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NIKOLAI SILIS (1928 - 2018)


Nikolai Silis. The Palindrome Artist

Olga Gerasimova
Magazine issue: #1 2015 (46)


It was by chance that Nikolai Silis chose the Stroganov School of Art and Crafts, which had opened in 1945 after a 15-year-long interval, although before the war Nikolai's mother used to take him to museums in Leningrad and, of course, to the Hermitage. It was then that Nikolai developed a particular fascination with monumental sculpture because the city, with its gorgeous monuments which had survived the perils of destruction could not but inspire him towards art. The statues by Vasily Demut-Malinovsky, Mikhail Kozlovsky, Peter Clodt and Etienne Maurice Falconet left a lasting impression in his mind and, at a later time, inspired him to create a series of drawings called "Centaurs"2.

The Stroganov School attracted him most of all because there was only one exam to be taken - in painting - and also because it offered a dormitory, a stipend and a uniform. For a young man getting by during the hunger-stricken postwar years, these factors proved crucial. Nikolai wanted to enroll in the Stroganov School's painting department but failed the test and gained admission instead to the artistic stone-cutting department, where artisans were trained. The Stroganov School was envisaged in 1945 as a new kind of educational establishment. Its Department of Sculpture offered training in design in such areas as stone-cutting, bronze, wood and wall painting on plasterboard. After graduating from the school of craftsmen and on review of his graduation work, Silis received a recommendation for study at the department of sculpture. His graduation work in stone-cutting was a marble copy of the antique statue "A Boy Pulling out a Thorn".

The Stroganov faculty then included the painters Vasily Bordichenko, Vladimir Yegorov, Pavel Kuznetsov, Alexander Kuprin; the sculptors Georgy Motovilov and Saul Rabinovich; the architects Leonid Polyakov and Alexander Rochegov; and the art historians Mikhail Alpatov and Nikolai Sobolev. A student of Alexander Matveyev, Saul Rabinovich in the 1930s studied in Antoine Bourdelle's Parisian workshop; at the Stroganov School he was nicknamed "Saul from Paris"3.

It was Motovilov, the head of the sculpture department, "a power-loving, resolute and bold person with progressive aesthetic views"4, who succeeded in recruiting young sculptors to teach at the school. Things were humming at the Stroganov, "even at midnight you could see a dozen students in the sculpture workshops"5. In the years of struggle against cosmopolitanism Motovilov and Rabinovich were criticized for formalism. They were accused of often mentioning Bourdelle, Maillol and Ronsard: "Neither Saul nor Motovilov succeeded in proving that they preferred Russian art to Western art and were labeled as cosmopolites"6. Motovilov warded off the peril when he joined Nikolai Tomsky's team to create the bas-relief "vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin - Founders and Leaders of the Soviet State". With a dozen other sculptors working on the project he was rewarded with the Stalin Prize First Degree in 1950 and became unassailable for critics.

After studying at the Stroganov School for eight years, Silis joined other artists - Vladimir Lemport and Vadim Sidur - to form the famous "trio". However, for a year or two the group included a fourth member, Boris Barkov, who was taken on board in order to dilute the "non-Russian" family names. Lemport and Barkov graduated from the Stroganov School in 1950, Sidur and Silis in 1953. But Barkov left the team so quickly that nobody even remembers that he was once a member. After Barkov left, the group assumed the name "LeSS" (Lemport-Sidur-Silis), with which they signed all their works irrespective of who was the author. The group stayed together for about ten years before, inevitably, breaking up. However, for several years after the split they continued to share a studio, on Komsomolsky Prospect near Park Kultury metro station, where they worked together from 1954 through until 1968.

The fact that the "LeSS" group existed for a while at all is remarkable: it is hard to imagine now how three such creative personalities could stay together. All three were young, talented and, ultimately, ambitious.

Lemport, Sidur and Silis met each other while they were studying at the Stroganov School. After the war, some of the students were soldiers fresh from the battlefield, like Konstantin Gneushev, Sidur, Lemport and Ivan Kharchevin, while some were fresh from school, including Illarion Golitzin, Yevgeny Shcheglov, Lev Tokmakov, Yury Orekhov and Silis.

The idea to set up as a trio, like the already existing "Kukryniksy" group, occurred to the three of them while still at school. At the beginning "LeSS" was referred to as "Kukryniksy in Sculpture"7. According to a commentator on the correspondence between Sidur and Karl Eimermacher, Sidur was the initiator of the "LeSS" group8.

All three were talented not only in their specialization but in other spheres as well. For instance, each was good at writing, leaving behind not only published stories, essays and literary translations9, but also diaries, which each of the trio members kept for several years beginning from October 196010. In addition, Lemport and Silis were involved in film-making in the 1960s-1970s.

Initially all three practiced a realist style: it could not have been otherwise. One would assume that in the early 1950s they did not even think about pursuing formalism, especially considering that after the war the struggle against the style swept over the country, and the art colleges were not left unscathed.

The sculptors worked as a team, although over the years each of them inevitably acquired a particular artistic vocabulary, recognizable manner and style.

The first "LeSS" project was designing two bas-reliefs -"Labour" and "Science" - for the facades of the buildings of the Moscow State University Physics and Chemistry departments, which in 1949 were under construction on the Lenin Hills. For Lemport it was a graduation work (under Motovilov's guidance), for Sidur and Silis a pre-graduation work. As Silis recalled later, the architect Lev Rudnev offered them the assignment.

In 1954 Sidur and Silis were granted membership of the Moscow Union of Artists (Barkov and Lemport had been admitted earlier). One would have thought that the future looked promising for them - clients, success and prosperity were just around the corner. But such a direction was not to become central to the three young men's life.

From the very beginning they gained a reputation among the general public as rebels who dared to criticize the unofficial monopoly in Soviet sculpture. The "Sovetskoe iskusstvo" (Soviet Art) newspaper ran an article "About the young professionals and old rules [Letter to the editor]", signed by Barkov, Lemport and Sidur. They wrote about the need to synthesize architecture and sculpture and about the lack of organization in the area of decorative sculpture. They argued that there was no institution to unite sculptors who worked with architects.

But when, nearly a year later, they wrote a second article, they did not expect the reaction that followed. The article was devoted to an assignment to design the Palace of Culture and Science in the centre of Warsaw, with Lev Rudnev the project's leading architect. Designed in the style similar to that of the "Moscow skyscrapers", the palace was a gift to the Polish people, to be financed by the USSR. Working on the project, "LeSS" made sketches for 10 statues in the niches and designed the interior decor of the Palace, which Rudnev praised. But then he suddenly signed on Nikolai Tomsky, Georgy Motovilov, Mikhail Baburin and Lev Muravin, recommending that Lemport, Sidur and Silis be hired as assistants. According to Lemport, all three were desperate. It was at this point that the three sculptors for the first time ran up against arrangements that for many years had proved a sinecure for a select group of sculptors. That was the basis behind the article in "Literaturnaya gazeta" (Literary Gazette) titled "Against Monopoly in Sculpture", which described a small group of sculptors thriving on unfair privileges - big names who physically could not handle all the projects they were employed on and, as a result, used private sculptural "enterprises" with regularly employed sculptor assistants. These assistants, responsible not only for technical work but for creative aspects as well, were never credited, and nobody knew about them. This situation where a client entrusted the project to a master whose name alone seemed to guarantee success brought about "serious failures"11, and, speaking frankly, shoddy pieces of work that only remotely resembled art. The authors of the article suggested to create conditions favourable for the work of young artists - to provide groups of young artists with studios, and to abolish competitions in which only select groups of artists could participate. In addition to Barkov, Lemport, Sidur and Silis, the article was signed by Silis's fellow students, Bodrov and Bratsun.

The authors of the article knew from their own experience how such "assistants" worked in the studios of illustrious Soviet sculptors. As a student, Silis earned extra money as an assistant to the sculptor Alexei Yeletsky, creating a tombstone for an army general - Yeletsky enjoyed great renown in Moscow for this type of job. Silis recounted this episode in his essay "Old Sretenka"12. Later he worked as a stone-cutter for Tomsky and in Yevgeny Vuchetich's studio in a church on Solyanka.

The authors of the article had touched on an issue of lasting importance for Soviet monumental art - a subject which nobody dared to talk about, much less air in public. Since the article in "Literaturnaya Gazeta" was without precedent, the sculpture section of the Moscow union of Artists spent three entire days (June 1, 5, 29)13 discussing it. Some speakers criticized the authors, others, on the contrary, supported them. A commission was set up, with Lemport brought on board, to address the issue under discussion. And on the third day of the debates - June 29 - the commission read out its resolution (the full text is missing from the archive file, however). The response was a series of additions and amendments. But the documents of the central committee of the communist Party of the USSR, published in 200114, show that the commission's resolution reached its addressee, the Ministry of Culture.

Thus, we can conclude that the article "Against Monopoly in Sculpture" was a catalyst for a conflict that had been brewing for a long time, which explains why the authors were not publicly punished. However, there were consequences: it should be remembered that some of the students of Yevgeny Vuchetich, like Matvei Manizer, Georgy Motovilov and Nikolai Tomsky became functionaries in various official organizations managing art, and Lemport, Sidur and Silis had to come into regular contact with them when they sought approval for their projects or submitted already finished works15.

It should be also noted that after the publication of "Against Monopoly" Rudnev commissioned from "LeSS" only two three-and-a-half meter high figures for the Warsaw project. One of them, "Sport", represented Silis as an athlete, another, "Architecture", represented Lemport as an architect holding the model of a skyscraper in his hands. Both statues still adorn the Palace in Warsaw. All the other sketches and ideas were rejected, Sidur's two statues - "Textile Industry" and "Geography" - remaining only in the form of sketches.

Later on, when each of the sculptors had his own studio to work in, they would feel compelled to adhere to the principles that they had adopted in the 1950s - not to create shoddy work merely for profit, and not to participate in the non-conformists' movement. Both options were unacceptable for them. They chose to work for themselves, to move in their own artistic orbits, without contributing to the loud and, for that reason, memorable actions of the non-conformists. The fact that they had to accept assignments from the crafts Workshop, the Khudozhestvenny Kombinat, should not be regarded as a betrayal of their artistic credo. On the contrary, each of the three was eager to give his own personal touch to each commissioned work.

This mark of "being different from the others" would leave a lasting impact on each of the members of the trio, even when two of them, Lemport and Silis, had parted ways with the third, Sidur. After their bold criticism their works were no longer accepted for shows. Perhaps the first and only large exhibition to feature the artwork of each sculptor comprehensively was the trio's solo show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow in 1956. A modest catalogue gives an idea of the scale of their activity: sketches, small statues, clay dishes (138 pieces in all)16.

In the same year, 1956, "LeSS" was for the first time awarded a prize at the first open competition for the best design of a monument commemorating the 300th anniversary of the reunification of ukraine and Russia. But, according to Sidur, after the jury opened the envelope and read out the winners' names, the organizers of the competition decided to cancel the first prize and to award honourable mention awards. Ernst Neizvestny received a similar honourable mention prize.

During the World Festival of Youth and Students, which afforded Westerners a glimpse of the Soviet union, an exhibition of prints and sculptures at the Gorky central Park of culture and Leisure in July-August 1957 featured one piece from each member of the group. Silis displayed the wooden composition "Young Girl".

According to the art scholar vladislav Zimenko, the Silis piece demonstrates an overwhelming fascination with "the external, rhythmic, textural expressiveness to the detriment of substance"; this "aesthetic ideal... is quite removed from our life, from the real beauty we want to see in art. It does not befit us to celebrate the relaxed, mistily dreamy or deeply 'sensual youth'."17

The critic very aptly characterized the style of Silis, for whom, in his own words, sculpture reflected his inner world. It was then, in the late 1950s-early 1960s that Silis's individual artistic vocabulary in sculpture took shape. As Lemport reminisced later, for about seven years Silis helped him and Sidur, without revealing his own artistic personality. "And then once, sometime in 1960, returning after a month's absence, Sidur and I saw a new wooden statue the size of a human being. We realized that Silis... had cast away the chains of slavery and now his rightful artistic personality had to be reckoned with"18.

The female figure is key in Silis's works. The abstract, formalist female figures made of stone, wood, chamotte or bronze or sketched in drawings became the culmination of his artwork.

In the early 1960s it was decided to produce several thousand stone replicas of some of the "LeSS" pieces, including Silis's "Girl Squeezing Her Hair Dry". At the same time, his pieces "Youth" and "Girl with a Skipping Rope" were rejected by the artistic council on account of their "formalist style".

In the same period, the 1960s, Silis produced small pieces, some of which were replicated in large quantities in plastic, like the desktop pieces "Girl on a Ball", "Skaters", "Woman on a Beach". His statues representing humans appear abstract. The poet Nikolai Starshinov, using "Skaters" as an example, characterized the essence of these pieces: "... the sculptor did not aspire to represent specific real-life skaters when he imaged their dress, body or even facial features. He was eager to convey their drive for victory, their speed, their energy, their soaring. And he achieved this!.."19. It should be noted that later, when the sculptor had an opportunity, he copied several of his pieces in bronze. Bronze lent new features to the sculptures that had initially been made of stone - when you look at them, you want to touch them, to feel their forms.

One of the works produced in this period is the famous "silisoid" - "solenoid" - an abstract piece to be placed in front of the Kirensky Institute of Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Krasnoyarsk. Permission to mount this statue could be secured only with a written explanation of its usefulness, and the physicists crafted a letter to the Moscow Union of Artists arguing at length that this sculpture emanated super-strong magnetic fields. True, when the piece was being discussed before approval, the chairman of the artistic council Lev Kerbel left the room - its formalist style was too obvious for him to accept it.

In the late 1960s Christian themes began to appear in Silis's artwork, with the first work in this vein his "Crucifixion" (1969). The reliefs made of chamotte and smalt - "The Entombment" and "Lamentation" (both from 1970) - are so memorable precisely due to the formalist contours of the figures and the fluency of the features. The next project was the iron piece "Parasceva" (1971), a piece also marked by the sculptor's original style: his is not a canonical image of the saint, and his treatment differs from that of the church. "Parasceva" is emphatically much larger than the two male figures by her side: her body is taller, the arms longer than normal. She seems to be towering over the men, defending them, begging the Lord's forgiveness for people's acts. The material and the welding technique enabled the sculptor to avoid naturalism in the saint's image. The uneven and coarse texture of the iron produced the effect of concealment of a naked body.

After the "LeSS" trio broke up in 196820, Silis and Lemport worked together as a team of two until Lemport's death. Silis summarized this experience: "Everyone grew up, and now each had an individuality different from that of the others. Besides, sooner or later every group is bound to have a leader. I could not be one because of my age, and Sidur and Lemport were equal in this fight. ultimately, as the matter stood, our ways had to part."21

Silis notes that both Lemport and Sidur spurred him into self-development. They were not mentors or teachers, rather they were opponents who incited him to "contrariness".

The relationship between Lemport and Silis was not always smooth, either. Silis respected Lemport for his craftsmanship in portraiture, but Lemport did not favour Silis's sculptures. At times the wall of misunderstanding presented itself not only in the form of the sculptors ignoring each other, but also as a very real partition diagonally dividing the studio on Aleksa Dundic street22.

Silis in partnership with Lemport worked on many projects involving monumental sculpture. unfortunately, some of them remained unaccomplished, and some pieces were simply dismantled. That was what happened to the decorative mural on the front wall of the concert Hall at the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin.

That relief was not the sculptors' only creation to be destroyed. The same thing happened to the stone mural "Old Russian Warriors" (1966) inside the building of the Arbat restaurant. The unaccomplished projects included the design of the Olympics office on Gorky Street and the front wall of the main office building of the car maker AMO ZIL (both from 1966), as well as reliefs for the Oktyabr Cinema (1967). For the last project, a revetment was built to carry reliefs featuring scenes from films, which were initially made of clay and then molded; the final product was to be made of stone23. Shortly before Lemport's death the revetment was gifted to the Mosfilm film studio. Another dismantled piece was an iron sculpture mounted in 1967 on the front of "Dom Svyazi" (Communication House), on Kalinin Prospect (now Novy Arbat, 2). The Minister of Communications Psurtsev disapproved of the iron emblem shaped by Silis as a female figure - he believed it looked too frivolous. The piece was removed from the outside and mounted inside the building, but unfortunately it has not survived. The design for the Russian National Library of Foreign Literature (1967) remained unrealized as well.

But it would not be true to say that all of Silis's and Lemport's projects remained unaccomplished. Their realized projects include the design of the Soviet Embassy in Nigeria and a relief in the reception room at the Embassy in Athens, as well as the design of libraries in Ashgabat and Rostov-on-Don, a theatre in ufa, a "Yunost" retreat near Moscow, and a caucasus sanatorium in Kislovodsk. And the conflict between the two sculptors reveals itself even in these works. According to Silis, neither the exterior design projects nor the interior design ones emerged as a single, whole piece. The opinions of the sculptors working together differed radically. First there were disputes, followed by one of the sculptors falling in line with the other. Thus, working on a relief called "Swimming Women", for the Oreanda hotel in Yalta, Lemport, instead of stylized details, depicted women's heads. The overall image conformed with Silis's design, but its integrity was violated by Lemport, who could not stand stylization in joint projects. The heads were remade in a non-abstract manner, but with the abstraction Silis's initial concept was gone as well.

In 1970-1980s Silis worked a lot with wood, creating not only statues but also reliefs. Especially remarkable among these pieces is a three-figure composition "Morning. Day. Evening". This piece compellingly reveals the sculptor's reverential attitude to the material and the subject. The female figures appear as both earthly and otherworldly; the abstract ovals of faces, necks drawn out as sprouts, brittle hands and the whiteness of the bodies stand in sharp contrast to the dark, rough tree bark. What did the sculptor want to say with this? Probably he wanted to highlight the enigma nestled within every female soul, this soul's primary natural grace and purity.

In 1976 Silis created a gypsum Don Quixote, later replicated in bronze, and in 1989 a smaller copy of the statue became the emblem of the Tarkovsky Prize. The Knight of the Ill-favoured Face from La Mancha is represented as an incorrigible romantic gazing at a flower in his hand. It is obvious that the rough iron armour hides an ardent heart which never stops wondering and, therefore, feeling and loving.

Don Quixote is featured in a series of drawings created in 1975-1976. The artist places him in fantastic situations, as if testing his endurance. Silis's Don Quixote is placed as if in zero gravity: he crosses a chessboard-patterned field on a wooden horse, gazes at a scrap metal heap, encounters, instead of a mill, an electrical transmission line, gallops across a forest of rockets, and the like. Through his treatment of the wandering knight's image Silis sends a message to the viewers about the fearlessness of Don Quixote, who cherishes his love for Dulcinea. The sculptor succeeded in conveying his admiration for "Woman" through his male hero.

Both in the 1990s and the 2000s the artist produced drawings as well as objects in wood and bronze. The pieces created in that period include "Naiads", "Fantasies," "Circus Women in a Circle" and many others. In these works Silis used artistic idioms he had applied before, such as smooth, fluid lines, as well as new ones, such as emphasis on drapes enveloping female figures or fragmentarily featured in the compositional arrangements. These features figure in his bronze pieces: "Walking Woman" (1991), "Strange Woman" (1992), "Sitting Woman in Drapes" (2001), and in the wooden sculpture "Pregnant Women" (1997).

Silis, the youngest among the three sculptors, the one who had never experienced war, for a long time remained in the shadow of his older fellows, Lemport and Sidur. According to Yury Koval, the writer and artist who knew all three sculptors well, the role reserved for Silis was that of a "third man". Silis's friends thought his works were too abstract, not serious enough. For a long time many believed that he lacked an individual style and idiosyncratic artistic language. However, looking back nearly 50 years later, one can clearly see both the style and the craftsmanship. One can like his works or not, but they will not leave the viewer unmoved.

1.    In the village an aunt began to call her nephew Nikolai, and the name took hold, so in 1950 it officially replaced his birth name. But in official documents, catalogues and articles released before 1963 Silis is referred to as Rufim.

2.    Some of them were published in a modest collection of Silis's prints "Drawings. Centaurs" (Moscow, 2003).

3.    Lemport, Vladimir. 'On the Southern Bank'. In: "Mosty". 1994. No. 1. P. 269.

4.    Lemport, Vladimir. 'Ellipses of Fate'. In: "Vremya i my (Time and us)". 1991. No. 113. P. 178.

5.    Ibid, p.172.

6.    Ibid, p. 180. Lemport quotes from memory Saul Rabinovich's ironic (just think of the circumstances when it was delivered! - O.G.) speech: "cosmopolitan - what is this? A man of the world or a man who set his tousled hair [kosmy in Russian] on fire? If the first is true, I am not a cosmopolitan but, rather, a person who returned to Russia out of patriotism right before the war and shared with all the people all the hardships of the war. No questions left? As for the second option, life indeed set my tousled hair on fire. Do you remember me, my hair four years ago? Look now - it hardly covers the top of my head. Do you remember my beard? The side whiskers are now white, and I shaved them away or, if you like, set them on fire..." (Ibid., p. 179) According to Silis's memoirs, Saul Rabinovich was keen on such plays on words.

7.    See: Nikolaev, V. 'He Who Dares, Wins'. In:"Komsomolskaya Pravda". 1956. September, 23.

8.    Vadim Sidur and Karl Eimermacher. "We'll Discuss the Details when We Meet...": correspondence. Moscow: 2004. P. 1069.

9.    Dante Alighieri. "Divine Comedy". Translation from the Italian and drawings by Vladimir Lemport. Moscow: 1997; Lemport, Vladimir. 'Without a camera'. In: "Iskusstvo kino" (Film Art ). 1969. No. 1; 'Malyuta Skuratov of the Academy of Fine Arts'. In: "Continent". 1991. No. 66; 'My hour when I work...' In: "Ogonyok". 1989. February, No. 6; 'On the southern bank'. In: "Mosty". 1994. No. 1; 'Ellipses of fate'. In: "Vremya i my" (Time and us). 1991. No. 113; Sidur, Vadim. "A Monument to the Way Things Are Now. Myth". Moscow: 2002; Silis, Nikolai. 'How I starred in a film. A fragment of a memoir'. In: "Ekran i stsena" (Screen and Stage). 2000. June; "Contemporaries". Moscow: 2014; 'The Ural Odyssey'. In: "Rybovodstvo and rybolovstvo" (Fish Breeding and Fishing). 1969. No. 1.

10.  The idea to keep diaries was Lemport's, although Vladimir Volovnikov in his commentary to Eimermacher's and Sidur's correspondence argues that the idea was Sidur's (Vadim Sidur and Karl Eimermacher. "We'll Discuss the Details When We Meet...": correspondence. Moscow: 2004. P. 1069). According to Volovnikov, the diaries were started in 1957, although diary-writing became a cooperative undertaking only in 1960. Perhaps Sidur had from 1957 been writing personal notes about which he did not tell his colleagues.

11.  Barkov, Boris; Bodrov, V.; Bratsun, Nikolai; Lemport, Vladimir; Sidur, Vadim; Silis, Rufim. 'Against monopoly in sculpture'. In: "Literaturnaya gazeta". 1954. May 4.

12.  Silis, Nikolai. 'Old Sretenka'. In: Nikolai Silis's archive (O.G. - A.E. Yeletsky did not have a studio, so every time he secured a new working place for his assistant in some kindly sculptor's studio. That was also the case with Silis, who worked in the sculptors Korobko's and Strukovsky's studio in a church on Sretenka).

13.  Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Fund 2943. File 1. Item 2233. Moscow Union of Soviet Artists (MSSKh). Section of sculpture. The transcript of the section's general meeting discussing the article 'Against monopoly in sculpture' in "Literaturnaya gazeta" issue of May 11 1954. Day 1. June 1 1954; Fund 2943. File 1. Item 2234. Day 2. June 5 1954; Fund 2943. File 1. Item 2235. Day 3. June 29 1954.

14.  A memo of the department of science and culture of the central committee of the communist Party of the Soviet union of July 6 1954. In: "The Administration of the central committee of the communist Party of the Soviet union and culture. 1953-1957: Documents". Moscow: 2001. Pp. 258-263; A memo of the Minister of Culture of the USSR Georgy Alexandrov about the state of Soviet visual art and measures to improve the organizational arrangements for artists' work, September 27 1954. Ibid, pp. 299-313; A memo of the Department of Science and Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union about the situation in visual art, October 8 1954. Ibid, pp. 314-319. In the following years the problem of improvement of the organizational arrangements of the artists' work continued to be repeatedly discussed. See, for instance, a memo of the Department of Science, Schools and Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic about the "difficult situation" with the organizational arrangements for the artists' work and the need to improve them, May 28 1959 ("The Administration of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Culture. 1953-1957: Documents". Moscow: 2001. Pp. 245-255).

15.  Lemport, Vladimir. 'On the southern bank'. In: "Mosty". 1994. No. 1. Pp. 266-272, 279-281.

16.  The comments book from the exhibition remained with Sidur, and we have not had an opportunity to examine it yet.

17.  Zimenko, Vladislav. 'Roads and crossroads'. In: "Sovetskaya kultura" (Soviet Culture). 1957. July 27.

18.  Lemport, Vladimir. 'On the southern bank'. In: "Mosty". 1994. No. 1. P. 275.

19.  Starshinov, Nikolai. 'There are such people'. In: Starshinov, Nikolai. "When It's Gone, It's Gone... On the Literary Stage and Behind the Curtain: Funny and Sad Stories about People of Genius, Craftsmen and People Close to Writers". Moscow: 1998. P. 333.

20.  The German historian Karl Eimermacher did much to popularize Sidur's artwork - thanks to his efforts Sidur's sculptures made their way to the West as early as in the 1970s.

21.  Silis, Nikolai. 'Everything with an exclamation mark'. In: "Kovalinaya Book. Memoirs about Yury Koval". Moscow: 2008. P. 429.

22.  This studio is known to film-lovers for such films as Sergei Gerasimov's "The Love of Mankind" (1972) and Alexander Mitta's "Moscow, My love" (1974).

23.  Interview with Nikolai Silis, October 22 2012.

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The Sculptor at Work. 1970s Photographer: V. Uskov

Solenoid. Krasnoyarsk. 1967
Forged aluminium.
Photo from Nikolai Silis archive

Left: Discus-thrower. Right: Shot-putter. Cement, 1962; bronze, 1980.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Memorial Headstone.
1990s Private collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Pregnant Woman.
1966 Wood. Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Taming. 1990s From the “Centaurs” series. A drawing.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Don Quixote.
Gypsum, 1976; brass, bronze, 1990.
Original in Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Don Quixote. 1990 Brass, bronze.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Caryatid. 1990 Wood.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Woman Gymnasts.
Gypsum, 1980; bronze, 1996.
Original in Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Woman Feminists.
Gypsum, 1970; forged aluminium, 1987
 Original in Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Lying Woman.
Wood, 1965. Bronze, 1992.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Vladimir Lemport, Nikolai Silis.
Design of a library courtyard.
Ashgabat. 1970-1971.
Photo from Nikolai Silis archive

Discus-like. 1985 Tinted gypsum.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Nikolai Silis in his studio
outside Moscow. 2014
Photographer: V. Uskov

Parasceva. 1971 Welded iron.
 Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Speed Skaters.
Plasticine, 1963; bronze, 1969.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

On the Embankment. 1990s
From the “Centaurs” series. A drawing.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Graces. Chamotte,
1960; bronze, 1981.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Tinted gypsum, 1971; bronze, 1972.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Cement, 1962; bronze, 1980.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

Chamotte, 1985;
bronze with forged finish, 1989.
Nikolai Silis collection.
Photographer: V. Uskov

The Quixotic World of Silis and Lemport
Text Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Photos courtesy Nikolai Silis

Inside a two-story studio in northwest Moscow, the quixotic world of two Russian sculptors is preserved in bronze and other media. Vladimir Lemport and Nikolai Silis shared this workspace for years, creating art individually as well as in collaboration.

Lemport & Silis, Library facade, Ashhabad, Turkmenistan (1970)

Born in Tambov in 1922, Lemport fought the Nazis at Stalingrad and lived to tell about it. That survival, he said, “filled me with joy for the rest of my life — after the trenches, everything seems fine.” After World War II, while studying at the Stroganov Art School, he was given the opportunity to help decorate the new Moscow State University building on what is today called Sparrow Hills.

Details of library facade,
“Greece” and “Egypt”

Nikolai Silis was born in Moscow in 1928. After surviving the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, he also enrolled at Stroganov. But it was not until 1952 that the two artists began to work together. They were invited together with fellow Stroganov graduate Vadim Sidur, to design sculptures for the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland. Although the team created 20 sculptures, only two were installed — a result, they contend, of “monopolism” (the domination of all commissions for new works of art by a small group of artists who were highly placed in the Soviet art establishment). In May 1953, the three artists penned a ferocious article in Literaturnaya Gazeta entitled “Against monopolism in sculpture.” Although the piece delivered a blow to the monopolists, it also served to close the doors of the establishment art world.

Nevertheless, the three continued to work. In 1956, thanks to Khrushchev’s thaw, Lemport became a member of the Moscow Artists’ Union, and the trio staged an exhibition at the Academy of Arts. The same year, they collaborated to decorate the swimming pool at Moscow’s Lenin Stadium in Moscow. They created a ceramic relief that harmonized perfectly with the pool’s huge ceramic tiles. But the advent of the Brezhnev era revived the chill wind of censorship, bringing a deep freeze to the creative world. Silis and Lemport would not stage their next solo show until 1987.

After Sidur left the team in 1962, Lemport and Silis continued to work together until Lemport’s death in 2001. Rejection from the authorities notwithstanding, the duo viewed the Brezhnev years as ones of artistic growth and maturation. “Since we were heading against the wind,” Silis laughed, “the Artistic Council [of the Union of Artists, one of the bodies that had to approve works of art] did its best to drown us in a teacup.” Several projects were rejected. “The Artistic Council would often drop the price for our works by five times,” Lemport said during a 1995 interview, “only because our art is abstract, unlike Socialist Realism.” Despite — or perhaps because of this — the sculptors’ workshop was known in the 1960s as a popular gathering spot for artists.

N. Silis, Don Quixote on a Chessboard Lithograph, 1979

Amid their close collaboration, each artist maintained his own style, which was often in stark contrast with that of his partner. For example, Silis dislikes sharp angles and rough surfaces, while Lemport loves texture. “We are opponents,” Silis explained in 1995. “We’re constantly arguing, but people get together according to the principle of antipodes…I instinctively chose Lemport — I wanted to prove myself to someone. However, we share the same philosophy and our hierarchy of values is the same.”

Among Lemport’s work is a series of series of ceramic portraits that includes Albert Einstein and Dante Alighieri. An asymmetrical mosaic depicting Boris Pasternak in blue, green, and yellow was created in the 1960s, when the writer was persecuted for having published his novel Doctor Zhivago abroad. “I try to model my sculptures as if they were filling the whole of my head,” Lemport said. “There is a whole world in our head — infinite and unique. The challenge is to learn to sense it, to see and hear it.”

Silis, who early on worked in a realistic style before becoming increasingly abstract, reflected on his own artistic development: “The Lemport-Sidur- Silis team did monumental sculptures together for 15 years, but I don’t really think I succeeded in that genre. In 1962, I carved my first individual sculpture in wood. Since then I’ve considered myself a sculptor…The main thing for me in sculpture is form. Form alone can create the image of the artist. Texture, material, dimensions — all these are just attributes.”

Since we were heading against the wind, the Artists’ Council did its best to drown us in a teacup.

But Silis is not known for his work in sculpture alone. In 1976, he created a series of witty lithographs portraying Don Quixote in contemporary situations. “What I wanted to express in these engravings is Cervantes’ sarcasm, humor, and depth,” he said. So in Don Quixote on a Chessboard the character finds himself in a chessboard universe that exists in several dimensions at the same time. Unable to tell top from bottom, Don Quixote nevertheless maintains his fighting spirit, posed on horseback and holding a lance. “We’re all Don Quixotes in a way and may always find ourselves in surreal situations like that,” commented Silis. In the Ecological Don Quixote, Cervantes’ picaro is set against a big industrial town pumping out black fumes. He tries to hide behind a dilapidated wall, surrounded by garbage and broken bottles, but there is nowhere to go.

In the mid-1990s, both sculptors took some of their work created in more fragile media and cast it in bronze. “We entered the bronze age in our creativity,” they laughed. Lemport’s bronze sculptural portraits include Bach (with a wig composed of pieces of an organ) as well as Goethe and the deaf Beethoven in agony trying to discern sound. In 1994, two Lemport sculptures, Pieta and War, were selected for display at Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War on Poklonnaya Gora, which opened as part of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.

N. Silis, Lamentation Relief, 1970 V. Lemport, Ludwig van Beethoven Bas-relief, 1992 V. Lemport, Albert Einstein Bas-relief, 1964

Despite the pair’s success — between 1994 and 1996 Lemport alone had 15 exhibitions of his work — Lemport used to say, “We’re happy we couldn’t sell all our sculptures. The studio is full of them. It’s very important for an artist to have his works around him, to be able to talk to them.” In this way, they were able to maintain an external manifestation of the world inside their heads: “Our workshop is our home where we live. Of course, we leave it to go home for the night, but it’s our world.”

A book on the work of Nikolai Silis is currently available, and a companion volume on the work of Vladimir Lemport is in progress. For information, call (499) 142-1637

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