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The Paths of Yuri Pimenov. Eight Facts about the Creative Path of the Artist

  9 
Controversy arises around the work of Yuri Pimenov. Some consider him an excellent painter, others a typical Soviet artist who got the best of the authorities. Pimenov portrayed Soviet life and the whole way of life in bright and joyful colours. But what drove him — a positive view of the world characteristic of this person, fear of power, or a banal desire to live peacefully and prosperously? Let’s try to figure it out.
The Paths of Yuri Pimenov. Eight Facts about the Creative Path of the Artist
At first glance, everything is very clear in the creative biography of Yuri Pimenov. The author of the paintings Industrialization Now!, Workers of Uralmash, New Moscow, etc. became a People’s Artist of the USSR, Lenin Prize Laureate and twice Stalin Prize Laureate, was awarded the Orders of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. The conclusion suggests itself: Pimenov was an opportunist, and the state generously thanked him.

But there are facts in the biography of Yuri Pimenov that undermine this simple construction.

1. First steps

Yuri Pimenov was born in 1903 in Moscow. His father was an assistant attorney at law, and his mother came from a merchant family. His drawing teacher at the gymnasium noticed the boy’s talent and helped him enter the Zamoskvoretsk school of drawing. The teenager spent a lot of time in the Tretyakov Gallery, near the landscapes of Savrasov, Somov, Levitan. It is unlikely that he then could have imagined that in two decades he himself would paint a picture that will take place in one of the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery. In addition, Yuri Pimenov was a regular at the Sergei Shchukin gallery. And admiring the canvases of the Impressionists, most likely, he did not assume that he would choose this particular direction of painting. But later.

2. Onwards!

In 1920, Yuri Pimenov entered VKHUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops), where he studied under Sergei Milyutin, Vadim Falileev and Vladimir Favorsky. But Pimenov’s further work was influenced not only by teachers, but also by fellow practitioners, such as Alexander Deineka, Alexander Tyshler, Pyotr Williams, Andrey Goncharov.
In 1925, a group of Vkhutemas graduates founded OST — the Society of Easel Painters. Among the founders were Yuri Pimenov and his classmates Williams and Deineka.

OSTers rejected realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
of the Itinerants, their works on stylistics were close to constructivism and European expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
. The main theme of the easel painters was the life of the young Soviet country — work, sports, etc. Pimenov’s paintings of this period are bright and dynamic, they are distinguished by their graphic quality and clarity of composition.
In these works are both the young artist’s point (Pimenov is a little over twenty), and, of course, a response to the social order. And the state order too. For example, the Yuri Pimenov painted Heavy Industry Now! for the exhibition of works of art for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution (and received a prize for it). The works for this exposition were carried out under the state order. The artists chose the themes themselves, but, of course, they were coordinated with the commission.

However, awards at major exhibitions did not mean immediate success. Many of Pimenov’s works were sharply criticized, they were called too poster-like; for example, they wrote about the War Invalids to have "nothing to do with our reality", and in his Race, they saw a distortion of the image of a Soviet man. But most importantly, the members of the OST as a whole were reproached for being bourgeois and formal. Although such accusations did not yet sound like a verdict in the second half of the 1920s.

3. Wandering around the world

In the 1920—1930s, the Soviet state had not yet fenced itself off with the Iron Curtain, but, on the contrary, sought to present its achievements throughout the world, including in art field. Thus, young artists were criticized for being bourgeois, but at the same time they could participate in major international exhibitions and travel abroad.
Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov. A long road. From the series "Things people"
1959, 50×90 cm
Yuri Pimenov took part in an international travelling exhibition in New York (1932), in the Tokyo exhibition Woman and Children (1933), as well as in group exhibitions of artists in the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (in 1928, 1930, 1932, as well as in the 1950s and 1970s).
In 1937 he received a medal at the World’s Fair in Paris, and in 1939 he led a group that created a giant panel, Physical Culture Parade, for the Soviet pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York.
Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov. PE parade
PE parade
1939, 916×1460 cm

4. Fellow traveler

In 1931, Yuri Pimenov married a typist-stenographer Natalya Bernadskaya. They have lived together all their lives. Natalya Konstantinovna became not just the artist’s wife and, as it often happens, his model and muse, but also an assistant. She studied from Pimenov, eventually became a theatre artist herself and helped her husband in creating theatrical costumes.
Portrait of N. K. Pimenova in a white hat. Yuri Pimenov. 1943. The Source

Pimenov wrote: "In my lif

Portrait of N. K. Pimenova in a white hat. Yuri Pimenov. 1943. The Source

Pimenov wrote: "In my life, my wife helps me enormously. She is always my best model — remembering my work made over the years, I see now her figure, now her hair or hands. (…) She always gave me the right advice when it was necessary to make the most honest, and therefore the most correct decisions. And she helped out in difficult times of illness and in the years of failures that are obligatory for the artist. She just lived there…"

The "difficult times of illness" and the "years of failure" mentioned by Yuri Pimenov came to him in the early 1930s. Life around was changing, and not for the better for the artist.

5. Sharp turn

In 1931, a split occurred in the Society of Easel Artists. Part of the OST members formed a new group called Isobrigada. Yuri Pimenov also entered it. The members of the Isobrigada declared in their program that they would get rid of the "bourgeois influence" and strengthen the "proletarian sector in art". But Pimenov was still criticized for formalism.
  • Construction sketch
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    . Yuri Pimenov. 1930
  • Girl with a Book. Yuri Pimenov. 1931
It must be said that criticism, even the most ruthless, was only a part of creative polemics in the 1920s and did not lead to any repressions. But gradually the situation changed. In 1932, by a resolution of the party, all existing creative associations were liquidated. Instead, a single for all Moscow Regional Union of Soviet Artists was created (over time, it would become the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Artists).

In 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, socialist realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
was recognized as the only correct method for all Soviet culture.


Discussions on purely creative issues and criticism of artworks increasingly took on political overtones.
Pimenov fell ill. His friend, artist Alexander Labas, later wrote that Pimenov was bitten by a mad dog, he did not believe in the success of the treatment and was very depressed. But the problems persisted not only with his health.
Yuri Pimenov himself recalled: "It was my difficult time. My nerves crept apart, I could not work at all. In addition, professional troubles befell me: a book I illustrated was recognized as formalistic for drawings, and I found myself without money and without a job, because after this book I was not given work in magazines, and we lived on the money that my wife earned by shorthand."
Yuri Pimenov with his wife Natalia. Photo Source
Yuri Pimenov with his wife Natalia. Photo Source
Pimenov spent hours walking around Moscow or leaving the city. Either during these long walks, or in conversations with his wife, he found a new path for himself. Yuri Pimenov refused industrial and sports themes and turned to the theme of the city and the person — ordinary life rather than labour exploits.

But the main thing is that he changes his style radically.

Posterity and expression disappear from his canvases, instead of delicate transparent colours and small strokes à la impressionists.
What made him make such a turn? Perhaps Pimenov allowed critics to convince himself that he immersed into formalism and "moved forward a little it slowly" (as Igor Grabar wrote). Or maybe he really outgrew his early passion for expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
, or he saw the world differently after his serious illness. Or maybe Pimenov simply could no longer remain without work and live on the earnings of his beloved wife?
One way or another, a turning point has come. Yuri Pimenov not only changed his painting style, he destroyed many of his early works. Moreover, even those paintings that have already been in museums. The artist managed to take them from the museum collections after promising to provide new works in return. As a result, many of Pimenov’s significant works of the 1920s only survived in photographs.
But in our century it has become possible to bring back to life what was lost: the destroyed paintings were reproduced on metal for the large personal exhibition of Yuri Pimenov in the Tretyakov Gallery (8 Sep 2021 — 9 Jan 2022).

6. Roads

In 1937, Yuri Pimenov created the New Moscow painting. This canvas glorified the artist, clearly defined both his painting style and theme. Pimenov looks at the life of his native city, its people, new buildings and new way of life, with love and no pathos. The theme of roads, which would become one of the main ones for Yuri Pimenov, was also sounded here.
"I have always been interested in both roads and people. These topics are people on the roads; roads going somewhere can be understood locally, or very broadly, as broad concepts of ‘the road of life'." (Yuri Pimenov. About Myself, About Time and About Art)

The artist returned twice to the composition of the New Moscow — in 1944 and 1960.

  • The Frontline Road. Yuri Pimenov. 1944. State Russian Museum. Saint Petersburg
  • New Moscow. Yuri Pimenov. 1960.
The asphalted metropolitan highway, paths trodden in the snow, ruts of frontline roads and footbridges — Pimenov was faithful to the theme of the road as a symbol of human destiny for all his life.

7. Parallel ways

Yuri Pimenov worked a lot and successfully in theatre and cinema. While still a student at Vkhutemas, Pimenov did illustrations for various magazines, including Soviet Screen. And in the second half of the 1920s, he began working in the theatre, was a graphic designer, created sets and costumes, painted the world behind the scenes.

"It was the theatre that gave me a lot of work at a time when my painting was not popular, when I was worked on for my "impressionism" and accused of thousands of non-existent formalistic sins. At that time, the theatre just helped me live. It was my daily bread, it was my love."
Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov. A sketch of the scenery for the play "Under foreign skies (the Diplomats)"
1932, 59×98.5 cm
By the way, the artist received two Stalin Prizes (in 1947 and 1950) precisely for the design of theatrical performances.

Yuri Pimenov also worked in the cinema; for example, he made the scenery for the Kuban Cossacks, participated in the creation of the Red and Black film. But the main thing is that Pimenov became a master of advertising film posters.

8. Shining path

It may seem that after the creation of the New Moscow, a shining path unfolded before Pimenov (by the way, this was the name of the film by Grigory Alexandrov, released in 1940; in it, the heroine of Lyubov Orlova drives around Moscow and later flies over the capital in an open car as in the picture of Pimenov).

In fact, Pimenov never turned to socialist realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
. He himself defined his style of painting as "realistic impressionism". But impressionism
No doubt, you know about Impressionism a lot: you could mention the names of the famous artists and find with ease the exhibition at museums with gleaming water surface and the same image painted in different time of the day and of course you know the scandalous history of the First Impressionist Exhibition and could distinguish Monet and Manet. So, it is high time to switch to the next level: some additional details you would like to know about Impressionism. Read more
in the USSR was never a "trustworthy" trend.
In the late 1930s, criticism paid tribute to the great French artists of the past, but did not favour the Neo-Impressionists. After 1946, when a campaign against worship of the West unfolded in the USSR, Impressionism
No doubt, you know about Impressionism a lot: you could mention the names of the famous artists and find with ease the exhibition at museums with gleaming water surface and the same image painted in different time of the day and of course you know the scandalous history of the First Impressionist Exhibition and could distinguish Monet and Manet. So, it is high time to switch to the next level: some additional details you would like to know about Impressionism. Read more
was unequivocally assessed as a reactionary trend in bourgeois art.
Nevertheless, Yuri Pimenov remained true to himself. He continued to paint his beloved Moscow — no longer pretentious Stalinist building, but new buildings on the outskirts.
He didn’t paint "socialist construction", but rather new houses, which did not have to tremble before the bombing, in which there would be no overcrowding of communal apartments. He admired young and beautiful people, saw their happiness and love. And today, from another era, one can disagree with Pimenov’s optimism and blame him for the fact that he received the Lenin Prize for the New Quarters cycle of works. Or you can just share his joy of the new day, summer rain and a plate of raspberries on the table. And for the hundredth time be convinced of the fairness of the expression: beauty is in the eyes of the looker.