Ernst Neizvestny, the man who dared to argue with Nikita Krushchev

Ernst Neizvestny, the sculptor who stood up to Nikita Khrushchev after the Soviet leader launched a public attack on his work in 1962, turns 90 on April 9. RBTH pays tribute to one of the most important artists of the Soviet era, who has been living in the United States since emigrating from the USSR in 1977.

Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, Moscow, 1967.Source: Yuriy Ivanov / RIA Novosti

Ernst Neizvestny belongs among that class of artists who cannot be defined by their work alone, even given the expressiveness and intensity of his creations – monumental-style sculptures that are endowed with the energy of a compressed spring.

Yet it was Neizvestny’s principled stance at the notorious exhibition by the Moscow Union of Artists (MOSKh) – the so-called Manezh exhibition – in December 1962 that was to anchor his place in history. The show, titled "30 years of MOSKh," became infamous for the behavior of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who yelled at artists he did not understand, leading the event to be seen as a symbol of the failed expectations of the so-called cultural "thaw" of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Ernst Neizvestny was exhibiting his works at the Manezh not only with artist Ely Bielutin's studio New Reality (which he did not belong to), but also as part of the main MOSKh display. But when Khrushchev began to attack him there, in front of Bielutin's disciples, and asked him, "Why do you distort the faces of Soviet people?" the impulsive Neizvestny responded by challenging him and defending the integrity of his work.

In the end, the Soviet general secretary told him (his words were cited by Yury Gerchuk in his book Krovoizliyanie v MOSKh (“Hemorrhage in MOSKh”): "You're an interesting person, I like these kinds of people, but you have an angel and a devil in you at the same time. If the devil wins, we will destroy you. If the angel wins, we will help you."

Yet beyond his association with Krushchev, Neizvestny is a living history of his country. His grandfather was a merchant, his father a White officer [a member of the pre-revolutionary imperial army – RBTH] – a dangerous family tree in the USSR.

On his way to the front lines during World War II, Neizvestny was sentenced to death for the murder of a Red Army soldier who had raped his girlfriend; he spent two months waiting for execution by a firing squad, which was eventually replaced by a penal battalion. At the end of the war, he was wounded; his spine was so severely damaged that at some point he was thought to be dead.

It was not until after the war that Neizvestny turned to art, enrolling at Riga’s Art Academy of Latvia in 1947, before continuing his studies in Moscow. He became a member of the sculptural section of the Moscow Union of Artists (MOSKh) in 1955.


Relationship with the authorities and emigration

The sculptor turned the theme of the "artist and power" to his own advantage: Andy Warhol, whom Neizvestny reportedly struck up a friendship with during a visit to the U.S., came up with the frequently quoted phrase "Khrushchev is a mediocre politician of the Ernst Neizvestny era."

In an ironic twist – it was Neizvestny who made, at the request of relatives of the former General Secretary, Khrushchev’s tombstone at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's grave at the Novodevichye cemetery. The tombstone was designed by Ernst Neizvestny. Source: Vladimir Akimov / RIA Novosti

White blocks on the one side, black ones on the other, as if sprouting into each other and supporting each other, in spite of the symbolical contradiction in colors – and the head of Khrushchev in between.

The sculptor emigrated in 1976 and has been living in New York since 1977. After teaching at Columbia and Harvard universities, in 1983 he was selected to be a humanities professor at Oregon University. Neizvestny's house is located on Shelter Island in New York, as well as his Sculpture Park

The most recognized of unofficial artists?

In his book The 60s and the 70s ... Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow, conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov wrote that Neizvestny was "in the official and unofficial environment at the same time." Alongside other unofficial artists like Kabakov himself, the sculptor belonged to the Sretensky Boulevard Group (named after the boulevard in Moscow where artists' studios were located).

On the other hand, he carved a 150-meter sculpted relief titled "To the Children of the World" at the pioneer camp Artek (1966) and came up with a 75-meter monument to the friendship of peoples – "Lotus Flower" – on the Aswan Dam in Egypt (1968-1971).

Whether demonstrating "Atomic Explosion" (1957) or making a memorial to the victims of Stalinism in Magadan (1996), or even working on the "Tree of Life" project, which he started as early as 1956 (one copy is kept in the UN building in New York), Neizvestny’s power of expression always broke through via the power of the material and the feeling of inner struggle, via the faces and masks.

Strong emotions are manifested in his other works as well: in the powerful Great Centaur, installed in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva in 1997, and in the small statue of Orpheus presented to winners of the Russian television industry’s TEFI award.

Crucifixes made by Neizvestny are kept in the Vatican Museum, but he also has museums of his own – the Tree of Life Museum in Uttersberg in Sweden and a museum in his Urals hometown, Yekaterinburg. About a hundred sculptures by Neizvestny have been installed around the U.S.

In time, the man who had been the target of the General Secretary’s ire back in 1962 was even decorated – many years later – by his own country’s inheritor, with the artist receiving the Russian Order for Merit, 3rd class, in 1996. He has also been recognized by his second homeland, which named him Russian-American Person of the Year in 2014. His surname (which in Russian means “unknown”) has never seemed more inappropriate.

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