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Here is another of those wonderful moments when, as the Russians say, I will liquidate my ignorance – right here and right now. Before your very eyes. I may not liquidate much of it, but it will be sufficient to share a wonderful discovery with you.
I had no idea who Yelena Kiselyova was. When I was in Voronezh some time ago I photographed all kinds of plaques, inscriptions and monuments, often not knowing what I was encountering. The idea was that I could always come back and catch up later – as I am doing now. One small, rather unimpressive plaque which I came upon in the shadows of Komissarzhevskaya Street meant nothing to me whatsoever. I didn’t even bother to note that the actual address of the building was 32 Revolution Prospect, where over 100 years ago Voronezh’s Mariinsky gymnasium, an affiliate, I guess we could say, of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, was located. Among many others, the young Kiselyova studied the art of painting and drawing here from 1892 to 1896. This is precisely what the plaque declares: “The artist (1878-1974) Yelena Kiselyova studied here at the Mariinskaya gymnasium from 1892 to 1896.”
Yelena Kiselyova lived a long, eventful life. She was born in Voronezh in 1878 and she died in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1974 at the age of 95. Her father was Andrei Kisleyov, a famous mathematician to whose textbook several generations of Russians learned their numbers. After leaving Voronezh she began studying under none less than the great Ilya Repin at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1900. Those who knew Repin well said that Kiselyova was one of Repin’s favorite pupils. By 1903 Kiselyova joined with another artist, Yevgenia Milashevskaya, to create a so-called dioramic painting entitled Peter I’s Assembly for the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Four years later she created the painting The Brides: Pentecost which was considered sufficient to grant her not only the official title of artist, but also to give her a stipend to go abroad and continue her studies in Paris. She was, according to one source, the first Russian woman to receive such an honor.
Not everyone was happy with what Kiselyova brought back with her from her travels. According to one detailed article about the artist, “She encountered the new trends and tendencies in painting of the early twentieth century, and when she returned to the Academy, she offered to the Council of academics a painting she had made in France, Parisian Cafe, as a sketch for her thesis. The work was not approved and received the following commentary – ‘while abroad, the young artist, instead of studying real works of art, began imitating screamers and blotters who only seek in some way to draw attention to themselves.‘”
Stung by the criticism, Kiselyova headed back to Paris where she lived from 1908 to 1910 (studying under Eugene Carriere and Rodolphe Julian) and then traveled in Italy in 1911. She participated in various exhibits, including Munich in 1909 and Rome in 1911.
In 1910 Kiselyova became the first woman admitted to the Society of Architects and Artists in St. Petersburg.
Kiselyova was, first and foremost, a painter of portraits. And what portraits she painted! One blogger posted 14 of her paintings, each one more delicious than the next. I am hardly alone in being mad about her Marusya (1913) where she lets colors run wild without ever letting them get out of control. But she is also a master of muted color and shading when she so chooses. When you come upon an artist this strong, with such a clear and powerful command of her art, you really are left wondering what it is you have been doing with your life. Maybe, as Randy Newman put it so bluntly in another context, you’ve been doing it wrong.
Kiselyova waited out the Revolution in Odessa from 1917-1919 and then, in February 1920, when the Red Army began to draw near, she headed for Yugoslavia with her second husband, Anton Bilimovich, who received a job teaching at Belgrade University. They both took Yugoslavian citizenship in 1926. (Yugoslavia was then officially known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.) She exhibited her work in Belgrade from time to time, often at exhibitions of Russian emigre artists, but it would appear that painting interested Kiselyova less and less as the years went on.
Kiselyova had given birth to her only child, a son Arseny in 1917. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and was eventually released, a very sick man, in 1944. Kiselyova painted his portrait, Portrait of a Son on his Death Bed, after which Arseny died and Kiselyova apparently never painted again.
Voronezh, to its credit, did not let her memory die. In 1969 the city mounted a retrospective of 50 of her works in honor of her 90th birthday. It should be pointed out that 1969, following the crushed Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, could not have been an easy time to honor a native artist who had abandoned the Soviet Union nearly 50 years ago and had lived all that time in emigration – even if it was within the so-called Soviet bloc.
The plaque commemorating the years when Kiseylova studied art in Voronezh was unveiled October 11, 2006. They could easily have found a more accessible place to put it, but let’s be thankful for what we have. Were it not for this little piece of bronze, I surely would never have learned about Yelena Kiselyova.