Rediscover the complex legacy of artist Yuri Pimenov

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The State Tretyakov Gallery is organizing the first solo exhibition of works by Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977), a retrospective that presents the legacy of one of the most important Soviet artists of the 20th century. He is best known for his painting “New Moscow” which has become a symbol of so-called “Stalinist glamor”. Her portrayal of a woman sitting with her back to viewers behind the wheel of a Soviet convertible as she rolls past Okhotny Ryad near the Bolshoi Theater is constantly reprinted as an illustration of life in the USSR in the 1930s.

I remember visiting the New Tretyakov Gallery in the early 2000s with artist Lisa Vershbow, wife of US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and Annette Shelby, wife of Senator Richard Shelby. As soon as they saw Pimenov’s painting, they both shouted “A convertible!” A convertible! Their delight was sincere, but for me the image of beautiful Moscow with a woman driving a convertible seemed to me the fantasy of a rather unintelligent artist.

“Running through the street” by Yuri Pimenov, 1963
Courtesy of Kursk AA Deineka State Art Gallery

A legacy broken in two

Curators Yelena Voronovich and Nataliya Chernysheva (who did the theater section of the show) wanted to show Pimenov’s work in its entirety, starting in the 1920s when he was a student at VHUTEMAS under Vladimir Favorsky. And they succeeded. Visitors are amazed at the difference between Pimenov’s early works and those he produced in the 1960s or even the 1930s. Thanks to Yelena Voronovich, museum specialists were able to reconstruct several works that were believed to be lost , or rather that the artist has destroyed.

In 1924, Pimenov was part of the “Collective of Three” with Alexander Deineka and Andrei Gontcharov. But in the 1930s, when the regime struggled against “formalism” and Stalinist socialist realism dominated the arts, Pimenov radically changed.

As curators noted, “The artist destroyed many important canvases that were celebrated in the 1920s. Pimenov’s drama was that he did not just completely rethink his own early works and rejected his innovations. in imagery and form. He wanted to erase them all from his biography and art history. To do this, in the early 1930s, Pimenov destroyed a number of paintings, even those that had already been purchased by various museums. He would arrange with museum employees to exchange their paintings for those that best match the style of the time.

"Charlie Chaplin," by Yuri Pimenov Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

“Charlie Chaplin”, by Youri Pimenov
Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

The artist destroyed dozens of his paintings, but curators were able to recreate eight from metal plates. Reproductions of Pimenov’s works have often been published in exhibition catalogs and magazines, and visitors can now see how bright and expressive his early works were.

Sometimes his graphic works are reminiscent of the works of Alexander Deineka (the large female forms standing with their backs to the artist) and a few even recall the works of the anti-war German artist Otto Dix (his 1926 painting, ” Disabled War Veterans ”in the permanent collection of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). Indeed, an exhibition note indicates that Pimenov “combined the sense of form of German Expressionism with the invigorating content of Soviet art”.

At the beginning of the exhibition, biographical notes indicate that in 1931 Pimenov suffered a psychological crisis and stopped working – the first time this was publicly acknowledged. This marked a radical change in the style of Pimenov. He became an impressionist who worked in a palette of pink colors and painted upbeat canvases of beautiful Moscow. (This is particularly evident in his 1932 painting, “Rose Model.”) During the height of the Great Purges, Pimenov, like his friend Deineka, seemed not to notice what was going on. They marched with other supporters of the regime to the music of Isaac Dunayevsky, as if to confirm Stalin’s words that “life has improved, life has become more fun”.

An important part of the exhibition is the recreation of one of Pimenov’s monumental works – the mural he made for one of the halls of the Soviet pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. In this work, titled “Parade of Physical Education”, Pimenov completely embraced the style required by the Stalinist era. His wartime works are also very interesting, although they are placed a bit awkwardly and easy to miss.

"Lyrical housewarming," by Yuri Pimenov, 1965 Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

“Little lyric rack”, by Yuri Pimenov, 1965
Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

Lyric Thaw by Pimenov

Pimenov entered the history of Soviet art as one of the founders of the trend called “lyrical thaw”. These are works made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The most famous painting is “Wedding on Tomorrow Street”, which is said to be a representation of the artist and his wife, or “Lyrical Housewarming (1965) showing a Moscow couple frozen in a kiss. Another famous work is “Glass Plate” (1966) from his “New Neighborhoods” series, which depicts a young woman walking along the Sophia Quay near the Kremlin and carrying a window pane over her shoulder. In the same year 1966, Pimenov signed a petition against Stalin’s rehabilitation prepared by professionals in science and the arts.

By Soviet standards, Pimenov traveled a lot, and this was reflected in the paintings of his French series and in Japanese portraits. In the 1970s he had several exhibitions in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Japan, where he painted “Japanese Girl Kyoko” (1975). Pimenov’s daughter Tatiana wrote: “Thanks to Madame Nikamura’s gallery, who loved Russian art, [my father] had good relations with Japan. Many of his works were purchased there. They liked his works, and one collector even reconstructed part of the space where he planned to show the painting so that the light fell on it better.

Pimenov was enchanted by the world of theater. The exhibition includes both his sketches of theater sets and his famous posters of films and plays. He seems to have enjoyed capturing details of women’s clothing on canvas and was particularly adept at painting stylish stockings and gloves. One of his most beautiful paintings is “Dans la loge de la ballerina”. Another is his portrait of the legendary Galina Ulanova. Pimenov designed numerous productions and taught at the Institute of Cinema.

"Japanese girl Kyoko," by Yuri Pimenov, 1975 Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

“Japanese Girl Kyoko”, by Yuri Pimenov, 1975
Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery

The portrait of actress Tatyana Samoilova, famous in the 1960s after playing Anna Karenina and the lead role in “Cranes fly”, is one of the masterpieces of the series, although it is set at the back of the exhibition. In this decorative portrait, Samoilova wears an enormous crinoline dress which occupies most of the canvas; it is not formal, but very colorful. It is somewhat reminiscent of a portrait he did in the 1930s of Zinaida Raikh, the brutally murdered wife of Vsevolod Meyerhold. Pimenov tended to repeat himself, as he did with the painting “The Roads of War”, which takes up the composition of his famous “New Moscow”.

A life of contradictions

At the end of his life, Pimenov demonstrated the contradictions characteristic of the end of the Soviet era. On the one hand, he had several state awards and even an Order of Lenin, and he was a People’s Artist of the USSR On the other hand, he never joined the Communist Party, and upon his death, his funeral was held in a church on Yakimanka.

Yuri Pimenov’s son Vladimir attended the opening and thanked the curators for their work. “I never thought I would live to see such a comprehensive exhibition of my father’s work,” he said.

The show is very popular: for post-Covid Moscow, tired of isolation, it’s a breath of fresh air – especially for those who were children or young adults at the time now called the Thaw and Stagnation that Yuri Pimonov portrayed it in such a beautiful, bright and positive light. Pimenov’s still lifes are particularly beautiful: objects of Soviet life such as a telephone with its receiver turned off or a can of Moroccan coffee or orange juice that appeared in Moscow at the end of the Soviet period.

The show will run until January 9, 2022. For more information and ticket sales, visit the Tretyakov Gallery website.


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