THE two men were about the same size, sturdy and short. Both had fought in the Great Patriotic War, worked in foundries; they could knock each other out. One was broad-faced, gap-toothed and almost bald; the other was swarthy, with bushy black brows and hair.
The bald man, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, was shouting “Filth! Dog shit! Disgrace!” at the paintings on display, that day in 1962, on the walls of the Manege Gallery beside the Kremlin. The swarthy one, Ernst Neizvestny, had his answer ready: “You may be premier and chairman, but not here in front of my works. Here, I am the premier.”Krushchev smiled and told him, he liked him.
Still he was manhandled and expelled from the Artists’ Union, but government psychiatrists pronounced him sane & he continued to work. Khrushchev half-joked that there were an angel and a devil in him, and as long as the angel had the upper hand, they could get along.
Mr. Neizvestny liked that remark, capturing it, especially his sculptures and his oeuvre grew to be more about: struggle, contradiction, multiplicity, ﬂesh against the spirit, all within one unity, the human body. His works turned people into robots, centaurs, giants or machines, with hard and soft, metallic and organic ﬂowing into and transforming each other.
Khrushchev bitterly condemned his public “disﬁguring” of Soviet people, but that was not what he was doing; he was showing how Protean and enduring a human being was. Even as a child, he had imagined inﬁn it as bigger and bigger versions of himself stretching into space—or smaller and smaller versions, until he had whole worlds on the tip of his ﬁnger.
As a sculptor, he could recreate that cosmos, a god exerting his will on clay or ﬁery rivers of bronze. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, it was all much harder, with his studio squeezed into the back of shop and bronze unavailable to headstrong sculptors like himself. He foraged & stole what scraps of metal he could.
Commissions came, for war memorials and friezes at Pioneer camps. But because he rejected the sterile socialist realism approved by the state—seeing himself instead as the successor of Kandinsky, Malevich and the brief avant-garde of the early decades of the century—oﬃcial work often vanished again. His boldest dreams remained maquettes, unless they could be sold abroad and in 1975 after Kruschev’s death, weary of it all, Neizvestny applied to go into exile, settling in New York and lecturing about art, in Russian, on America’s west coast. He mixed philosophy with art; in Russian culture, he explained, they were inseparable.
The art contained all of life, and the greatest artists ﬁxed not only on beauty but took risks, outraged good taste & shocked people with the messy process of existence. The ﬁgures he admired unﬂinchingly portrayed man’s constant struggle to become himself and if Dostoevsky, with his polyphony could contest God’s Word with voices from the unknown, Neizvestny created bodies writhing in pain, & caught in the hellfires of right and wrong at the foot of the Cross.
He came from Sverdlovsk in the Urals, at the frontier of Europe and Asia, from a family whose Jewishness had been mocked years with the name Neizvestny, “unknown.” His father was an eminent and prosperous surgeon and the house was full of intellectuals, but to no avail, the jokes continued.
His favourite poem was Aleksandr, Pushkin’s “The Prophet” where an exhausted pilgrim is attacked by an angel, “the ﬁnest sculptor I know: And he cleft my chest with a sword and withdrew my ﬂuttering heart and a coal aglow with ﬁre pushed into my open breast. “
This had happened to him in the war. He was just 19, commanding a unit in Austria when a bullet entered his chest and exploded in his back. It made a hole so big that he was left for dead. He survived, and so did the burning coal. The result was a continual ﬂow of sculptures in which bodies, assaulted and mutilated from both inside and out, were nonetheless ﬁnding the energy to change into something new.
Angel and Devil
His most abiding dream was a massive open sculpture, 150 meters high, of seven spirals rotating round the form of a human heart that appeared to grow like a tree, and within which people could wander through galleries of art. It was to be a synthesis of all human nature and creation, called “Tree of Life.” Smaller versions were installed in Paris and New York; no one would fund the swarming, pulsing cosmos he wanted.
He found some comfort in a warmer welcome in Russia after 1989, and commissions for several brooding monuments to Stalin’s victims. He had the last word, too, in his showdown with Khrushchev.
In 1974, after the leader’s death, the family asked him to design the tomb. He produced two jagged towers, one of the white blocks, one of black, angel, and devil in their continual confrontation, contending on either side of Khrushchev’s pugnacious but lifeless face. It cost at the time $13,000 USD; with inflation that would be $62,500.00 at the time of Neizvestny’s death.
A biography of Mr. Neizvestny, titled the Centaur, was reviewed here in 2002 by the New York Times. This article was excepted from the Economist Obit.