Ilya Glazunov

(b. 1930)

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(1930– )

Russian painter whose work and career have aroused political as well as artistic controversy. Aleksandr Sidorov has commented that ‘Judgements on Glazunov, the man and the artist, are completely polarised, ranging from the rapturous to the defamatory.’ Glazunov was born in Leningrad and his close relatives all died during the German blockade of 1941–4. During the Soviet era he established a career by simultaneously appealing over the heads of the official art world to public taste and painting politically approved subjects, including a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev. From the 1960s onwards he also established an international practice as a portrait painter, his subjects including Federico Fellini and Kurt Waldheim. In 1978, he painted 20th Century Mystery, an allegory in which the sheets on which the dead Stalin lies become a sea of blood, in the centre of a cast who include Hitler, Lenin, and John F. Kennedy, but also Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin. His most celebrated painting, Eternal Russia (1988), polemically establishes Russia as essentially Christian, with Byzantine saints leading a procession of Russian celebrities under a giant crucifix. Glazunov has been accused of anti-Semitism. Certainly he has become an outspoken supporter of Russian nationalism, as was demonstrated by a speech of 2003 alleging genocide against the Russian people and demanding the teaching of Old Slavonic (‘God's Law’) in schools. In the 1999 painting The Market of Our Democracy, ‘uncultured life is told in images of nudes, Beatles and rock musicians’, according to the painter's official leaflet. The frame is lined with photocopied dollar bills.

After the fall of Communism Glazunov became the favourite of state patronage. In 2004 a new gallery was devoted entirely to his work opposite the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The gold and marble halls with classical statues and gold embossed labels were to the painter's own design. ‘His hands would make Rembrandt jealous’ was the comment of a journalist from the state news agency. This is certainly far from the tone of the first critical text devoted to him in 1964. Aleksandr Kamenski accused him of ‘a range of hackneyed visual devices, accompanied by unprincipled borrowing from other artists of the past’.

Further Reading

A. Sidorov, ‘Ilya Glazunov: A career in art’, in M. C. Bown and B. Taylor, Art of the Soviets (1993)

Subjects: Art.

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