For Leonid Steele, a painter often called “a living legacy to the art of the Soviet Union”, holding in his hands a fresh February issue of the respected art magazine “Fine Art Connoisseur” marks a very special moment. As one of the leading practitioners of the Russian School of the Soviet Period known as “Socrealism” he had his share of public recognition in the Soviet Union throughout his long career there from the 1950s to 1980s. Residing in Los Angeles since 1990, he is now experiencing a fresh wave of recognition by the young generation of artists in his new home in America.
As the world once again faces anxiety and uncertainty, Leonid has an important lesson to share from his remarkable life story and through his art aptly reflecting his tumultuous times. Born in Ukraine, he lived through the great famine of 1933, known in Russian and Ukrainian as “golodomor,” and considered by some a deliberate act of communism and one of the genocides of the 20th century. Later he survived a severe concussion in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). As a true individual within the Soviet art world, he never yielded his stubborn creative spirit to the hammer of the Soviet bureaucratic system.
A graduate of the venerated Leningrad Repin Art Institute, (formerly the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts), he is one of the masters of what became known in the West as Soviet Impressionism of the 1950s – early 1960s, and one of the pioneers and leading masters of the Severe Style of the 1960s.
As a painter, Steele is significant and quite unique in both showcasing the strongest aspects of this important school, as well as in continuously pushing its boundaries. His career is a life-long lab of stylistic development in search of the most powerful expression for his major works. He managed to preserve his innate need to “keep going” and to achieve recognition by the public while perfectly willing to pay the price if necessary for daring to succeed on his own, outside the expected steps of “going through the ranks” or favors of government-appointed official art-bureaucracy — something that the tightly controlled bureaucratic system could not afford to forgive for its own survival.
“What my Dad had to go through to pay for his stubborn individualism and what the bureaucratic art system of the Soviet Union had put him through are quite staggering by comparison with the friendly spirit of camaraderie in the American art world. Yet the rewards of speaking with his powerful works directly to the viewers thirsty for a liberating sense of truthfulness about their lives in a totalitarian pressure cooker were also immense” says his son Alexey Steele, a noted LA painter in his own right.
The vast collection, now under the care of Alexey, represents a look – rare in its completeness — at the inner workings of an important practitioner of this school. “The core, most important works are really of such a unique level that they shall eventually belong to important public institutions”, says Alexey Steele. Lots of works, including some of the important early works in the collection, are also badly in need of some serious restoration, which will take sizable funds. To this end, Alexey is planning to make some works available without “commercializing” them via the official website www.leonidsteele.com
Managing to preserve and nurture his individual spirit and artistic freedom, Leonid Steele became one of the early pioneers of the Severe Style, a powerful visual language that combined a strong figurative backbone of academic tradition with a laconic language of simplified forms, resulting in such major works as “The Land” and “The Family”.
This tenacious creative force not only did not fade with age, but it seems to have become a hidden fountain of youth for Steele as today he paints with just as much passion and energy as ever, still turning out some amazing works. Perhaps the most fascinating of them are his portrait studies, deeply striking in freshness and truthfulness of character rendition. Enormously forceful, each based on an hour or hour and a half live sitting from his LA-Russian friends, people of the former Soviet Union and the last remaining members of remarkable generation. And what an amazingly faithful devotion to his characters…these are the same people he painted in the 50s, 60s, 70s, but now he paints them in LA, all bearing a remarkable sense of wisdom, strength and completeness of a long journey. Till the end, the Master remains faithful to portraying his now aging and so quickly disappearing truly great generation that survived and persevered through the hard roads and turns of the turbulent 20th century.
Celebrating Leonid’s 90th birthday crystallizes the importance of inviting a serious look at the cultural significance of this unique era as a whole, in its complete picture, and finally bridging the historic divide along the Western Modernism – Eastern Realism fault line.
So what’s the main secret the old Russian Master has to share with young talents of our time? “Going all the way and no matter what” is the only road to the glistening mountain of any true art.