Evgeny Mikhnov-Voitenko, untitiled
Mikhnov-Voitenko's work has a remarkable, varied, and powerful effect on those who view it. When his works were seen in his crowded apartment/studio, where they filled every bit of wall space from chair top to ceiling, and with the presence of Mikhnov's own strong personality in the room enhancing their impact, the impression was quite overwhelming. It should be remembered that for the Soviets, who were largely cut off from knowledge of the art movements of the West and from their own avant-garde art of the tens and twenties, the art of Mikhnov-Voitenko seems quite remarkable and inexplicable. For most Soviets, seeing abstract art is a totally new experience. On the other hand, most Americans who see this exhibition will have an awareness of nearly a century of evolution in abstract art. But even against this background of greater familiarity, most Americans, l believe, will find Mikhnov's work fresh and original eloquently expressing his own unique and original genius.
The precise beginnings of abstract art are still under debate, but there is no doubt that Russian artists played a major role. Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin, Gabo Lissitsky and other Russians where among the first artists to break fresh paths in abstraction in Russia and, in several cases, later in Europe. But these pioneers began a tradition which was soon to die in the Soviet Union. With the imposition by Stalin of the strictures of socialist realism in 1932, the last vestiges of freedom in art were crushed, and what little was left of the exciting promise of avant-garde and abstract art was extinguished.
With only socialist realist art officially acceptable in the Soviet Union, interest in abstract art shifted completely to the West, first to Europe and later to the United States, especially New York City where it was most powerfully expressed in the abstract expressionism of the 19S0's and, later, in the minimalism of the 1960's. Stalin's death in 1953 made it possible for evolution and diversity in art to resume, but still under very difficult circumstances. Critical momentum had been lost; the pioneers were dead or there were scant possibilities for making a living from art that lay outside the traditionally accepted norms. Nonetheless, in the late 1950's a few artists began to experiment and to develop their own individual styles beyond the confines of socialist realism. Their work was largely figurative, but a small number experimented with abstract art. Among those living in Moscow were Lydia Masterkova, Edward Steinberg, Boris Zhutovsky, Nikolai Vechtomov, Francisco Infants, Dmitri Plavinsky, Lev Kropivnitsky, Vladimir Nemukhin, and Anatoly Zverev (now deceased). Some of these have remained with abstract art but others have moved back to figurative painting or on to conceptual art or to a stylistic mixture. In the Baltic area, particularly in Estonia, and in the Trans-Caucasus, especially in Armenia, which had their own strong indigenous artistic cultures, a number of artists experimented with abstraction, but only a few made it their stylistic centrepiece. The situation was similar in Leningrad: in addition to Mikhnov, there were only a few artists who experimented with abstract art. Among these were Evgeni Rukhin and Yakov Vinkovetsky (both deceased), William Brui, Boris Zeldin, Yuri Dyshlenko, Leonid Borisov, Anatoly Putilin, Oleg Lygachev, Mikhail Kulakov and Zubkov. Of those in this group only Mikhnov, persevered in the Soviet Union as a purely abstract painter.
Fortunately, the broader possibilities of art were opened for him and for a number of other young artists by Nikolai Akhimov, who after Stalin's death, established a Department of Stage Design at the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography. Here Mikhnov and other creative young artists were exposed to a wide-ranging intelligence nourished not only by books but also by foreign travel, In the realm of the theatre - specifically in stage design, poster preparation, and related arts and crafts - Akhimov was able to achieve an artistic freedom that was impossible in the major art institutes which remained largely untouched by the thaw in the arts. Akhimov gave his students a unique introduction to the Russian avant-garde, (including constructivism), and to modern Western art of the 19th and 20th centuries through lectures illustrated with slides and publications he had obtained on his trips. While he personally did not favour impressionist or abstract art, he encouraged his students to experiment with all kinds of art styles and techniques with the result that several, including Mikhnov, became involved in abstract art. Indeed, after graduation Mikhnov never practiced the craft of stage design but moved directly into painting as his full-time occupation.
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