Lithography in Leningrad: Soviet Graphic Arts in the 1950s and 60s

Lithography in Leningrad: Soviet Graphic Arts in the 1950s and 60s

On view May 18–August 17, 2014
Text by Emily O’Leary, Assistant Curator

This exhibition features 37 lithographs created by nine official artists at the state-run Leningrad Experimental Graphics Workshop in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 60s. The lithographic medium was first used in Russia in the 1810s, but had been invented in Germany around 1796.  A mechanized process, lithography allowed for the economical production of prints as well as other commercial uses, such as advertising. Lithographs are produced by drawing with a grease pencil on polished limestone or a specially prepared metal plate that is then inked and run through a press leaving an image on a sheet of paper pressed against it. The lithographs featured in this exhibition exemplify a period in the Leningrad Workshop when artists pushed the boundaries of the lithographic process. They sought to create prints that more closely resembled drawings and watercolors and that were modulated in tone compared to the high contrast, blocky character of linoleum printing (Kozyreva and Lipovich, 15).

Alexander Vedernikov was particularly successful in achieving this aesthetic. He was said to have described his goal in lithography as follows: “to make four colors look like twenty-four” – a reference to the four ink colors available for printing (Kozyreva and Lipovich, 17). His colorful, patterned still lifes reflect the influence of Matisse and the Fauves; as do the saturated colors of Russian landscapes by Vladimir Sudakov, another Workshop artist. Alexandra Yacobson’s Russian folktale illustrations and Gerda Nemenova’s minimalist portraits capture the graphic gesture of drawing, with their delicate, linear qualities.

As official artists, all the artists in this exhibition were members of the Artists Union and were required to adhere to the principles of Socialist Realism—a figurative style that supported the goals and ideals of Soviet society. Lithographs produced in the Workshop were made in small editions of ten copies, of which the artist was allowed to keep nine for personal use, and one of which was retained in the Workshop’s archives. The Artists Union would then periodically review the archives and order additional runs of 500 impressions from a single lithograph to be distributed by the State to factories, libraries, recreation halls, collective farms, and schools in the Soviet Union (Mullaly and Cole, unpag.).

Izrailevich 6114
Gregory Israelevich (Russian, 1924-1999), Owl and Hourglass, 1960, lithograph, 24 3/8 x 18 ½ inches. The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

The prints in this exhibition were all created during the Thaw—a period of liberalization following the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.  A new era, the Thaw fostered innovation and revitalization in the visual arts as artists experimented with previously banned modernist styles. They sought to push past the rigid restrictions of Socialist Realism, while negotiating the boundaries of Soviet ideals and socialist principles. The graphic arts, in particular, gave artists room to experiment because they were considered lesser arts and were associated with craft work (Sjeklocha and Mead, 123).

Ermolaev 595
Boris Ermolaev (Russian, 1903-1982), Mothers, 1961, lithograph, 24 ¾ x 18 ½ in., The Art Collection at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

The subjects of the artists in the Leningrad Workshop ranged from Boris Ermolaev’s Socialist Realist themes to Gregory Israelevich’s foreboding images of owls, which symbolically evoke the passage of time and the transience of life. Ermolaev was a successful painter whose earlier Socialist Realist paintings in the 1930s and 40s drew heavily on the traditions of folk art and icon painting, resulting in simplified and flattened forms. One of his lithographs in this exhibition, Mothers (1961), rendered in vibrant colors and emphasizing flattened, linear shapes, most strongly exemplifies the conventions of Socialist Realism in its idealized depiction of workers on collective farms. On the other hand, Israelevich’s owl prints were singled out by Terence Mullaly in his introductory catalogue essay for the exhibition Lithographs by Twenty-Seven Soviet Artists in 1961 as an example of how not all Soviet artists were wholly “devoted to the doctrine of Socialist Realism.” (Mullaly, unpag.)

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Anatoli Kaplan (Russian, b. Belarus, 1902-1980), Untitled, 1940, lithograph, 12 ½ x 16 ½ inches. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

As a Jewish artist whose work explored Jewish themes, Anatoli Kaplan also straddled a fine line during the Stalinist era and beyond into the period of the Thaw. In one of several black and white lithographs on view in the exhibition, residents of a Jewish town (shtetl) appear to be on their way to synagogue on the eve of Simchat Torah—the annual holiday of the completion of the Torah reading cycle. At center, a young girl holds a flag in one hand, and with the other her father’s hand as they head a procession through an archway. On the left another boy is running to join the rest of the community, and at right, a mother helps her son tie his neckerchief. The Grosvenor Gallery in London commissioned several sets of prints from Kaplan illustrating Sholem Aleichem stories. By the Tailor’s House is from one series, Tevia the Milkman (ca. 1961). It depicts a goat, ubiquitous in Yiddish folk tales, and in this instance, given the dismal, rainy scene outside the Tailor’s house, perhaps portending an ominous fate for the village’s inhabitants.

Alexandra Yacobson (Russian, 1903-1966), The Scarlet Flower, 1962, lithograph, 24 ½ x 18 3/8 inches. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.
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Alexandra Yacobson (Russian, 1903-1966), Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden), 1960, lithograph, 24 3/8 x 18 3/8 inches. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

Many of the artists in this exhibition were first exhibited in the West in a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Lithographs by Twenty-Seven Soviet Artists held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in the spring of 1961. The gallery was founded in the previous year by the Eric Estorick (1913-1993), who later became best known as a collector of Italian Futurism, and his wife, Salome (1920-1989). 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. Lithographs by Twenty-Seven Soviet Artists was one of the earliest exhibitions of Soviet art at Estorick’s gallery—a niche that he would continue to champion through many exhibitions for the next several decades. The show was so well received in Britain that the exhibition traveled to New York City later the same year. Many of the prints on view in the current exhibition were included in that show and later acquired for the Hebrew Home Art Collection in the mid-1970s when Jacob Reingold (1915-1999) was the Home’s Executive Director, a position he held for almost four decades. The Museum of Modern Art also acquired a selection of these same lithographs in 1962, including examples by Ermolaev, Kaplan, Nemenova, and Vedernikov, among many others.

Nemenova 6107
Gerda Nemenova (Russian, b. Germany, 1905-1986), Korean Dancer, ca. 1960, lithograph, 22 x 15 7/8 inches. The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

Estorick met Reingold 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:

Bradley, Josephine. “European Print Acquisitions.” October 18, 1962. The Museum of Modern Art.

Ivins, Jr., William M. How Prints Look. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Kozyreva, Natalia. Boris Ermolaev, 1903-1982: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors and Lithographs from The State Russian Museum. Saint Petersburg: Palace Editions and The State Russian Museum, 2004.

Kozyreva, Natalia, and I.N. Lipovich. Leningrad Easel Lithography, 1933-1963: The History of Experimental Graphic Workshop LOSHa. Exh. cat. Leningrad: State Russian Museum, 1986.

Mullaly, Terence. Lithographs by Twenty-Seven Soviet Artists. Exh. cat. London: Grosvenor Gallery, 1961.

Mullaly, Terence. Introduction. Sylvan Cole, Jr. Foreword.  Lithographs by Twenty-Five Soviet Artists: Leningrad Experimental Graphics Laboratory. Exh. cat. New York: Associated American Artists, 1961.

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

Artists in the Exhibition

Boris Ermolaev
(Russian, 1903-1982)

Gregory Israelevich
(Russian, 1924-1999)

Anatoli Kaplan
(Russian, b. Belarus, 1902-1980)

Vera Matiukh
(Russian, b. Germany, 1910-2003)

Gerda Nemenova
(Russian, b. Germany, 1905-1986)

Michael Skouliari
(Russian, 1905-1985)

Vladimir Sudakov
(Russian, 1912-1994)

Alexander Vedernikov
(Russian, 1898-1975)

Alexandra Yacobson
(Russian, 1903-1966)

This text, which originally appeared in the printed exhibition brochure, was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Lithography in Leningrad: Soviet Graphic Arts in the 1950s and 60s on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum, May 18–August 17, 2014.

All works in the exhibition are from The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, 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 11,000 elderly persons in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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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.