Ivan Lindsay is a London-based art dealer and writer specialising in 20th century Russian paintings and sculpture with a particular interest in art created during the Soviet period. Our Editor Theodora Clarke talked to Ivan about his recent book, ‘Masterpieces of Soviet Painting and Sculpture,’ which will be launched on 10 October at Waterstones Piccadilly. Published by the Unicorn Press, the book presents beautiful reproductions of a wide range of artworks from the Soviet Union, giving a clear picture of the impressive achievement, diversity, and scope of Soviet-era art.
Theodora Clarke: What originally attracted you to this subject? Ivan Lindsay: I first worked with Old Masters and Impressionist art, but then I started going to Russia and I became interested in their culture through my mother’s family, who escaped from Russia after the Revolution. There is so much good art that was produced in Russia which is still unknown in the West. Nowadays, I meet museum curators who are interested to hear more about the Soviet period, and not just the avant-garde artists, which was the main reason for the book. TC: How did you choose which artists to include in your new book? IL: It was a collaborative project with my co-author Rena Lavery and also a number of museum curators in Russia, particularly at the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. We wanted to introduce Western audiences to works from the Soviet era rather than doing another book on Russian art from the early twentieth or nineteenth centuries.TC: There has been a recent resurgence of interest in art from the Soviet Union in London. I went to the exhibition at Somerset House of Viktor Popkov, who is featured in your book. Could you explain why he is an important artist? IL: Popkov is one of many significant artists from that period whose talent was recognised both in Russia and the West. He studied at the Surikov State Institute of Fine Art in Moscow, won a diploma at the Paris Biennale and started his career under ‘the Thaw’. Popkov was one of the foremost proponents of the ‘Severe’ style in painting and is one of a group of artists that we considered worthy of inclusion in the book. There is a famous work by him of the Bratsk Hydropower station which was included in that London exhibition. TC: Art from the Soviet Union was often political, and a frequent criticism of work from this period is that art became a source of propaganda. Do you think that is fair? IL: Art is always a product of its time. You could say the same thing about Velasquez and Philip IV or Jacques Louis-David and the French Revolution. I don’t think it is fair to say that all art produced during the Soviet years was propaganda, but it reflects its time certainly. Also, a large number of works were produced in the Soviet Union that were not displayed at the time; they were not shown to the authorities for fear of censorship or reprisals. We have included artists who worked with and pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable in the Soviet Union, such as Deineka. It’s also important to remember the link between Soviet artists and earlier periods. For example, members of the Wanderers movement such as Levitan clearly inspired later painters like Plastov. TC: There are a number of important Soviet female artists in this period. Could you tell us more about them? IL: Yes, well, the most well known is Vera Mukhina, but she’s not the only one we have included. She is famous as a Soviet sculptor and we have a model of her famous Worker Man and Kolkhoz [collective farm] Woman in the book. It was the centrepiece at the Soviet Pavilion in Paris for the International Exhibition in 1937. It’s a giant monument with the figures holding a hammer and sickle, respectively. There are several women artists in the book and we wanted to introduce international audiences to these figures who are less well known in the West, from portraits to landscapes. I also wanted to include several other great women artists, which is why you find figures such as Ekaterina Belashova and Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva too. TC: You have included works in a number of different media in the book. Why is there such variation?
IL: Yes, that’s right. As an artist or sculptor in the Soviet Union, it was often difficult to get hold of materials. That’s why you find works in iron, aluminium, bronze or a mix of metals as it was whatever they could get hold of at the time.
TC: Do you have a favourite Soviet artist? IL: There are too many to choose just one as I have so many favourites! In the later period I have a weakness for Vladimir Stozharov, who created atmospheric landscapes which were painted on his travels in the far north of Russia in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve visited his dacha outside of Moscow. TC: How did you manage the project and collaborate with your colleagues? IL: We were very lucky to work with some of the top art historians in Russia, especially having curators at their major museums contribute to the book. The section on paintings is by Alexandrovna at the Tretyakov, and so on, which made a big difference. TC: How was Art Russe involved in the book? As I see several works from Andrei Filatov’s collection are included and his UK director is your co-author. IL: 80–90 per cent of the artworks are from Russian museums, with 20 per cent from private collections. We wanted to show a variety of works and it’s been wonderful to be able to include works from these major collections, which are not usually on view to the public. Rena is my co-producer of the book and was very helpful in writing an essay and selecting works for inclusion.TC: Do you have any plans to translate the book? IL: The book has been published in two versions already, one in English and the other a Russian-language version. There aren’t any other plans at the moment. TC: Is there anything else you would like to add? IL: I’m very proud of the book and I’d like to thank all the people who have helped us put it together, particularly my co-author Rena Lavery. So many people have helped us write it and it was a difficult project to bring together, but I hope that with the book we are able to introduce a whole group of artists to the West who are little known or understood here. Masterpieces of Soviet Painting and Sculpture By Ivan Lindsay and Rena Lavery Published by Unicorn Publishing Group, 2016 For more information on the book please visit the website. To celebrate the release of this new publication, The Russian Bookshop at Waterstones and Russian Art and Culture are delighted to invite you to a roundtable discussion with Ivan Lindsay, Margy Kinmonth and John Milner, ahead of the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Please click here for more details.