Critics had long-since recognised that the USSR was home to world-class ballet dancers, writers, poets and musicians, but many now began to wonder whether the country’s artists were equally motivated to greatness, and none more so that Raymond Johnson. An avid collector already, Mr Johnson started to purchase Soviet-era paintings from the late 1980s onwards, making regular trips to Russia and visiting artists in their studios and meeting their families wherever possible.
His thirty year adventure in collecting has culminated in one of the greatest privately-owned collections of Soviet-era art. In 2002 he was instrumental in founding the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis; in 2004, Mr Johnson was named an honorary consul of the Russian Federation; on 19 January 2006, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian Federation in recognition of 20 years of efforts to enhance cultural understanding between Russia and the United States.
These extraordinary achievements and the artistic legacy that he has preserved represent only a fraction of his experience as a collector however. ‘What is most important to me’ he explained, ‘is that we developed great and long-lasting relationships with the artists and their families. For me, the exceptional training combined with the passion and spirit of these artists is irresistible. The artistry, mastery and craftsmanship took my breath away.’
The present lot is a fragment of Deineka’s 1925 canvas, At the Pit (In the Mine) and painted at the same time as his celebrated masterpiece Before Descending into the Mine (fig.1). Both works were painted after visiting the Donbass coal mines on an assignment from the periodical Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the Workbench).
Deineka recorded his immediate impressions of the trip in a series of graphic works titled In the Donbass, amongst which is the 1924 ink and pencil drawing Coal Miners at the Pit (fig.2), presumably a preparatory sketch for At the Pit (In the Mine), of which only The Coal Miner survives.
At the Pit (In the Mine) was exhibited in Moscow in 1925 at the first exhibition held by The Society of Easel Painters, (OST), where it is listed as no.28 on page 4 of the catalogue. In his contemporary review, Aleksei Fedorov-Davidov describes Deineka’s ‘miner’s cycle’ as follows: ‘Deineka is also concerned with the functions of movement. His solution is to juxtapose silhouetted figures with those viewed head-on, in order to resolve the problem of how to depict a dynamic three-dimensional form on a flat plane. The bare white background and the absence of any colour whatsoever other than black, grey and brown, make his canvases feel like enormous engravings’ (‘Vystavki', Pechat i revolutsiya, July-Sept 1925, pp.271-272).
Deineka is among those OST artists whose name is associated with the ideology of a ‘new epoch’ of art in the 1920s, first and foremost of which was the notion of ‘a new life for a new people’. Certainly, it was his training at VKhUTEMAS which led Deineka to aspire to new themes and seek new forms in the development of figurative art, but it was his outstanding talent alone that propelled him to the ranks of the leaders of twentieth century modernism.
During the 1920s Deineka was actively experimenting with a whole range of media, from pen and ink drawings to magazine illustration, and both monumental and ornamental techniques, as he tried to drive forward his concept for what ‘new easel painting’ should look like. It was the Donbass cycle which determined the direction of his art. For the first time he develops a technique which allows him to succeed in two of his primary tasks, that of translating the graphic form using the language of paint and of translating the monumental style into the format of easel painting.
The Coal Miner dates from the period when Deineka was painting large-scale compositions, the most famous of which are in the State Tretyakov Gallery collection: Before Descending into the Mine and Construction of New Workshops (fig.3). The present work, in its original state, is visible in one of the photographs of the OST exhibition taken by I.Korolev and published in the newspaper Sovetskoe iskusstvo (fig.4). It is impossible to know why after such a successful exhibition Deineka decided to divide the original composition; of the three miners working in that confined and poorly-lit space underground only the left-hand figure survives. It remained in Deineka’s studio until his final days and came to be known as The Coal Miner.
Later in life, Deineka would often return to his cycle of ‘miner’ paintings to analyse his earlier techniques and inspirations. 'Those were very large canvases for the time, and I used to cover them almost entirely with black and white paint with only a few light touches of red ochre. I wanted to convey rhythm and the heroic and intense nature of their labour… At the Pit (In the Mine) was painted in a dark and heavy tone. The only white left was from the spots of light that came from the miners’ lamps'. (A.Deineka, Iz moei rabochei praktiki, Moscow, 1961, p.31).
The Coal Miner is one of the most vivid examples of Deineka’s emerging artistic technique from a period when he was experimenting with constructivist theories, and showcases his extreme creativity alongside the visually distinctive character of his art.
We are grateful to Natalia Alexandrova and Elena Voronovich of The State Tretyakov Gallery for writing this catalogue note.
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