There was an exhibition of Viktor Popkov’s works at Somerset House recently. I managed to catch it the day before it ended. And lovely it was, too, well worth the sweaty train ride to get to it. The details below are taken from the exhibition display notes. Apologies for the poor quality images – I had forgotten to take my camera and made do with my toy smartphone.
After Stalin’s death began the Krushchev thaw, and Soviet artists began to experiment freely again. A reaction to the sterile Stalinist realism, called the Severe style, began in the 1950s, combining elements of socialist realism with self-awareness and humanity. Viktor Popkov was one of the finest exponents of this new style. The year of the Krushchev ascendancy, Popkov travelled to Bratsk where he painted his monumental canvas The Builders of Bratsk, a tribute to human effort. This was no generic piece of realism – he knew every one of his subjects and he delineated each one with care and character. This piece established his reputation.
Post-Stalin, Russians were able to engage with Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Popkov was influenced by the colourism of Matisse, evident in his Spring at the Depot, in which the steam beneath the wheels evoked Monet’s railway works at the Gare St Lazare.
Popkov was drawn to the bleakness of the Arkhangelsk region. In particular, the river Mezen drew his attention, and he dedicated an entire cycle of works to it and the tough lives of its inhabitants. Popkov saw both the poignant and quietly joyous, as for example in this canvas titled September on the Mezen, in which a family returns home after a satisfying day out collecting berries and mushrooms.
Popkov was a keen observer of human nature. He composed his portraits with little contrivance or formality; indeed, it appears his subjects were almost unaware that he was painting them; he imbued the works with unsettling perspectives. In Three Artists, he appears in the mirror, while the other characters are his friends Alexander Sorochkin and Karl Fridman. The portrait suggests the creative process: from his own contemplation through the performance (Fridman) to its completion and the subsequent relaxation (Sorochkin).
In Igor, Pavel and I, Popkov paints his fellow Severe stylists Pavel Nikonov (1930 – ) and Igor Obrosov (1930 – 2010) in foetal poses of restful sleep. Only half of his own body appears: was it an afterthought, a reticent addition as though he considered himself not quite on par with his friends?
This positional triumvirate is also the theme of one of his most affecting and affectionate works, Summer. July. in which a woman, a man and their child depict the strength and fragility of the family unit.
Popkov was a fragile, suffering individual. In 1966, he attempted suicide. Throughout his career, he explored his own emotions through his self-portraits. In Sunday, he projects optimism, sunbathing on a Moscow rooftop.
In Work Completed, Popkov is exhausted but content. Through his window you can see the Kudrinskaya Square building, designed between 1947-53 by Ashot Mndoyants and Mikhail Posokhin as a residence for Moscow’s cultural elite. Popkov’s satisfaction is mirrored by the triumphalism of the building beyond.
And, to round things off, here is Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.