Central European University-Institute of Advanced Study, Hungary
In his own time, Evgenii Aleksandrovich Katsman (1890-1976) was known as a respected Soviet portraitist and as one of the three initiators of the group the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR). Almost all the Soviet critics and art historians of his time noted Katsman's considerable ability to exactly depict the living human figure using only the most basic materials, specifically sanguine pencil and paper. They also noted Katsman’s ability to transmit the emotions of the human body better than most other Soviet painters. However, very few wrote about the enormous role that the classical figure played in the development and evolution of Katsman’s oeuvre.
This article demonstrates the influence of antiquity on the work that Katsman produced during the early Soviet period (1925-1935). Through a careful analysis of his paintings and graphic works, including They are Listening to a Presentation (1925), Mountain Jews (1931), and Shock Workers (1932) and materials from his archive, this article shows that Katsman devoted a lot of time to the study of the classical figure and strove to reiterate it in his contemporary portraits of Soviet people. This project was of course directly related to the development of a “heroic realism,” which the members of AKhRR described, in the first years of the group’s existence, as their primary task. Although Katsman strove to use the images and forms of antiquity to create new images of Soviet heroes, based on the quality and uniqueness of his works it is not possible to conclude that he produced the type of dead, ready-made figures so often associated with monumental Socialist Realism or that he simply gives the classical ideal a Soviet face.
This article shows that, on the contrary, his exact and unique study of the classical figure allowed Katsman to create a new and relevant image of contemporary Soviet man. In the first place, the image of the classical figure allowed him to introduce the living ideas of beauty, respect, and honor into the figures of ordinary people, and secondly, and more importantly, his study of that figure is what enabled the artist, far more than the materials of representation (including sanguine pencil, paper, and paint) to transmit the emotions and feelings of body of a new man from a new epoch. Through this, Katsman created historical images of the early Soviet period, which not only reveal the faces of the Soviet people, but also show us the specific conditions of everyday life and work.