The first exhibition in the United Kingdom of Felix Lembersky’s works was recently unveiled at Pushkin House in London. Although Lembersky (1913-1970) was active during the course of Soviet Socialist Realism, his works provide a fascinating insight into the art that developed in opposition to the seemingly impenetrable Socialist Realism colossus. The twenty works selected for the exhibition from the Lembersky family’s private collection were completed during the period 1942-1965 and their generally colourful, semi-abstract style transfix viewers with their many subtle layers of meaning. I spoke with Yelena Lembersky, the artist’s granddaughter and one of the curators, at Pushkin House just prior to the opening reception. I ask, what is most important for people to know about Lembersky? “In the West, in America, there is an assumption that there were two distinct periods in Russian art. One is the avant-garde, which ends in 1932. And the second is the non-conformists, which begins in the ‘60s, and between them there is a desert. So what I want to do, through Lembersky, is to show that this is just not true. His generation, his work, is the key, the bridge. There was a logical evolution, a natural progression from one period to another.”
Lembersky’s works have always been a part of his granddaughter’s life. She explains: “I grew up with those paintings…when I was born, my mother and I actually lived in Lembersky’s studio. I would look out the window and see the grey sky of Petersburg and you would turn around and see all these bursts of colour.” In 1980, Lembersky’s widow took his later works, which had remained in the family’s possession, with her when she emigrated to the United States. The rest of the family, including Yelena, joined her there in 1987.
Lembersky wished for viewers to take away what they wanted from his paintings. One of the highlights of the exhibition is undoubtedly Reclining: The Siege of Leningrad (1964). On the most basic level, the bright colours he often used are aesthetically pleasing, such as those found in Reclining. Reclining, which reflects some Cubist influences, depicts a woman who appears to be lying on her side. Moving from a horizontal to a vertical view and suddenly it seems as though the figure is in a crucifixion position. A large ‘J’ is noticeable in the lower left-hand corner. At the figure’s waist a small collection of criss-crossing lines filled in with yellow suggest a Star of David. Such references are echoes from Lembersky’s Babi-Yar series, as seen in the painting Untitled, Execution (ca. 1944-52), also included in the exhibition and thought to be possibly the earliest portrayal of the Babi-Yar massacre of 29-30 September 1941, in which approximately 34,000 Jews were slaughtered in a ravine outside Kyiv. In Execution, the colours are muted and Lembersky portrays the despair of the victims as well as final moments of love, dignity and defiance.
Yelena acknowledges the multi-layered nature of meaning in Lembersky’s works and comments that “[t]he challenge for me was to translate these works because they had been taken out of their context. Some of the assumptions were lost. In a different cultural context, you need the same translation as with the language. When you start explaining, you get to the truth. If they had remained in Russia, I would never have understood them to the level I do now.”
Lembersky is less well known to Western audiences essentially because he never left Russia, and so his exposure outside its borders was non-existent: “I think the people who are known in the West are those who emigrated, such as Kandinsky and Malevich, and those who were collected by [George] Costakis, and those who emigrated in the ’70s and ’80s like Kalbakov. Everybody who stayed, the Soviets suppressed and remain unknown.”
Sometimes there is tension between the sentiment that Russian art history is for Russian art historians to write and that Western art historians can and do make valuable contributions to the field. Yelena smiles and tackles the issue gracefully: “There are two different stories. The Russian narrative that art historians, good art historians, such as Elena [Zaytseva], they have a perspective that maybe people outside don’t because they do have this broad context, knowledge, you know. In the case of Lembersky, you know you cannot take him completely out of the context because he’s connected to Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Filonov, and Platonov and literature, music, and Shostakovich and history and some of the images, with just one light line he will describe some image that will be immediately recognisable to a Russian person because maybe he is making a reference, because he is making a reference to Bylini or a film and this would be immediately connected, for example to his paintings.” To illustrate, she refers to Lembersky’s Humpback Bridge (1958) and its strong reference to Alexander Deineka’s Defence of Petrograd (1928). “There is a layer of references to other cultural references and maybe, maybe a Russian art historian has a certain advantage. On the other0 hand, I think sometimes the truth is better seen from the outside. Because by being outside you also don’t have some of the stereotypes or … assumptions…in my case I had to set aside all my assumptions and everything that I thought I knew was true was false. For example, in his work, I thought that he had two distinct periods. Realist and non-conformist and it is completely wrong. Because in his non-conformist work he is just developing the themes he started in his avant-garde work; he was developing the work that he started during his thesis.”
Co-curator Elena Zaytseva emphatically agrees about the importance of Lembersky to the Russian art history narrative: “Especially now it is very important to understand … that the art world in the Soviet time in Russia couldn’t be easily divided into official and un-official art because here we see an example of a very avant-garde artist, very non-conformist artist who at the same time was a part of the Union of Artists and was hugely respected by official artists as well as un-official in St Petersburg…I believe it is a really important artist for Russian art history and it is important to show his works now because basically the art history of Russia of the twentieth century hasn’t been written, [although] [t]here are a few versions, a few models of describing the art world of the Soviet period. It is important that this artist appeared and became known at the very moment when we are trying to understand what was going on in the art world in Russia.”
Being and Beings: Works by Felix Lembersky
Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA
020 7269 9770
24 April – 17 May 2013. Exhibition hours: 4.00-7.00 pm
Curators: Robert Chandler, Yelena Lembersky and Elena Zaytseva
Lecture: Tuesday, 14 May 2013, 7.30-9.00 pm: Joseph Troncale, Professor of Russian Literature and Visual Studies, University of Richmond, “Art That Stops the Mind and Moves the Heart”
Text by Lauren Warner. This interview was conducted on 24th April 2013. Text copyright of Russian Art and Culture Ltd.