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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka

The Defense of Sevastopol, 1942, A.A. Deineka
A.A. Deineka Self-portrait, 1916.
It's probably a holdover relic from the Cold War, but Americans probably know less about Russian art than that of virtually any other country on earth. The only possible exception to that might be Somalia. We know absolutely nothing about Somalian art (likely because there hasn't been any, not in the past hundred years, anyway). The Soviet Union died a painful, lingering death around 1991. Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka was born in 1899. He died in 1969. That means he came of age as an artist at almost the exact same moment, 1922, that the Soviet Union came about. Although he died more than 20 years before Russia's Communist regime finally bit the dust, this coinciding of the man and the dominant political force in his country easily makes Deineka the most important Russian artist of the 20th century.

Conquerors of Space, 1961, A.A. Deineka. Patriotic pride or propaganda?
During virtually his entire lifetime the western world pretty much dismissed Deineka as just another Social Realist Commie artist. Even when he gained sufficient standing in his own country after the death of Stalin to be allowed to travel extensively outside it, in 1961, Deineka was still considered little more than an cultural curiosity. That's not to say Deineka wasn't a Communist. He was too successful at what he did not to have been. However, it must also be said the man was an artist first, and a member of the Communist party mostly by necessity. He was patriotic. His heroic paintings of his country's wartime struggles as seen in his Defense of Sevastopol (top) painted in 1942, are among his best works. However, during peacetime, as can be seen in his Conquerors of Space (above), from 1961, his work is sprinkled with paintings that move well beyond patriotism into the realm of propaganda...but no more so than did Norman Rockwell.

The Relay Baton Round, the Ring B, 1947, A.A. Deineka.
He loved painting athletes and their games--about as close as he ever got to genre. 
Yet, like Rockwell (whose span of years almost perfectly coincides with his) Deineka was a working artist. He had to make a living. He had to sell paintings. He also illustrated books and was something of a sculptor. Most of his subject content was not that different than had he been a western artist. He painted nudes (mostly female), children, landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and only occasionally glorified Communist themes. However, Deineka was no Norman Rockwell, either as to style or his insight into human nature. Deineka had no Soviet version of The Saturday Evening Post.  Pravda and Izvestiya were not in the habit of running genre paintings on their covers. And in any case, Deineka didn't paint genre.

Spring in Paris, 1961, A.A. Deineka. You can almost hear and smell "Springtime in Paris,"
a freshness seldom seen or felt in his Russian scenes.
The Spanish Steps, 1961, A.A. Deineka
As interesting as Deineka's lifting of the iron curtain to allow us a peek at Soviet life during the middle of the 20th century, his artistic impression of the West may be even more fascinating. We see glimpses of Rome, Paris (above), and the U.S. In Rome, he painted a tourist staple, The Spanish Steps. In the United States he tried his hand at painting basketball and baseball. In general his landscapes opened up to the modern infrastructure he encountered during a brief visit in 1934. In Russia, his narrow, dirt roadways were the home of bicycles. In America, he painted cars on his roads (below). His airport scene (bottom) would make a nice international travel poster.

Both works are from 1934. The contrast was subtle
enough to escape notice by the Soviets.
The Tractor Driver, 1958, A.A. Deineka
It has only been recently, in the years after his death, that A.A. Deineka's place as the preeminent Russian artist of his time has been recognized outside his homeland. Despite our latent, knee-jerk tendency (still today) to consider any images favorable to Russian culture as Communist propaganda, Deineka was no more prone to such positive sentiments than American artists. He was, though, hampered somewhat in depicting critical elements plaguing Russian society. Like Rockwell's American workers, Deineka's Soviet laborers, male and female, like his 1958 The Tractor Driver (right), are always noble specimens. His derelicts, however, were non-existent. Except for the occasional comic hobo, the same could be said of Rockwell.

All flags on a visit to U.S., 1961, A.A. Deineka. Notice whose flag is missing?


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