Soviet artists were involved since the very onset of the war: someone was a front-line artist reporter, someone was in militia, someone was conscripted into the army and went into battle. The war became the most important theme of the last decades of the twentieth century; artists of different generations who lived in a large multinational country turned to this subject.
The suffering of the people, their faith in victory and their wait for their loved ones to return from battle fields of the great and tragic war, were expressed in paintings created during the war. The passionate works full of tragedy and the affirmation of human dignity (such as “The Partisan’s Mother” by Sergei Gerasimov, “Tanya” by Kukryniksy, the triptych “Alexander Nevsky” by Pavel Korin, and “After the Fascist Air Raid” by Arkady Plastov), were created between 1942 and 1944.
In the “Self-portrait” (1945, Hall 28) by the front-line soldier Fedor Glebov, the viewer meets with a battlefield participant and looks at his image in monochrome restrained colors. The artist was fully focused on the subject’s character as he seems to be peering into his war experiences.
Several decades later the artists, who were adults or children when they had to survive those terrible years, turned to the theme of war in a different, more detached way. Mikhail Savitsky in his painting “The Field” (1973, Hall 28) showed a battle that would seem to imply depicting realistic specifics and details, but he created a large monumental canvas where there is no place for detail. The terrible “slaughter house” of the field was transformed by the artist into a glorious, almost mythological, battle scene with a background “golden” space of the field of grain acquiring symbolic meaning as the eternal resting place for the victorious heroes.
The theme of memories of the past war is expressed in simple concise compositions in another painting by Mikhail Savitsky, “The Anniversary of the Non-Reconstructed Village” (1984, Hall 28), and in Boris Nemensky’s painting “In Memory of Smolensk Land” (1983, Hall 28). A pierced helmet, a cracked cauldron and a simple village table, three objects that “survived” the war, personify all aspects of wartime life. In Savitsky’s work, people of different generations came to offer a moment of silence to the memory of the destroyed Belarusian village: both those who fought in the war and their children and grandchildren.
Andrei Vasnetsov created “The Funeral of a Soldier” (1985, Hall 28). He was an outstanding monumentalist whose talent was revealed in the 1960s. He painted using a consistently restrained and concise manner. “The Funeral of a Soldier” is stylistically close to a monumental fresco; the artist combined in the painting his personal memories of front-line tragedies and the recollections expressed in the verse by the poet Mikhail Dudin.
Seeing soldiers going to the front was one of the most tragic events in the war. Artists who experienced these moments could not help but creatively reflect on them. For example, Vladimir Gavrilov painted “For the Native Land” (1959, Hall 28), and Yevsey Moiseyenko created “Mothers, Sisters” (1967, Variation, Hall 36), recalling these moments as if they were the onlookers. The mature color, the held back emotion and the laconic manner inherent in these works, transform them into a symbol of maternal sacrificial love.
Akhmat Lutfullin was a teenager when he survived the war in the Urals. He gives a different perspective to the theme of seeing off soldiers to the front. He constructed the composition of his painting with the same name (1973, Hall 36) as a movie frame from a documentary on mobilization. Looking at the crowd, the viewer realizes that the last capable men are most likely to be leaving for the war, because the entire remaining population are women, the elderly and children. In the grey-brown palette of the canvas, splashes of red details flash in different places. They become a specific personification of the victims in the war-torn country.
Tatyana Yablonskaya, in her “Unnamed Heights” (1969, hall 36), found her own way to express the theme of memories. The land, transformed by the war into a kind of desert, flows smoothly from one mound to another like the waves of the sea. And only if we look more attentively, we begin to see trenches blurred over by the passage of time. The pastel colors, and the smoothness of the lines of the landscape are discordant with the theme, and a very unusual poetically sublime image arises on the theme of war and memories about it.
In the mid-1980s, two works were created dedicated to the year of the Great Victory: by Geliy Korzhev “Clouds of 1945” (1980–1985, Hall 26) and by Mikhail Kugach “Spring. 1945” (1985, Hall 29). Korzhev was one of the most significant artists of the second half of the twentieth century. He strove to create social and philosophical paintings and used a complex painting style. He created a work that addressed both the military past and the future. Nature is flourishing: it is a sunny day in springtime, clouds are floating in the sky. An elderly couple who have just survived the hardships of the war, and a girl in the background, look into the distance, as if hoping for a better life, and renewal. The expressive impasto painting enhances the emotional effect of the canvas.
The painting by M. Kugach brings a different feeling. The realistic image shows an early cold grey spring. There is a lonely old man in the foreground who has walked to the village outskirts and is probably waiting to see fellow villagers returning from war. The work is filled with lonely yearning and the hopelessness of waiting.
The bleak appearance of wartime Moscow is shown in the “Baltschug” painting by Vyacheslav Stekolshchikov (1969, Hall 33). His ideas about the image of the wartime capital may be associated with his childhood memories. Barrage balloons are carried in silence along the deserted streets of a frozen, almost black city to positions to protect the sky of Moscow. In the background smoke from MOGAS (Moscow State Electric Station), and its pipes jut against a frowning grey sky. The severe colours combined with the primitivism in the constructed form go back to the traditions of the “Jack of Diamonds” Artist’s Association of the early twentieth century. The appeal to the Russian avant-garde was important for Russian art of the 1960s – 1970s, as the artist then discovered a different, not realistic, modelling language.
Nikolai Andronov, who created the diptych “War and Peace” (1986, Hall 28), follows this pictorial tradition. He suggests different ways of comprehending the two opposite conditions of human life. The left part is devoted to war, as the composition is built on restless diagonals, and with the heavy colors it expresses the collapse of a peaceful life. “Peace” is contrasted as a graphically light harmonious composition.
Alexander Shumilkin, who painted “On Victory Day. The portrait of a Veteran” (1984, Hall 28), turned in his work to the theme of the North, its nature and heroes. He painted a portrait of one of the few members of the Northern peoples who fought in the Great Patriotic War. This image shows an inner calm and spiritual power. It combines harmony and grandeur of the most northern lands.
Decades after the end of World War II, art opened up different perspectives in the conversation about the war. A theme emerged of the connection between the generations: of those who fought and died, and those living now. Victor Popkov was the first in this line to create the painting “Father’s Greatcoat” (1970–1972, Hall 36). The artist decided to do a self-portrait to deeply reflect on the fate and connections of generations, and on the duty of the living to the dead. But among the dead are not only the people who during the war wore greatcoats (that turned out to be both literally and figuratively oversized for the modern generation), but also those women in the background who were waiting and mourning the killed soldiers. Popkov reflects on his role as an artist who maintains the continuity of time through his work.
Sergey Sherstyuk, in his painting “Father and Me” (1983, Hall 36), turned to another strategy in the composition and texture of his painting. The artist reflects on the pasting time by using hyperrealism. He directly compares his father’s black and white photographic portrait (he had been through the war) with his own colored self-portrait. The artist chose a photo of his father when he was his age. Are the two equal to each other? The first is his father wearing his ceremonial full dress who has a military bearing, and the other is a modern intellectual whose appearance is far from perfection.
Sergey Sherstyuk talks about continuity of generations in his painting “The Changing of the Guard” (1988, Hall 36). They all (a soldier who fought in the First World War, the Kremlin cadets, and a boy from the 1980s) express the concept of military prowess of the past, present and future.
Until now people still try to understand the Great Patriotic War (embodied in the fine arts of the second half of the twentieth century): they look at images that address the highest ideals from the standpoint of humanism.
Curator: Natalia Alexandrova
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