Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Artist Has Un-Soviet Charm

Nikolai Nikogosyan has a particular distaste for the statue of Yury Gagarin that adorns Moscow's Gagarin Square.

"What kind of composition is that?" Nikogosyan says, holding his arms out at his sides in imitation of the clumsy figure. "The go-to-hell composition."

It's no wonder Nikogasyan doesn't like the monument. As one of the participants in a state contest to build it, he knows how much more graceful and profound it could have been.

Nikogosyan, an accomplished sculptor and painter, celebrates his 80th birthday this year, and the Academy of Arts is honoring him with a major retrospective exhibit.

Nikogosyan's model for the Gagarin statue, which is included in the exhibit, illustrates the great imagination and sincerity with which he approached even the official works ordered by the Soviet government. The Gagarin piece is a philosophical composition balanced on the wing of Icarus, the Greek mythical character whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. The horizontal figure of the falling Icarus is juxtaposed to the vertical figure of the first man in space, who stands with hands raised as if in takeoff position.

"Both Icarus and Gagarin are biblical characters for me. When Icarus falls Gagarin soars. The Bible is an eternal book of human history. It continues to write itself," the artist says.

Nikogosyan's works include statues in various cities of the former Soviet Union, including in his native Armenia. In Moscow his sculpture can best be seen on Kudrinskaya Ploshchad, where his enormous figures grace the Stalin-era skyscraper, and in Novodevichy Cemetery, where he created many gravestones of important cultural figures.

Not only were Nikogosyan's sculptures sanctioned by the state, but he was declared a People's Artist of the Soviet Union and won a State Prize.

Despite his official recognition, Nikogosyan cannot be called a Soviet artist. He remained gloriously himself no matter what he was modeling - Lenin, women or outstanding personalities. He never followed the stiff and saccharine standards of Socialist Realism, but portrayed people the way he saw them in all their complexity.

Nikogosyan's lively Russian, spoken with a heavy Armenian accent, his pronounced, sculpture-like features and his gentle manner must have helped him win the approval of those who controlled art in the Soviet Union.

But the artist's creations are not limited to grand outdoor statues requiring state sponsorship. Visitors to the exhibition will appreciate busts created in the Renaissance style, combining both smooth surface and texture, as well as his statuettes of historical figures, including the Armenian composer Komitas, who went insane after the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians and spent the last 16 years of his life in an asylum in Paris.

Nikogosyan, who was born in the village of Nalbandyan in Armenia, did not always know he would be an artist, and as a young man attended Yerevan's ballet school.

"But my father was against it, so I quit ballet and went to Leningrad to an art school," Nikogosyan says. "It was very hard. I had no apartment, no money, no language, nobody."

Later, he studied at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad and the prestigious Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. Such credentials enabled Nikogosyan to get his first commissions by the end of the 1940s, when he became the chief sculptor of the never-completed Palace of the Soviets and the skyscraper on Kudrinskaya Ploshchad. He also did all the reliefs for the main building of Moscow State University.

In Nikogosyan's paintings, which he has been exhibiting since 1950, both the artist's Armenian origins and his classical Russian artistic education are vividly revealed. One can see the influence of Impressionism - Henri Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani and Edouard Manet - although some artists claim Nikogosyan is a realist.

Included in the exhibit are many impressive portraits of women created in oil and charcoal, including one of Princess Diana painted after her death, which the artist says he was shaken by. In Nikogosyan's interpretation, Diana's spirituality and beauty is an organic blend with her dramatic suffering.

The highlight of the women's portraits are pictures of the artist's two wives - his late wife, Tamara, and his second wife, Eteri - revealing their different psychological and physical characteristics.

Nikogosyan's latest works seem to mark a new period in his creativity. Light and expressive, they greatly differ from his previous 60 years worth of work.

The women's portraits may be the closest to Nikogosyan's heart of all his works. Asked to sum up his career, he said, "I love women. I've been courting them for 60 years. Here are some of their portraits."

The exhibit runs until Friday at the Academy of Arts, 21 Prechistenka. Tel. 201-4031. Open noon to 8 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday. Nearest metro: Kropotkinskaya.