An Obit or Two

Two Russian artists died recently. Georgy Kovenchuk (1933 – 2015) was a St Petersburg-based graphic designer, book illustrator and painter. He was popularly known as Gaga, and was a grandson of the futurist Nikolai Kulbin. Kovenchuk studied graphic art at the Academy of Art, was a member of the Union of Artists, and during Soviet times, was one of the authors of the Military Pencil, agitprop posters made by some of the best Leningrad artists of the 1960s. His first solo exhibition was in 1971 and closed down for ‘formalism’. In 1975, Kovenchuk’s illustrations to Mayakovsky’s Klop (The Bedbug) became a byword for the application of the traditions of the Russian avant-garde to book design. Censors banned the book and it wouldn’t have been released had it not been for the efforts of the likes of Lilya Brik and Valentin Pluchek. In 2013, the illustrations were republished by Timofei Markov in a separate silkscreen cover.





Vladimir Ovchinnikov (1941 – 2015) was born in the province of Perm where his family had been evacuated from Leningrad. He was not trained as an artist, but worked as a scaffolder at the Hermitage museum, the Mariinsky theatre, where he decorated churches. In 1964, he organised an exhibition of five artists at the Rastrelliyev gallery of the Hermitage, which (besides him) included Mikhail Shemyakin, Galina Kravchenko, Oleg Lyagachev and Vladimir Uflyand. He became one of the earliest of the unofficial artists (the non-conformists) to be allowed official exhibition in Soviet times – in 1974 and 1975, his works were put up at the houses of culture. Here the Soviet citizen was able to see domestic contemporary art distinct from the officially affirmed socialist realism, and to see its development from abstraction to surrealism. Subsequently, Ovchinnikov became a member of the Academy of Contemporary Art at St Petersburg.

In front of the TV. (2000).

In front of the TV. (2000).

Angel at the telescope. (2007).

Angel at the telescope. (2007).

Ovchinnikov’s art is generally always figurative with an important role played by its subject. In the works of the 1970s, everyday scenes of Leningrad life dominate, in which are embedded subtle mythological or biblical referenes. In later works, the artist addresses himself to twentieth century literature, developing the theme of absurdity as a timeless reference of modern reality.

ovch4 ovch5

A Gallery Tour

October has been an exciting month for aficionados of Russian art in London. There have been several exhibitions around town, and one Saturday when the family was working away at chocolate, I visited them one by one.

Arriving at Waterloo, I nipped over the bridge to Somerset House where – at the Courtauld Gallery – were displayed several artworks from the famous Jack of Diamonds exhibition of St Petersburg, an iconic moment in the Russian avant-garde. All the power-names from the period were on show, including Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. Besides this exhibition, there was their permanent display to take a look at. In the modernist section I found a couple of Alexej Jawlenskys and Wassily Kandinskys.

Next on the list was at the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho. Titled Primrose, this was a display of Russian photography from its very early days through the twentieth century. Our old favourite Prokudin-Gorsky was, of course, present, but there were family portraits and landscapes and re-touched and overpainted ethnographic studies and socialist realism and abstractions by a vast number of shutterbugs across the decades. The gallery itself was rammed – it was the last day of the exhibition – and the ventilation could barely keep up. I left as soon as I could after a quick run-through.

I then walked over to St Petersburg Gallery, which is quickly becoming a favourite go-to site for its displays of Russian art. This time around they had a set of Russian portraiture of the 18th-20th centuries. I was the only one around, and so was able to wander around at my leisure. There were some repeat paintings from previous displays (including Vladimir Baranov-Rossine’s self-portraits) and some that I had seen elsewhere. There was also a remarkable set of sculptures by an artist I had seen before but not particularly paid attention to – David Yakerson. I ought to do some research into this man.

Finally, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, there was a grand display of Russian avant-garde theatre design. Name-checks galore – Eisenstein, Goncharova, Tatlin, Malevich, Rodchenko. No photography allowed here, although I did see some surreptitious camera phone activity.

I’ll post further details and images over the next few days…

Art Roundup – July 2014


  1. The much awaited exhibition of Kazimir Malevich’s works starts this month at the Tate Modern, London. July 16 – October 26, 2014. Be there or be square.
  2. Continuing with the theme of Suprematism, Pushkin House in London organises an exhibition and panel discussion titled Building Drawings, Drawing Buildings: Lazar Khidekel, Suprematism and the Russian Avant-Garde. July 9, 2014.
  3. In Turku, Finland, at the Waino Altonen Museum of Art is an exhibition of contemporary art from St Petersburg. Titled Crystallizations, it continues till August 17, 2014.
  4. If you’re in Irkutsk, Russia, be sure to attend a commemorative exhibition of the works of Siberian artists at the Sukachev Regional Museum of Art. This year is the jubilee of several Siberian artists, including K. Pomerantsev (130 years), N. Andreyev (125 years), A. Vologdin (125 years), and the more recent I. Nesynov (85 years) and S. Sysoyev (65 years). The exhibition continues till August 10, 2014.
  5. Finally, in Moscow‘s Zurab Tsereteli Gallery is an exhibition titled Metamorphoses of the Apocalypse, featuring the works of the mountaineer, rescue-worker and artist Alexander Sementsov (1941-2005). This runs till July 13, 2014.

    Alexander Sementsov

Lebedev’s Lithographs

Vladimir Lebedev published Russian Placards 1917-1922 in 1923. He had started his career as a graphic designer when he was fourteen years old, creating postcards in St. Petersburg. By the time of the publication of this book, he had already spent several years illustrating and designing magazines and children’s books.

Lebedev’s career continued till the 1960s, and he followed several trends and styles throughout his life.

The images below are from the Dartmouth College library.


Nationalised enterprise


Sweeping the criminal element out of the Republic


Raising productivity through the union of small craft and trade industry


Casting spoon


Agitation to close the markets


Struggle against sale in the streets


Entente – a puppet.


The new bourgeoisie threat.


Red Army and Navy defend the borders


Communism triumphing over Europe


Use the bourgeoisie for proletarian purpose.


Lamentation of the entente

(Via BibliOdyssey, by the excellent peacay.)


Nicoletta Misler (1987), ‘A Public Art: Caricatures and Posters of Vladimir Lebedev’, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 5, Russian/Soviet Theme Issue, pp. 60-75.

Russian Art Nouveau

“In Russia the conflicting desires of pan-Slavism and Western modernisation were both fulfilled by Art Nouveau.”1

They may have called it Stil Modern, but it absorbed all the Slavic vitality and craving for the new that occupied the Russian intelligentsia from the late 19th century onwards. And it was sparked by the tension between St Petersburg, the modern, outward looking imperial capital, and Moscow, the old heart of the country, conservative and nationalistic.

Mir Iskusstva, number 8. Cover art by Leon Bakst. (1902).

The journal Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) was the chief disseminator of the Russian Art Nouveau. (You may recall several references in this blog to this art movement: notable artists and critics included the Benois and Lanceray clans, relatives of the celebrated Zinaida Serebriakova.) Between 1898 and 1904, it had an enormous impact on Russian modernist art, and was the chief propagator of that tension alluded to above: the likes of Leon Bakst who were Occidentalists pulled against the likes of Konstantin Korovin, who was a Slavist.

Orest Kurlyukov

Orest Kurlyukov

Some of the earliest manifestations of the Stil Modern were in decorative arts, in particular, silverware. Orest Kurlyukov’s Slavophile tea sets are masterpieces, determinedly antiquarian in outlook, using representations of ancient Russian literary and romantic styles. Meanwhile, Mikhail Tarasov produced an antiquarian cup with a dramatic Art Nouveau handle.

Mikhail Tarasov. (1899-1908).

Mikhail Tarasov. (1899-1908).

The humbly-born architect Fyodor Shekhtel was another titan of the Russian Art Nouveau. His design of the Ryabushinsky House is based on the internal arrangement of a medieval church of spaces surrounding a central area under a dome, but where the lighting is via a skylight and an ornate stained glass window, and the dome painted with traditional religious allusions.

Ryabushinsky House front elevation. Fyodor Shekhtel. (1900-02).

Ryabushinsky House front elevation. Fyodor Shekhtel. (1900-02).

Interior of Ryabushinsky House. Fyodor Shekhtel.

Interior of Ryabushinsky House. Fyodor Shekhtel.

Shekhtel was also involved in the design of the grand Russian pavilion at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.2 The buildings were characterized by a combination of forms that, although based on Russian architectural traditions, were united with the flowing linearity of Stil Modern.1

While the Stil Modern achieved considerable attention and influence in Europe, Russian exponents of the form continued to innovate back home as well. They collaborated with Art Nouveau masters such as Olbrich and Mackintosh. Even if critical coverage was not always favourable (one critic said: ‘Flabby … as if for a special race of small, affectionate and spineless human beings.’) and if nationalists were worried about the style’s foreignness and conservatives were appalled by its modernity, it could still admirably achieve a superb consummation, representing at once a dying empire and illuminating a country reaching for the new in the new century.


  1. Stephen Escritt, Art Nouveau, Phaidon, 2000.
  2. William Craft Brumfield, The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991


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!

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.

Social Advertising in Stalinist Times

Contrary to popular stereotype, the majority of advertising in Stalin’s USSR were associated not with party and ideological propaganda, but rather with what we might today call ‘social advertising’. If during Tsarist times, ‘education of the populace’ was a role of the church, in the Soviet Union, this role was taken by the state, and the extent of educational works were magnified manifold: it was necessary to create a consciousness in the ‘new man’, to form a new way of life, a new quotidian, and to eliminate illiteracy.

Many directions of social enlightenment were first begun in early Soviet period. For example, in 1930 already there were anti-smoking posters.

Nicotine is poison! (One drop of nicotine kills a small animal. A person who smokes will, over 30 years, consume 200,000 cigarettes, or 160 kg of tobacco, which contains 800gm of nicotine)

And the posters already look completely professional, not only in the artistic but also in the informational sphere. Below is another poster from 1930:

Smoking is costly and dangerous for health and life.

As far as I am concerned, we don’t have nearly enough of such posters as the wonderful ‘Our ultimatum to adults‘ (1930):

Our ultimatum to adults! Adults – don’t spread tobacco fumes into the air we breathe; don’t set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes; before you preach the ills of smoking, give it up yourselves!

‘Do not set us a bad example by sucking on cigarettes!’

It was probably in the USSR of 1930 that the first large-scale anti-smoking campaign was initiated, as indicated by the following poster which dates from the same year:

It is forbidden to smoke here… But I smoke.

Although ‘dry laws’ were abolished in 1924, there continued to be relentless campaigns against alcoholism in the USSR. (Below is a poster from 1929.)

There’s a play on words here. The ‘o’ in Sport gives strength’ while the ‘i’ in Spirt (spirit) gives death.

 Poster by N. Deni, 1930:

No point kidding with the drunk / He needs to be beaten / Culturally / severely / in fury, angrily / beaten every day / every step of the way / no breath should be granted the enemy.

From 1930, ‘What can be bought for kids at the cost of 1 litre of vodka‘:

Another social ill fought vigorously by soviet social advertising was prostitution. This was considered a legacy of exploitative society, requiring total eradication. But the problem was not that easily solved. The poster below is from 1929:

One of the issues faced by the Soviet regime was the emancipation of women, their conversion to active participants in the construction of the new order. Many works were dedicated to this theme. Here is one from the 1920s, ‘Woman – Learn to read and write!

Oh dear, mum, if you could read and write, you could have taught me!

From the 1920s, ‘Down with kitchen slavery!

It is possible that the USSR was the first country in the world to seriously turn attention to the problem of sexual harassment. Here is K. Rotov’s ‘Away with molesters of women‘:

In the 1930s appeared the first posters promoting the traffic code. Here is ‘Disobey the law – risk your life‘ (1930s):

Besides addressing the “negatives”, i.e. the evils of anti-social behavior, social advertising was distributed on a large scale to assert positive behaviours. It primarily promoted a healthy lifestyle as the most important attribute of the new Soviet society.

The struggle against poor sanitation at the time was very serious. Below is ‘Wash your hands after work and before eating‘, 1931.

Have a wash after work‘ (1932):

In the 1930s, one of the ideals of Soviet life was the garden city.

The duty of every worker is to bring sanitation to every house and every street.

In the USSR, there was enormous attention towards the development and propaganda of physical education and sport. Here is Alexander Deyneka’s 1933 poster ‘To work, to build, and not to whine’:

… you may not be an athlete, but you can certainly be fit

Here is A. Kokorekin, ‘Be ready’ (1934):

Be ready for work and defence.

Many of these posters are highly artistic works, almost masterpieces. My favourite is the following poster from 1947 by L. Golovanov:

And this – a total masterpiece: V. Koretsky, ‘Train!’ (1951):

If you want to be like me, train!

In the early post-war years appeared the first posters for mass tourism. Here is one from 1947, ‘Be a tourist on the weekend‘:

Be a tourist‘ (1949):

Be a tourist! Travel around your native country!

A special focus of social advertising in Stalin’s USSR was to entice the youth into new technologies and prestigious professions. The most prestigious, of course, was aviation. Here is G. Klyutsis’ ‘Youth – get in the planes‘:

At the same time, advertising morally encouraged people into the difficult, noble professions. Below is ‘Fame and honour to village doctors‘ (1948):

Perhaps it was pleasant for people in these professions to see such posters. Here is V. Koretsky, ‘Glory to the teacher‘ (1949):

One of the most ambitious projects of the Stalinist USSR was the so-called ‘cultural revolution’: the complete eradication in the shortest possible time of illiteracy (which had been 75% of the population in Tsarist times), the construction of an enormous network of libraries, clubs, cinemas, radio stations, the opening of new schools, institutes and universities. This huge work was reflected in poster art. Here is ‘Everyone to the library‘ (1929):

Every farm hand, peasant and poor man should become a reader at the library.

Here is ‘A good library for every Soviet village‘ (1935):

The book – our true helper on the Bolshevik path to a culturally rich and prosperous collective farm life. (The man’s got a Sholokhov, but note the book the woman’s reading – scintillating stuff! Stalin on Lenin (!))

There was promotion of high standards of service. Here is a poster from 1948:

We will cater culturally to every visitor!

By the way, it was found that even under capitalism, high standards of service did not appear by themselves, and needed to be inculcated.

There was the promotion of social activism and participation in various socially useful productive works. Here is ‘Join the volunteer fire service‘ (1952):

And, finally, social advertising in the Stalinist USSR promoted even such eternal and classless values and concepts such as ‘family honour’. Here is a poster by V. Govorkov (1949):

This is only a brief overview of some of the directions of social advertising in Stalin’s Soviet Union; an introduction to this huge subject. Of course, real life was quite far from beautiful posters; Soviet society under Stalin faced massive repression and years of hunger. But still these examples of social advertising demonstrate the main directions of state policy, its ideals, values and attentions. There is much that today’s world can learn from it.

[Translated from Социальная реклама в сталинском СССР, Visual History on LiveJournal, Feb 11, 2013.]

Theatre Art Exhibition

There was an exhibition of Theatre Art and Costume Design at the St Petersburg Gallery in Mayfair, as I mentioned in my monthly roundup. I went there and clicked away. What with the lighting and reflections, I’m not overly pleased with the images, but anyway, here’s a flavour of what was on display.

This is Alexander Golovin’s stage design for The Nightingale.

Alexandre Golovin

Alexander Golovin

Here is Natalia Goncharova‘s stage design for Carlo Goldoni’s The Fan.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova

This is Yuri Pimenov‘s design for Margarita’s sitting room of the play La Dame aux Camelias.

Yuri Pimenov

Here are three images from a set of six that Mstislav Dobuzhinsky created for the Polovtsian dances in the opera Prince Igor.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

This is Alexandre Benois‘ design for the ballet Petrushka.

Alexandre Benois

Alexandre Benois

Here is Sergei Chekhonin‘s poster design for Vera Nemtchinova’s performance with the Ballets Russes.

Sergei Chekhonin

Sergei Chekhonin

And, finally, a costume design after Leon Bakst for the ballet Thamar.

After Leon Bakst

After Leon Bakst

Art Roundup – December 2012

With my ongoing series associated with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, I haven’t had much time to point out the exhibitions of art that have been happening around the planet. Here’s a very quick round-up right here.

At the Saatchi Gallery in London are two exhibitions of Russian art:

  1. Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union – an exhibition of satirical art running till May 5, 2013.
  2. Breaking the ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s – is an exhibition of abstract and post-Stalinist art, including the Soviet version of pop art, with much satirical teasing of the avant-garde of the initial years of the Revolution. This is on till February 24, 2013.

I went for the first, but will have to go back to inspect the latter one in more detail. The first exhibition has its seriously weird moments: an entire series of photographs of people that look ready to jump off a high window (Vikentii Nilin), another series of large-scale despairing, worn-out nudes standing about in the snow (Boris Mikhailov), installation art of wooden prisons incorporating human-like figures in various stages of killing themselves or chopping up their limbs, yet another series of people adorned with criminal tattoos (Sergei Vasiliev), …Yet there are also stunningly beautiful works, as for instance a series of paintings of Parisian buildings that achieve a depth perception by a clever layering of cardboard (Valery Koshlyakov), as well as polychromatic explosions and busy crowds as in the work of Dasha Shishkin.