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Ilya Glazunov, Painter Entranced by Russia’s Past, Dies at 87

Liberals, on the other hand, regarded Mr. Glazunov as an obscurantist, xenophobe and anti-Semite, in thrall to the darkest forces in Russian history.

He preferred to think of himself as a patriot. “The mad insects and dogs of the democratic press say ‘Russia for Russians’ is a fascist slogan,” Mr. Glazunov said at a public meeting in Moscow in 1994, when a retrospective of his work opened at the Manezh exhibition hall. “But who else is to own Russia if not Russians? Everybody should fight for the revival of Russia.”

The poster for the exhibition reproduced the painting “Russia, Awaken!,” which showed a bare-chested man holding a Kalashnikov rifle on high in one hand, the New Testament in the other, with a young woman in camouflage gear behind him, holding a Russian flag aloft.

“Today we need to go back to our roots,” Mr. Glazunov said in an interview shortly after his memoir “Russia Crucified” was published in 1996. “A nation that doesn’t know its history does not have a future.”

Ilya Sergeevich Glazunov was born on June 10, 1930, in Leningrad. His father, Sergei, a sociologist and historian, was a lecturer at Leningrad State University. His mother was the former Olga Flug.


Mr. Glazunov’s “Mystery of the 20th Century” (1977).

Ilya Glazunov, via Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

During the siege of Leningrad, both of his parents died of starvation. He was rescued by an uncle in the armed forces who evacuated him to the village of Grebno, near Novgorod.

On returning to Leningrad in 1944, he enrolled in a secondary school that offered art education and then studied at the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. An admirer of the icon painter Andrei Rublev and his master, Theophanos the Greek, he found Socialist Realism constraining, but his early work — mournful slice-of-life scenes reminiscent of the American Ashcan School — did not wander too far afield from the official style.

In 1956, he married Nina Aleksandrovna Vinogradova-Benois, an art history student at Leningrad State University and later a costume designer. She committed suicide in 1986, just before the opening of a Glazunov retrospective at the Manezh. He is survived by his companion, Inessa Orlova, and his children, Ivan and Vera, both artists.

While still at the Repin Insititute, Mr. Glazunov won the grand prize at the International Competition of Young Artists in Prague in 1956. He was given a solo show in Moscow the next year, at the Central House of Art Workers.

Scandal ensued. One work, “Morning,” an untypically joyous painting with bright Impressionist colors, caused offense by showing a nude woman lolling on a bed while her lover stared thoughtfully out a window. The uproar over the work was reported in the foreign press, and at the next meeting of the Soviet Academy of Arts, Mr. Glazunov was taken to task for his “poor taste.”

Seven years passed before he was able to show his work again. On this occasion, an exhibition at the Manezh, four prominent artists wrote to the newspaper Evening Moscow, criticizing Mr. Glazunov as a painter of “low professional level, poor taste, no ideological depth and no artistic qualities.” They added: “We would like to know, where is Glazunov’s feeling for present-day life and his link to Soviet reality, and how does he view his participation in the construction of Communism?”

By that time, Mr. Glazunov was firmly ensconced as a kind of court painter. After completing a portrait of the Swedish ambassador’s wife, the former Princess Obolenskaya, he found himself in demand by the diplomatic colony in Moscow as a portrait painter and private teacher. He later painted the portraits of several world leaders, including Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro.

His was a career of ups and downs. One year after painting Leonid I. Brezhnev’s 70th-birthday portrait in 1976, he offended cultural bureaucrats when he refused to withdraw his painting “The Mystery of the 20th Century” from a planned exhibition at the headquarters of the Artists’ Union.

The painting, measuring 10 by 20 feet, traced the march of history from the Bolshevik Revolution to the space age, showing such figures as Lenin, Czar Nicholas II, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (in prison garb), Hitler, the Beatles and Pope John XXIII, with an illuminated Jesus floating in the sky.

As punishment, he was sent to a remote corner of Siberia to paint scenes of workers building the Baikal-Amur railroad. In the 1970s and ’80s, he spent much of his time illustrating books by classic Russian writers, notably Dostoyevsky.

In the Gorbachev era, Mr. Glazunov rose to new heights of popularity with paintings like “Eternal Russia” and “Awake, Russia!” At the same time, his longstanding interest in rescuing old churches and historic buildings ensured him a lead role in restoring the Kremlin in the 1990s and rebuilding the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which had been razed during the Stalin era. The new cathedral was completed in 2000.

In 2004, Mr. Glazunov’s work and his collection of restored icons went on permanent display when the Ilya Glazunov Moscow State Picture Gallery opened in Moscow opposite the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

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