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Mukhina, Vera (1889–1953)

Mukhina, Vera (1889–1953)

Soviet Russian sculptor, noted internationally for her monumental stainless steel work Worker and Collective Farm Woman, which stood a stunning 24 meters in height on top of the Soviet Pavilion of the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Name variations: Vera Muchina; also known just as Mukhina. Born Vera Ignatevna Mukhina in Riga, Russian Empire (now Latvia), on July 1, 1889; died in Moscow on October 6, 1953; daughter of Ignaty Mukhin; married Alexei Zamkov; children: one son.

The Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina will forever be identified with Socialist Realism and the worst excesses of propaganda art during Joseph Stalin's dictatorship. She was an artist of international distinction, living in difficult times that necessitated making, at best, ambiguous choices. She was born into comfortable circumstances in Riga (now Latvia) in 1889, where her family had long enjoyed prosperity and social standing as hemp merchants. Her parents, however, rarely enjoyed robust health, and two-year-old Vera lost her mother to tuberculosis. Her father moved to Kiev where she was enrolled at the Feodosisky High School and began to reveal artistic talent. As a result, she took private drawing lessons at home. When she was 14, she also lost her father. After this, Mukhina moved to Kursk, continuing with her studies of painting and drawing. In 1910, she relocated to Moscow and became acquainted with a circle of wealthy merchant families, which included such noted art patrons and collectors as Ivan Morozov and Nikolai Ryabushinsky. She was also a pupil in Konstantin Yuon's art school, where Liubov Popova and Nadezhda Udaltsova were among

her fellow students. For the next decade, Mukhina and Popova would be close friends, maturing together as people and artists.

Mukhina studied sculpting in Moscow for several years, attending not only Yuon's classes but those of other highly respected teachers, including Ilya Mashkov and Nikolai Sinitsyna. After recovering from a serious toboggan accident and resulting surgery in 1912, Mukhina decided to continue her art studies in Paris, which was made possible by the generous financial support of her relatives. In Paris, she became a pupil at Emile-Antoine Bourdelle's studio at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere. A temperamental but inspiring teacher, Bourdelle employed a method of instruction which emphasized free inquiry and experimentation. He was critical of transferring the aesthetic of Impressionism to sculpture, convinced that it could only do immense harm to the art form. He believed that the foundations of sculpture would always be clarity of construction, vigor of form, inner discipline, and a rigid observance of the laws of materials. Although Mukhina eagerly accepted many of his ideas, she was by no means a slavish devotee of the French master. She took full advantage of being in Paris, visiting the Louvre where she carefully investigated the artistic secrets of past masters, studying works which included two from ancient Egypt—a bronze walking Horus and a seated Pharaoh carved from pink granite—which taught her, as she would later note, about "the architectonics of form and concision of expression." At this early stage in her artistic development, she was already expressing her belief that "a large statue should be simple, it should express itself."

While involved with the newest trends in the arts, Mukhina also remained open to influence from the great artists of the past. These included Michelangelo, whom she admired for his power to "create titans"—an ideal and goal that became her own inspiration. She worked to perfect her technical skills, attending anatomy lectures at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Mukhina also investigated works created by Cubist sculptors; she soon decided, however, that the artistic philosophy of Cubism was inimical to the aims of the ideal sculpture she wished to create, arguing that "Cubists reveal form, but skeletally [they lose] what is most dear, the image. When they try to depict a living person they are defeated." Almost as if she were saving up what she was learning for use on her return to Russia, Mukhina's portrait busts of her friends and studio colleagues in Paris are quite traditional, revealing few if any modernisms.

After visiting Italy's major artistic cities and archaeological sites, Mukhina went back to Moscow in the summer of 1914 and worked harder than ever to perfect her skills. Among her most impressive works from this period is a Pieta from the year 1916, which echoes archaic forms of stylization but still does not reveal a unified style of her own.

The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 provided Mukhina with a new creative stimulus. In 1918, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin issued a decree on monumental architecture, calling on artists to spread the message of revolution and social transformation through works of art that would speak powerfully to the masses, many of whom remained illiterate and backward. Mukhina's model for a monument in honor of Nikolai Novikov, a writer who attacked the evils of serfdom in the 18th century, was enthusiastically hailed by the monumental art commission appointed by the ruling Bolshevik Party (this work, made of substandard materials, would not survive). Mukhina married the physician Alexei Zamkov in 1918 and gave birth to her only child, a son, in 1920.

Supporting the Revolution despite its heavy cost in human suffering and lives, the artist produced her first mature work of sculpture in 1922, when the young Soviet state was barely starting to recover from years of civil war, foreign intervention, and ill-conceived economic experimentation. Her Flame of the Revolution, a work designated as a memorial to the Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov, depicts a winged female figure bearing a torch in her hand. Somewhat reminiscent of the work of Italian Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni, Flame of the Revolution is also a stylistically innovative work which symbolizes, in its dynamic imagery of flight, the whirlwind of change that had recently swept through Russia.

At the same time she created this monument, Mukhina broadened her interests to the area of design. She collaborated with Alexandra Exter to produce designs for the motion picture Aelita, and also worked closely with Exter in the field of theatrical design. Mukhina also worked with the leading Soviet fashion designer of the period, Nadezhda Lamanova , whom she provided with sketches of hats and clothing which Lamanova then produced. After several years of fruitful experimentation, Mukhina returned to sculpting. Her 1926 work in wood, Yulia, is modeled after the Venus de Milo. Neither this work, nor Wind, which dates from 1927 and shows a young female nude attempting to stand upright in a fierce storm—refers to the events then taking place in the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the same year that Wind was produced, Mukhina's work indicated that she had begun to pay increasing attention to the often tragic upheavals facing her nation. Her 1927 bronze, The Peasant Woman, commemorated the first decade of Soviet rule. This work embodied the strength of the Slavic people of the soil, who had endured serfdom, exploitation, wars and revolutionary turmoil. Hailed by critics and popular with the public, the bronze was purchased by the State Tretyakov Gallery, and as a reward Mukhina was given permission and funds to make a trip to Paris. The history of The Peasant Woman from this point on is, to say the least, highly unusual. While on exhibit in Fascist Italy in 1935, the bronze was sold to the Milan Museum, presumably because the Soviet state was badly in need of foreign currency. From Milan, Mukhina's work would eventually find its final home in the art collections of Vatican City. Some years later, the State Tretyakov Gallery filled the gap in its collection by using Mukhina's surviving plaster molds to cast a new copy of the bronze.

It was because of her marriage to Alexei Zamkov that Mukhina personally experienced how harshly interventionist the Soviet system could be in the lives of individuals. In 1930, her husband, having been denounced by a professional rival, was banned to the city of Voronezh. Determined to remain loyal to him and convinced of his innocence, Mukhina gave up her teaching post at Moscow's Higher School of Industrial Arts, where she had been an instructor since 1927, and she and her son followed her husband to Voronezh. Mukhina's family proved to be luckier than many in the Soviet Union. Because she had created a gravestone for the son of the eminent writer Maxim Gorky, the younger Gorky's vigorous intervention in the matter resulted in a lifting of the ban on Mukhina's husband, and the family was able to return to Moscow to resume their previous lives.

Starting in the early 1930s, Mukhina's sculptures took on a more detailed and true-to-life character. Her portraits from these years, while often exaggerating the most distinctive features of her sitters, were essentially realistic in nature. Often, however, they were not simply literal representations of the individual, but rather could be taken as typifications and generalized images of contemporary Soviet men and women. At the same time, she retained a sense of immediacy toward the essential personality and strengths of the person being portrayed.

Meanwhile, Mukhina continued to make models and dreamed of creating monumental sculptures. Over the course of her career, she would design approximately 20 such projects, none of which were carried out during her lifetime. Of the few that were completed after her death, virtually all were influenced by significant (and negative) changes that largely distorted and subverted her original intentions.

In 1935, she was offered the chance of a lifetime when she was selected to design the sculptural group that would stand atop the Soviet pavilion at the Paris World's Fair of 1937. The first sculptor to use stainless steel as a material, Mukhina created the monumental Worker and Collective Farm Woman (Kolkhoznitsa). Breathtaking in its immensity—24 meters in height—this idealization of the male urban proletarian and young rural woman depicted them both as perfect physical and moral specimens, true representatives of the newly imposed Stalinist artistic dogma of Socialist Realism. Brandishing their symbolic hammer and sickle, the victorious couple appeared to be striding confidently into a glorious Communist future. Many contemporary observers spoke of the work as a hymn of praise to youth, life, and the virtues of productive labor in an egalitarian society. Others, critical of the Soviet experiment in social engineering, saw little beauty in it, detecting instead a totalitarian spirit that gloried in having crushed the last vestiges of individualism.

When it opened in 1937, the Soviet pavilion at the Paris World's Fair—facing the pavilion of Nazi Germany (designed by Albert Speer) at the foot of the Trocadero Gardens—was interpreted by most visitors as a bold visual and ideological challenge to Hitler's increasingly aggressive Third Reich. Topping an already huge exhibition building designed by Boris Iofan, Worker and Collective Farm Woman was an artistic embodiment of Soviet confidence in the future. The power of Mukhina's enormous work was almost enough to mask the bitter reality of Soviet life, namely that in 1937 the Great Purge was at its height. Stalin's USSR was a nation based on fear, arbitrary exercise of power, and total disregard for human rights.

Mukhina was elated by the success her effort enjoyed in Paris. Upset when the dismantled work arrived back in the USSR in badly damaged condition, she was even more disappointed some years later when the refurbished composition—set on a much-too-low pedestal despite her protestations that this would destroy its effectiveness—was displayed outdoors in Moscow's All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Dashed by this display by Soviet officialdom, she could only comment that the two noble figures now "did not fly, they only crept." Receipt of a Stalin Prize in 1941 for what was now already her best-known work did not compensate Mukhina for the poor setting in which the work had been permanently placed.

Over the course of her career, Vera Mukhina received many awards from the Soviet state, including the Order of the Red Banner in 1938, and Stalin Prizes in 1941, 1943, 1946, 1951, and 1952. She became a member of the USSR Academy of Arts in 1947 and a member of its Presidium in 1953. She was also designated a People's Artist of the USSR. Concerned during her final years about the toll taken on the arts by Stalinist dictates to produce only orthodox works of Socialist Realism, she courageously spoke in favor of artistic creativity in her last address before the Academy of Arts.

During the difficult years of World War II (known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War), Mukhina concentrated on portraiture. Her works from this period are often of high quality and display her great insight into the psychological essences of her subjects. Among these are her 1945 portrait (in wood) of the mathematician and shipbuilder Alexei Krylov. Awarded a Stalin Prize in 1946, this portrait takes on a universal aspect, presenting Krylov as both an individual and a representative of the strength of Russia's people in a war for national survival. Mukhina's 1942 plaster of Paris portrait of Colonel Bari Yusupov (cast in bronze in 1947) is another wartime work that continues to impress with its grasp of the stark times in which it was created. In her generalized symbolic image of Soviet wartime patriotism, The Girl Partisan (plaster of Paris 1942, cast in bronze 1951), Mukhina succeeded in creating a work that was clearly of propaganda value at the time, but also continues to resonate a generation later. With the war raging in 1944, she designed costumes for a production of Sophocles' Electra at Moscow's Vakhtangov Theater.

After the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, in a war which cost 30 million lives, Mukhina returned to her first love, the creation of monumental sculptures. She and other artists created a bronze and granite monument to Maxim Gorky (unveiled in Moscow in 1951), as well as collaborating on the multi-artist work We Demand Peace! of 1950. In the early 1950s, she worked on the façade of Moscow State University's main building, 32 stories in height, situated on the Lenin Hills area of the Soviet capital. There she created sculptures meant to reflect the desire for peace and justice that had so far largely been denied the peoples of the USSR.

Inspired by the belief that work resulting from her numerous creative interests would serve to expand the artistic vocabulary of Soviet art, Mukhina experimented with various new materials which included not only stainless steel but also polychromatic sculpture and glassware. She spent significant amounts of time during the last years of her life working with new types of artistic glass at the Leningrad Decorative Glass Factory. Although less well known than her other work, Mukhina's drawings, rendered with economy of means but replete with acute observations, constitute a veritable archive of her creative efforts. Throughout her career, she wrote essays and articles on many facets of art, many of which contain insights into both her own creative evolution and the history of art; these were collected and published in three volumes in 1960. Vera Mukhina died in Moscow on October 6, 1953—seven months after the death of Joseph Stalin. In 1954, her monument to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was unveiled in Moscow. On June 25, 1989, a Soviet postage stamp was issued to commemorate the centenary of her birth. The Mukhina Higher School of Industrial Arts in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was renamed in her honor.

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

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