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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Alekandr Gerasimov

Guarding the Peace. Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, 1938, Alexandr Gerasimov.

Aleksandr Gerasimov Self-portrait
Every great leader needs a great painter. Napoleon had his Jacques-Louis David. Charles I of England had his Anthony van Dyck. Washington had his Gilbert Stuart. Lincoln had his George Healy. Pope Innocent X had his Diego Velasquez. Stalin had Aleksandr Gerasimov. In none of the relationships above do we blame or credit the artists for the sins or sincerity of their subjects...except perhaps in the case of Comrade Gerasimov. Some have called him Stalin's Velasquez, and figuratively speaking that may be true, though Gerasimov was in no way the equal of Velasquez as an artist. Like Stalin, Gerasimov was a Communist and a Soviet Communist at that, probably the worst kind. Of course, had they not seen eye-to-eye politically they wouldn't have been eye-to-eye artistically. And, we can always excuse Gerasimov by considering the fact that if he hadn't been Joseph Stalin's favorite artist, it would have been someone else--Mikhail Bozhi, perhaps.
Apple Tree Garden, 1930s, Aleksandr Gerasimov, some lingering Monet in his
spare time between "Heroic Realism" portraits of Communist leaders.
Lenin at thePulpit, 1930,
Aleksandr Gerasimov,
painted after Lenin's death.
Gerasimov was a Social Realist born in 1881 in Kozlov (now Michurinsk, south central Russia) of peasant stock. Until the age of twenty-two he worked for his father selling cattle. Before Russia's cataclysmic WW I defeat and the subsequent revolution, Gerasimov studied painting at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, influenced by the work of Anders Zorn and Claude Monet. He graduated in 1915 with two degrees--painting and architecture. During the war, he served in the army then returned to his hometown where he worked as a theatrical designer until 1925. That was the year he went back to Moscow and set up a studio where he began painting Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders in a style he termed "Heroic Realism." It was really little more than a somewhat baroque version of Social Realism, but in any case, he became a rising figure in the rarified world of Russian art at a time when the really great artists of the country such as Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Chagall, Soutine, Lipchitz, and many others were abandoning "Mother Russia" in droves, heading for the U.S. and the artistic freedom that, like everything else in the Russia at the time, was beginning to be in short supply.

Soviet artists, Brodsky, Gerasimov, and Katsman at Stalin’s Dacha, 1951,
by Aleksandr Gerasimov. (The fourth figure is unidentified.)
Portrait of Olga Lepeshinskaya,
1939, Aleksandr Gerasimov
Gerasimov didn't paint only grandiose, heroic portraits of Soviet leaders. He sometimes painted landscapes, such as his Apple Tree Garden (above) done sometime in the 1930s and his Communal Bath (bottom) from 1938. With the rise of Stalin in the 1920s, Gerasimov's Soviet star likewise ascended, though his work had descended into pompous portraits such as his Guarding the Peace, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, dating from 1938. Both it and his 1930 Lenin at the Pulpit (above, left) won numerous awards both inside the Soviet Union and when it was displayed in international competitions. Gerasimov's status as the number one painter in Russia also brought him opportunities to paint celebrities such as Olga Lepeshinskaya (left) from the country's performing arts alongside communal farm workers as seen in his Feast on a Collective Farm (below) from 1936. His 1951 feast with Stalin and three fellow artists (above) is somewhat more refined.

Feast on a Collective Farm, 1936, Aleksandr Gerasimov
When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, so did Gerasimov's dominance of the Soviet world of painting. Nikita Khrushchev brought with him to the Kremlin what came to be known as "De-Stalinization." Gerasimov's widely displayed works gradually went into museum vaults and Gerasimov, likewise went into storage. Gerasimov termed it as being "In Oblivion. Like Rembrandt." As in the case with his earlier comparison with Velasquez, figurative speaking, he might be right. Artistically...not even close.

Stalin at the 18th Party Congress,
1939, Aleksandr Gerasimov

Stalin's Funeral, 1953, Aleksandr Gerasimov--the end of an era, the end of a career.

Communal Bath, 1953, Aleksandr Gerasimov--rank has its privileges.


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