The Politics of Paint – Landscape Painting in the Soviet Union, 1953-1964

The Politics of Paint – Landscape Painting in the Soviet Union, 1953-1964

On view February 9 – April 20, 2014
Text by Emily O’Leary, Assistant Curator

Peter Shlikov (Russian, 1917-1970), The Ararat Plain, 1962, oil on canvas, 23 ½ x 29 ½ inches

This exhibition features landscape paintings from 1953-1964 created during the Thaw—a period of unprecedented artistic freedom in the Soviet Union following the death of the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). Various modernist styles emerged in painting at this time, influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

The decade of the Thaw followed the end of Stalin’s reign of terror and brought condemnation of his cultural policies, including the notorious purges when many renowned composers, writers and artists were imprisoned or killed for creating “formalist” work – art for art’s sake. Prior to the Thaw, Socialist Realism—figurative art that supported the goals and ideals of Soviet society—had been the only official state style. Artists could be brutally persecuted for not obeying this dictate. While still the officially sanctioned style, the Thaw allowed for exploration of other, modernist styles, aside from Socialist Realism, and permitted greater artistic freedom. It lasted until Khrushchev was ousted in 1964.

Compared to history painting or portraiture, landscape painting was not intended to have a didactic purpose. However, in the Soviet era when everything was politicized, landscapes that failed to contain human figures or socialist content were considered “superfluous to the cause of the Revolution” (Swanson, 349). Artists during the Thaw were given the freedom to work in previously banned styles, yet there was still an expectation that they would adhere to a party line.

A popular style that emerged during the Thaw was Working-Class Impressionism—a term coined by Dr. Vern G. Swanson—which drew inspiration from French Impressionism. The work of Alexander Dubinchik, Moisey Feigin, Vladimir Gavrilov and Alexey Morosov, all of whom are included in this exhibition, exemplify this tradition, combining an impressionistic aesthetic with socialist content. These painters retained the principles of Socialist Realism in their work by promoting an idealized view of Soviet society. Their canvases contain bright colors and optimistic depictions of everyday life. Impressionistic works like these would have been deemed unacceptable and derided as bourgeois art during Stalin’s era.

The strong influence of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on Russian art can be traced back in part to collectors Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) and Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). They acquired major works by such masters as Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso in the early 20th century, but after the Revolution in 1917, both collections were nationalized and given to museums. When modernism was denounced as anti-Soviet quickly thereafter, the works were hidden away from public view. It was only during the Thaw that they reemerged and were exhibited in 1956 at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. For the first time in decades, open discussions were allowed about the merits of and differences between modern art and Socialist Realism, allowing styles such as Impressionism to return to the fore and fostering new artistic directions.

Vladimir Gavrilov (Russian, 1923-1970), Uglich, The Church of Iowan (Church of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist), 1963, oil on canvas, 39 x 33 inches
Igor Popov (Russian, b. Ukraine, 1927-1999), Kizhi, The Cathedral (Preobrazhensky Church), 1963, gouache on board, 40 x 28 ½ inches

With its nationalist subject, broad, loose brush strokes and luminous color palette, Gavrilov’s painting, Uglich, The Church of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (1963), is a classic example of Working-Class Impressionism. It depicts a 17th-century church in the historic town of Uglich, which sits along the Volga River—the unofficial national river of Russia.

In A Warm Evening (ca. 1963) Alexander Dubinchik combined socialist themes with Impressionistic aesthetics. In this painting, the figure working in the field represents the human element that was central to Soviet art. Dubinchik upholds the principle of productivity and the everyday life of the worker as a primary concern of culture.

Moisey Feigin’s Winter Landscape (before 1964) is the only snowscape in this exhibition. Not surprisingly given its climate, snowscapes are a specific genre in Russian art. As in Dubinchik’s work, Feigin paints impressionistically, presenting a scene populated with several human figures. This is not a picture that encourages the viewer to ponder its purely artistic or formal qualities, but rather, it promotes socialist principles while the content is rendered in a modernist style.

Feigin is of an earlier generation compared to most of the other painters in this exhibition. Both he and Pavel Kuznetsov reached artistic maturity before Stalin came to power. Feigin was affiliated with the Jack of Spades, an avant-garde group that began exhibiting in 1906. However, in 1934, after Socialist Realism was declared the official state style, Feigin adapted by producing works like Winter Landscape. He returned to semi-abstract art later in his career.

Pavel Kuznetsov (Russian, 1878-1968), Evening Landscape, 1956, oil on canvas, 28 x 35 inches

Kuznetsov was a prominent figure in the Blue Rose Group, a circle of Russian Symbolist painters who favored tonalism, using color to evoke mood and explore spatial relationships. They also began exhibiting in 1906. Although the rise of Socialist Realism led to a suppression of this style of art, the work included in this exhibition, Moscow Landscape (1956), reflects Kuznetsov’s tonalist sensibilities.

Popov’s stylized treatment of a well-known Russian church in Kizhi, The Cathedral (Preobrazhensky Church) (1963)—located on the rural island of Kizhi in in the district of Karelia in the northwestern part of the country, about 765 miles from Moscow—provides an example of the burgeoning interest in the Russian North during the Thaw. This remote area became synonymous with the quest for authenticity and optimism in reaction against the artificiality and pervasive fear associated with life under Stalin. In 1963, Popov traveled with several other artists to capture the ruddy, rural quality of the Russian North. This work, portraying the famous, 21-domed Preobrazhensky Church, reflects the influence of Post-Impressionism, especially in the simplified geometry and somewhat shallow space. The dark, saturated palette is typical for Northern subjects at this time.

From at least the 1920s, when many artists drew inspiration both from national styles, such as folk art, and from modernist sources, painting in Soviet Armenia was typically characterized by simplified schematic forms painted in vivid, saturated colors.

Unlike in Moscow, where the authorities kept a tight rein on artistic style and content, artists working in Soviet republics like Armenia had somewhat more freedom to experiment. They could also claim that their use of vivid color and stylized form was attributable solely to the influence of indigenous traditions to avoid being accused of working in a modernist idiom. (Bown, 143) Works included in this exhibition by Albert Papikian, Aram Kupetsian and Peter Shlikov depict familiar geographic landmarks that carry strong nationalistic overtones, demonstrating the persistence of this approach into the 1960s.

The 14 works in this exhibition were acquired from the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Founded in 1960 by eminent art collector Eric Estorick (1913-1993) and his wife, Salome (1920-1989), the gallery was a premier venue for Eastern European artists to exhibit in the West. Estorick was born in New York City in 1913, his family having emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1905 to escape anti-Semitism. He became a political writer and lecturer in sociology at New York University before settling in London.

Jacob Reingold (1915-1999), the Hebrew Home’s Executive Director for almost four decades, met Estorick through a family connection. In the mid-1970s, with the assistance of donors and Estorick’s support, Reingold, an art lover who established the Home’s renowned art program, was able to acquire many works from Grosvenor Gallery by artists who were mostly unknown in the West. Today, however, many of those artists—both Russian and from former Soviet republics—have become recognized names in the history of Soviet and Russian art. Their works have been “rediscovered” in the Hebrew Home’s collection in recent years.

Further reading:

Bown, Matthew Cullerne. “Painting in the non-Russian republics.” In Art of the Soviets: Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one-party state, 1917-1992. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Bulanova, Maria, and Dr. Alla Rosenfeld. Soviet Dis-Union: Socialist and Nonconformist Art. Exh. cat. Minneapolis: The Museum of Russian Art, 2006.

Estorick, Eric. Aspects of Contemporary Soviet Art: paintings, drawings and watercolours. Exh. cat. London: Grosvenor Gallery, 1964.

Hillings, Valerie L. “Official Exchanges/Unofficial Representations: The Politics of Contemporary Art in the Soviet Union and the United States, 1956-1977.” In Russia! Exh. cat. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2005.

Sjeklocha, Paul, and Igor Mead. Unofficial Art in the Soviet Union. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

Swanson, Vern G. Soviet Impressionist Painting. Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom: The Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 2008.

Exhibition Checklist
All works are part of The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

Alexander Dubinchik (Russian, 1922-1997)

A Warm Evening, ca. 1963

Oil on canvas

31 ½ x 20 inches


Moisey Feigin (Russian, 1904-2008)

Winter Landscape, before 1964

Oil on canvas

35 ½ x 47 inches


Vladimir Gavrilov (Russian, 1923-1970)

Uglich, The Church of Iowan (Church of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist), 1963

Oil on canvas

39 x 33 inches


Aram Kupetsian (Russian, b. 1928)

Mountainous Landscape, 1963

Gouache on paper

15 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches


Aram Kupetsian (Russian, b. 1928)

Mountains in Garni, 1963

Gouache on paper

13 1/4 x 17 inches


Pavel Kuznetsov (Russian, 1878-1968)

Evening Landscape, 1956

Oil on canvas

28 x 35 inches


Alexey Morosov (Russian, 1896-1965)

After the Rain, 1960

Oil on board

19 ½ x 28 inches


Alexey Morosov (Russian, 1896-1965)

A Sunny Day, ca. 1960

Oil on canvas

19 x 27 ½ inches


Albert Papikian (Armenian, 1926-1997)

Aragats, 1962

Oil on board

57 x 63 inches


Alexsei Pisarev (Russian, 1909-1970)

On the Volga River, 1960

Gouache on paper on board

29 ½ x 44 inches


Alexsei Pisarev (Russian, 1909-1970)

Uglich, 1960

Oil on board

19 ¾ x 27 ½ inches


Igor Popov (Russian, b. Ukraine, 1927-1999)

Kizhi, The Cathedral (Preobrazhensky Church), 1963

Gouache on board

40 x 28 ½ inches


Peter Shlikov (Russian, 1917-1970)

The Ararat Plain, 1962

Oil on canvas

23 ½ x 29 ½ inches


Peter Shlikov (Russian, 1917-1970)

A View of Balaklava, 1963

Oil on board, 15 x 23 inches

This text, which originally appeared in the printed exhibition brochure, was produced in conjunction with the exhibition The Politics of Paint: Landscape Painting in the Soviet Union, 1953-1964 on view in the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery, February 9 – April 20, 2014.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. The Home is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 7,000 elderly persons through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Art Collection open daily, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Derfner Judaica Museum Logo JPG

Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.