One of the first warm spring evenings of the year and the exhibition opening of the night is Beings and Being. As I enter the Pushkin House on Bloomsbury Square – a leading cultural centre for Russian art in London – the bustle of the streets disappears softly into the background. The corridors are dimly lit; the rooms are vibrating with voices speaking rapid Russian; and along the walls hang paintings that are windows into a forgotten past.
The artist: Felix Lembersky – Jew and Soviet; born in Lublin, Poland in 1913; student at the Jewish art school Kultur-Lige, the Kiev Art Institute and Leningrad Academy of Art, graduating from the latter in December 1941, during the siege; proclaimed national hero after defending Leningrad; died there in 1970.
Countering the prospect of Socialist Realism, the art form perhaps most “in par” with his biographical information, Lembersky’s work defies expectations. In her introductory speech, his granddaughter Yelena Lembersky emphasises the “courageous” and “avant-garde” visions this Russian artist carried into his work, using layer on layer of paint to create dimension over dimension in meaning.
Yelena exclaims passionately “he puts the narrative into the margins”, instead he “gives his full attention to the living”, showing “their humanity, dignity, and compassion for one another”. This is undoubtedly true when you gaze into the eyes of Lezhashachaya in Woman in Recline: The Siege of Leningrad (1964), one of my favourite paintings. While her eyes seem to be emanating a sense of catastrophe they do not create an emotional reaction of pity. Harmonising colours and flowing cubist shapes create compassion in her admirer.
Beings and Being is the product of a curational collaboration: Robert Chandler – poet and translator, Elena Zaytseva – curator of the Pushkin House, and Yelena Lembersky – the granddaughter of the artist and project director of The Uniterra Foundation come together to express their united passion for an unknown niche of Soviet art. Zaytseva explains: “It is important that this artist appeared and became known at the very moment when we are trying to understand what was going on in the art world in Russia”.
Their ambition is clear: to change London’s perception of Russian art from the 20th century. The exhibition stands in strong contrast, for example, to the Saatchi Gallery’s latest collection, Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union, which ran till the 5th of May. The dread of encountering yet another display of depressingly desolate images displaying despair and grief is replaced instead by the familiar warmth of human emotions that spring off Lembersky’s canvases in sparks of colour.
The ambition is great, the team varied, and my expectation one of a complex display of works – with dimensions of aesthetics, of culture, and of historical context. But while Felix Lembersky’s works seamlessly knit together all these levels, the layout of the exhibition itself is slightly confusing, and the stairs, corridors and closed doors between the work somewhat disorienting.
Nevertheless, I quickly find myself in the upper story of the house gazing at Katya’s face (The Yard keeper Katya, Leningrad, 1959), drawn in not by her eyes or a graceful movement, but by the seemingly insignificant drop of bright red paint that shapes her bottom lip.
At that point, I undoubtedly count to the “exceptionally obtuse” people (a term Robert Chandler uses to express his repeated difficulty to understand some of Grossman’s work) who are slightly torn between only seeing the historical reality in the rough strokes of paint or the underlying elegance of human emotion Felix Lembersky creates through careful colour choices and delegate compositions.
Whilst relying on a pastel pallet with bleak blues and heavy grays, Lembersky also nourishes his canvases with bold, mossy greens – as seen in the Building after Gunfire (1959), Midday. Crucifixion. Church with Yellow Background (1964), or The Yard Keeper Katya (1959).
But broad strokes of reds, yellows, oranges, and turquoises break the boundary between an attempt at realist colour simulation and an avant-garde colour disruption. They are sparks in the dismal blanket of clouds that hang over the canvas – the red of the lips, the pink of a cloud, the yellow on a hand. And while these sparks are not necessarily indicators of happiness or joy, they remind us that the image is the product not of a human vision, but of a human emotion.
In By the Bakery (1963), a yellow truck is moving through drowning waves of brown and ochre. Placed in the middle of the composition, it acts as the source of light, strangely vibrating like a sun from earth rather than the red, dusky sky. Perhaps Lembersky is expressing more hope than initially apparent. Simultaneously, he uses a symbol to bridge the human and divine context: the fence.
Found in plenty of his works (notable in this exhibition are Midday. Crucifixion. Church with Yellow Background (1964), The Yard Keeper Katya (1959)), the fence acts as a symbol defining an internal struggle between his Jewish and Soviet identity. In itself, the fence relates to the Jewish concept of “building a fence around the Torah”. In the context of the image, it also acts as an entrance.
The outline of the human figure to the left hand side is separated from the fence only by a breath of a white line, disrupting the sense of depth – I do not know what side this character is on: Is it standing outside the fence? Is it in the course of stepping across the boundary between courtyard and street? Has it already ventured beyond the fence? Other sketches by Lembersky show the human figure anthropomorphizing into the fence or existing as shadows within the fence itself.
In this case, there is little else to go on – no cues of depth or other human interactions. Instead, the figure is left trembling in front of the source of light, encapsulated by proletarian images and Jewish traditions alike. Similarly disturbing too, is the lack of bread – the bakery lacks its source of life. Beings and Being is a show that relies on the living to show what was lost in so much Socialist Realism. It refers to a society that was trapped socially, politically, economically, and humanly in self-proclaimed boundaries of fairness and equality: stripping humanity of rights – utopia gone horribly wrong.
Many of the oil paintings exhibited embody the idea of human spirit revealed through paint, sometimes ironically so, as in Red Workshop (Leningrad, 1959), where the colour correlates to an abstract concept rather than the human reaction to it. Other works on the other hand, divert from the Chagall-like overlay of colours. No less avant-garde, the Execution from the Babi Yar series (Nizhny Tagil or Leningrad, 1944-52), for example, exposes the wasteland that surrounded Lembersky in real life.
His experience of the Urals “I saw the past through the prism of the present” from his thesis defence at the Academy of Art) reveals a difficult past – a past that resonates in his survivors’ guilt, a past that weighed like a stone on his shoulders, and a past that creeps up from under the blanket of paint. Suggestiveness as perfected in Babi Yar appears in many of his works on paper, such as Portrait of a Boy (1942-46) or Night at the Urals Plant (Nizhny Tagil, 1958). Lembersky anthropomorphises windows and objects into beings, while his art becomes a window into the human soul.
After listening to Yelena’s passionate account of Felix Lembersky’s past and present and the similarly captivating reading by Robert Chandler, I leave the basement room dominated by thunderstorms of grays and blues to find, once again, Katya with her ever-shining red lips on the first floor. Her portrait hangs next to a window looking out onto the streets of 21st century London. I don’t know whether my obtuseness has become slightly more acute or my understanding of Soviet Russia any more true. But what I can see when I look at this painting by Felix Lembersky is a real Leningrad– a breathing Leningrad. Whilst defying Socialist Realism with “bourgeois” Impressionistic and Cubist elements, there is nothing unreal about Felix Lembersky’s work.
Robert Chandler, together with Yelena Lembersky and Elena Zaitseva, succeeds in filling a gap in Russian art history. The Pushkin house exhibition is certainly a diversion from Socialist Realism. Much more though, it is an impressive example of humanity realised in paint and exposed in composition.