Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian Sculptor Who Clashed With Khrushchev, Dies at 91
By WILLIAM GRIMESAUG. 17, 2016
Ernst Neizvestny in an undated photograph. He was at odds with the Soviet authorities.CreditFine Art Images/Heritage Images, via Getty Images
Ernst Neizvestny, a sculptor whose ventures into modernism put him at odds with the Soviet cultural authorities and led to a memorable confrontation with Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1962, died on Aug. 9 in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Anna Graham.
As cultural policy in the post-Stalin era began to loosen, Mr. Neizvestny (pronounced nyai-eez-VYEST-nee) and a dozen abstract painters were invited to show their work at a large exhibition in Moscow to mark the 30th anniversary of the Moscow section of the Soviet Artists’ Union.
One visitor was Khrushchev, whose irritation at being dragged to an event in which he had no interest — agricultural machinery was more to his taste — grew into incandescent rage when he beheld the work of Mr. Neizvestny and his fellow avant-gardists.
Cursing, Khrushchev pronounced the work degenerate and incompetent. The paintings, he said, looked as though a donkey had swished its tail across the canvas. He asked to speak to the most important artist at the show. Mr. Neizvestny was pushed forward.
“He started shouting at me,” Mr. Neizvestny wrote in the journal The Time and Us in 1979. “I said that I would only talk about my own work, and turned away to go into the room where my work was on display, not imagining that Khrushchev would follow me. But follow me he did, and so did the whole of his entourage and the rest of the crowd.”Continue reading the main story
A photograph of the ensuing face-off showed, in close attendance, Leonid I. Brezhnev, who would succeed Khrushchev as Soviet leader; Brezhnev’s deputy, Andrei P. Kirilenko; and the party theoretician Mikhail A. Suslov. It was widely assumed that conservatives in the Artists’ Union had engineered the confrontation, one of the signal cultural events of the Khrushchev era, to bring about a crackdown on cultural experimentation.Photo
Mr. Neizvestny created a monument for the grave of the former Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. CreditAlexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
Mr. Neizvestny, like Khrushchev, was blunt and volatile. “You may be premier and chairman, but not here in front of my works,” he told Khrushchev. “Here I am premier, and we shall discuss as equals.”
A lively conversation ensued. “I made it clear to him that he had been duped, as he was neither an artist nor a critic and was illiterate when it came to aesthetics,” Mr. Neizvestny recalled.
Khrushchev counterpunched, but seemed rather taken with his opponent, as Mr. Neizvestny was with him.
“I should stress that as I talked to Khrushchev, something in me responded to the dynamism of his personality,” Mr. Neizvestny wrote. “In spite of the fear in the air, I found him easy to talk to.” He added, “Khrushchev spoke frankly — ignorantly, but frankly — which meant that I could answer him frankly.”
As the conversation wound down, Khrushchev said: “You’re an interesting man — I enjoy people like you — but inside you there are an angel and a devil. If the devil wins, we’ll crush you. If the angel wins, we’ll do all we can to help you.” The two men shook hands.
Mr. Neizvestny paid a price for his boldness. He could not work officially for several years, a period of ostracism that ended in 1966 when he entered anonymously and won an international competition sponsored by Egypt to create a monument for the Aswan High Dam, financed in large part by the Soviet Union.ontinue reading the main story
When Khrushchev died in 1971, his family asked Mr. Neizvestny to create a monument for his grave at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. The artist responded with a bronze head placed in a tower of white marble and black granite blocks, representing the progressive and reactionary impulses that competed for primacy in Khrushchev’s soul.Photo
Mr. Neizvestny, with his Orpheus sculpture, at a Moscow gallery in 1996.CreditAlexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny was born on April 9, 1925, in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), in the Ural Mountains. His father, Iosif, was a pediatric surgeon. His mother, the former Bella Dizhur, was a biochemist, poet and children’s book author. Ernst was sent to a school for artistically gifted children in Leningrad. (It was relocated to Samarkand after the outbreak of World War II.)
In 1942, Mr. Neizvestny enlisted in the military, serving on the Second Ukrainian Front as an airborne commando. He was severely wounded in Austria in 1945, left for dead and awarded — posthumously, the authorities assumed — the prestigious Order of the Red Star.
After the war, he taught drawing at the Suvorov Military Institute in Sverdlovsk before resuming his art studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Riga. He later studied art at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow and philosophy at Moscow State University. In 1955, he was accepted into the sculpture section of the Moscow branch of the Soviet Artists’ Union and began exhibiting widely in group shows.
His marriage to Dina Mukhina, a ceramist, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Ms. Graham, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Olga Neizvestny; a sister, Liudmila Lifson; and a stepdaughter, Olivia Graham.
Mr. Neizvestny’s style, a blend of socialist realism and expressionism with nods to Jacques Lipchitz and Henry Moore, walked a fine line between orthodoxy and heresy. He created the sculpture “Prometheus” and the decorative relief “Monument for All the World’s Children” for Artek Pioneer Camp in the Crimea and other official commissions, but was never given a solo exhibition.
Frustrated with official opposition to his work, he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976 and, after a brief period in Zurich, settled in New York. He had a studio in SoHo and a home on Shelter Island, where he created a sculpture park.
In 1996, his “Mask of Sorrow,” a monument to the victims of the Stalinist purges, was installed in the Siberian coastal city of Magadan, a dispersal point for the camps of the gulag. In 2004, “The Tree of Life,” a work he first conceived in the 1950s, was placed in the foyer of the Bagration pedestrian bridge in Moscow.
In a telegram sent to relatives and friends of the artist, and posted on the Kremlin’s website, Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, said that Mr. Neizvestny was “rightly considered one of the greatest sculptors of our time” and called his death “a grievous loss for Russia’s culture and for world culture as a whole.”