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Alexander Arkadevich Labas

Alexander Arkadevich Labas

1900 —1983
Alexander Labas was a remarkable, versatile Soviet artist with a unique style, the creator of a new "aviation genre", a representative of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, one of the founders of the Society of Easel Painters (OST). Labas was able to transmit on his canvases the movement at the maximum speed, to express modern life with its intense pace. His works are often characterised by unusual compositions, reminiscent of the angles of A. M. Rodchenko's photographs. The most characteristic features of Labas' works are mobility, ease, immediacy, airiness, and poetic quality. The artist has always been actively interested in scientific and technological progress and raised this topic to the rank of the most important for his art. Locomotives, aeroplanes, airships, underground, trams and cars are depicted in the works of Alexander Arkadyevich through the prism of a particular romantic perception of the world of technology and human progress. In his diary, the artist wrote: "I would like to live through the entire XX century, the most fascinating century, the age of extraordinary discoveries, revolutions in life, science, technology, art".

Labas was born on February 19, 1900, in Smolensk, the city which has left the main memories of childhood in the artist's life, in a bourgeois family with a Lithuanian name and Jewish roots from Vitebsk. His father - Arkady Grigorievich (Aaron Aizek Girshevich) had a degree of dentist, but later changed his profession to journalist and publisher. The artist's mother, Haya Shaulovna, died when Alexander Arkadyevich was only two years old. In a small family of Labas creative atmosphere has flourished - his brother was a musical wunderkind, and his father played the violin brilliantly, read a lot, painted, and collected art. Even the artist's grandfather was a passionate collector and gathered unusual things that seemed to him beautiful, such as coloured crystal or malachite seals. From an early age Labas often saw works of art or their subject matters in his dreams, and then painted them. This mysterious quality remained with the artist for life. In 1907, Labas began painting in a private art studio of V. I. Mushketov. Mushketov has appreciated the boy's talent, but at first could not believe that those drawings that a seven-year-old Labas had brought to his first drawing lesson at the school, was genuinely drawn by him. At the age of ten, in 1910, the boy was relocated to Riga. In Riga, Labas attended the drawing and painting school of Benjamin Blum. These two years that the family spent on the Riga's coast remained one of the happiest memories in the life of the artist. Later, in the 1970s, he returned to his beloved places and created a series of watercolours with views of the sea - "Dzintari".

In 1912, the family moved again, and this time, to Moscow. In Moscow Labas, to his great joy, was admitted to the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. Among the teachers of Alexander Arkadyevich were an architect and graphic S. V. Noakowski, the most adored one by all the students, a stage designer F. F. Fedorovsky, a drawing master D. A. Shcherbinovsky, an anatomy teacher and previously leading Moscow's art critic, S. S. Goloushev. Labas has written in his diary about his years of study: "the atmosphere there was surprisingly pleasant for me, and I have loved many of my friends and teachers there and did not forget throughout life". During the summer holidays, Alexander Arkadyevich studied in the studios of artists: in the summer of 1915 in the art studio of F. I. Rerberg, and in the summer of 1916 and 1917 - in the studio of I. I. Mashkov. During his studies in the Mashkov studio, Labas was introduced to contemporary art and was exploring the representational system of Cézanne which later becomes so important to him. After the Revolution of 1917, the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts was renamed Higher Art and Technical Studios, and in the autumn of 1918, Labas, after a failed attempt to be a student of F. Malyavin, who accidentally had stopped teaching, has got to the studio of P. Konchalovsky, who was a member of the Bubnovyi Valet artistic group (Knave of Diamonds group). That consequently has determined the artistic position of Labas as he was writing in his diary: "We are Konchalovsky's students: painting is the most important thing to us. Colour scheme comes first in painting… God forbid to construct it proceeding from drawing or light and shade, or to use colour only as a means of illustration". Alexander Arkadyevich was following in his own manner the modern Western artistic trends Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, but also used much of the aesthetics of the ancient East, namely Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish motifs. Labas has admitted that he felt some connection, even genetic closeness with the masters of the ancient East.

In 1919, Alexander Arkadyevich left as a volunteer of the 3rd Army of the Eastern Front and served there as an artist at the Political Department. Labas was painting propaganda trains and the walls of the houses, working on camp theatres and their scenography, and also drawing political posters. In 1921, Labas was teaching in the State Art Studios in Yekaterinburg. He received the title of Professor at the same time. After his return to Moscow in 1922, Alexander Arkadyevich continued his studies now in VKHUTEMAS in the studio of D. P. Shterenberg, whom he begged three years ago to let him go to the Front. In general, Labas has gotten very fortunate with his teachers: P. Konchalovsky, K. Istomin, V. Kandinsky, K. Malevich, A. Lentulov. All of them had strong, inspiring personalities and were gifted artists and teachers. These figures have played a significant role in the development of Labas' artistic career. The artist was visiting private collections of I. Morozov and S. Shukshin, where he studied French art. Thus, Labas had the opportunity to get acquainted with the works of the Impressionists, as well as with more contemporary art, works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. However, the main influence on Labas' art was not the contemporary Western tendencies, but the romantic aura of the idea that his native country had embarked on a new path in its history and, consequently, the expectation of a bright Future. In the early 1920s, Labas was enthusiastically interacting with the artistic group called "Method", the creation of which took place in the walls of VKHUTEMAS at the end of 1921, and its members - Sergei Luchishkin, Solomon Nikritin, Kliment Redko, Alexander Tyshler. Together with the artists of this group Labas exhibited at the Museum of Fine arts in 1922, showing to the public his colourful abstract compositions which, unfortunately, were lost later. In the 1960s-1970s, Labas tried to restore these works from memory. Another important event that has left a big mark on the artist's life occurred in the early 1920s, when Labas decided to experience the subject-matter of his many works - to fly on an airplane. By terrible accident, the plane on which the artist was flying, crashed twice on the Moscow - Kharkov route. Fortunately, Labas miraculously survived and he turned out to be the only one of all the passengers who decided to get back not by train, but again by air.

Upon the invitation of V. Favorsky in 1924, Labas began teaching painting, composition and chromatics at the faculty of graphics in VKHUTEMAS. He also was teaching colour science at the physical laboratory together with Professor of physics N. T. Fedorov and associate Professor S. Kravkov. Labas' teaching activities lasted until 1929. In 1924, Alexander Arkadyevich took part in the painting of trams in Moscow together with Tyshler and I. M. Chaikov. He later returned to the decoration of trams in 1929 and 1930. The desire for a new life and the search for harmony, an image of bold, great and profound art that matches the spirit and meaning of the great changes, leads Labas together with other artists to the foundation of the Society of Easel Painters (OST) in 1925. The artist has written in his diary: "We looked intensely into the present and imagined the fantastic reality of the future… I sought to show the life of a modern city, its inner impulse, romantic spirit and poetry and to feel Movement and Speed, well-known and at the same time yet to be fathomed". Labas preferred to work in series: he started to work on some subject-matter and used to return to it in subsequent years, developing the topic in the technical and emotional sense. For instance, Labas began the famous cycle called "October", which was inspired by the revolutionary events, in the second half of the 1920s and early 1930s and was expanding it until the 1970s. Other series can be listed as examples: "Aviation. Movement", "On Maneuvers", "The City of the Future".

One can say for sure that the late 1920s and early 1930s were the pinnacle of his creativity. During this period, the artist was engaged in the design of performances in the theatre of Revolution, the Theatre of V. F. Komissarzhevskaya, the State Jewish Theatre (GOSET), the Moscow Theatre of the Lenin Komsomol, and the theatre of M. N. Yermolova. Alexander Arkadyevich was involved in monumental and decorative art production at the state exhibitions. One of the most famous examples is the four-meter sculpture "Electric Venus" for the pavilion of electrification and mechanisation of the agricultural exhibition in Minsk in 1930. Other examples of the monumental art of Labas are the panels for the Moscow house of pioneers "City of the Future" and "Flight to the moon" in 1935. The artist's life became complicated when in the mid-1930s he was accused of being a formalist artist. Museums no longer acquired the artist's works, and he was practically banned from exhibiting his work. Despite these troubles, Labas has continued to work as a production designer in theatres and also was involved in major international exhibitions such as the XVII international art exhibition in Venice in 1930, or international exhibition of painting in the United States (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, St. Louis) in 1931. Exhibitions with Labas's works were also held in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Norway, Denmark, Czech Republic, Switzerland, England, South Africa, France, Japan, Spain. In the 1930s Labas created beautiful panoramas and dioramas for The Soviet pavilions at the world exhibition in Paris in 1937, in New-York in 1939, for the main pavilion of the VSHV (1938-1941). In 1937, the artist received terrible news - his brother, Abram Labas, Deputy Chief of staff of the Kiev military district and the brigade commander of the Red Army, was arrested and executed on trumped-up charges. The artist's faithful wife, whom Labas met in 1935 in the Crimea, a young German and an artist herself, a graduate of Bauhaus and a student of V. Kandinsky and P. Klee, Leony Neumann, acted as the main supporter to Labas getting him through this tragedy.

Labas used to travel a lot around the country, which is reflected in a series of his graphic works such as "Sochi" (1924), "in the Caucasus" (1924 - 1929) or "Crimea. Odessa-Batumi" (1929, 1935 - 1939). His landscapes are filled with the presence of man, they are emotionally active, "live". Alexander Arkadyevich was evacuated to Tashkent during the World War II, where he created a series of watercolour works "Tashkent", which were showed in his personal exhibition in 1943. Labas described Tashkent in his diary: "Sultry summer days under a dazzling sunlight that seem to be pouring from outer space - here the sky seems closer, and eternity more palpable. Colours here are different, unusual for the European eye. An absolutely different atmosphere, as if from the 'One Thousand and One Nights'. I wanted to convey the immortality and antiquity of Oriental beauty, which seemed vulnerable in those horrific years...". In 1960s and 1970s Labas came again to those cities that are associated with his childhood - in Riga and Smolensk. The artist expressed his emotions in watercolours such as "Riga. In the Old City" (1976), where the past is organically connected with the present. A turning point for Labas' art came in 1966, when, after a long break, the artist has managed to participate in a group exhibition together with M. Axelrod, A. Teneta, G. Schultz, and M. Gorshman. The artist's works again were in demand for museums to acquire, and fame and recognition have returned to him. Thus, the return of Labas to the mass audience has begun. In 1976, the first solo exhibition of the artist was held at the Kuznetsk Bridge. In 1981, his works were presented at the exhibition "Moscow-Paris. Paris-Moscow." Until the last day of his life, Labas worked hard and enthusiastically, repainting those series that he had created earlier. Alexander Arkadyevich has tried to do illustration as well, working on "Joseph and his brothers" by T. Mann and "The Twelve" by A. Blok. Despite the fact that the printed version of these illustrations was never published, these watercolours reveal the talent of Labas from a new perspective. The artist said about his artistic vision as follows: "... what I am sure is that with each decade my works will be more and more understandable, well, in 50 or 100 years - that's when they will sound in full force, and everyone will our time in them…". Labas died August 30, 1983 in Moscow and is buried at the Vagankov Cemetery.


Bibliography:

Апчинская, Н. (2011) Александр Лабас: "Увидеть и постичь этот загадочный мир". Третьяковская галерея. № 1.сс.76 - 85. [online] Available at https://www.tg-m.ru/articles/1-2011-30/aleksandr-labas-uvidet-i-postich-etot-zagadochnyi-i-tainstvennyi-mir
Бескина-Лабас, О. (2004) Александр Лабас. Воспоминания. Санкт-Петербург: Palace editions.
Бескина-Лабас, О. (2007) Личный Лабас: Александр Лабас в частных собраниях. Альбом. Москва: Культурная Революция.
Гельмиза, А. (2011) Александр Лабас : на скорости XX века, Государственная Третьяковская Галерея. Москва : Лабас-Фонд.
Семенова, Н. (2013) Лабас. Москва: Молодая Гвардия.