Lithography from Leningrad, Estorick Collection: ‘A far cry from the drab stereotype of the Soviet Union’

Left: Vasnetsov’s Stolen Horses, 1964. Image: Anna and Leonid Frants Collection.
Right: Brodsky’s University, Mendeleev Line, 1973. Image: Anna and Leonid Frants Collection

Thirty years on from the events that laid low the iron curtain and shattered the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the culture that emerged from the Bolshevik revolution is still full of contradictions.

High-profile Soviet art was all muscular socialist heroism; yet beneath the surface there was huge diversity, even after socialist realism was proclaimed the official national style in the early 1930s.

Winter Swimming Pool: After Training, 1963.
Image: Kononikhin Family Collection

A new exhibition at the Estorick Collection provides a rare glimpse of the richness of work produced by the Leningrad Experimental Graphics Laboratory in the 1950s.

Drawing on traditions of folk art and icon painting, as well as 20th century stylisation, the prints shown are intimate, quirky and wholly modern.

Lithography from Leningrad is in fact a reprise of a 1961 exhibition of work brought to London from the Soviet Union by Eric Estorick, who introduced the UK to contemporary Soviet art following a visit to Russia in 1960 during which the gallerist was so mesmerised that he purchased several hundred prints on the spot.

The current show, which includes work from 15 of the 27 artists in the original exhibition, marks the first time in nearly sixty years that this art has been brought together in the UK.

Aleksandr Semenovich Vedernikov’s On Makarov Embankment, 1960.
Image: Anna and Leonid Frants Collection

The subjects of the lithographs are virtually all everyday scenes and sights. Especially impressive are the figures of Boris Ermolaev and Mikhail Skulyari, and the street scenes of Irina Maslennikova and Vera Matyukh.

Most striking perhaps is the vibrancy and life in this small but diverse collection, with echoes of Matisse and Chagall – a far cry from the drab stereotype of the Soviet Union that remains lodged in popular consciousness.

Lithography from Leningrad: Eric Estorick’s Adventure in Soviet Art runs until 22 December at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, N1 2AN.