The Leningrad School of Painting


Historical outline

by Sergei V. Ivanov



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 European painting.


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 paintings

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 paintings

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, K. Malevich, 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 administrations.


Enlarge Oleg Lomakin and Galina Smirnova paintings

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 art movements.

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 paintings

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 art.

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 end.

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, D. Kardovsky, A. Osmerkin, 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 paintings

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, D. Kardovsky, A. Osmerkin, 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 artists.

Thus, from I. Repin, P. Chistyakov, A. Kuindzhi and V. Makovsky through I. Brodsky, D. Kardovsky, A. Osmerkin, K. Petrov-Vodkin, 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 paintings

I. Brodsky 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 complex genre.

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 and expectations.

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 Semionov paintings

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 and others.

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 paintings

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 a whole.

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 dissent.


Enlarge Lazar Yazgur and Nikolai Timkov paintings

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 was saved.

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 kind.

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.

Buy 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.



Home        Contact