Lives of the Artists XVIII

Jirayr Zorthian (1911-2004), Armenian artist and emigre extraordinaire, was a friend of the physicist Richard Feynman. During one of their discussions on art, they realised that they were arguing from different premises – the one didn’t know any science while the other didn’t know any art. So they agreed to teach the other their subject on alternative weekends.

But the arguments continued. Zorthian claimed that science took away from beauty by looking at a flower and taking it apart. Feynman countered: the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes … [1]

Zorthian regretted using a flower as an example. He said he wished his example had been a bare-breasted woman. “Are you going to look at these breasts and and start analyzing how beautifully they’re formed scientifically? … Or are you going to want to just spontaneously go over there and bury your face between them?” [2]

[1] Richard Feynman and Jirayr Zorthian on science, art and beauty.

[2] Feynman wants his orange juice, Sep 13, 2012.

Vincent Soboleff

A book of pictures by the Russian-American photographer Vincent Soboleff was recently published [1]. It is a treasure-trove of historical significance, a sympathetic portrayal of the native Alaskan peoples, an important ethnographic resource.

Soboleff was born in Killisnoo in 1882. His father was a well-respected Russian Orthodox priest. Soboleff started his photographic career young, and continued until the 1910s when, on his father’s death, he had to take up regular employment to support the family. After his death in 1950, the bulk of his collection was given over to the Alaska State Library.

At a time when racial integration was a fraught exercise, the multiethnic Killisnoo appeared to be an exceptional community. Soboleff was able to move between its constituents with ease, and the pictures he took are a veritable celebration.

His photographs depict local buildings and landscapes, maritime culture, and the Tlingit, Russian-American, European-American and Asian-American residents of Killisnoo and a nearby town, Angoon. Mr. Kan’s rigorous study focuses on the pictures of people, particularly scenes of work, celebration and play, as well as of the interface between Native and non-Native populations. [3]

Check out some of them below.


Ivan Soboleff, the photographer’s father, late in life.


Three boys cooking.


Chief Jake of Killisnoo Insulted.

queer rocks

Queer Rocks (southeastern Alaska).

soboleffs first boat

Soboleff’s first boat.


Vincent Soboleff himself.


Three kids and a water tank.


Unknown girl.


Boys in traditional costume.


Catching a salmon.


Angoon natives.


Three kids.


  1. Sergei Kan, A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska.
  2. Alaska’s Digital Archives: Vincent Soboleff Photograph Collection.
  3. Lens blog (New York Times): A Russian-American Photographing Native Alaska.


Well, nobody can say that I don’t practise what I preach – as I mentioned in this month’s roundup, there’s a SEE USSR exhibition at the Grad Gallery in London, an exhibition of Intourist posters from the 1920s onwards, brilliant examples of graphic design, modernism and the inevitable Socialist Realism. I went there a bit ago, and walked around and gawked, and a lovely woman at reception assured me I could take pictures if I wanted, and here they are.

There’s one cavil, though. The lighting is pretty fraught in the gallery and the glare off the reflective covers of the posters is agonising. You can see what I mean – the photos didn’t really come out very well no matter what angle I tried to grab them from. Oh well.

Notice how Westernised the designs are? There was no comparable model in the Russia of the 1920s, and Intourist was granted permission to use any means to attract visitors wielding hard currency into the country. Soviet commercial design therefore was based on the graphic art of Germany and France, seeking to inveigle the Western tourist with familiar styles and tropes.

Crimee, by Nikolai Zhukov & Sergei Sakharov. (1935).

Schepetovka-Baku, by Maria Nesterova.

The posters above depict a reality so far removed from the contemporary USSR that one can easily imagine irony. But that’s what advertising is for – to present glamour beyond the everyday, to entice the visitor, to pretend that the jazz age was as pervasive in Communist lands as in Paris in the 1920s.

So what could you do once you arrived in this wondrous Soviet Union? Why, you could hunt:

Hunting in the USSR, by Georgy Savitsky. (1931).

Hunting in the USSR

Hunting in the USSR, by unknown artist. (1930s).

Or you could go skiing:

Winter in the USSR, by Nikolai Zhukov. (1935).

You could even do a tad of summer sport:

Summer sports in the USSR, by unknown artist. (1930s).

Or you could go trippin’ to exotic lands. Flaunting the minorities was a famous pastime of the Soviets, mainly to show a bit of exoticism, but also to propagate the decree of universal fraternity and equal rights under communism. (‘The aesthetic and political benefits of this decree should not be underestimated as it allowed millions access to a modern standard of living while at the same time it enriched and diversified the Soviet cultural scene through such institutions as the Jewish National Theatre or the State Georgian Rustaveli Theatre, with most of their plays performed in ethnic minority languages.‘ (From the exhibition writeup for these posters.) Nesterova’s posters show a particularly romanticised view of the ethnic minority, belying the ongoing destruction of traditional culture in these lands.

Les Stations de Cure en URSS, by Maria Nesterova. (1930s).

Tbilisi, by Viktor Klimashin. (1930s).

Asie Centrale Sovietique, by Maria Nesterova. (1930s).

This was, after all, a country of a 189 nations:

USSR – Country of 189 Peoples, by Nikolai Zhukov and Sergei Sakharov. (1934).

And how would you travel? If you were a foreigner, you could fly into many cities of the USSR in style:

Par avion en URSS

Once in the country, you could whizz about in fancy cars:

Georgian Military Highway, by Alexander Zhitomirsky. (1939).

Or by train on bridges vaulting over the fashionable automobile:

L’Armenie Sovietique, by Sergei Igumnov. (1935).

You could even leave the country by ship!

Odessa-Istanbul, by unknown artist. (1930s).

By the second half of the 1930s, Intourist’s modernist language was becoming taboo. Avant-garde and Art Deco was out, and under the increasing strictures of Stalin, Soviet Realism became paramount. Check out the transition from Leningrad to Moscow, from the old to the new realist era:

Leningrad, by Nikolai Zhukov. (1935).

Moscow, by Sergei Sakharov. (Late 1930s).

Check out some more Intourist posters at Dieselpunks!

Nonconformists 2

Untitled, by Boris Sveshnikov. (1975).

Twilight, by Oleg Vasilyev. (1990).


Don Quixote before the battle, by Nikolai Vechtomov. (1988).

Portrait of N. V. Kuznetsova, by Vladimir Weisberg. (1959).

Portrait of a woman, by Anatoly Zverev. (1966).

Still life, by Anatoly Zverev. (1981).

Bacchanalia, by Anatoly Slepyshev. (2001).

Still life, by Boris Birger. (1965).

[More nonconformist art via]

Nonconformists 1

Nonconformists, or unofficial Soviet art was an often paradoxical mirror onto the spiritual, psychological and social situation of the Soviet Union between 1960-80. Here’s a brief set of examples of the genre, taken from, September 15.

Man with watch glass, by Alexander Kharitonov. (1962).

Vladimir Nabokov, by Otari Kandaurov. (1975).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, by Otari Kandaurov. (1973).

Roses and thistles, by Valentina Kropivnitskaya. (1981).

Heart of Christ, by Ernst Neizvestny. (1973-75).

Don Quixote, by Vladimir Ovchinnikov. (1979).

Violin in a cemetery, by Oskar Rabin. (1969).

Adam and Eve, by Vasily Sitnikov. (1967).

Red egg, by Ülo Sooster. (1964).

Guardian angel, by Vladimir Titov. (1992).

Memorial service, by Boris Sveshnikov. (1966).

Art Roundup – July 2013

Summer again, folks – in the northern hemisphere at least. I wonder if any Russian art ever finds its way to the southern half of the planet? Hmm, needs a bit of investigating.

Intourist poster (Yerevan, 1930s)

Anyway, first off we have an exhibition of Soviet-era Intourist posters: SEE USSR, at the Grad Gallery, London, until August 31, 2013. Here’s an example of one from the 1930s (via Flickr). Very art deco, eh?

Next, we have an exhibition by famous artists of Azerbaijan and Moldova at the Niagara Art Gallery in Chişinău, Moldova. There was a press release two days ago, but I can’t find any links to the exhibition itself.

The Andriaki School of Watercolours in Moscow has an exhibition Pages from the History of the Romanovs running till July 21, 2013, presenting a unique collection of drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs and documents relating to the family history of the Russian imperial family.

In Astana, Kazakhstan, there is a brilliant exhibition of the works by the ‘First female artists of Kazakhstan’. It runs at the Museum of Modern Art from July 4 – September 30, 2013. Works by such artists as Aysha Galimbaeva, Gulfairus Ismailova, Elizaveta Govorova, Mariya Lizogub, Olga Kuzhelenko, Liya Kolotilina, Emiliya Babad and Zoya Beregovaya will be displayed.

On a slightly different note, there is a travelling exhibition of children’s art called Silk Road & Silk Town, a collaborative exhibition between China and Uzbekistan. If you’ve missed the displays at Jiaxing, don’t panic – you can still catch it at Hangzhou from July 26, 2013.