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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

A Month in the Country, 1909, Mstislav Dobzhinsky
--a room so glorious you hardly notice the people.
Mstislave Dobuzhinsky Self-portrait, 1910
The worst part in writing about Russian artists is trying to spell (never mind pronounce) their names. Mstislav Dobzhinsky challenges even the best spellchecker. Once you get past that obstacle, they're really quite interesting, and almost invariably worth pursuing. Mstislave Dobuzhinsky is no exception. Although Dobuzhinsky (I'm tempted to just call him "Dobie," but won't) was a painter of street scenes from the early 20th century, though in reality, he worked most of his life in the Russian theater, initially in Moscow, but later in Lithuania, and eventually in New York. He was also a wildly creative designer of theater costumes. Inherent in all those artistic callings is a quick and easy familiarity with drawing, color, brushwork (often watercolor), and most of all, a proportional aesthetic capable of imposing varying degrees of reality within the limitation of a proscenium arch.

Set Design for King Lear, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky
Sister Portrait, 1910, Mstislav
Dobzhinsky was born in 1875 in Novgorad (northwestern Russia, just south of St. Petersburg). He came from a military family of army officers. and showed a distinct talent for painting and drawing at an early age. From the time he was ten he attended drawing school; but, bowing to family pressure, studied law in St. Petersburg while, at the same time, taking art classes at night. After graduating from law school in 1899, Dobzhinsky moved on to Munich where his art took on the qualities of the highly decorative Jugendstil--literally, young style--but in fact, Art Nouveau. It was a style well-suited to the theater. His Portret Sestry (Sister Portrait, right) painted in 1910, may, or may not be unfinished, given the penchant for combining painting and drawing among artists of this era. In any case, it displays well Dobuzhinsky's talent in the demanding art of portraiture, as well as the diversity of his styles. Portret Sestry and the self-portrait (above, right) were painted in the same year.

Expressionistic set design, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky
October Idyll,
Gravitating to Moscow, the theater capital of Russia, Dobuzhinsky found himself working with none other than Constantin Stanislavski, the famed actor and director, also the father of "method acting." Then came the war; then came the Bolsheviks. During the war Dobuzhinsky went to the front lines and drew. After the war, he took part in the 1918 Second Congress of the Communist International. And though his career as an artist and designer was starting to blossom, by the mid-1920s Dobuzhinsky began to realize that Bolshevik Revolutionary idealism was a far cry from Communist Party rule. He deserted Moscow, becoming a naturalized citizen of Lithuania. There he worked for the state theater as a scenographer, what we'd call today a production designer, (responsible set design, but also lighting, projections, and costuming). He also ran a private art school on the side.
Ten Costume Designs, 1941-45, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky,
designing for the American theater.
As Communism crept over Eastern Europe during the 1930s, Dobuzhinsky crept out of Eastern Europe, first to England then to the United States, settling in New York in 1939. His timing was near perfect, avoiding another war in Europe and finding employment in the New York's thriving theater district at a time when most such American talent was off to war. Dobuzhinsky's late work seems rather cold and lonely, involving paintings of urban decay and post-war urban sprawl. He died in 1957 and is buried in Paris.

New York Rooftops, My Windows in New York,1943, Mstislave Dobuzhinsky. 
Having fled the war, Dobuzhinsky combines a still-life with a wintery, urban
llandscape suggesting the lonely life of a refugee artist in a strange land


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