Monday, January 14, 2019

Examples of Soviet Brigade Art

Aside from perhaps a few religious icons and early modernists such as Kandinsky and Malevich, my college art history class ignored Russian art. I don't know what current art history classes deal with, but it's clear to me that late 19th century Russian painters are becoming better-known than they were 50 or 60 years ago.

Still confined to obscurity is Stalinist Socialist Realism. In part this was because of its propagandistic nature. Perhaps an even greater reason for its disparagement by the Art Establishment was its use of Academic and other pre-modernist styles.

Due to all this, until recently I was unaware that along with collective farming and other individualism-suppressing practices, there was the use of "brigades" of artists who collectively created large paintings. This is dealt with in this book. On page 182 Matthew Cullerne Brown writes:

"In 1949 [Vasili] Efanov and a team of young artists painted Leading People of Moscow in the Kremlin. This work stimulated a revival in the practice of creating pictures by brigades, the method that had been adopted at the end of the 1930s for the New York international exhibition and the pavilions of the Agricultural Exhibition. Now a method of working once restricted to the fulfilment of special projects became commonplace. This accorded with the pressure on artists to ... produce bigger and yet bigger pictures in academic style -- while the party allowed no extra time for their creation....

"Brigade painting gained another justification, inherent in communal endeavour. This was the inevitable elimination of much personal style, affecting all participating artists. Their work approached an ideal of wholly anonymous academic execution; the brigade method predicated the whole Stalinist straining towards a mass culture and the eradication of individual difference....

"[W]hereas the huge paintings for the 1939 exhibition in New York had been created by groups of equals, now each brigade was led by one artist, usually an Academician... Typically, these artists would devise a composition and then employ younger, less well-established artists to carry out the chore of innumerable portrait and architectural studies."

The author goes on to note that those younger artists benefited because it enhanced their reputations and the work paid well.

The Russian Museum, Málaga branch had an exhibition of Soviet-era painting when I visited, and one of those works was a brigade effort. It and two other examples are shown below. Click on the colored images to enlarge.


"Leading People of Moscow in the Kremlin" - 1949. Brigade artists were the leader Vasili Efanov, Stepan Dudnik, Yuri Kugach, Konstantin Maksimov, and Viktor Tsyplakov.

"Lenin's Speech to the Third Congress of the Komsomol" - 1950. Artists were the leader Boris Iognson, Nikolai Chebakov, Nataliya Faidysh-Krandievskaya, Vasili Sokolov, and Dmitri Tegin.

"In the Name of Peace (The Signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Union and Mutual Assistance Between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China)" - 1950. Brigade leader was Viktor Vikhtinsky, but I have no information about the other artists. This is an iPhone snapshot I took.

A more detailed snapshot. I can recognize the following people (standing, left to right): Nikita Khrushchev,  Vyacheslav Molotov, unknown general, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Chou En-Lai.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Millions for an early N.C. Wyeth Illustration

The image above is an illustration titled "Hands Up," alternatively "Holdup in the Canyon" painted for C.P. Connolly’s “The Story of Montana,” published in McClure’s Magazine, August 1906. In 2016 it was auctioned at Christie's for just under $4.5 million (details here).

This amount was far above Christie's price estimate and even greater than previous prices for works by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882-1945), considered one of America's greatest illustrators. Biographical information on him can be found here and here.

Both sources mention that he made two journeys from Pennsylvania to the West with the purpose of soaking up the spirit and details of that region from personal experience rather than second-hand via books or magazines. "Hands up" was one of many drawings and paintings resulting from those journeys.

I'm featuring it here because I'm pleased that classic American illustration is getting its due recognition as valued by the art market

Monday, January 7, 2019

Elegance Depicted in Soviet Socialist Realism

I'm pretty sure that even knowledgable art fans rarely give the Socialist Realism paintings of the Soviet Union much thought, if any. And that thought probably echoes the Art Establishment dogma that Socialist Realism was simply propaganda expressed in obsolete painting styles. Nothing much to see there.

It's true that aside from personal projects, Soviet artists had to produce paintings that followed the Party line, emphasizing the benefits and glories of the Motherland under scientific socialism. I've long contended that political art is almost always inferior art, especially to the extent that the political point being made dominates the work.

As for style, the Establishment view is simply an aspect of the now-aging assertion that, aside from Renaissance-era and 17th century Dutch painting (think Rembrandt and Vermeer), pre-modernist Western painting is largely worthy of contempt, and Modernism is the destiny of artistic evolution.

I've been disagreeing with that concept on the Internet for the last 14 years, preferring paintings that are interestingly and technically well done while for the most part depicting reality with reasonable fidelity given the artist's intent and capability.

So in this and related posts I examine some Socialist Realist paintings in terms other than political messaging.

I can do this because when I was in Málaga, Spain in November I visited a branch of Saint Petersburg's excellent Russian Museum. It was holding a year-long (ending February 2019) exhibit titled "The Radiant Future: Socialist Realism in Art." A fine exhibit. Plenty of examples, some of which I knew about before I visited. Of course I took lots of snapshots.

The painter featured in the present post is Vasily Prokofievich Yefanov (1900-1978), also spelled Vasili Efanov. His Wikipedia entry in English and Russian is minimal, so link here for information regarding him. It mentions that he "was a master of the ceremonial portrait, communist (since 1954), and five-time winner of the Stalin Prize (1941, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1952). Besides, a full member of the Academy of Arts of the USSR (1947) and People’s Artist of the USSR (1965)."

I deal with one of his large works below. Click on images to enlarge.


Artists of the Konstantin Stanislavsky Theatre Meeting Students of the Nikolai Zhukovsky Air Force Academy - 1938
The entire painting. You can gauge its size by reference to the plaque at the right and the museum floor: nearest subjects are depicted a little less than life-size.

What struck me about this work was how elegantly the people are dressed. Far from stereotypical collective farmworkers nuzzling their beloved tractors. The setting might as well have been in France or England. This probably had to do with the fact that theatre artists and military cadets were privileged people under the Soviet regime, so what was depicted was probably true. Also, note that this was painted at the time of Stalin's infamous purges of potential rivals including leading army brass such as Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky -- perhaps the USSR's greatest early military leader. Unsettling times. What especially caught my eye (probably intentionally by Efanov) is the contra-jour view of the woman in the white dress with her back to us. In the previous image you can see that her positioning makes her the painting's focus, -- not the standing speechmaker across from her who is theoretically the focus.

Panning farther to the left we can see how Efanov skillfully adjusts his brushwork to make background figures slightly out of focus.

And to the right: note in all these images that he took care to paint the young women more distinctly than the surrounding men in their black ties and Sam Browne belts. Efanov was really skillful.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Brangwyn, Cornwell and Murals

Reader Paul Sullivan's comment to this post about San Francisco murals by Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) inspired the present post. The concept is to compare Brangwyn's style with that of Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), a successful American illustrator who set aside his career for a few years in the early 1930s to paint murals for the new Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch Building. Information about that project can be found here. I wrote about those murals here.

Brangwyn was a famous and prolific mural painter, so Cornwell managed to become an assistant in order to learn the trade. He helped Brangwyn on one or more of the British Empire series of panels intended for the House of Lords. They were ultimately rejected, and can be found in Swansea, Wales.

Below are examples of Brangwyn's and Cornwell's works. Click on the images to enlarge.


Funchal, Madeira - 1891
Painted at the time Brangwyn broke away from traditional, illustration-style painting. Note his use of outlining, bright colors and free brushwork. From this point on, his paintings and murals featured a strong decorative component, one especially well suited for large murals.

A Venetian Scene - 1906
Outlining became something of a Brangwyn trademark, and was used by many mural painters in the 1920s, especially. In this painting most outlines in the foreground are dark, but those for background work are lighter.

Dance - 1895
One of Brangwyn's earliest murals, painted when living in Paris. Enlarge to better view outline colors. Some are very dark, some are brown, others are blue-gray.  I've always wondered if he had a system for selecting outline colors, but so far have only decided that darker, heavier lines were for dark subjects or where emphasis was desired. Let us know if you have cracked his code.

Departure of Sir James Lancaster for the East Indies, 1594 - Skinners Hall - 1901-04
Mural panel painted a few years later, also showing Brangwyn's use of a few strong reds -- a favorite touch.

Tank in Action - 1925-26
No strong reds here. This was an early attempt in the House of Lords project, but was rejected due to its subject matter. Plenty of outlining for foreground subjects, hardly any for the background tank.

British Empire Panel 5 - Canada
This was the kind of panel that Cornwell could have worked on. Outlines on the people and other foreground items are painted light blue, though some background outlining is darker.

Mission Building
One of Corwell's LAPL murals. He used light blue for many outlines, but other colors where he decided that a different emphasis was needed to clarity the subjects and their main colors.

Detail of a mural
Again, a good deal of light blue outlining plus some darker blue outlines. Like Brangwyn, Cornwell includes plenty of details to fill the space. Also like Brangwyn, reds and oranges are key parts of the color scheme.

Detail of a mural
A photo of a LAPL mural I took nearly 10 years ago using a camera not quite up to the job. Here we find nearly exclusive use of blue outlining. Cornwell's style is less dramatic than Brangwyn's, though these murals do retain a feel for the master's work.

American Federation of Labor triptych, Centre William Rappard, Genève - was International Labor Office HQ - 1955
This rather surprised me when I found it on the Internet because I thought that Cornwell had abandoned mural-painting by this late in his career. Here the Brangwyn influence is gone, replaced by Cornwell's 1950s illustration style.