Magazine article Russian Life

The Art of the Unknown

Magazine article Russian Life

The Art of the Unknown

Article excerpt

Ernst Neizvestny, one of Russia's greatest living artists, staged a landmark exhibition this year in Moscow. Christina Ling tells his story, and provides insight into some of the work that most Russians are seeing for the first time.

The 1962 exhibition of contemporary art at the Manezh gallery in Moscow was nothing short of a sensation. One reason was the fact that it offered an official public forum for abstractionists, for the first time since Stalin's reign of terror.

However, it has gone down in history as the exhibition at which Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union's rural-born General Secretary, lost his temper at the artists, using some of the most colorful language ever recorded from the lips of a world leader.

Ernst Neizvestny, now one of Russia's most famous living artists, was among those whose work was on display in the exhibition hall when the General Secretary swept in on a surprise visit with his entourage in tow. His exchange with Khrushchev has since become legendary.

"What do you mean Neizvestny (the name means 'unknown' in Russian)?" quipped the jovial Soviet leader, "we know all about you!"

Asked where he got the bronze for his sculptures, Neizvestny replied that he found it on rubbish dumps. When the indignant leader said there was no bronze on rubbish dumps, the artist coolly replied to the effect that Comrade Khrushchev had probably never visited a rubbish dump to find out.

It has been well over a quarter of a century since Neizvestny's clash with the Soviet authorities, and the now world-famous artist has spent most of it outside Russia. So it was a historic moment when the master arrived at the small but prestigious Dom Nashchokina art gallery in Moscow at the end of March to attend the opening of the first solo exhibition of his career in his home country.

Born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in 1926, Neizvestny was recognized as a talent in childhood. He was admitted to a special school for artistically gifted children at the age of 13.

In 1942, only three years later, he signed up as a volunteer in the Soviet Army. He was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield in Austria. Having been 'posthumously' awarded the Order of the Red Star for heroism, Neizvestny made a miraculous recovery and went on to study at the Surikov Institute of Arts, simultaneously enrolling in the philosophy faculty of Moscow State University.

From the Surikov Institute he went from success to success, winning competitions for young artists and, in 1959, a national competition to design a World War Two victory commemoration monument. But while enjoying success in the official sphere, Neizvestny retained his independent artistic vision, working on such projects as the Tree of Life sculpture, a monument to human achievement in the spheres of art, science and technology and, more significantly, on illustrations for Dante's The Inferno and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

"He was an avant-gardist," comments Dom Nashchokina director Natalya Ryurikova. "His line, his form - none of it was Soviet. His art was the art of allusion - something strange, incomprehensible, and therefore threatening to the authorities."

In fact, Neizvestny had fewer exhibitions at home during those years than he did abroad. The Vatican Museum bought his Large Crucifix, and later he presented the sculpture Heart of Christ to Pope John Paul II.

Emigration to the West, first to Zurich and then to the United States as artist, lecturer and publicist, brought Neizvestny not the artistic death and oblivion which befell many of his contemporaries, but fame as great as he had enjoyed at home. The Kennedy Center in New York commissioned a bust of the great and enigmatic Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich; Neizvestny's writings on art and philosophy were published for the first time after a 20-year delay; he was invited to lecture on art and philosophy at Harvard and Columbia Universities. …

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