At the age of 18, Aleksandr Deineka boarded the agitprop train, creating propaganda material for the Bolsheviks, which soon pointed to his future luminary status at the forefront of the new Soviet cultural elite. Initially a poster and graphic artist, Deineka gained notoriety for his use of modernist and experimental motifs, inspired by German Expressionism in the 1920s, and the evident pictorial instability present in his canvases; spatial dislocation, movement and flight. His sheer inventiveness allowed him to be 'forgiven' for his past participation in avant-garde groups and to be granted the opportunity to travel abroad as the artist representative of the Soviet Art exhibition in North America in late 1934, and also to visit France and Italy in 1935.
While there exists a persistent belief that the artistic production of the USSR was rigidly overseen by the Soviet authorities, Deineka was by no means an oppressed subject, moulded and constrained by the ideology imposed by the government – he himself was a creator as well as a questioner of ideology. To rob him of his agency is to deny the subtleties and innovations present in his oeuvre that clearly delineate his mastery, whether they were a deliberate subversion or not. Indeed, while much of Socialist Realism aims to elicit a specific response from the viewer – to encourage the emulation of the figures and ideals it portrays-Deineka's work is far from psychologically accessible nor does it pertain to present an idealised reality. Indeed, his constant depiction of movement, and subsequently, the experience of transition, suggests an attempt to imagine a future socialist existence that has not yet been achieved. It was these characteristics of his art that allowed it to shed the narrow definition of socialist propaganda, and to become art in its own right.
In Still Life with phlox, Deineka combines the familiarity of the domestic sphere with the recurrent tropes present in his oeuvre. The feathers on the vase evoke movement and flight, and importantly, the element of transition that Deineka so fiercely sought to represent in his oeuvre. The vibrant red vase contrasts with the more muted palette of the wall and table behind, serving to further highlight the brilliance of the single stem of pink amongst the white bouquet, which leans out of the bouquet and draws the viewer in. There is a deliberate dissonance between the pastel phlox, native to North America, and the folkloristic border on the tablecloth that clearly positions it in a Slavic context. Deineka incorporates a book on the table, an emblem of culture and knowledge so proudly valued in Soviet discourse, which is juxtaposed with the blooming flowers, characteristic tokens of vitality and vigour. During the 1950s, Deineka produced greater numbers of still lifes, displaying a deeper concern for the natural over the artificial that had marked his earlier works. The dimensionality and rhythm of his close range floral studies were complemented by the brilliance of the colours he chose, and display his skill for successfully uniting different configurations and tonalities.
Deineka's Still Life with phlox was gifted to Evgenia Kazimirovna Livanova (1907-1978), the wife of his close friend Boris Livanov (1904-1972), in 1956 and commemorated in a humorous and witty inscription on the reverse, which reads: 'Zhenya! Thank you for limiting our opportunities, and we, being of sound mind and sober, (unfortunately), bring to your feet our humble gift / A. Deineka / Witnessed by / B[oris]. L[ivanov] / 1956 / On the 24th of January'.
Boris Livanov was a prominent Soviet film and theatre actor and director, and the winner of numerous prestigious accolades and awards from the Soviet government, such as five Stalin prizes of the first degree between 1941 and 1950, the People's Artist of the USSR in 1948 and the Order of Lenin in 1964. His most well-known roles in theatre range from Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Nozdrev in Dead Souls, Solyony in Three Sisters and Rybakov in The Kremlin Clock. His film credits include the lead roles in Dubrovsky (1936) and Minin and Pozharsky (1939), as well as acting alongside his son Vasily Livanov (b. 1935), in The Blind Musician (1960).
His son Vasily followed in his father’s footsteps and is best known for his outstanding portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the cult Soviet TV film adaptations that aired from 1979-1986, as well as providing the voice of iconic Soviet cartoon characters, such as Karlsson from the Karlsson cartoon films and Gena the Crocodile in the famed Cheburashka films, among others. Additionally, he also penned the screenplay for the much-loved cartoon The Bremen Town Musicians, which remains immensely popular to this day. He was awarded the People's Artist of the RSFSR in 1988 and was made an MBE by the United Kingdom in 2006 for services to the theatre and performing arts. He continues to work tirelessly, most recently directing the motion picture The Bronze Horseman (2019).
Very rarely is one lucky enough to come across a work that has never been offered for sale at auction before, nor one that has never been seen publicly. However, what truly marks this painting as significant and unique, is not only its sophisticated combination of contrasting motifs and palettes, but primarily its wildly witty, yet tender, inscription on the reverse - a sincere epigram that emotively records the enduring friendship between artist and owner.