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Art History

Yevgeny Oks: Artist Rediscovered
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

It’s always thrilling to write about a forgotten artist. This time it is Yevgeny Oks (1899-1968). It’s hard to say why the Soviet art world failed to recognize such an interesting art personality – maybe because he followed the then much frowned upon impressionistic traditions or for some other political rather than artistic reasons. Whatever the reason, from the beginning of the 1930s, Oks was never included in the list of exhibited artists and was rediscovered only in the 1990s when the art heritage of the 1920s-1950s was first staged in Moscow bringing to light many of the suppressed names of the 20th century in Russia.

“Construction site”, 1934,
(charcoal pencil on paper)

“Construction of an Embankment”, 1934, (charcoal on paper)

The creative life of Yevgeny Oks began during the complicated, revolutionary period of 1917-1918. Born in St. Petersburg in 1899, he was a student of the New Art Workshop created by Princess Gagarina on Vasilyevsky Island until 1917. During his studies at the New Art Workshop, Oks was tutored by such famous artists as Alexander Yakovlev, Vasily Shukhaev, Osip Braz and Mstislav Dobyzhinsky. The teachers at the workshop were primarily from the World of Art, a group of artists (1896-1924) whose aesthetic foundation was the idea of a synthesis of arts and a special kind of retrospectivism, which looked towards antiquity and diverse historical and cultural reminiscences.

In 1918, Oks moved to Odessa to continue his art studies at the Odessa Art School, as the October Revolution of 1917 had prevented him from returning home. In Odessa, the artist also participated in the creation of the Poet’s Club. The club boasted such famous literary names as Eduard Bagritsky, Yuri Olesha, Ilya Ilf and Zinaida Shishova. The club’s heady cultural environment influenced the formation of Yevgeny Oks’s personal creativity and the artist wrote several poems and memoirs about that epoch.

Oks was a military artist in the town of Kronshtadt, then he moved on to Moscow where his professional and creative life began. We know that he participated in an exhibition of the NOZH group of artists in 1923. NOZH is an acronym for the New Society of Artists. Its manifesto declared the end of “the analytical period” in the arts and characterized realism not as “a faceless protocol portrayal of life, but as a creative reassessment of life and a deep personal attitude towards it”. Some of his works have survived since that time: his self-portraits, a classical portrait of his wife dating back to 1923 as well as some city landscapes and still-lifes.

At the same time Oks was elected to The Council of Art Schools and participated in the reorganization of the Academy of Arts. He also worked for the newspaper Zor whose editor was Osip Brik.

“Self-Portrait”, 1922, (oil on canvas)

From 1922, Yevgeny Oks lived in Moscow where he concentrated on drawing: he was a commissioned drawer for many magazines and newspapers, including Literaturnaya Gazeta. His drawings “In the City Garden” and “Ploshchad Sverdlova” recreated the pre-war atmosphere of Moscow.

A true follower of Vlamink and Cezanne, Yeveny Oks worked out his own artistic language of coloristic painting, and created quite a number of works valuable both from an artistic and social point of view. He used that language in every direction of his creativity, especially in the lyrical city and country landscapes. He was so highly individual that both the establishment and the art world could hardly stand together with him. He could only reveal his real talent at the beginning and at the end of his artistic career while during the 25 ripening years he was either silent or tried to fit himself into the clichés of the strict socialist realism tradition. The canvases and graphical works dating back to that time are also interesting and could have competed with those other artists who were displayed during the Soviet epoch.

At the beginning of the 1930s Oks created a number of worthy impressionistic paintings: “Skatertny Pereulok”, “A Silver Jug”, “Merzlyakovsky Pereulok”, “Bolshoy Rzhevsky Pereulok”, a number of self-portraits as well as two masterpieces “The New Year of 1932” and “The Red Tram” (which is now part of the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection). The artistic language of Oks’s work “The Red Tram” is extremely laconic: a house, some trees, a patch of sky. The colors are restrained. The cultural tradition is evident and it goes back to painter Alexander Shevchenko and actually derives from the French painter Andre Derain.

Some of Oks’s Moscow city landscapes, such as “Merzlyakovsky Pereulok”, for example, are stylistically close to The Group of 13 – a group of Russian painters of the Silver Age (first quarter of the 20th century) who continued the traditions of impressionism, but with solid foundations in realism. Oks’s moody city landscapes with their streets receding into the distance are not only works of high-quality art, but are also interesting from an ethnographic point of view, giving a good idea of the 1930s metropolis.

The portrait of the artist’s wife is a vivid example of Alexander Yakovlev’s and Vasily Shukhaev’s influence on Oks’s work. Yakovlev and Shukhaev represented the so-called neoclassicism, which partly opposed the avant-garde tendencies in Russia abroad. Their style counterbalanced impressionism and constructivism, while employing classical composition.

During the 1930s, Oks was also experimenting with expressionism in his “Road to Davydkovo”, “A Summer Afternoon”, “A Portrait of Varvara Oks Against the Blue Background”.

“Winter. Skatertny Pereulok”, 1922,
(oil on canvas)

Portrait of the artist’s daughter, 1940,
(oil on canvas)

From the end of the 1930s, hard times bore down on the artist’s life. He was criticized for being “formalistic”. When WWII began, he went to the front and after the war his health was never the same. He was unable to work for a long time. Only in 1946-1947 did his many sketches come through into completed works – country landscapes in the village of Ismalkovo. In these works he became a realist in the full sense of the word, however such realism as the true portrayal of the post-war Russian village was not in demand. He portrayed the truth of poverty and not the boastful achievements of the socialist state.

In the middle of the 1950s Oks went out into the streets of Moscow again to paint his favorite corners of old Moscow. He did “Volkov Pereulok”, “Sivtsev Vrazhek” and some other places that have changed beyond recognition.

During the last years of his life the artist went abroad for the first time. In Italy he painted the lanes of ancient cities and the canals of Venice.

At the end of his life he started painting the newly built blocks in new areas of Moscow, which was a kind of hope to leave communal apartments and start a new life. And although his energy was already ebbing he managed to reveal that idea very brightly, for example in his sketch “The Road in Khoroshovo”.

Yevgeny Oks died at the end of Khrustchev’s thaw. He left for us a painted story of his life and the epoch. When he was rediscovered in the 1990s, his creativity attracted the attention of art critics and museums immediately. Now his works are part of the Tretyakov Gallery, The Art and Historical Museum in the town of New Jerusalem and the Museum of the Defense of Moscow. Many of his works are in private collections.

Tracing the evolution of Oks’s work is quite interesting: from a pronounced neoclassicism through to his passion for Cezanne, to his Moscow landscapes and eventually his socialist realism works.

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