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Prominent Russians: Ilya Glazunov

Born June 10, 1930
Ilya Glazunov Ilya Glazunov

Ilya Glazunov is a Soviet and Russian artist known for his historical and religious paintings. His art is controversial, but still catches the attention of critics and admirers. 

Ilya Glazunov was born in the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His father Sergey was a historian, and his mother, Olga, was a housewife. Both of his parents were deeply interested in Russian traditions and culture, as was Sergey’s brother Fyodor, a military doctor who owned a large collection of Russian art. From early childhood Ilya was taught to love and respect his home country and its history, but not the Soviet regime.

In June of 1942, World War II started. The evacuation of Leningrad began almost immediately, but was poorly organized, and so when in September the Nazis were knocking at the city's gate, 2.5 million citizens remained in the city, the Glazunovs among them.

The Nazis did not manage to take the city at once, so they laid siege to it. Famine began to spread in Leningrad as a result in November 1942, and then came an incredibly cold winter spent without central heating. The Leningrad Blockade was in full effect.

“In January-February 1942, my father and all my relatives who lived with us died before my eyes, and my mother was unable to get out of bed. Our flat had four rooms, and there was a dead man lying in each one. It was impossible to bury them. It was almost as cold inside as outside, the rooms were like giant refrigerators…and it was as quiet as the grave," Ilya Glazunov wrote in his memoirs.

The mission

The first blockade winter made Ilya an orphan, but he survived: his uncle Fyodor helped him to leave the city through "The Road of Life", the only possible evacuation route, which went across the frozen Ladoga lake. The boy arrived in the village of Greblo in the Novgorod region, and spent two years there, working in the fields and herding livestock. The war had affected the town, but not destroyed it. Living in the woods and meadows helped Ilya to cope with his loss and with his loneliness, though he could never forget the terror of the blockade years, nor the miracle of his escape. It seemed he had some mission on Earth.

Блокада. Из серии  Ленинградская блокада. 1941-1944 . 1956 The Blockade from the series "The Leningrad Blockade 1941-1944". 1956

In 1944 the war was not over yet, but the blockade was lifted and Ilya returned to Leningrad. In September, he went to an art school, and 1951 entered the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. “It was Leningrad that made me an artist: its giant and slender buildings, its Palace Square, the Neva River, the bridges, the wind", his memoirs read.  

Leningrad is not the only city to be seen in Glazunov’s paintings. Searching for inspiration, he visited ancient towns which remembered the first tsars, saints, and legendary heroes; he carefully examined the icons. In the 1930’s, religion was prohibited in the Soviet Union, but during wartime Stalin eased the persecution of the faithful. During his trips, Glazunov often visited monasteries and watched the peaceful life of the monks. He even thought about joining a monastery, but the priest he spoke to about his intentions talked Glazunov out of it, "Go, learn, and fight for truth".

Glazunov's early paintings are expressed in soft palettes and filled with tranquility. He worked in the style of realism, painting village churches, peasants in simple clothing, and landscapes. 

In 1956, Glazunov married his fellow student Nina Vinogradova-Benois. The same year, he won first prize at the International Youth Exhibition in Prague, Czechoslovakia for a painting dedicated to the communist writer and journalist Julius Fuchik, executed by the Nazis for his anti-fascist ideas.

In Glazunov's painting, one can see a gloomy prison courtyard where the inmates walk in circles, gazing downwards. Only one of them dares to raise his head and to look up to the sky. Soviet critics were deeply impressed by the painting, and so in February 1957, Glazunov’s own exhibition took place in Moscow. This event brought incredible worldwide popularity to the young artist, who had the courage to challenge the rules of socialist realism, the style prevailing in the Soviet Union at the time, which was a truly rebellious act.

The Roads of War

 Дороги войны  "The Roads of War"

The same year, Glazunov graduated from the Repin Institute. His diploma piece was a painting named “The Roads of War”, based on his childhood memories: refugees running from the approaching enemy, and the retreat of the Soviet forces. He painted a group of people, several soldiers among them, having a rest on the side of the road. Their figures are painted in bright colors, and make a striking contrast against the dark indigo sky in the background. Viewing the picture from the distance, one may expect to see smiles on their faces, but there are no smiles, only fear, sadness and desperation. 

The picture was rejected by the artistic commission of the institute, labeled “anti-Soviet”, and the commission claimed that the painting was "distorting the truth about the war". Only in 1964 did Glazunov risk exhibiting it at his personal exhibition, but the exhibition was immediately closed by the authorities, and the picture was burned. In 1980, Glazunov painted a copy, which is now kept in the museum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.

Glazunov had to use another painting for his thesis for graduation, and he selected “The Birth of a Calf”. After receiving his diploma, he was sent to the provincial town of Ivanovo to work as a drawing teacher. There were no open positions there, so Ilya and Nina had to come back to Moscow and to spend several days at the railway station: they had neither a room, nor the money to rent one. The Glazunovs were helped by Ilya’s acquaintances, who took them in.

Then fate subjected them to yet another twist. The famous Russian poet Sergey Mikhalkov liked Glazunov’s paintings and came to see the artist in his four-square-meter room. Mikhalkov was on good terms with the Minister of Culture at the time, and soon the Glazunovs moved to their own room on the outskirts of Moscow. They had no money to buy a refrigerator or any furniture, so they slept on the floor, and in the winter hung bags with food out of the ventilator window to keep their produce cool. However, the room was on the first floor, and sometimes passers-by would steal their food.

A Very Sensitive and Observant Artist

It was around this time that one of Nikita Khrushchev’s assistants recommended Glazunov paint something "pro-Soviet" to avoid any future problems. Glazunov agreed, and was sent to the Ryazan region. He was to paint portraits of the local labor heroes as strong, happy people, who loved their work and loved the Soviet regime. When he arrived, he saw the exact opposite: grumpy, unhappy peasants and a stressed-out head of the region; so Glazunov decided to paint what he saw. The pictures were rejected as full of "desperation and hopelessness", but it was soon discovered that all the information about the great achievements of the Ryazan region had been forged. The investigation resulted in several imprisonments and one suicide. Glazunov was once again invited to the Kremlin, this time praised as “a very sensitive and observant artist”. 

Илья Глазунов. Русский Икар. 1964. "The Russian Ikarus", 1964.

Ilya was allowed to use an attic in the center of Moscow as a workshop. He painted views of the city and tried his hand at illustration. In 1963, the world-famous actress Gina Lollobrigida invited him to Italy to paint her portrait. The same year, Glazunov started a series of historical paintings, the first of them being "The Russian Icarus". 

Creative assignments

In 1967, the government sent Glazunov to Vietnam. Much later in one of his interviews, he admitted that this was done because none of the other more loyal artists agreed to go: the Vietnam war was at its height. He went there as a journalist, and returned with a series of pictures of "Vietnam Fighting". After performing this dangerous task, he was finally accepted to the State Artists Union.

Glazunov kept working. In 1968 he took a trip to the Russian North. The northern landscapes, the peasant life, and the signs of ancient, forgotten times touched his soul deeply. According to him, this was the first time he felt the need to learn and to understand the history of his motherland. With the painting "Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery" he began a new series of paintings dedicated to the Russian North.

Портрет Индиры Ганди Portrait of Indira Gandhi

In 1973, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations India. The Soviet authorities decided to give an unusual present to the leader of India, Indira Gandhi: a portrait, painted by a Soviet artist. Gandhi asked for Glazunov to paint her, as she had seen his works.

Glazunov was sent to India. Gandhi was pleased with his work. In the portrait, she is depicted in a golden sari, standing against a sky-blue background and holding a white flower.

The Mystery of 20th Century

In 1976, Glazunov created one of his most well known works, “The Mystery of the 20th Century". All the significant figures and signs of modern history are gathered in the painting. Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor, stands shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Lenin, his executioner. Adolf Hitler with a symbol of the Third Reich upon his head is found side by side with the Jewish genius Albert Einstein. Charlie Chaplin sits besides Albert Einstein. John F. Kennedy with the cross of a gun-sight upon his face smiles at "The great helmsman" of the Chinese Communist party Mao Tse-tung. An atomic explosion lights the face of the Great Sphynx.

Even Jesus Christ, watching this Babylonian crowd from the dark sky looks like nothing more and nothing less than Stalin or Che Guevara.

The image of Christ was not approved by the Soviet censorship. In addition, among the people chosen by the artist to become a part of "The Mystery" was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, garbed in a prison robe.

“The Mystery of the 20th Century “The Mystery of the 20th Century"

The Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party brought to a vote the question of deportation for Glazunov from the USSR. Glazunov was not exiled from the Soviet Union. Instead, he received a “creative assignment” in Siberia: he had to go to the construction site of the Baikal-Amur Railway and paint portraits of the builders.

Photos of “The Mystery of the 20th Century" were being spread all over the Soviet Union. Foreign magazines published the copies of "the paining the Russians will never see". Only in the 1980’s during perestroika was this painting was finally exhibited for the first time.

In 1999, Glazunov painted a new version of "The Mystery", adding new characters to the picture.

"Our St. Petersburg”

In 1981, Glazunov was assigned to organize the All-Soviet Decorative Arts Museum in Moscow, and became its director. In those days he and his wife were working on the decorations and costumes for the Opera and Ballet Theater in the city Odessa.

Переполох на балу. Иллюстрация к роману

Ф. Достоевского  Бесы . 1983 Dismay at the ball. Illustration for F. F. Dostoevsky's Demons novel. 1983

In 1982, a collection of Dostoevsky’s works was published with Glazunov's illustrations. The artist was proud of these illustrations because his whole life, he had been deeply interested in Dostoevsky's life and work. Dostoevsky’s philosophy and world view were similar to Glazunov's: both of them believed that the monarchy and Orthodoxy could save Russia from destruction. According to Glazunov, it was Dostoevsky who taught him "to look for a man within a man” and to be aware about the battle between good and evil, which never stops in human hearts.

In 1986, Nina committed suicide, leaving Ilya with their two children Vera and Ivan. Much later in 1994, Glazunov painted a picture dedicated to her, “Our St Petersburg”. A Pierrot doll sits on the window-sill, watching the candlelight. Behind the doll's back, there is a dim gray St. Petersburg winter, with a silhouette of St. Isaacs Cathedral in distance. The picture awakens a light, melancholic feeling in one’s soul, a kind of hope for a cozy corner of heaven, where we all would meet our late beloved.

The later years

In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Glazunov to reopen the All-Russian Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture Academy which had been closed in 1917. Glazunov became the president of the renewed Academy.

Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president of Russia, appreciated Glazunov's art, and ordered Glazunov to reconstruct the interiors of the Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Glazunov performed this task, paying great attention to every small detail, and on the day before the solemn opening of the palace, even got into a fistfight with Korzhakov, the head of Yeltsin’s guards; Korzhakov had moved several pictures in one of the halls.

In 1996, Glazunov published his book “Russia Crucified”, describing his views on Russian history, Russian culture, and the future of Russia.

Today, Glazunov still heads the Academy. He lives and works in Moscow. Both of his children grew up to be artists. Though Glazunov always was and still is a monarchist, and does not support democracy, on February 9, 2012 he was registered as an official representative of Vladimir Putin.

Written by Olga Pigareva, RT

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