Portrait of the artist

I am an artist of the 1920s
To understand my art,
one must know and be aware that
I am an artist of the 1920s.
(V. Lébedev)

The name of the Russian Soviet artist Vladimir Vasil'evich Lebedev (1891–1967) is world-renowned mainly in connection with his outstanding work in the genre of illustrated children's books. This fame, evidently, overshadows with a bright light other aspects of his multi-faceted talent. Yet at the same time Lebedev was one of the most versatile artists of the Russian avant-garde. He was the author of ingenious graphic works, an experimental painter, a discoverer of new approaches in poster creation, and a master of theater decoration. The flowering of his creative activities took place during the most brilliant period in the history of Soviet art—the 1920s. This time of revolutionary transformation in Russian society coincided with the moment of the blossoming in art of the Russian avant-garde, when the search for a new figurative language took place in conditions of an unprecedented pluralism of artistic directions.

Vladimir Lebedev spent his entire life in Saint Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad. He studied and established himself as an artist in this city. It was here that he created posters for the ROSTA Windows and illustrated his first book, worked on satirical magazines, and occupied himself with drawing and painting. Here he created the works that have become leading achievements of Russian graphic art of the twentieth-century, icons of the era.

The poster artist

Lebedev's first major contribution to the development of the artistic language of the new revolutionary art was his work on posters for the Russian Telegraphic Agency (Rossiiskoe telegraficheskoe agentstvo, or ROSTA). The artist's experimental discoveries in the sphere of the poster were preceded by a cubist period, in which the painterly principles of Lebedev's art were worked out and formulated.

The revolutionary transformation accomplished in Russia placed before artists the task of the construction of a new proletarian culture, in the creation of which special attention was allotted to means of mass propaganda and agitation. For a while the revolution united the most varied artists with the general tasks of "the struggle for the new culture." In those years they participated in the design of towns and demonstrations for holidays, and sculptors implemented the "Leninist plan of monumental propaganda." In what were for the country the difficult years of the civil war and the foreign intervention, graphics became the most mobile and efficient, the fastest in responding to new ideas; it was the most widespread type of art. Under devastating conditions for printing, precisely the poster proved to be one of the most effective tools in revolutionary agitation due to its mass character and operative nature.

Those posters that were transformed by the artist's cubist experiments became the height of Lebedev's creativity and are undeniable classics. They are Workers, Keep Your Rifles within Hand's Reach (1921), The Forge (1920–22), Apotheosis of the Worker (1920), and others. In cubism, the artist found the solution for the composition and spatial construction of posters, methods for the generalization of artistic language.

The satirist

Lebedev's talent as a satirist was destined to blossom in the 1920s. This is regarded as the most fruitful and happy period in the creative work of the artist. He created famous satirical series about daily life, graphic series marvelous in their mastery and original easel paintings, and he worked as a master of books and a theater artist.

In 1922, Lebedev created a series of twenty-three drawings, consolidated later with the apt title "Sidewalks of the Revolution". The theme of this group of drawings, which brought Lebedev fame as a graphic artist, was the Petrograd streets of the first post-revolutionary years. The series was a logical continuation of the experiment elaborated by the artist in his poster work. It seems that the characters of the ROSTA Windows are transferred to these sheets.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s the artist's painterly talent blossomed. In this period he created his best painted portraits and still lifes and numerous drawings of nude models. Characteristic of the artist at this time was an appeal to the traditions of French impressionism; principles of free painterly drawing developed in his work.

From the second half of the 1920s, at the same time he was creating satirical series, the artist systematically worked on studies from life, which resulted in hundreds of drawings that are gathered in the four graphic series "The Acrobat," "The Dancer," "The Models" and "Woman Guitarist," which became milestones in the graphic arts of the period. The drawings were executed with brush, pen, India ink, lead pencil, black watercolor and lampblack. The striking appearance of their delicate eroticism has something in common with the voluptuous sensuality of the culture of the "golden twenties"; they convey the sharp aroma of the vivid twilight era of the NEP.

The childrens' book illustrator

Thanks to these graphic series Lebedev became one of the brightest figures of the Leningrad school of graphics. Beginning in the 1920s, private collectors began to purchase the artist's works. However, it is undeniable that greater fame came to the artist though his book illustrations. Lebedev is deservedly seen as a pioneer of the illustrated children's book, for which he created new creative principles of construction. Lebedev's illustrated books The Elephant's Child (1922), Circus (1925; in this exhibition, represented by the second edition, 1928), Ice Cream (1925), Luggage (1926), Mister Twister (1933), and many others have long been recognized as classic works of children's literature.

Around 1930, the repudiation of graphics in favor of painting is evident in Lebedev's creative work. The last time the artist had turned to painting was in his experimental cubist period. Now his painterly mastery was improved in painted portraits and still lifes. The high artistic quality of Lebedev's paintings is undisputed. Like all his creations it is distinguished by great professionalism (although the artist himself regarded his legacy as a painter critically, affirming that his strength was not in painting but in drawing). The direction of Lebedev's experimentation with painting during this period is characterized by appeal to impressionist techniques and the creative work of G. Braque and P. Picasso. In these years he painted his best female portraits.

Unfortunately the 1930s brought a turning point and a moment of crisis in the artist's creative work. In Soviet art the new ideology of complete Socialist Realism took form, in which there was no place for the innovative art of Lebedev. On March 1, 1936, the newspaper Pravda published the annihilating article "About artist-daubers," which marked the beginning of the campaign to eradicate all "formalism" from Soviet art. The article subjected Lebedev's illustrations for Marshak's collection of verse, Tales, Songs, Riddles (1935) to serious criticism. This book, published in a small print run, was intended, in effect, not for children but for bibliophiles, artists and printing specialists. Lebedev endured forced aesthetic compromise, which is reflected in his art of the 1940s and 1950s. In the late painted works, artistry and harmony of color vanish, while ostentatiousness appears, and, in some works, even uncertainty. Beginning in the 1930s, the artist increasingly executed painted portraits, still lifes and life drawings "for himself," not for official display in exhibitions.

The artist did not love his art of the 1940s and 1950s. Forgotten and silenced for decades, Lebedev's multifaceted creative work has begun to be restored to the Russian viewer, thanks to a solo exhibition that took place in the last decade in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Yet beyond Russia Lebedev is known chiefly as an artist of illustrated children's books.

The first acquaintance of Spanish viewers with the works of Lebedev took place in the Exhibition of Soviet Graphics, Artistic Books, Posters and Photography, which opened in Madrid in 1933. In exhibitions that have taken place in recent years in Spain dedicated to the Soviet illustrated book, the viewer became familiar with Lebedev's work as an illustrator. Each encounter with the creativity of this wonderful, merry artist is a new discovery and great delight, thanks to the virtuosic joie de vivre of his work. We hope that this first monographic exhibition of Lebedev in Spain may further reveal the various facets of the creative work of this prominent Russian artist.

*Text extracted from the essay by Masha Koval, exhibition catalogue