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Russian Art

Alexander Deineka: The Artist’s ‘Laboratory’

After his first triumphant trip abroad, visiting America, France and Italy, Deineka opened his first solo exhibition in the USSR at Vsekokhudozhnik in 1935. The exhibition immediately became ‘one of the biggest events of the season’. The critic Nikolai Shchekotov remarked that ‘Deineka, like none other of our artists, poses the question of style.’ To demonstrate his new pictorial language, Deineka exhibited 119 colourful and stylistically similar works painted between 1930 and 1935. The sections of the exhibition were headed ‘USSR’, ‘America’,’ France’, ‘Italy’, and comprised varying numbers of paintings with the majority of the works relating to the Soviet Union and America, and only a few to France.

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ALEXANDER ALEXANDROVICH DEINEKA, THE COAL MINER. ESTIMATE: £3,500,000–4,500,000.

Photographs of the exhibition halls from the archives of the Moscow Union of Artists’ library, first published in January 2017 in the journal Antiquarian World have provided us with unique insight into the artist’s working method by revealing the history of the transformation of two works: Sleeping Child with Cornflowers, 1932 (State Tretyakov Gallery) and Morning (In the Student Halls), 1935. Images of both works taken immediately after their completion were reproduced in Nikiforov’s monograph on the artist in 1937. The recently published images of Deienka’s 1935 exhibition show that in both cases the artist altered the compositions between the time they were photographed for Nikiforov’s monograph and the opening of the 1935 exhibition. In Sleeping Child with Cornflowers, the lower part of the composition was removed and in Morning (In the Student Halls) the artist changed the sitters’ clothes. In the remaining fragment of the latter work, now known as Portrait of S.I.L (1935-1938), the left half of the composition, and one of the figures, has been removed entirely and the clothes of the other have been painted over again.

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AT THE PIT (IN THE MINE), ILLUSTRATED IN SOVETSKOE ISKUSSTVO, NOS.4-5, 1925.

There are two other known instances of Deineka radically reworking his compositions, one of which is The Coal Miner now offered as lot 241 in the Art of the Soviet Union sale (fig.1). The work is the only remaining fragment of the large canvas At the Pit (In the Mine), 1925, which was exhibited at the first exhibition of the Society of Easel Painters (OST) the same year and reproduced in Sovetskoe iskusstvo, nos.4-5, 1925, (fig.2). It is difficult to say exactly why, after the success of the exhibition, Deineka thought to divide the canvas into parts.

The second painting, Shower after the Battle (1937-1942) had a similar fate: Deineka cut off the far right figure The Bather, thus balancing the composition. Both canvases are now displayed as separate paintings in the Kursk State Picture Gallery.

Deineka did not like to repeat compositions but the aforementioned cases illustrate how even after finishing work on some of his paintings he did not consider them entirely complete and would radically rework them, sometimes leaving nothing of the original design.

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