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50 years after his death

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

By Olivia Kroth

Alexander Ivanovich Laktionov (Александр Иванович Лактионов, 1910 – 1972) was a painter of Socialist Realism who became famous in the Soviet Union and abroad. He also was a professor and member of the Academy of Arts of the USSR. Alexander Laktionov mastered not only the techniques of contemporary painting but also the techniques of the old masters, which influenced him greatly, as can be seen in his landscapes, portraits, genre and still-life paintings. The artist was awarded the Stalin Prize, in 1948, and the State Prize named after Repin, in 1971. His paintings are exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow, the Picture Gallery of Astrakhan and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as in regional and local museums, such as the Altai Regional Museum of Local Lore, the Regional Art Museum of Donetsk and the Art Museum of Sevastopol. Alexander Laktionov died of a heart attack in Moscow, on the 15th of March 1972. Now, 50 years after his death, it is time to commemorate and evaluate this Russian artist’s creative work.

Alexander Ivanovich Laktionov was born in Rostov-on-Don, on the 29th of May 1910, in the family of a factory blacksmith and a homework laundress. His love for the fine arts was instilled in him by his father, who was fond of drawing.

The painter would later write about his childhood and family: “My father was a blacksmith, my mother a washerwoman. My love for drawing came to me early. It was encouraged and developed in every possible way by my father.» As a boy, he loved to look at reproductions of paintings in old pre-revolutionary magazines, dreaming of how he would certainly become a painter some day.

He was lucky. The artist-educator A.S. Chinenov began to teach him, who had opened a drawing and modeling school in Rostov-on-Don, which gave primary art education, in 1914. From 1926 to 1929, the boy studied at the Soviet Art School in Rostov-on-Don, today called the «Rostov Art School named after M. B. Grekov». The lucky boy remembered about that time: “Three years of school passed as in light sleep.”

His first works, created during his studies, were awarded a prize at an exhibition of young artists in the North Caucasus. After graduating from school, Alexander Laktionov wanted to continue his education in Moscow and Leningrad. For admission, a working experience was required. So Alexander Laktionov worked for some time in Rostov-on-Don as a bricklayer and draftsman (TASS ENCYCLOPEDIA).

Rostov-on-Don is a port city on the Don River, about 32 kilometres from the Sea of Azov, directly north of the Caucasus. Since ancient times, the area around the mouth of the Don River has held cultural and commercial importance. Indigenous inhabitants were the Scythian tribes. Later, it became the site of Tanais, an ancient Greek colony.

During World War II, which is called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, German forces occupied Rostov-on-Don, between 1941 and 1943. The city was of strategic importance as a railway junction and a river port accessing the Caucasus, a region rich in oil and minerals. It took ten years to restore the city from the damage, which the Germans had inflicted upon it. In 1942, up to 30.000 Russian Jews were massacred by the Nazis in Rostov-on-Don, at a site called Zmievskaya Balka.

Having received his primary art education in his hometown, Alexander Laktionov studied at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad, from 1932 to 1938. The director of the Academy was Isaak Brodsky, one of the most prominent Soviet realist painters. He

exerted a great influence on the work of the young artist in those years. Alexander Laktionov portrayed the venerated teacher several times.

He became the professor’s favourite student, who recognized his talent and wrote about him in an article for a Ukrainian journal: »There was a great deal of discussion of Laktionov’s natural gift, not only inside the Academy but also elsewhere. It was universally recognised that here was a great organic talent, of the sort which appears once every 50-100 years.»

Isaak Izrailevich Brodsky (Исаак Израилевич Бродский, 1884 – 1939) was a Jewish-Soviet painter whose work provided a blueprint for Socialist Realism. His carefully crafted paintings were dedicated to the events of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was born in Ukraine and studied at the Odessa Art Academy, before moving to Saint Petersburg. In 1916, he joined the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts.

From 1938 to 1944, Alexander Laktionov continued studying in the graduate school of the Academy under Igor Grabar. The artists met the war in Leningrad. Besides studying, they built fortifications on the outskirts of the city and painted anti-fascist posters. From the besieged Leningrad, the students of the Academy were evacuated to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, in 1942/1943.

At the beginning of 1944, Alexander Laktionov arrived in Zagorsk from evacuation. The town had been called Sergiev Posad, until 1930, when the Soviet authorities renamed it Zagorsk, after the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Mikhailovich Zagorsky. Sergiev Posad grew, in the 15th century, around one of the greatest Russian monasteries, the Sergius Trinity Lavra, established by Sergius of Radonezh. The town’s name, alluding to Sergius, had strong religious connotations. After 1991, it regained its original name.

The painter recalled: “I lived in the Sergius Trinity Lavra with my family. In the wall of the Kremlin, there  had once been a loophole for a cannon and later a large cell was built.» He continued to paint in the cell of the former monastery, which became a workshop and home for the artist and his family.

Although they lived in cramped space, it was a peaceful time for the painter. He created a whole gallery of stunningly realistic portraits. Not only did he carefully study the paintings of old masters but adopted some of their painting methods. Thus, he often used the complex technique of mixed tempera and oil. He also produced his own paints according to old recipes.

Some of his portraits of boys and girls remind us of Vermeer or Rembrandt’s style rather than what we might expect from Socialist Realism. He depicted Soviet children but the colours and clothes, the poses and faces were clearly inspired by what the artist had learned from the old Dutch masters. In this way, Alexander Laktionov developed his own style.

«Socialist Realism was never a stable entity, neither in theory nor practice. As the
tastes, attitudes and politics of the Soviet Union transformed over the
decades, so too did Socialist Realism experience a process of development» (Oliver Johnson, «Aleksandr Laktionov: A Soviet Artist», University of Sheffield, Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, 2008).

In the post-war period, many Soviet artists turned to genre painting. Alexander Laktionov also tried his hand at the genre and achieved significant success. His most famous work, «A letter from the front», was completed in 1947. The painting was highly appreciated, and in 1948, the artist was awarded the State Stalin Prize, 1st degree. 

This work is well-deservedly popular, as it masterfully conveys the colours, their transitions, as well as the mood of the characters. On the canvas we see a small circle of people who have gathered on the threshold of a house, listening intently to the boy reading a letter from the front. Their facial expressions help us to understand that the letter brings good news. The family’s joy is mirrored by the sunny mood: a clear sky, slightly covered with light clouds. The courtyard is flooded with sunlight.

The picture shows the prevailing mood among the people of the Soviet Union, who were proud to have won the war against the Nazi invaders. It is a highly optimistic work, bathed in a warm glow, which became a motif of Alexander Laktionov’s later works and Socialist Realism in general. It was probably this optimism which helped the Soviet people to survive the horrible war and the dreary post-war years.

Later, the painter would say: “In this painting I wanted to show, how joyful it was for Soviet families to receive letters from the front, enjoying the success of our soldiers.” Besides, it must have been a huge relief to read that the family members serving at the front were still alive. “A letter from the front” by Alexander Laktionov reminds us of those difficult times, in World War II. We must never forget what happened and do our best to prevent it from happening again.

In 1961, the painter joined the exhibition committee for the All-Union Exhibitions and took part in sessions of the Academy of the Arts, where he was able to apply his weight of authority to the continuing development of Soviet art and to ensure his posterity as a positive influence on a new generation of artists.

From 1967 to 1970, he taught as a professor at the Moscow State Correspondence Pedagogical Institute. His paintings proved popular among the general public and found many supporters. So Alexander Laktionov was able to lead a highly successful career and mix in the highest echelons of Soviet society. He was also able to travel around the Soviet Union. One of his favourite spots was the spa town of Gurzuf on the Crimean peninsula, which he depicted in several paintings.

He was commissioned to portray leading Soviet actors, cosmonauts, pilots, politicians, soldiers, surgeons, for example Vladimir Komarov (Владимир Михайлович Комаров, 1927 – 1967), a test pilot, aerospace engineer and cosmonaut. In October 1964, he commanded Vokshod 1, the first spaceflight to carry more than one crew member. Vladimir Komarov also became the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly into space twice, when he was selected as the solo pilot of Soyuz 1 on its first crewed test flights.

Vladimir Komarov was one of the most highly experienced and qualified candidates accepted into the first squad of cosmonauts, selected in 1960. His perseverance, superior skills and engineering knowledge allowed him to play an active role in the development of Soviet space exploration. During his time at the cosmonaut training centre, he contributed to space vehicle design, cosmonaut training, evaluation and public relations.

«Laktionov merged the centuries-old language of the status portrait with the contemporary language of colour photography to produce a series of works that appear curiously modem in their conception. Laktionov’s artistic legacy imbued the cosmonauts with the status of oldfashioned military heroes and the artist, in turn, gained relevance and prestige through the depiction of these icons of the modern-day, technologically advanced Soviet Union. Alexander Laktionov’s art was always distinctive. He was above all a contentious artist, whose work often represented a flash point in the Soviet art world. It took on the form of a political statement that defined one’s particular worldview» (Oliver Johnson, Sheffield 2008).

In 1969, the painter was named People’s Artist of the RSFSR (Народный артист РСФСР), a title granted to Soviet Union artists, including choreographers, painters, sculptors, orchestra conductors, music performers for outstanding achievements. The title was introduced, in 1931, and changed to People’s Artist of the Russian Federation, after 1992.

In 1970, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour (Орден Трудового Красного Знамени) followed for Alexander Laktionov. It had been established to honour great deeds and services to the Soviet state and society in the fields of arts, culture, education, health, production, science and other spheres of labour activities. The Order of the Red Banner of Labour was the third-highest civil award in the Soviet Union.

In 1972, Alexander Laktionow died due to a heart attack and was buried at the cemetery of the Novodevichi Convent in Moscow. He had painted this monastery himself, in 1965, seven years before his death. 

The Novodevichi Convent (Новодевичий монастырь) is the best-known cloister of Moscow. Its name, sometimes translated as the New Maidens’ Monastery, was devised to differ from the Old Maiden’s Monastery within the Moscow Kremlin. Today, it is a famous tourist attraction since it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2004.

«To the very end, Laktionov’s often dazzling technical virtuosity ensured his continuing status as a celebrity artist» (Oliver Johnson, Sheffield 2008). The painter’s lasting merit is that he helped to forge the national character of Russia, in the 20th century. His artistic work was accessible and understood by the masses. An art critic commented that «Laktionov’s Russian people are typical and ordinary. However, the artist has shown that they are the great, hidden heroes who touch the heart of every Soviet person.»

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog: http://olivia2010.kroth.wordpress.com

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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gord mac millan
gord mac millan
March 13, 2022
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Fantastic artist….top of his class for sure.

InnerCynic
InnerCynic
March 13, 2022

Am I missing something? But shouldn’t an article talking about an artist have pictures of the “art” they produced? Or were they only word pictures?

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