My Father LEONID STEELE
It is my honor and privilege to introduce the works of my
late father Leonid Steele – an important Soviet Artist of the Socialist Realism
School, known as “Socrealizm”. His art reflects his remarkable life story and
the times that shaped it. True individual within Soviet art world, he never
yielded his stubborn creative spirit to the hummer of Soviet bureaucratic
A True ARTIST and Giant, he lived life anyone can only dream
off. He cheated death so many times that his entire life is a
miracle. He survived 1933 golidomor in Ukraine, a bursted appendicitis in 1939
while in the Red Army (before newly discovered penicillin use it was considered
untreatable) a heavy air bomb concussion in the first siege of Kharkov in 1941
that left him in a coma for three months. With all that he created ART. A kid from Kharkov, the first
exhibition of his life was a 1939 World Fair in New York out of all places. He
was part of the Soviet Children Art Pavilion. As recovering from his concussion in Novosibirsk, he met and
studied with Evhgeniy Vasilievich Kudriavtsev, then acting director of the
famed Tretiakov Gallery that was evacuated to Siberia and who was one of the great
Isaac Levitan's rare students.
He went to Repin Academy after the war graduating from the
class of Rudolf Frenz in 1953. He became part of the core generation that
revived a full glory of classical Russian Academic tradition and method. He
melted that capability into decades of fearless stylistic feats. He moved
mountains in ART. He became one of the founding influences of the Severe Style
with his 1958 "Dawn." He participated in 11 All-Union exhibitions,
the most prestigious in USSR - a rare fit for a towering artist who enjoyed
public love, but never held any official post in the soviet art bureaucracy.
Because of this public love of his work he had rare mass media coverage of his
art totaling around 30 million in circulation. In the late
1960s he had a phenomenally rare for a Soviet Artist opportunity to travel to
North Africa, portions of Middle East and the Caribbean and created a
completely unique body of work based on it. A passionate “internationalist” who
deeply believed in the equality of all people his works of the series bear a
stark witness account of social and racial inequality and neo – colonialist
His output was truly gigantic. He painted masterpieces. He
loved life and was loved back generously. He loved people and his own visual
brand of humanistic rendition of very depths in personal characters made him
unique within Socialist Realism. He touched universal humanity while faithfully portraying a
nation. He lived ART to his last breath. He is a Star that guides, a true
His unique in its scope collection and archive under my care represent a rare
example among important artists of that historic period - due to an enormous
effort it remains fully intact and was not broken to pieces under market
pressures of 1990s. He is the only artist of his historic statue with a career
spanning the entire time frame of this important school in the World’s post
WWII art whose output represented and documented with such completeness in
the US. The last 24 years of his life residing in the United States also
produced a unique body of work.
His substantial oeuvre and the life story, its aesthetic and cultural
importance weaved a vibrant thread that contributed to a contemporary
multi-cultural pattern. It provides the more complete view of the Post WWII art
of the 20th century, with a perspective from the other side of the
His legacy now belongs fully to our common history.
“Leonid Steele: The Artist and His Times”
By Alexey Steele
This comments are based on the notes that I had a privilege of making to the insightful and comprehensive book “Soviet Impressionism” by my friend Vern Grosvenor Swanson, Ph.D.
My Father lived and painted most of his life in a unique, tragic and never to be repeated historic times. The ultimate insider-outsider he managed to serve his own sense of perfection, express his own visions and thoughts despite the most restrictive conditions. Stubborn own man, he represents a rare blend of artistic and personal independence. He achieved quite an unparalleled public success outside of the usual for the time bureaucratic channels and was always willing to pay personal price for it. Unique in his stylistic diversity, he made a constant and uncompromising search his personal trademark. Where most artists would prefer to stick to once accepted style, especially once achieving success, he’d be compelled to change practically every decade, ultimately living five artistic lives consecutively. At the same time even within the great school of the time he stands quite alone in his deeply humanistic, sensitive and compassionate look at his subjects.
The Importance Of The School
Full understanding of real importance of any artist as well as their place in history is impossible without understanding of a historical and social context, in which they worked as well as aesthetic, cultural and spiritual aspirations of the society they reflected.
Socialist Realism called “Socrealism” at the time, came from the same root as Western Modernism. Both are coming from the same source, representing two branches of the same tree. The tree of rethinking fundamentals, contemplation on what is “new” at the most dramatic stage of Industrial Era that was born in the fire of World War I and Russian Revolution. In the full picture of 20th century art one can not be fully understood and appreciated without another.
Socrealism as a historic movement, not its theoretical model prescribed by the party line, was neither entertainment nor decoration, it didn’t have to sell anything and with an absolute absence of private sales, that were forbidden had no necessity to serve the commercial market.
It meant to be understood by the people, meant to relate to people, but it didn’t mean to please people. It was operating on a different level of expectations and consequently had an entirely different set of requirements.
The philosophy and objectives of Socrealism required a very different and very specific level of professional ability. At its time It was the highest form of nation’s creative effort fully supported by the entire society. Just like modernism in the West.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Socrealism is the fact that it focused its main attention on a common man. And it did so on an unprecedented before and probably ever after scale. It brought forth the whole spectrum of themes and subjects touching and resonating in people’s psyche. The kind, compassionate and understanding look at the common man of society, with all his and her inner world, on the canvases of the best artists struck the cord with its contemporaries.
The empathy towards the common man is Socrealism’s main contribution to the World history of Art.
In the Soviet Union art became truly important for people. With specialized books on it being too expensive for most, the clipping of reproductions from the most popular mass media publications such as “Ogoniok”(Russian equivalent of “Time” magazine) or “Rabotnitsa”(somewhat Soviet answer to “Vogue”) became a wide spread phenomenon. Many, not even related in any way to the art world, would assemble those clippings in files, creating their own homemade art ontology.
In the restricted society where the flow of information was desperately minimal, the prospects of achieving successes in most areas - slim and the routinely primitive level of daily life - mundane, the art provided the chance of internal fulfillment in a uniquely pure form. People loved art not as a form of possession but rather as a form of expression. That is the source of seriousness in Russian music, painting, literature, poetry, ballet. The art in Russia preserved the internal integrity of an individual in the nation when little else could.
The Art in the Soviet Union through its capacity to communicate basic human emotions to common people helped to preserve their integrity as individuals in midst of largely inhuman society. It became the main vehicle of people’s internal freedom and now stands as a testimony to the insuppressible and self-preserving powers of human spirit.
The Art System in The Soviet Union
The reasons for the unparalleled height of the Soviet School are indispensable human resources and fierce competition. Little noted that the great achievements of the culture and sports in the USSR lie in the same source that economic once in the West. Free competition. The education was free and there were only two schools that would give the best chance to brake into the golden gates of Union Artists. Repin Institute in Leningrad(St. Pitersburg today) and Surikov Institute in Moscow both belonging to the Academy of Arts of the Soviet Union. Only the membership in the Union Artists would allow perusing the professional career. Two schools for roughly 200 million people. In order to be even considered to compete for the place in one of those elite institutions, you had to go through specialized colleges of lower level. And, finally graduating the Repin or Surikov after all those years of struggle still didn’t guarantee anything. Out of 200-300 of both schools alumni every year only 2-3 would make it to a serious artist carrier. What about the rest? Just like in Olympics it’s this incredible failure rate that lies at the bottom of such fenomenal achievements.
That’s the price of Russian success. Just like in World War II or developing the A-bomb in the middle of ruined by the war country, cheer ruthless determination.
With so few making it to the very top out of those who tried, there are some helpful tips to navigate through the vast landscape of Soviet art while determining the importance of an artist within this period:
¨ Were did he or she studied- The School
¨ When and where admitted to the Union Artists
¨ Where exhibited
The key element in this scale I’d say is participation at the All-Union Exhibition – the most prestigious of them all in the USSR. Every good artist was there and important artist more than once.
With a few notable exceptions of mediocrity slipping through the system mostly by becoming part of art bureaucracy with the power attached, this scale works.
As every known school the Socrealism has its own bad, medium-ground good and great. The strength of the School depends on its medium level but the legacy of the School belongs to its HIGHEST ACHIVEMENTS.
At its worst - it is sloppy and mediocre, didactic and often politicized “kchaltura”*.
At its average - it is world’s most solid realist School of the 20th century that found a way to communicate to it’s contemporaries on the unprecedented scale, reflecting the dreams and aspirations, hopes and fears of the time.
At its best - the Socrealist masterpieces step beyond ideology, beyond the society and appeal directly to the core of basic human emotions, which constitutes a Great Art. The masterpieces of Socrealism are undeniable addition to the Universal Images of Humanity. Alongside with the best masterpieces of all times.
The Academic Education
All best Russian artists had to go through a gruelingly rigorous training in an exceptionally competitive environment of academic system.
At the highest pick of academy in the 50-s, ones and foremost they had to master the figure and on top of that the multi-figure composition that was considered the crown achievement. To gain this ability they had to develop a very specific way to perceive the three-dimensional object in space; the tonal correspondence and priority of forms; the solid, relations based decisiveness of colors and the active command of the composition.
Understanding of forms and shapes and the perfected ability to draw and paint figure as well as to compose multi-figure was a main goal of academic training.
The value figure drawing was a cornerstone. I’d venture to say that the achievements of Repin academy of the 50-s in a specifically tonal value drawings are unsurpassed by any academy before or after.
The Artists' Union
The Membership at the Artists' Union was the only way that would allow perusing the professional artist career. In the early 50-s and 60-s the admitting criteria was remarkably high especially in the big central cities with strong groups of artists.
By the mid 70-s it substantially loosened and by the mid 80-s it thoroughly deteriorated.
Leonid became a Member of the Union of Artists of the USSR in 1958. His Union ID # 508
present a stark contrast to the number of Union’s members by the late 1980s,
estimated at over 30 000.
Alone with the Union’s greatly important historic role in establishing and keeping the high professional standards of Soviet Art, its bureaucratic control was prone to manipulation, favor trading, power abuse, favoritism, back stubbing and corruption that eventually contributed to a demise of the entire school.
The Periods of Socialist Realism
1930-s – 1940-s the early period of “Elders”
“The Socialist Realism” by Mathew Bown is a very good source of information on it.
1941-1945 the time of Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany
that consumed entire national effort at the staggering and still fully unknown cost of 35 to possibly 50 million dead - was virtually lost for the wide development of art.
1950-s the High Period, the decade of Exuberance
The term “Working Class Impressionism” gives a very good description of that stage. The book by Vern Swanson is giving it the most thorough account.
It was the times of inherent happiness. The War against German Nazi invasion was won on the Russian part at the terrifying cost that wasn’t even realized yet. The horrors of war and the superhuman effort put by the Russians to win it led to the excitement of Victory that was complete, enticing and overwhelming. Even twilightly Shostakovich wrote his joyfully whistling 9th symphony. The new style became an explicit expression of such state of mind.
The entire period of 30s – 50s were inherently optimistic. Though welcomed and encouraged by the Party, it was mostly utilized natural factor. After all, it was an intoxication of the Revolution. Everybody were young, everything was possible no one could stand on their way; they had victory after victory, at horrible cost, but it only made the victory sweeter; just one more little step, and they would enter the unimaginable, never seen before world of “paradise on earth”. What could produce more optimistic mode than that?!
It was also the time when plain air approach became the dominant form of expression.
Direct plain air etude was an integral part of Russian School ever since 19th Century. Rapid plain air studies by Repin and Serov, Korovin and Archipov were revered by the Socialist Realist artists. Not to mention the landscape demigod of all-Russians, the student of Savrasov Isaak Levitan. Therefore the term “Russian plain air” would seam very appropriate to me as well.
It was also the time when my Dad went down to the Ukrainian countryside villages in his quest for real characters and inspiration vs. pretentiousness and politics of the big city. Not as a part of hugely publicized campaign, but on his own to get to know the people of the Land intimately.
For many years he became part of their lives in the village he loved the most. They even elected him a permanent member of the kolhoz (collective farm) board, probably the only example in Union Artists. When he protested: ”Why? I don’t understand anything in agriculture!” the kolchoz chairman replied: “But you understand the human heart.” He treasured that trust and would often mention it proudly in the city. He honestly couldn’t comprehend the usually snotty response: “Member of what? You’ve got to be kidding!”
All of his major pieces were inspired by and dedicated to those people. That is what gave the compelling strength to his characters and created such a response in viewers. When this trend finally achieved its official “sanctification” he received a pretty much full measure of acclaim. Newspapers, TV and radio programs, exhibitions. As a front page editorial of “Soviet Culture” (one of the leading national newspapers) put it, talking about him: “A man with an easel in these places (villages AS) ceased being a wonder, he is close, understood and needed. And this is a true acclaim.”
Oftentimes the “officiallization” followed the naturally developed trend.
1959 – mid 70-s emergence of “Severe Style”
The severe style begun to emerge in the mid 60-s during and right after Khruschov, when all formalistic experiments were condemned. It was the search of a Grand Style by some of the best artists for whom just another loosely painted piece was already not enough.
It’s the 60-s with their realization of horrors of war and the official denunciation of Stalinism that brought hangover of disillusion, the sober contemplation and the search for the truth. Truth that suddenly slipped away.
I’d say a contemplative mood of mature totalitarianism that brought the sobering realization of slipping way Utopia demanded a new far more laconic language and form. Requiem can not be sung with the same sound as serenade.
It is offering a bridge between the best of representational school and the modern experience of the 20th century. Just like with the French School it is a national school that even for its sheer scale reached an international significance.
The style was at least partially ignited by the same forces as “nonconformist” art of the 60-s. It is the aesthetic attack of the modern minded liberal inteligencia that influenced to a degree its emergence. I still remember the heated discussions in our leaving room on that subject and I can only imagine what it was like in the early 60-s.
It is actually the All-Union exhibition of 1959 with a sensation of my Dad’s “Dawn” and Tair Salakhov’s “From the Shift” that affected many and pushed that style. In 1961 came Popkov’s “Builders of Bratsk” and by that time my Dad was already working on “The Land” that he finished in 1968 (he worked on it for over 10 years) and than “Family” back to back with it.
These are the pieces that fully developed the language of powerfully minimal yet extensive frontal composition with unshakably broadened forms. Lots of artists were influenced by them after All-Union shows and it’s publications in “Ogoniok” (Soviet equivalent of “Time”).
Just the same way the Russian artists “over-imposed” the loose allure and lightening ease of paint on top of their solidly academic understanding of forms and values, they came to a conclusion of broadening the forms and flattening them within the same understanding. My dad called it a “shallow relief”.
It was also a search for a new psychological content.
This is why in this period many familiar “official” subjects suddenly revealed very unfamiliar undertones. The inherit tragicism of the Severe Style shifted the perspective. This is why revisiting once cut and dry subjects became engaging. It was the time of rethinking and reevaluating of the basics.
Late 70-s – 80-s general decay of the school
The fresh means of expressiveness in the early and high Severe Style of 1958 – 1971 were used as a simplified rhetoric and the tool for a quick money knock outs by the “second generation” of khalturshchiks* in the late 70-s – 80-s. My Dad was absolutely disgusted by it. The world became too cynical and he couldn’t stand it. True to himself he made another 180 degree turn to a “neo academic” painting and the more things all-round him would deteriorate the more exclusively he would indulge into lyrical purity of landscape.
Working on the grand scale
multi-figure painting – “Kartina”[ka’r-ti’na]
Since a very specific professional abilities and personal capacity it would require, their execution would prove prohibitive even for otherwise very capable artists. Just like symphony – kartina is also final most complete test of artist’s capacity.
If and when artist would match the task – it is certainly the most expressive form of art. The artists capable of serious multi-figure canvases were handful even at the height of the Socialist Realism. It really has much less to do with the size or amount of figures involved. It is a sophistication and complexity of the composition, it is the expressive articulation of forms, it is an effective use of paint’s technical range that adequately deliver emotional content – all as a means of magnifying artist’s honest sub conscience insight to what is truly important – that what creates the intensity and completeness of the kartina form.
In short, it requires a rare blend of psychological and professional skills. This is why historically, through the ages a serious “kartinshchik”* is the rarest bird in the artist zoo.
Not surprisingly, kartina also became the first casualty of declining sotsrealism. Less and less artists were willing and able to take this challenge. Some didn’t know how, some didn’t know what for.
It was definitely studio works. They required a tremendous amount of conceptual and compositional development. But in the case of best artists in late 50-s and 60-s the nature was still the most important raw material. For them it was the next step of transforming nature for the sake of Grand Expressiveness, based on its thorough academic understanding and direct painting experience. They relayed on nature for the specific “personal” characteristics and that what gives their images the convincing power and depth.
At the same time, there is an elusive but still very definite relation between the size and the form. The large scale demands substantially different approach. It is a very specific ability and the way of perceiving reality. Just as much as certain images and visions demand a specific size. It is by far not a simple “blow up.”
Every objective has its own means and necessities. One can hardly imagine Vermeer’s brilliant “Writing the Letter” in National Gallery on a 10’ canvas, just as much as hardly imaginable Michelandgello’s “Last Judgement” in a legal size.
My Dad’s major works of his life, the paintings of late 60-s – 70-s became the result of his over a decade long search, study and development. Probably the most important of them is “The Land.”
It came as a result of his closeness with the peasants of the village were he would retreat from the bureaucratic suffocation of the city. As he describes it, it was a sort of “spiritual commission.” Elders of the village once told him at their annual “drinking gathering” – “You are an artist, you should paint an icon about the Land.” “Icon?” my Dad replied (icon is a specifically religious painting in the Russian Orthodox tradition, bare mentioning of it in a communist world was explicitly “politically incorrect”) “You meant painting?” “No” replied his old friend, “you are just too young to understand….The land is the most sacred of everything…That’s what we’ve been promised and didn’t receive…Think about it”
That was a beginning of a long journey.
It is important to note in this regard that for most of their history the Russians (including Ukrainians, Belaruss and so forth) were primarily a peasant nation, but never owned the land itself. When Bolsheviks in 1917 promised the Land to the People, they turned the otherwise limited military mutiny and cue into a full scale Revolution. The Civil War that followed was won largely due to the peasant support they received based on this promise. When Bolshevik dictatorship strengthen its grip on the country, the land was taken back to the state through “collectivization.”
Ever suspicious of the “inherently counter-revolutionary” nature of the “property-minded” (“sobstvenicheskij”) peasant class the Bolshevik leaders just like Marx in his Manifesto believed proletariat or baseless hired working class to be the only truly revolutionary class in their class warfare doctrine. Consequently with collectivization Soviet peasants under Stalin’s rule were essentially brought backward to their pre-emancipation, pre1861 reform, state of serfdom. Their passports were largely taken away, their movement severely restricted.
Expressly none-political person (my Dad always hated and still does everything that has to do with the politics) he touched on the most vital aspect of the entire Russian history. What he started with was a theme from the Russian Revolution of dividing the land according to Lenin’s decree. He approached it with the unparalleled intensity of psychological truthfulness and what he ended up with was an image of an astounding power that didn’t escape anyone. The people of the Land stand barefoot on the Land, which doesn’t belong to them any more.
Even today, 20 years after the beginning of “peresroika” adventure, the Land still does not belong to its People.
*khaltura[ha’l-tu’rah] – the term used by the soviet artists to describe mediocre, deprived of any artistic integrity hack work usually produced for a lucrative low-end government commissions such as factory propaganda decoration.
It is this type of works that were usually associated with “Socialist Realism” in the West during the Cold War.
*Khalturshchik – is the one who produces “khaltura”*
*Kartinshchik – artist working in kartina form