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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Igor Grabar

Lenin Dictating a Telegram at dawn in 1920, 1929, Igor Grabar
Self-portrait in a Fur Cap,
1947, Igor Grabar 
Artists of my generation, who grew up during the Cold War, have ingrained within us a very dim view of Russia. When we studied the country in school (if the subject came up at all) it was always in a negative light, as a military threat, an economic and political failure. Art? What art? If there was a picture of Soviet art it was of megalomaniacal Social Realism monuments more propaganda than art. In college art classes, it was as if art ceased to exist just this side of the Iron Curtain. In all my art history courses I ever took (or taught) I can't recall the mention of even one single Russian artist other than those who fled to the West following the Russian Revolution. Even today, that vacuum continues, the feeling being that all Russian art is Communist art and thus to be condemned or, at best, ignored. For me personally, it required a trip to Russia itself a couple years ago to allow me to even recognize this massive "hole" in my knowledge of art history. Even now, I'm only beginning to fill it in. I've dealt with the Russian artist, Ilya Glazunov just this past week (below). During the past few months others have included Pavel Filinov, Pavel Fedotov, Mikhail Evstafiev, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Alexandrovich Deineka, and the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. Now let me add one more to the list, Igor Grabar.

An Alley Amongst Birches,
1904, Igor Grabar
With the exception of Glazunov, every one of these artist came of age before the Russian Revolution in 1917. These were the artists who stayed behind. Some, such as Grabar, readily embraced Communism. Some were forced to through economic necessity. Others were relatively apolitical. All, in their own way, learned to cope. Grabar was of Eastern Slavic ethnicity, born in 1871 into a wealthy family of intellectuals. Grabar is the Anglicized Russian spelling of the Hungarian Hrabar. His early years were spent in Kiev, his secondary education completed at a boarding school in Moscow. His art education came in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In 1889 he began studying law at the Saint Petersburg University. He lived off earnings from selling short stories to a mediocre humor magazine called Shut and by doing portraits of fellow students. In 1894 Grabar got his law degree but promptly gave up any thoughts of becoming a lawyer in favor of painting, and more importantly, writing about painting.

March Snow, 1904, Igor Grabar
In 1895-96, his employer, Niva magazine sent Grabar on a tour of Europe's art capitals, Munich, Paris, and Berlin. Upon his return to St. Petersburg he took up the serious study of painting. His instructors considered him an excellent draughtsman, and a superb teacher, but far from gifted as a painter. Later he opened his own short-lived art school, though his primary emphasis was writing about art; and some of what he wrote caused quite an uproar in the staid, conservative world of St. Petersburg. He promoted Impressionism and Modern Art in general. His own style of painting having become very impressionistic, all but embracing Pointillism. Looking at his work from this period, they all appear to be slightly out of focus, as seen in his Afternoon Tea (below) from 104.

Afternoon Tea, 1904, Igor Grabar--Impressionistic to a fault?
Portrait of the Artist's Son, 1935,
Igor Grabar
Nonetheless, from 1901 to 1907, Grabar's painting career soared as he concentrated on portraits and snowy landscapes (above, left). Even Kazimir Malevich liked his work. Strangely, though Grabar himself liked the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, his favorite artist was said to be the Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez. Around 1908, Grabar launched his own art magazine and began work on the first ever comprehensive History of Russian Art, including not just painting but sculpture and architecture. Though later generations have found minor faults with Grabar's discourses, especially regarding architecture, it is, still today, considered an unsurpassed, authoritative resource.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Lenin in Working Cabinet, 1933,
Igor Grabar
By 1913, Grabar's rise to prominence as a writer led him to be appointed director of the Tretyakov Gallery (above) in Moscow, founded by a wealthy Russian merchant, and considered to be the foremost collection Russian art in the world, even surpassing St. Petersburg's Hermitage. Grabar reorganized and expanded the gallery, modernizing it, and its art collection to include French and Russian contemporary art. As had been the case in St. Petersburg, his embrace of Modern Art was controversial to the point of scandal, causing many to call for his resignation. However, Grabar remained, in all likelihood his position saved by an event that, ironically, nearly destroyed the gallery--the chaos of the Russian Revolution.

In the years that followed, the Tretyakov became more warehouse than museum, though in fact, it actually grew in size. Grabar remained until 1926 while also taking on the leadership of the new Soviet government's Museums and Preservation Section where he found himself caught between those wanting to completely destroy the "decadent art heritage" of Imperial Russia and those wanting to preserve and expand it with Modern Art holdings. As anyone visiting Russia today will attest, Grabar succeeded in preserving the past while accepting, if not quite embracing, Modern Art. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has an entire floor devoted to 20th century art--the attic.

Svetlana, 1933 (?), Igor Grabar,
(Possibly Joseph Stalin's daughter by his second wife.)
During the following decades, Igor Grabar, by necessity, became more of a Soviet bureaucrat than artist, though also putting his political connections to Lenin and later Stalin to good use in that they allowed him to get behind the scenes, painting them, not as heroic icons of the "glorious revolution," but as men like himself--working, bureaucratic stiffs. His Lenin Dictating a Telegram at dawn in 1920 (top), from the 1920s, is an example. Later Grabar painted similar "genre" scenes of Stalin, even a portrait said to be of his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, who, in 1967, deserted Russia in favor of the U.S. (and later, England) where she died in 2011 at the age of eighty-five. Critics say either the date  of the portrait is wrong, Grabar painted her as older than her seven years of age at the time, or that it is not, in fact, Svetlana Alliluyeva.

The Fat Women, 1904, Igor Grabar.
Upper-Class Paris ladies the artist encountered at a ball.
He wrote that the scene was: " fascinating as it was disgusting."

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