Viktor Efimovich Popkov
- State prize of the USSR (1975)
Viktor Popkov is a famous, original and significant Soviet painter and graphic artist of the Russian realistic school particularly active during the Khrushchev Thaw period, one of the creators of the "Severe style", the forerunner of the art of the left-wing proponents of the MOSKh (Moscow Union of Artists) of the 1970s. Popkov was creatively active from the late 1950s to the mid-70s, was favoured by the press and recognised by the state, but his work still was often debated and was arousing passionate discussions. The artist was born on March 9, 1932, in Moscow into the family of a worker and a peasant woman who moved from the village of Kamenka, Smolensk region. However, only at the dawn of the war, when Viktor was eight years old, his father, Efim Akimovich, finally moved his wife and three children, including Victor, to Moscow. His father went to the Front to fight and died in the autumn of 1941, and the mother of the future artist, Stepanida Ivanovna, was left alone to raise four children. Viktor was intelligent, honest, thoughtful, very mature beyond his years, child. In the third grade, he began attending drawing lessons. As one of the strongest memories of his childhood, the artist had recalled the event that occurred when he was a student of the fifth grade. At that time Viktor painted only with a pencil, but, coming back one day from school, he saw a woman on the veranda of her house sketching with watercolour. The boy was so excited about the watercolour as he had never seen it before that he persuaded his mother to take him to this artist and ask to accept him as a pupil. However, when they came, the artist arrogantly refused him. During that period and until the end of the seventh grade, Popkov was studying at the art studio at the Kalinin's factory in Podlipki. The young man was so talented that he was able to enter the Graphic and Pedagogical School without any additional training in 1948, and in 1952, Viktor Efimovich entered the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, where an essential stage of the formation of his artistic vision and technique has begun. Even though Victor Efimovich sought to get to the Faculty of Painting, he was enrolled in the Graphics Department.
Among many teachers that he had, Viktor Efimovich has always singled out Yevgeny Adolfovich Kibrik. He started to study in Kibrik's studio in the fourth year during his time in the Surikov Art Institute. Kibrik was the only one whom Popkov called with awe "my teacher". Kibrik himself spoke of his student as follows: "He had extraordinary energy and richness of creative nature, was always full of ideas and drew them from any contact with life: on the street, in the workshop of a friend, in his trips around the country, in communication with different people. And straight from the idea he immediately went to the painting, bypassing any doubts and uncertainty. It is a rare feature. However, I many times scolded him for haste, for hustle, but such was his nature. He needed to speak out at all costs, to express his overwhelming thought, the idea, then to find something else to work on. He lived a tense inner life; he was constantly working". Popkov has always brought more sketches and studies for his teachers to assess than the other students. He had an incredible work capacity and perseverance. For instance, for the presentation of his diploma work, the artist has submitted ten large watercolours on the theme of "Transport" and several coloured linocuts, while other students prepared only three or four works. It was a tremendous success, and Popkov's works were not criticised at all. The diploma's work presentation was excellent, and everyone in the Institute congratulated him.
After the first year of the Institute, Popkov went to practice in Beloomut, and in 1958, he went on a creative trip to the construction of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station. Such creative trips with the primary aim to collect the material for the artist's future paintings were happening throughout the whole life of Viktor Efimovich and played a vital role in the creation of his most famous paintings. Popkov began showing his works at youth art exhibitions in the late 1950s. The first work, which was exhibited in 1958, was the painting "Youth". Then, the artist participated in all-Union art exhibition "40 years of Komsomol", the Fourth exhibition of works of young Moscow artists, the Sixth All-Union exhibition of diploma works of students of art institutes of the USSR graduated in 1957 and 1958. Increasingly, the press began to use such epithets in relation to the artist as "promising", "gifted", "talented". After graduation, in 1958, Viktor Efimovich received his studio and then went with other young artists to another creative trip to Siberia to capture the construction of the railway Abakan-Taishet and the worker's labour in particular. Although Popkov studied at the Faculty of Graphics, painting has come to the fore in his work. The theme of his diploma work was transformed into a series of paintings. In 1959, Popkov joined the Moscow Union of Artists. In the same year, he participated in the Exhibition of Soviet painting in the GDR, and exhibitions of works of young Soviet artists in Hungary and Poland. In 1960, Viktor Efimovich again went on a trip to the construction of the Bratsk hydroelectric power station. In Moscow, his works were shown at the Republican exhibition "Soviet Russia", the exhibition of works by young artists and the exhibition "On the taiga construction sites". By this time, Popkov's work has reflected a new version of a representation of heroics, the problematics of duty without any totalitarian pathetic and freedom-loving frivolity of the "Thaw" period. Viktor Efimovich's paintings show the world as it is, without romantic illusions or state ideology.
In 1961, there was a significant event for the Popkov's career: his painting "The builders of the Bratsk hydroelectric power station "(1961), one of the central works of the "severe style", was acquired by the State Tretyakov Gallery. In the same year, he went on a trip to the virgin lands of Kazakhstan to fulfil the commission from the factory which ordered him a series of paintings. In general, during this already mature period of his career, Popkov is interested in such topics as fate, death, the meaning of human existence, which is expressed in his works. In 1962, the artist participated in the international youth festival in Helsinki, as well as in the 31st International Biennale in Venice, the exhibition of Soviet art in Japan and Yugoslavia. Thanks to his resounding success at domestic and international exhibitions, in 1963 Popkov became a member of the Committee for the award of State and Lenin prizes. The artist held this post until 1966. The 1960's is a time of intense creative search for Popkov: he painted both deeply dramatic and life-affirming, optimistic paintings, portraits and, what is especially significant, self-portraits have begun to appear in his work, and, also, the theme of Stalin's repressions was actively used by the artist. Thus, the first half of the 1960's was spent in an experimental search. Soon, Popkov went to Arkhangelsk and Ferapontovo. The reason for visiting Ferapontovo was a passion for ancient Russian art. In Ferapontovo the artist made sketches from the frescoes of Dionysius. In 1964, he participated in the 32nd International Biennale in Venice. In 1965, Viktor Efimovich went to the Northern regions of the country, on the territory of the White sea, and to Zolotitsa. In 1966, the artist almost committed suicide in consequence of failures in his personal life and the dark place in his artistic career. The artist's paintings were not accepted to be shown at the exhibitions. However, Viktor Efimovich was miraculously saved by his father-in-law, who cut the belt on which the artist hung himself, and the difficult period has passed. Yet, the relationship with the authorities was still complex, and the artist had to explain and justify his every work. In 1966, was Popkov's first trip to the Mezen (Zelengora), and in the following year, he went to the second one. The result of these trips became famous masterpieces of Popkov, depicting the daily life of the Northern villages. Also, in 1967, the artist was awarded an honorary diploma at the exhibition of the young artists in Paris for the paintings "Two", "The team is resting" and "The noon". He participated in the exhibition of Soviet art in Iraq and Turkey. In 1969, Victor Efimovich went to the GDR, where his work was displayed in 1970, at the exhibition "East Germany through the eyes of Soviet artists". The 1970s were extremely productive for the creative work of Viktor Efimovich. Being already a popular, recognised artist, Popkov said: "It turns out that you were attracted to the artist's profession neither because of money nor fame nor all those 90% of the bustle of life around art, but you just loved the art itself and nothing more...". The tragic and absurd death of the artist as a result of an accident occurred on November 12, 1974, when Popkov was only forty-two years old. Posthumously, he was awarded the state prize of the USSR for a series of paintings "Reflection on life." The artist's works are stored in the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum.a
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