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Art History

Nikolai Nikogosyan Takes Almost a Century’s Evolution
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Statue on the skyscraper
at Kudrinskaya ploshad 1948-1954

ot every artist gets birthday greetings from the President of the country. However, Nikolai Nikogosyan received a telegram from Dmirty Medvedev when he was 90 on Dec. 2, 2008 and a birthday celebration at the Academy of Arts.

Novy Manezh is honoring this accomplished sculptor and painter with a retrospective exhibition from February 18 through March 3.

Nikolai Nikogosyan has left traces of his art throughout Moscow. He created all the sculptures for the New Building of Moscow University on Sparrows Hills as far back as the 1950s. His enormous figures also grace the Stalin-era skyscraper at Kudrinskaya Ploshad.

However, Nokogosyan has a particular distaste for the statue of Yury Gagarin that adorns Gagarin Square. “What kind of composition is that?” Nikogosyan says, holding his arms out by his sides in imitation of the clumsy figure. “The go-to-hell composition.”

It’s no wonder Nikogosyan 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. His 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 his hands raised as if in a take-off 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 has created statues for many cities of the former Soviet Union, including his native Armenia. In Moscow, apart from the university building and the so-called wedding cake at Kudrinskaya Ploshad, he created many gravestones of important cultural figures in Novodevichy Cemetery. 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 official recognition, Nikogosyan remains gloriously himself no matter who or what he has modeled – Lenin, 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.

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

The artist’s creations are not limited to grand outdoor statues requiring state sponsorship. He also did busts in the Renaissance style, combining both smooth surfaces and textures as well as statuettes of historical figures. An example of this is his bust of 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.”

Self-portrait (oil, canvas), 1985

Later, he studied at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad and the prestigious Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. Such credentials enabled him 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 (which was planned to be built on the site of torn down Cathedral of Christ the Savior) and the skyscraper on Kudrinskaya Ploshad. He also did all the reliefs for the Moscow State University building

Nikogosyan created his first paintings in the 1940s and started exhibiting from the 1950s. In these works both his native 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 critics claim Nikogosyan is a realist.

His portraits of women, created in oil and charcoal, are very impressive, including one of Princess Diana painted after her death, who the artist says he was shaken by. In Nikogosyan’s interpretation, Diana’s spirituality and beauty is an organic blend of her dramatic suffering.

The highlight of the women’s portrait gallery are pictures of the artist’s two wives – his late wife Tamara, and his second wife, Eteri, revealing their different psychological and physical characteristics.

According to Nikogosyan, his most important works have been created in recent years. Indeed, his 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.

His house in central Moscow located on the territory of the Polish Embassy is to become a museum of his works. His creations can also be viewed at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and some state museums of the former Soviet Union.

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