Il’ia Glazunov

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Il’ia Glazunov, Russian painter, triumphed on two fronts in 1980, winning recognition from unexpected patrons. One of his grand thematic canvases, The Contribution of the Soviet Peoples to World Culture and Civilization, was accepted by UNESCO officials to be part of their permanent art collection. A second honor was conferred by the Soviet state when it declared him a People’s Artist (narodnyi khudozhnik), one of the lesser of state cultural titles, but enough to ensure a good living. It was the second honor that surprised many. Just three years prior to the award, Glazunov had been castigated by the arts establishment for another grand canvas, Passion Play of the Twentieth Century, which to many accused the Soviet state of destroying Russian culture.

Though the purported hostility of the state boosted Glazunov’s reputation, it is hard now to see its roots. Openly religious themes surely contradicted Marxist dogma, but in other ways Glazunov was an entirely Soviet artist. He had apprenticed in the studio of the arch-conservative artist Boris Ioganson, he rejected modernist abstraction for a fleshy realist style, and his forthright Russian nationalism was in keeping with official tastes of the late Brezhnev era. In fact, one cannot help noticing that the faces featured Contribution of the Soviet Peoples are overwhelmingly Russian, embodying the most popular take on the official dogma of the drawing together of Soviet peoples.

Born 1930 in Leningrad, young Glazunov survived the wartime blockade of his home city, but watched his whole family die of starvation. He is a gifted illustrator whose drawings for the novels of Dostoevskii are filled with the spirit of Petersburg. Glazunov’s ability to defy the Soviet establishment while belonging to it, and to critique communist ideas without showing the disloyalty that many average Russians attributed to the dissidents, brought him huge popularity. His thematic breadth suggested intellectual depth, which he aided by providing guides to the many faces on his canvases. His appeal to national pride and tradition allowed his celebrity to grow even in post-Soviet years. Along with such sons of Soviet culture as film directors Stanislav Govorukhin and Nikita Mikhalkov, he called for a renaissance of the Russian culture destroyed by the Soviet state. He stated the cause most forcefully in a book entitled Crucified Russia.

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