Monday, October 25, 2010

Moissei Liangleben

Moissei Liangleben – at the Palette and Chisel, through Oct. 24

Born in 1925 and emigrating to Chicago in 1991, Moissei Liangleben’s life spanned almost the entire history of the Soviet Union, surviving famines in the 1930’s, conscription into the great war of the 1940’s, and finally winning admittance to the Surikov Art Institute in 1945 and membership in the artists’ union in 1952. American museums, like the Art Institute, have limited themselves to Russian avant garde artists like Malevich, Kandinsky, and Chagall .But Moissei lived in a whole other world of 19th and 20th C. Russian creativity. His family owned a landscape by Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898), and he studied with Sergei Gerasimov (1885-1964), knew Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876 - 1956), and many other leading Soviet painters and sculptors. When Americans think of this genre, we think of propaganda like the exhibition of war posters that will come to the A.I.C. next year. But Soviet painters, just like Soviet poets, musicians, and dancers, had aesthetic agendas as well. They were a privileged class, distinguished by the very high level of classical technique required for admittance, as well as by the melancholy moods appropriate for life everywhere on planet earth, but especially in the evil empire. This exhibit by Moissei Liangleben spans the 7 decades of his career (and yes, he’s still climbing the 50 steps up to the third floor of the Palette and Chisel to paint the model several times a week). Unfortunately, there’s not much in this exhibit from his middle years, when he specialized in portraits of the intellectual elite, like Veniamin Kaverin, Viktor Shklovsky, Vsevolod Ivanov, and Anna Akhmatova (who had first been painted by her lover, Modigliani). But there are some fascinating self portraits of the teenage art student, and 60 years later, many charming views of young Chicago women. Like contemporary American Impressionists, he is interested in beauty. But his nudes are not just about flesh. Like many Russian artists, he is mostly interested in describing a unique personality. As he puts it, he wants to “show my sense of brightness and beauty in the model’s appearance”. But relentlessly, though subtly, there is also a sense of impending grief and sadness.

Above all, he is proudest of how he integrates the figure with its background to create an atmosphere, but despite his extensive training, he does not practice the kind of academicism whose smooth finish approaches that of a photograph. The Soviet school is closer to the flat, rough, expressive angularity of Cezanne. Whether new generations of painters will continue to pursue this direction remains to be seen. It’s a style that may disappear along with the idealistic but tragically flawed mega-state that sponsored it.

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