Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny

Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny

1925 —2016

Ernst Neizvestny was a legendary Russian sculptor and a crucial pioneering figure actively participating in the radical changes that happened in the Soviet art world during the twentieth century. The artist was born on April 9, 1925, in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), in the Ural Mountains in an extraordinary Jewish family with a deep history. His remarkable mother, Bella Abramovna Dizhur, came from an ancient, aristocratic lineage going back to Sephardic Jews of Spain from the fifteenth century and subsequently to French barons D'Jour. Bella was a poetess, an author of children's books, and a biochemist. As a child, Neizvestny used to assist his mother in her underground, private laboratory. No wonder the artist had such a surprisingly big collection of birds and rodents during his childhood. The artist's father, Iosif Neizvestny, a former White Army's officer, originates from a nineteenth-century Siberian military family of Cantonists who prospered in commerce. He was a renowned pediatric surgeon and had to conceal his background in order to get to the medical school in Tomsk. The artist's parents' Jewish ancestry, family histories, and socio-economic background were extremely problematic issues at that time in the Soviet Union. When Neizvestny was born, he was called Erik at first, and only when he joined the Red Army, he changed his name to more masculine, mature-sounding in the Russian language, 'Ernst'. He was an intelligent, observant, and perceptive child with a delicate soul. Neizvestny was deeply influenced by his family's circle and their philosophical conversations, that he used to listen, and the atmosphere of their intellectual home. Moreover, he has called his mother's friends' lively intellectual discussions as his first university.


During 1939 - 1942, as the result of his victory in a national competition, Neizvestny was studying at the elite school for artistically gifted children in Leningrad, which was transferred to Samarkand during the Second World War. Neizvestny's delicate health did not allow him to be drafted into the Army and gave him a deferment. In 1942, after his close friend was killed in combat, Neizvestny volunteered for the Soviet Army, serving as an airborne commando officer on the Second Ukrainian Front. He was considered to be dead after he had been critically injured in 1945 in Austria. Neizvestny was brought back from the state of clinical death. His mother even had received an official notice of Neizvestny's death on the battlefield and, as Neizvestny was assumed to be dead, he was awarded posthumously with a famous Order of the Red Star for heroism. Following the war, Neizvestny taught drawing at the Suvorov Military Institute in Sverdlovsk for some time. He made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Repin Academy of Art in Leningrad, but because of his previous argument with the director of the School for Gifted Youths, he was not welcomed in such institutions. Neizvestny joined the faculty of sculpture at the Academy for Fine Arts in Riga, Latvia in 1946. Latvian monumental sculpture and exceptionally brilliant Latvian artist Karlis Zale had a positive and powerful effect on Neizvestny. The artist continued his education at Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow starting from 1947 and graduating in 1954. Also, simultaneously he was studying philosophy at the Moscow State University. In 1955, the artist became a member of the sculpture section of the Moscow branch of the Soviet Artists' Union and since then started to display his work regularly in group exhibitions.

The artist is also known for his forceful personality, fearlessness, and an ability to defend his position, not least due to a memorable confrontation with Nikita S. Khrushchev at the 30th anniversary of the Moscow section of the Soviet Artists' Union exhibition in 1962. Khrushchev harshly criticised the exhibition and even called a lot of works 'degenerative'. He furiously accused the artist of being wasteful of metal which is more needed for national industry. Since then, Neizvestny has been at odds with the Soviet authorities and found it difficult to exhibit his work in the Soviet Union. Ironically, in 1974, the artist was approached by the family of Khrushchev with a commission to create a tombstone for the former Soviet leader. In 1976, Neizvestny emigrated from the Soviet Union to Switzerland, and then, to the United States. The artist's work has been exhibited in Vienna, Berlin, New York, London, Paris, Locarno, and Moscow. Neizvestny worked on numerous public monuments commissions such as 'Monument for All the World's Children' in Crimea, a stainless-steel sculpture 'Prometheus' in Tel-Aviv, a bronze head of Dmitri Shostakovich for Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC, the largest sculpture in the world 'Lotus Blossom' monument in Egypt, a monument to the Victims of the 1964 Earthquake in Turkmenistan, a monument to poetess Anna Akhmatova in St. Petersburg, etc. The Vatican Museum has acquired some of his religious works. He also was teaching art and philosophy at some universities in the United States starting from 1983. The artist has worked as an illustrator: he did illustrations to Samuel Beckett's writings and Dante's 'Short Works'. In 2004 the artist was awarded a status of an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts. Neizvestny's large brutalist-heroic sculpture and vigorous drawings and paintings are highly valued in the art world. These works of art illustrate struggle, flesh against the spirit, contradiction, a challenge of metallic and organic matter, multiplicity and the world of humans and machines. The artist died on August 9, 2016, in Stony Brook, N.Y. at the age of 91.


Astrachan, A. "Why Khrushchev's Favorite Sculptor Chose Exile." New York Times, April 11, 1976

Berger, J. (1997) Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny, Endurance, and the Role of Art. New York: Random House.

Egeland, E. (1984) Ernst Neizvestny: Life and Work. New York: Mosaic Press

Leong, A. (2002). Centaur: The Life and Art of Ernst Neizvestny. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.