THE 135th ANNIVERSARY OF ALEXANDER GERASIMOV
The 135th Anniversary of Alexander Gerasimov
This retrospective of Alexander Gerasimov organised by the State Historical Museum in collaboration with Leonid Shishkin Gallery is the largest exhibition of the artist’s works to be held in Moscow for 60 years. Over 90 canvases from the collections of the State Historical and Russian Museums, as well as hitherto unexhibited early works from nearly two dozen private collections in Russia and abroad, together shed new light on the artistic legacy of one of Soviet Russia’s best known and most respected artists.
A pupil of Korovin, Serov, Arkhipov and follower of Repin, Gerasimov produced a great many accomplished and genuinely artistic works following in their well-trodden footsteps, alongside fellow pupils and followers. Of his broad and varied output, visitors will see early landscapes from the 1910s, Parisian scenes from the 1930s, vivid watercolours painted in India and China in the 1950s and the sensitive still lifes he painted throughout his career and which have always been popular with collectors. Nevertheless, even within the field of Russian Impressionism, Gerasimov hardly occupied a leading position in Soviet figurative art. It was not for these paintings he was awarded People’s Artist of the USSR, Cavalier of the Order of Lenin, recipient of four State Stalin prizes and, in 1947, the first presidency of the newly founded Academy of Arts of the USSR.
After the Revolution, it was the artists of the avant-garde who professed to be “creators of the new style”: the abstractionists and manufacturers; the members of the Society of Easel Painters; the monumentalists of the Leningrad circle and many others. The pronouncement of this elusive goal accompanied the exhibitions of numerous artistic organisations. Because of the political agenda behind “the construction of the new man” it is the Socialist Realist canon of the 1930s to 1950s, specifically the version of Alexander Gerasimov, which has survived. Gerasimov was almost 50 when he painted Lenin at the Tribune (State Historical Museum) in 1930. Millions of copies of this canvas were reproduced for distribution throughout the USSR and it was to become a benchmark image for every artist, cinematographer and dramatist.
Endowed with a gift for capturing a likeness, which in 1903 had earned him a place at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture without any formal training, Gerasimov found success in the 1930s and was made Stalin’s official portrait painter, co-creator of his cult. Given that portraits of the leader were distributed about the country in a mass of bills and reproductions, it was Gerasimov’s responsibility to represent Stalin in places he had never visited. Thus for many, namely Stalin, it was Gerasimov’s image which embodied that of the leader whose “happiness is the happiness of his people”.
At the Institute Gerasimov studied not only painting, but also architecture. Perhaps it was this interest and experience in both disciplines that enabled him to combine pictorial and monumental principles in his state-commissioned thematic paintings. Ultimately, it was this very quality which led his work to become a benchmark of the Stalinist style, an essential component of which was the influence of Moscow Impressionism.
That Gerasimov’s artistic gift, skill and creative temperament did not desert him in his last years is demonstrated by the colourful bacchanal of Polovtsian Dances (Private collection, Moscow), the large picture on which Gerasimov worked after Stalin’s death, once left to his own devices.
Today, the exhibition of this work reveals the other Gerasimov. The sheer exuberance of the mature master’s palette can be seen as an attempt to repay old dues.
What would Gerasimov have been without Stalin? And what impression would Stalin’s image have made without Gerasimov? These are the questions the today’s visitor is bound to ask. Was his muse not crushed by the necessity of serving the leader or, on the contrary, did it find its calling and blossom in the sunshine of his favour? Whatever answer we arrive at must not forget respect for his talent and skill, the singularity of his biography and fate.
Exhibition catalogue is available