Lebedeva, Sarra (1892–1967)

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Lebedeva, Sarra (1892–1967)

Russian and Soviet sculptor. Born Sarra Dmitrievna Darmolatova on December 23, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died in Moscow on March 7, 1967; married Vladimir Vasilevich Lebedev.

Visited Paris, Berlin, and Italy in the years before World War I; lived in Moscow (1925–67); was a member of USSR Academy of Arts.

The sculptor Sarra Lebedeva produced art that was ideologically correct by Soviet standards of her day and a number of works that transcend time and place and continue to speak to contemporary audiences. During 1892 in St. Petersburg, Sarra Dmitrievna Darmolatova was born into a prosperous family of the intelligentsia. Educated at home by private tutors until she was 14, she then attended classes at the School for the Encouragement of the Arts and also traveled widely with her family. In Italy, she was impressed by the masterpieces of Renaissance sculptors, particularly Donatello. Although she initially studied painting and drawing at Mikhail Bernshtein's school in St. Petersburg, two years later she switched to a study of sculpting, joining the school of the well-known sculptor Leonid Shervud (1871–1954). In 1915, she married graphic artist Vladimir Lebedev, and it was through studying the books in his extensive library that she first became acquainted with the then-revolutionary art of Bracque, Matisse, and Picasso.

In the period after the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, Sarra Lebedeva was drawn into the artistic and literary circles that dominated the city of Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called). Among the individuals whom she and her husband knew during these years were Alexander Blok, Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Lebedeva, in common with other Russian artists of the period, found her imagination captured both by the political and aesthetic possibilities of the revolution. In 1918, she responded enthusiastically to Vladimir Lenin's Decree on Monumental Propaganda. Having pulled down the massive statues and monuments of the tsarist state, the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat called on Russia's sculptors to play an active role in creating the physical presence of a new workers' state, above all else by erecting monuments to revolutionary heroes of past and present. Sarra Lebedeva contributed a number of innovative works to this scheme of mass propaganda through art, namely monumental busts of Danton and Alexander Herzen, as well as a relief depicting Robespierre.

Beginning in 1924, when she executed her bust of Leonid Krassin, Lebedeva took on the

role of sculptor of high officials of the Soviet state. Her portraits of leading Bolsheviks, which included Pavel Dybenko, Semyon Budyonny, and Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (chief of the dreaded Cheka [Secret Police]), are by no means always flattering to their subjects, for as art historian Mikhail Alpatov has suggested, "Lebedeva was a sharp-sighted observer, and her observation is sometimes ruthless and ironic." It was through these portraits that she secured her place in the history of Soviet art. To remain a complete artist, she also sculpted and drew nudes, although during the Stalin era the nude was virtually proscribed. Art historian Miuda Yablonskaya has described Lebedeva's nudes as demonstrating "a lyrical and expressive approach to both subject-matter and the medium itself, and are altogether more personal and intimate than the monumental and heroic approach that she adopted for her public commissions." Also worthy of further study by art historians are Lebedeva's figurines in porcelain and faience.

Lebedeva began living in Moscow in 1925. During the next few years, before the full weight of Stalin's dictatorship suffocated most of the creativity in Soviet art, she continued to produce original works of sculpture. She also kept in touch with developments in the West, making trips to Berlin, London, and Paris between 1925 and 1928. In the 1930s, she remained true to much of her artistic vision, producing striking portraits not only of political leaders but also of prominent artists and intellectuals, including the ill-fated Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels (1939). In 1936, at the start of Stalin's bloody Great Purge, Lebedeva executed a memorable work, the bronze Girl With a Butterfly (State Tretyakov Gallery), which Matthew Cullerne Bown has described as "a deeply charming work, a monumental meditation on the sculptor's absolutes of motion and stillness, weightlessness and gravity."

During the suffering of World War II, known to the people of the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, Lebedeva captured in her sculpture the spirit of resolve that enabled her society to prevail over fascism. Particularly powerful is her 1942 Portrait of Colonel Yusupov (State Tretyakov Gallery), which was carried out by the artist at the wounded officer's hospital bedside. Another extraordinary work from this period is her Portrait of Vladimir Tatlin, which was created in 1943–44 (Russian Museum). Her 1961–63 work in limestone, Portrait of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (State Tretyakov Gallery), depicts the author whose banned novel Doctor Zhivago became a cause celebre in both the West and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Sarra Lebedeva retained her artistic energies to the end of her life, and died in Moscow on March 7, 1967.


Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Art Under Stalin. NY: Holmes & Meier, 1991.

Milner, John. A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists 1420–1970. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collectors' Club, 1993.

Musee Rodin, Paris. Trois sculpteurs sovietiques: A.S. Goloubkina, V.I. Moukhina, S.D. Lebedeva. Paris: Musee Rodin, 1971.

Volkov, Solomon. St. Petersburg: A Cultural History. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. NY: The Free Press, 1995.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age 1900–1935. Edited by Anthony Parton. NY: Rizzoli International, 1990.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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