become perhaps the only European cultural
center to have preserved the world-famous school of easel painting based
on the continuous development of age-long traditions of the national and
Enlarge Elena Skuin and Elena Kostenko paintings
The history of the Leningrad school of painting spans the period from
1930 through to the early 1990s. Having emerged in the time of hottest
discussions on the development of art and art education in the USSR, it
became the missing link that allowed for the preservation of national realist
painting and provided for its further advance in the epoch of socialism.
Having made a tremendous impact on the Soviet fine art and the shaping
of aesthetic perceptions and the inner life of the present generations,
the Leningrad school of painting left the picture at the turn of 1980s
and 1990s. It fulfilled its historical and artistic mission and gave place
to the epoch of transition.
Though the trappings of the school did not change, the new social
order, new generations of artists and new artistic goals leave no doubts
that the era of the Leningrad school has passed becoming an object of serious
study and a matter of hot disputes.
It is no accident that the Leningrad school of painting emerged in
the beginning of the 1930s. Firstly, it was Leningrad that attracted
talented youth from all over the vast country and remained the place
of residence for the most influential artists of the period.
Secondly, by the early 1930s the key methods of administration of
the economy and the political system of the socialist state were largely
formed. New structures providing for the implementation of state plans of
economic and cultural development took their shape and the key functions
in the process were assigned to Leningrad.
Enlarge Eugenia Antipova and Alexander Samokhvalov
Finally, formation of the Leningrad school was predetermined by the
processes that were going on after the revolution of 1917 in art, artistic
community and in the relationships between art institutions and the state.
The Leningrad school proper usually refers to the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture
and Architecture in the period between 1932 and the early 1990s,
including its traditions, teachers, alumni and their art works.
In its broader sense, the Leningrad school may also include a number
of higher and secondary education establishments closely connected with
the Repin Institute as well as the Leningrad Union of Artists in the period
between its foundation in 1932 and the early 1990s.
All that being true, the Leningrad school should be primarily understood
as a unique alloy of personalities drawn from the richest and finest
rock containing the least possible amount of impurities that had been
searched for in the depths of the country, processed by the world’s finest
smelter and cast in the furnace of the epoch.
About 1,200 artists may be said to belong to the Leningrad school
of painting. Approximately 400 of them formed its distinguishing features
in different periods and different genres. In the 1930s through the 1950s
the following artists were brought up by the school: E. Antipova, T. Afonina,
E. Baykova, N. Baskakov,
P. Belousov, O. Bogaevskaya, A. Vasiliev, I. Veselkin,
R. Vovkushevsky, N.
Galakhov, V. Golubev, E. Gorokhova, I. Dobrekova,
G. Yegoshin, A. Eremin, M. Zheleznov, V. Zagonek, M. Zubreeva,
R. Zakharian, M. Kaneev,
E. Kozlov, M. Kopitseva,
B. Korneev, A. Koroviakov,
E. Kostenko, B. Lavrenko,
A. Laktionov, O. Lomakin, D. Maevsky, E. Moiseenko, V. Monakhova, N. Mukho,
A. Mylnikov, M. Natarevich, S. Nevelshtein, A. Nenartovich,
Yu. Neprintsev, D. Oboznenko,
V. Ovchinnikov, L.
Orekhov, V. Oreshnikov, S. Osipov, V. Otiev, V. Petrov-Maslakov, Yu. Podlyasky, N. Pozdneev, A. Pushnin,
V. Reikhet, L. Ronchevskaya, S. Rotnitsky, L. Russov, G. Savinov,
A. Semionov, V. Serov, E. Skuin, A. Sokolov,
V. Teterin, N. Timkov,
V. Tokarev, M. Trufanov, Yu. Tulin, V. Tulenev,
B. Ugarov, B. Fedotov, L. Fokin, B. Kharchenko, Yu.
Khukhrov, V. Chekalov, B. Shamanov, A. Shmidt,
N. Shteinmiller, L. Yazgur
and many other famous and half-forgotten artists.
Enlarge Vasily Golubev and Alexander Semionov
From the very first steps, the Leningrad school was distinguished
by a spirit of true democracy. It attracted talented youth from all social
strata and particularly from provincial working and peasant families
(who had nearly no access to this type of education before the great
revolution of 1917) and encouraged them to master painting.
The artists of the Leningrad school endowed art with their sense
of authenticity and moral purity. With them, fine arts acquired the fragrances
of earth and springtime blossom, strong belief in people and a fervent desire
to turn the world around. The life of Volga, Don and the White Sea regions,
tribulations of the civil war and postwar famine, romanticism of the early
revolution and enthusiasm of the early industrialization regulated by five-year
plans, military conquests and soldierly fraternity remained for most of
the artists the dearest and crucial impressions. Having survived in the
hardships of the country’s first years the artists had something important
to express in their works, and it was the nation’s experience with all its
adversities and distress, self-sacrificing struggle and a firm belief in
the final triumph of justice.
The Leningrad school was formed in an atmosphere of acute conflict
between different art groups each of which was trying to impose its own
program for the development of the young Soviet art, to occupy key positions
in the newly formed cultural establishments and to gain ideological support
and financial assistance from the new regime.
This struggle was complicated by the escalating crisis of the leftist
art whose rise coincided with the first post-revolutionary years. This
applies both to various leftist art groups and movements and to the leftist
experimentalists of art education.
In the second part of the 1920s, most of the avant-garde art movements
that emerged in the 1910s and were at the peak of their development right
after the revolution were losing their novelty and attempting to ‘naturalize’
by getting back to the traditional system of figurative and plastic imagery.
This happened to A. Osmerkin and other artists of Jack of Diamonds group.
In the early 1930, Kasimir Malevich returns to figurative art.
Leftist views were advocated by D. Sternberg, A. Drevin, V. Tatlin, W. Kandinsky,
O. Rozanova, M. Matyushin,
N. Altman, etc.
These artists formed a solid group that was powerful enough to determine
the art politics of the Visual Arts Department of the People’s Commissariat
for Enlightening as well as cultural policies of Moscow and Petrograd city
Enlarge Oleg Lomakin and Galina Smirnova
This group was confronted by the partisans of traditional pre-revolutionary
art and solid art education. Most of them belonged to the Russian realist
school, started their careers long before the revolution and, by contrast
to the leftists, boycotted the new regime during its first years.
Severe opposition between these two camps greatly influenced the
development of art and art education in the 1920s. The Soviet art school
was forming in a situation of ceaseless debates and fights between different
First post revolutionary reforms put representatives of the leftist
art at the helm of the Academy of Arts. However, quite soon the quality
of education deteriorated drastically. There appeared come-and-go people
among the faculty and serious academic work was often substituted by pseudo-revolutionary
phrase-mongering. The very principles of art schooling were imploding
under the pressure of demagogues and dilettantes. Neglect of professionalism
and systematic training was encouraged openly. No attention was paid to
the study of art history.
Best teachers who resisted such pseudo-revolutionary innovations
were banished from the Academy. It was not only the old academic art but
realist art in general that was exposed to public dishonor. Formalist
art in all its variety was given the outmost encouragement.
Despite a chorus of protest and untiring opposition on the part of
professorship the Academy was nearly destroyed as a school of painting
within ten years. Department of easel painting was closed because ‘easel
painting had ceased being a progressive form of visual art’. Students
were allowed to use canvases of the 19th century’s masters from the Academy’s
vaults as materials for their studies and there was no punishment provided
for destruction of these canvases. Students of painting and sculpture
learnt simple techniques sufficient for making standard art works on industrial
topics. Theory of perspective and composition as well as complex techniques
of drawing and painting had no place in their curricula. Museum of the
Academy of Arts was closed down in 1930. Its collections were handed
over to the Russian State Museum,
the State Hermitage
and various municipal museums.
Debates grew hotter within the art milieu. Dozens of art groups and
associations of artists were competing between each other. Despite pompous
statements some of them had no clear program and were created only to secure
funding for their founders. Other organizations, such as the Association of the Revolutionary
Russia’s Artists (ARRA) that had about forty subsidiaries, laid claim
to ideological control over art process in general.
Enlarge Vladimir Gorb and Mikhail Trufanov
After the purge of ‘bourgeois’ elements that took place at the end
of the 1920s, I.
Brodsky, M. Avilov, and G. Gorelov were expelled from the ARRA. Later
the Association was deserted by A. Arkhipov, R. Frentz, P. Buchkin,
D. Kardovsky, N. Dormidontov and other talented painters. The ‘Brodsky
case’ came into the public eye. It laid bare the picture of intrigues and
vehement strife between art groups, which attested to the unsound situation
In return, opposition to such destructive policies were formed both
in the Academy and the Leningrad art milieu in general. Revival of art
education and return to realism were the orders of the day.
In the spring of 1932 the Central Committee of the Communist Party
decreed that all existing literary and artistic groups and organizations
should be disbanded and replaced with unified associations of creative
professions. Accordingly, the Leningrad Union of Artists was established
on 2 August, 1932, which brought the history of post-revolutionary art
to a close. The epoch of Soviet art began.
Famous painter and pedagogue K. Petrov-Vodkin
was elected the first president of the Leningrad Union of Artists in 1932.
Such choice laid down the foundation of the lasting development of the
Union of Artists and Academy of Arts as a unified creative body.
First exhibition organized by the Leningrad Union of Artists took
place in 1935. Its participants – P. Buchkin,
R. Frentz, A. Samokhvalov,
I. Brodsky, K. Petrov-Vodkin,
K. Malevich, N.
Dormidontov, M. Avilov among them – became the founding fathers of the
Leningrad school while their works formed one of its richest layers and
the basis of largest museum collections of the Soviet painting of 1930-1950.
In October 1932 All-Russian Central Executive Committee and the Council
of People’s Commissars decreed the foundation of the Academy of Arts. The
Leningrad Institute of Proletarian Visual Arts was transformed into the
Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. The 15-year period of
constant reformation of the country’s largest art institute came to its
Thus, basic elements of the Leningrad school – namely, a higher art
education establishment of a new type and a unified professional union
of Leningrad artists, were created by the end of 1932. However, it took
several more years to gather faculty members and organize art education in
a new way. The newly appointed director of the Academy A. Matveev and
the deputy director, professor of painting A. Savinov were in charge of these
tasks during first two years. In 1934 I. Brodsky, a disciple
of Ilya Repin was appointed
director of the National Academy of Arts and the Leningrad Institute of Painting,
Sculpture and Architecture. Brodsky invited most distinguished painters
and pedagogues to teach at the Academy, namely K. Yuon, P. Naumov,
B. Ioganson, S.
Abugov, P. Shillingovsky,
N. Radlov, E. Lansere, A. Lubimov, R. Frentz, N. Petrov, V. Sinaisky, V. Shukhaev,
D. Kiplik, N. Punin, V. Meshkov, M. Bernshtein, E. Cheptsov, I. Bilibin,
M. Manizer, P. Buchkin, A. Ostroumova-Lebedeva,
A. Karev, L. Ovsyannikov, S. Priselkov, I. Stepashkin, K. Rudakov and others.
Education of future painters was based on a thorough study of drawing,
composition, painting and art history. Requirements for applicants became
stricter; preliminary courses and the so called ‘rabfak’ (worker’s faculty)
were set up to prepare workers and peasants for higher education.
Enlarge Gevork Kotiantz and Sergei Osipov
The system of master’s workshops was restored at the Department of
Painting. Students were assigned to one of the workshops after they completed
their second-year courses. Professors I. Brodsky, B. Ioganson, V. Yakovlev,
A. Savinov, R. Frentz, P. Shillingovky,
and M. Bobyshev had their own workshops.
It was thanks to their efforts that traditions of the Russian school
of painting were preserved and developed. For all problems and faults
of the formative years, methods of art teaching and general structure
of art education adopted in the 1930 proved very successful. These methods
remain relevant up to the present; they are universally recognized as
the standard of art education and adopted all over the world.
In the mid-thirties the Leningrad school was complemented with a
unique system of elementary and secondary art education. The School for
Young Talents was organized at the Academy in 1934. Later it was transformed
into the Secondary Art School that had its own boarding school. Best teachers
were invited to work there.
Numerous municipal art schools and studios appeared in the city during
the same period. Apart from drawing lessons, their programs included
fundamentals of painting, composition and art history. Professional artists
and graduates of the Academy taught at these schools.
Yu. Neprintsev, P. Belousov, N. Timkov,
A. Gritsai, M.
Zheleznov, A. Laktionov,
P. Vasiliev, V. Serov, M. Kozell, G. Savinov,
E. Skuin, O. Bogaevskaya, E. Baikova and others were the Academy’s first
graduates. Many of them were to become recognized masters of Soviet painting
and famous teachers who would bring up several generations of Leningrad
Thus, from I. Repin,
A. Kuindzhi and
through I. Brodsky,
A. Savinov, A. Lubimov, P. Buchkin, M. Platunov and further on through their
disciples V. Oreshnikov, E. Moiseenko, G. Savinov, Yu. Neprintsev,
P. Belousov, A. Mylnikov, S. Osipov, Ars. Semionov
a indissoluble connection was established between the Russian art of the
late 19th – early 20th centuries and the generations of Leningrad artists
of the second half of the 20th century.
This is the most important feature that distinguishes few outstanding
art schools. In these schools, tradition and mastership are rendered continuously
from masters to their disciples for generations and each new generation
of disciples study the same material at the same place as their masters.
One should mention that in the 1930s the development of the Academy
remained a hot issue of professional debates. Methods of teaching, genres
and attitude to contemporary trends in European art became the subject
of incessant discussions, prompted competition between professors’ workshops
and enhanced students’ involvement.
A disciple of the great Repin, I. Brodsky clearly
understood the role of the Academy as a direct successor and continuer
of the old Academy’s cause under the new conditions. He knew this role was
unique and greatly differed from that of other educational establishments.
The same was true for the old Academy in the pre-revolutionary Russia as
well as for any other Academy of Art in any country.
Art Academies were established by governments for the sake of their
self-affirmation by means of plastic arts and thus had to maintain particularly
close relations with various government structures. This greatly influenced
commissions, funding and regimentation of academic life in general.
Enlarge Alexander Sokolov and Gleb Savinov
and his supporters shared the opinion that a canvas, thematic compositions
were the highest form of painting as it was understood and accepted at the
Academy. Brodsky insistently called on all young artists to master this
‘peak’ of the profession. Accordingly, curricula of the Leningrad Institute
of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture included courses that provided all
kinds of knowledge and trained all types of skills necessary not only for
landscape and still-life painting but also for the work on paintings of
greater social significance, namely on historical canvases and thematic
pictures. Such policy met the order of those days and answered expectations
of the state.
However, pre-war exhibitions of 1940-41 disprove the claims that
artistic life of the period was suppressed by the ideology and artists
submitted entirely to what was then called ‘social order’. A great number
of landscapes, portraits and studies exhibited at the time pursued purely
technical purposes and were thus free from any ideology. Thematic painting
was also approached in a similar way but young artists often lacked personal
experience and professional skills to produce high quality works in this
On 22 June 1941 the treacherous attack of the fascist Germany disturbed
the regularity of academic life. Over a hundred students and faculty members
volunteered for the Red Army on the first days of war. To defend their
country and their city, artists learned new warlike professions. P. Alberti, I. Varichev,
I. Lavsky became machine-gunners, A. Eremin, Ars. Semionov,
I. Savenko, N. Kochukov the members of tank
crews, I. Kalaskin fought at the Air Forces,
M. Tkachev was a mariner, N. Timkov enlisted as a seaman at the Baltic Navy,
V. Chekalov became a field engineer, G. Kotiantz, A. Vasiliev,
M. Trufanov, P. Vasiliev,
N. Mukho, A. Shmidt,
A. Koroviakov, S. Osipov,
S. Frolov fought with the infantry, A. Nenartovich was a field wireman, S. Rotnitsky, B. Lavrenko,
A. Bantikov and R. Vovkushevsky were in the
artillery, A. Kuznetsov became a mortar gunner, N. Furmankov served as
a paratrooper while O. Lomakin and E. Pozdnekov in the anti-aircraft forces.
None of the world’s centers of culture lived through the hardships
similar to those experienced by Leningrad artists and museums during
the city siege. Today it seems inconceivable that the first train carrying
the treasures of the Hermitage collection left Leningrad only nine days
after the war broke out. Selfless labor on the part of museum employees
did not suffice to accomplish such a task. Despite the tragic chaos of
the first war days, city and national governments provided for the evacuation
of a million of art works from the collections of Leningrad museums at
the earliest possible date.
On 8 September 1941 the city was cut off by the enemy blockade.
The first blockade winter of 1941-42 took lives of over a hundred
Leningrad artists, including A. Savinov, I. Bilibin, A. Karev,
P. Shillingovsky, N. Tyrsa, N. Lapshin, and P. Filonov. In February
1942 Academy of Arts and its Secondary Art School were evacuated through
the lifeline across the Ladoga Lake eventually to Samarkhand where students
and teachers continued their work until their return to Leningrad in the
beginning of 1944.
Enlarge Sergei Osipov and Lev Russov paintings
After the war, art life in Leningrad revived rapidly. However, lives
lost during the war were irreplaceable. Over 150 members of the Leningrad
Union of Artists – that is, every third, perished during the war. Loss
of life among the Academy of Arts students and the Secondary Art School
graduates was also tremendous.
However, students who were sent to the front during their first years
of studies got back to learning. Also, the Institute accepted veterans
who were exempted from examinations. They brought in the air of victory,
love for their country and intense national proud. The war was over and the
country saw her new heroes. This was a turning point in the history of the
Leningrad school and Soviet art in general.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, basic motives of art were suggested
by life itself. Among numerous art works devoted to the recent war, those
by A. Laktionov
and Yu. Neprintsev were distinguished by the
bright representation of the national character. Paintings by A. Mylnikov,
M. Natarevich, A. Sokolov, G. Savinov, I. Serebryany showed a country getting
back to civil life and rebuilding its cities and villages. These paintings
shone with optimism, encouraged self-reliance, cured emotional traumas
caused by the war and showed people’s beauty and moral courage. Working
on the images of revolutionary and party leaders the artists tried to represent
the best features of their contemporaries and the merits of the winner nation.
Portraits of national leaders were the portraits of people’s best hopes
This period was particularly fruitful for such masters of landscape
painting as V. Ovchinnikov, N. Timkov, G. Tatarnikov, D. Maevsky, V. Zagonek,
N. Galakhov, A. Guliaev, and V. Bazhenov. They were mainly interested in panoramic
landscapes traditional for Russian painting.
Though during the first postwar decade most of artists pursued the
purposes they set for themselves in their student years, works of the
period often betray the urge for painterly and plastic variety. The circle
of traditions that nourished young artists and stimulated stylistic experimentation
broadened greatly at this period. Genres that had been considered minor
and subordinate, such as landscape, portrait and still-life, attracted
most of artists.
Enlarge Nikolai Pozdneev paintings
In the period between the mid-fifties and early sixties, the Leningrad
school was approaching its vertex. Artists who had graduated from the
Academy in the 1930s-50s were in their prime. They were quick to present
their art, they strived for experiments and were eager to appropriate a
lot and to learn even more. Their time, with all its images, ideas and dispositions
found it full expression in their works. Art of this period showed extraordinary
taste for life and creative work.
At this time, painting from nature became especially popular. It
brought new challenges and required particular accuracy in the rendering
of color and light. Images acquired specific picturesqueness and paintings
were breathing with life, authenticity and young appeal.
In 1957, the first all-Russian Congress of Soviet artists took place
in Moscow. In 1960, the all-Russian Union of Artists was organized. Accordingly,
these events influenced the art life in Leningrad. The scope of experimentation
was broadened; in particular, this concerned the form and painterly and
plastic language. Images of youths and students, rapidly changing villages
and cities, virgin lands brought under cultivation, grandiose construction
plans being realized in Siberia and the Volga region, great achievements
of Soviet science and technology became the chief topics of the new painting.
Heroes of the time – young scientists, workers, civil engineers, physicians
– become the most popular heroes of paintings.
Trips across the country became usual among the artists. Gathering
new material for their work artists visited the Russian North and Middle
Asia, the Caucasus and Volga regions, the Baikal lake and the Far East,
the Urals and Crimea, Baltic republics and Transcarpathia, the lower
Volga and the Caspian Sea. Through these trips, artists gained new experience;
they saw the wide scope of changes, came in touch with the beauty of
nature and felt the immensity of the country.
These impressions were charged with optimism and stimulated artists’
work. Studies of the 1950s captivate with their bright painterly technique
as much as with their inspiration and the sense of harmony between people
and the world around them.
At this period, life provided artists with plenty of thrilling topics,
positive figures and images. Legacy of many great artists and art movements
became available for study and public discussions again. This greatly
broadened artists’ understanding of the realist method and widened its
possibilities. It was the repeated renewal of the very conception of realism
that made this style dominates in the Russian art throughout its history.
Realist tradition gave rise to many trends of contemporary painting, including
painting from nature, ‘severe style’ painting and decorative art. However,
during this period impressionism, postimpressionism, cubism and expressionism
also had their fervent adherents and interpreters.
Enlarge Alexander Pushnin and Alexander
The city itself became an important topic at this period. Other popular
themes included the revolutionary events of October 1917 and the exploits
of Leningraders during the World War II and the siege of Leningrad. In
both cases, authentic historical settings and artists’ personal experience
supported by the first-hand reports were of great help when it came to representation
of these dramatic events. Art works produced in this period keep exciting
the viewers and give a true feeling of direct involvement.
The topic of the Leningraders’ heroism was treated primarily as a
topic of moral exploit and spiritual triumph over the enemy; quite innovatively,
it was understood as a theme of human immortality. Working on the image
of Vladimir Lenin and painting the events of the October revolution and
civil war, the artists tried to avoid superfluous pathos and heroization
of the paintings produced between 1930 and 1950. Now, artists were interested
in psychological portraits capable of rendering the scope and inner tenseness
of the situation and showing their relation to universal moral problems.
Apart from the swift development of historical painting, this period
saw a revival of portrait, landscape and still life genres. Sketch was
also reinstated in its rights. Among eminent artists working in these genres
one should mention S. Osipov, N. Timkov, V. Ovchinnikov,
V. Golubev, B. Shamanov,
L. Russov, A. Semionov,
S. Rotnitsky, E. Antipova,
V. Teterin, E. Skuin,
G. Kotiantz, V. Tokarev and others. Their work
significantly contributed to the art of the 1960-80s and enriched it with
regard to genre and style.
The late 1960s and the 1970s may be characterized as a period of
artistic maturity of the artists of the Leningrad school. These years
of political stability became the period of prime for such artists as
G. Savinov, N. Timkov,
S. Osipov, A. Semionov,
V. Ovchinnikov, E. Moiseenko, A. Eremin, V. Vatenin,
N. Pozdneev, L. Kabachek, V. Zagonek, M. Kaneev,
M. Kopitseva, I. Savenko
The works of V. Teterin, Ya. Krestovsky, G. Yegoshin, S. Osipov, E. Antipova,
V. Golubev, V. Tulenev,
L. Tkachenko, V. Vatenin
reflected the spirit of changes that reigned over Soviet art in the 1960s.
From the austere objectivism based on Russian realism of the second half
of the 19th century the artists turned to the individually inspired art
and tried to maintain the value of the creative personality’s inner world.
However, leaders of the so called left wing of the Leningrad Union of Artists
remained faithful to the traditional Russian understanding of the purpose
of art. They opted for the clarity of meaning and definite moral message.
Enlarge Arseny Semionov and Sergei Osipov
In 1976, the Art of Leningrad exhibition took place in Moscow. Due
to the large number of works presented, it allowed for deeper understanding
of new trends in the Leningrad art school of that time.
The exhibition confirmed that by the mid-1970s the Leningrad school
had become an independent phenomenon in art history. Representatives of
the school were distinguished by the strong desire to create socially significant
and technically perfect works. Finally it was possible to identify its artistic
peculiarities and describe its role in the development of Soviet art as
First of all, the Leningrad school remained in close affinity with
every progressive phenomenon of pre-soviet art. It stuck to the best
examples of Russian and European painting and learnt from the coryphaei
of the post-Revolution period. This made the school artistically independent
and immune from unimportant momentary outside influences.
With regard to the painterly and plastic language and imagery, the
Leningrad school kept to the traditions and general values common to
European and Russian art. Ideas of humanism professed by the artists,
expressed the national character and the clarity of their culturally informed
and quite traditional painterly language made their art highly relevant
to the epoch and created a broad field for creative experiments.
The Leningrad school was distinguished by defined professional and
moral criteria. This explains the profound skepticism it always felt
towards the innovations that often exploited peripheral possibilities
of visual art and were generally overestimated. The Leningrad school tended
to fuse different art movements and styles but never receded from the
Russian traditional understanding of the mission of art.
Another important feature inherited from the old school and St Petersburg
tradition was a sincere attentiveness to the informed opinion of the
art public. Independent from public authorities and indifferent to ranks
and awards, it had a greater influence on the assessment of an artist’s
work and personality than official recognition and formal success.
Spreading its traditions and the experience of its founding fathers
and adherents all over the country, the Leningrad school itself fed on
the heritage and experience of the Moscow art circles and a number of provincial
schools. A. Savinov and A. Matveev, natives of Saratov, were among the
school’s founders; A. Osmerkin and B. Ioganson, who later lived in Moscow,
were among its most important masters. Later, the influence of the Moscow
school became more obvious in the works of those artists whose close co-operation
with Moscow-based colleagues was complemented by the fact they were neighbors
at the Academic dacha. This is particularly true about N. Timkov and N. Pozdneev
who are considered to be among the best Leningrad colorists. The culture
of the Saratov school distinguished by its soulful intonation and a particular
sincerity is traceable in the works of V. Ovchinnikov
and G. Savinov.
Enlarge Vladimir Ovchinnikov painting
In the 1960s and 1970s artists’ life undergoes significant changes.
Museums increase their buying programs, the system of contracts becomes
more reliable, artists are guaranteed to receive advance payments after
the contract is signed. New exhibition halls open here and there, trips
abroad become more frequent.
The famous Artists’ House built on the Pesochnaya embankment, apartments
and studios are being constructed on Vasilievsky island, in Okhta, in
Pushkin and other city districts. The House of Artists in Old Ladoga favored
by Leningrad artists as a place of work expands. Many artists also work
at the Academic dacha and artists’ bases in Gurzuff, on the Baikal and Seliger
lakes and in Goryachiy Klyuch.
At the same time, this period witnessed the change of generations.
Most Academy graduates of the period were born in the 1950s. Their perception
of life was totally different. For them, the war and post-war hardships
(letting alone the enmities of the pre-war Academy) were long-gone history.
Their works reflected different demands, problems and conflicts, they pictured
different people and therefore had to search for their own ways.
In the 1970s the Leningrad school saw a number of irreplaceable losses
and from then on, their number was only growing. V. Vatenin, N. Pozdneev,
V. Ovchinnikov, N. Brandt, I. Lavsky, B. Korneev,
A. Sokolov, Ya. Nikolaev,
A. Samokhvalov, A. Vedernikov, V. Malagis
died in the 1970s.
Another problem was the growing social differentiation and ideological
conflicts between artists. By the late 1970s, a clear opposition formed
between a small group of Soviet art classics and administrators and the
rest of the artists. This contradiction was noticeable in almost every
sphere of life.
Similar processes took place in other spheres of the Soviet society,
which reflected the growth of resentment and was a clear sign of a crisis.
In visual arts, the crisis showed itself in the devaluation of revolutionary,
social and political topics and austere criticism of authors actively
exploiting these themes. Their works had no relation to reality with
its pressing problem of wide-spread shortages and the ramified system
of prohibitions and limitations. Such art was losing its progressive character
and public respect.
At the same time, the Leningrad school, including its left wing,
rejected the way of open confrontation with the regime and refused to
join the underground. Teaming up with the underground would have resulted
in a total change of values since underground art neglected the aspect
of quality and often abolished the very concept of professionalism by
relegating art to the mere instrument for the expression of political
Enlarge Lazar Yazgur and Nikolai Timkov
For many masters of the Leningrad school, these years coincided with
a period of creative revival, purification of form and manner and attempts
to work with new motives, genres and styles. Works of the period are
extremely positive and delightful. They address timeless topics and express
the beauty of the world and the charm of youth. Such are the portraits
by S. Rotnitsky, O. Bogaevskaya, N. Baskakov, and O. Lomakin,
still-life paintings by S. Zakharov, S. Osipov, V. Teterin,
G. Kotiantz, G. Malish,
L. Milova, B. Shamanov, P. Alberti, and E. Antipova,
landscapes by N. Timkov, N. Galakhov, K. Slavin, I. Godlevsky, V. Golubev
and other masters. The 1980s saw the wonderful sunset of the school that
will always be remembered for its light and beauty.
The social changes of the 1980s, perestroika and glasnost received
varied responses from artists. For some of them, this became a period
of deep disappointment and personal drama, others were full of hope for
the long-awaited changes. Some artists remained indifferent to politics
and lived solely by their art.
However, political processes that took place on the turn of the 1980-90s
had too many consequences to leave artists’ position and art itself unchanged.
It was for the first time in recent Russian history that society clove
along the lines of differing opinions on historical and current issues
which proved to be a harder ordeal for art than the economic crisis.
The change of generations coincided with changes in the political
and economic systems, transition to a market economy and the subsequent
change of the state itself. Soviet Union collapsed; in 1991 independence
of the Russian Federation was declared; Leningrad regained its initial name
of St Petersburg.
In the situation of a general economic crisis financing of art drastically
decreased and artists were left to their own devices. The St Petersburg
Union of Artists might have easily ceased to exist and its property –
first of all, the building of the Society for Promotion of Arts, might
have been lost.
At this critical moment, the older artists of the Leningrad school
who would have retired from historical stage at a different epoch became
involved and used their reputation, social influence and support on the
part of their colleagues to preserve the St Petersburg Union of Artists
and Academy of Arts. They succeeded; the scenario of 1918 was not repeated
(though certain museums did not avoid it) and the continuity of the tradition
At present the Leningrad school has left the art scene and became
a part of art history. However, we still have the paintings that attract
viewers with the unspeakable beauty of humanism, belief in man, philosophical
revelations and, sometimes, with their naïve and guileless delusions.
This school brought up eminent artists whose creative eagerness was
akin to that of the old great masters. They were distinguished by the true
love for the Motherland. Endowed with many talents, they were mysteriously
spiritual and scorned universal mercantilism as the ultimate aim of human
Inseparable from the history of its century, this art will be admired
by new generations not only for its skillfulness and beauty but also for
its dreaminess and revolutionary romanticism, liveliness of its images,
historical optimism, sincere belief in the creative and reforming ability
of art, and clear understanding of involvement and personal responsibility
of the artist for the fate of Motherland and the course of history.
Please see complete printed Russian and English versions
of Historical Outline in new album Unknown Socialist
Realism. The Leningrad School.
this book on-line at Amazom.com
Copyright: Sergei V. Ivanov, 2006.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this Historical Outline my be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical,
photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.