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The Unknown Warrior

May 30

Written by: Del Meyer
05/30/2017 5:57 AM 

Obituary: Ernst Neizvestny died on August 9th

The sculptor, artist, philosopher and defier of the Soviet regime was 91

The Economist | Print Edition | August 20, 2016

THE two men were about the same size, sturdy and short. Both had fought in the Great Patriotic War, worked in foundries; they could knock each other out. One was broad-faced, gap-toothed and almost bald; the other was swarthy, with bushy black brows and hair. The bald man, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, was shouting “Filth! Dog shit! Disgrace!” at the paintings on display, that day in 1962, on the walls of the Manege Gallery beside the Kremlin. The swarthy one, Ernst Neizvestny, had his answer ready: “You may be premier and chairman, but not here in front of my works. I am the premier here.”

He was manhandled and expelled from the Artists’ Union, but he was not arrested, and government psychiatrists pronounced him sane. Khrushchev even half-joked that there was an angel and a devil in him, and as long as the angel had the upper hand, they could get along. Mr Neizvestny liked that remark, for that was exactly what his paintings, and especially his sculptures, were about: struggle, contradiction, multiplicity, flesh against spirit, all within one unity, the human body. His works turned humans into robots, centaurs, giants or machines, with hard and soft, metallic and organic flowing into and transforming each other. Khrushchev bitterly condemned his public “disfiguring” of Soviet people, but that was not what he was doing; he was showing how Protean and enduring a human being was.

Even as a child, he had imagined infinity as bigger and bigger versions of himself stretching into space—or smaller and smaller versions, until he had whole worlds on the tip of his finger. As a sculptor he could recreate that cosmos, a god exerting his will on clay or on fiery rivers of bronze. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s it was all much harder, with his studio squeezed into the back of a shop and bronze unavailable to headstrong sculptors like himself. He foraged and fought. In the foundry, he stole what scraps of metal he could.

Commissions came, for war memorials and friezes at Pioneer camps. But because he rejected the sterile socialist realism approved by the state—seeing himself instead as the successor of Kandinsky, Malevich and the brief avant-garde of the early decades of the century—official work often vanished again. As a monumental sculptor, he longed to be exposed, potentially defying the state on a grand scale. Instead his boldest dreams remained maquettes, unless they could be sold abroad. In 1975, weary of it all, he applied to go into exile, settling in New York and lecturing about art, in Russian, on America’s west coast.

He easily mixed philosophy with art; in Russian culture, he explained, they were inseparable. Art contained all of life, and the greatest artists not only fixed on beauty; they took risks, outraged good taste, shocked people with the messy process of existence. The figures he admired unflinchingly portrayed man’s necessary struggle to become himself: Dostoevsky, with his mastery of a polyphony of contesting, God-questioning voices, and Dante, with his writhing bodies caught in good and evil, fire and whirlwinds. . .

t all came down to his favourite poem, Pushkin’s “The Prophet”, in which an exhausted pilgrim was suddenly attacked by an angel, “the finest sculptor I know”:

And he cleft my chest with a sword 
and withdrew my fluttering heart 
and a coal aglow with fire 
pushed into my open breast.

This had happened to him in the war. He was just 19, commanding a unit in Austria, when a bullet entered his chest and exploded in his back. It made a hole so big that he was left for dead. But he survived, and so did the burning coal. The result was a continual flow of sculptures in which bodies, assaulted and mutilated from both inside and out, were nonetheless finding the energy to change into something new. . .

He had the last word, too, in his showdown with Khrushchev. In 1974, after the leader’s death, the family asked him to design the tomb. He produced two jagged towers, one of white blocks, one of black, angel and devil in their continual confrontation, contending on either side of Khrushchev’s pugnacious, unseeing face.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition

Read the entire Obituary in The Economist.

Categories: In Memoriam

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