Subject essay: James von Geldern
It was a very good year in 1947 for Aleksandr Laktionov, painter, student of Isaak Brodskii, and embodiment of the arch-academism of post-war painting. A native of Rostov-on-Don, he had come to Moscow in 1932 to study at the Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which he graduated in 1938, continuing post-graduate studies until 1944. His first minor success had been Hero of the Soviet Union N. V. Iudin visiting Komsomol Tank Troops (1938); but he scored his greatest coup with his 1947 Letter from the Front, which won the immediate love of millions of Soviet citizens including Stalin himself. The painting received the Stalin prize in 1948.
The Soviet Academy of Arts was created in 1947 as well, and the appointment of Sergei Gerasimov as the first president signaled the ascendancy of academic realism and political reliability. Certainly Laktionov was no rebel; he was appointed an academician in 1949, and lived a comfortable life for many years after. The only other picture that rivaled Letter for accolades was his 1952 New Apartment (Novosel’e), in which a starry-eyed citizen occupies a new home by first hanging up a portrait of Stalin. Yet Laktionov should not be dismissed as a hack socialist realist.Letter from the Front was deeply loved by his compatriots, for whom it captured a cherished experience. Its realism was not the “lacquered” variety of political toadies, but an honest realism that caught the tatters and poverty of the time. And for all its conformity to official Soviet tastes, Laktionov’s combination of hyperrealism and sentimentality perhaps best matched another painter who was capturing a mass audience in his own native land at the same time, namely Norman Rockwell.