Mikhail Sokolov: biography, creativity, career, personal life

One of the brightest representatives of Romantic-Symbolist “quiet art” Mikhail Xenofontovich Sokolov (1885-1947) entered the history of Russian painting as a rebellious rebel and a single artist who did not keep the course of the aesthetic doctrines of the era. He categorically did not accept social realism, but sought to go in art his way. Instead of workers and collective farms, tractorists and sportswomen, Sokolov painted portraits of noble knights, old ladies, heroes of the French Revolution, itinerant comedians and circuses. Interpreted religious subjects, portrayed characters of classical literary works.

During the life of the master, his work was absolutely uncalled for as it went beyond the topical subject matter of Soviet time. Today M.K. Sokolov is rightly considered the unsurpassed virtuoso of neuro-expressive picture-improvisation (graphics, book illustration) and temperamental and lyrical, but restrained in tone of painting ( portrait, still life, landscape). According to art historians, the artist became if not the key, then at least the most paradoxical author of the “thirties”.

The tragic fate of

Mikhail Sokolov is a native of Yaroslavl. He was born in September 1885 to burghers Xenophon Nikanorovich and Ustinia Vasilyevna Sokolov. To his mother — a woman quiet, balanced, meek and devout — Mikhail from the earliest childhood was penetrated with great tenderness. And kept only warm filial memories of her. With a despotic and wayward father, the relationship didn’t pan out. It got to the point that Michael refused to wear a generic patronymic name. Instead of Xenofontowicz, he called himself Konstantinovich. And persisted in it right up to the death of his father. The head of the family made a small fortune, highlighting barrels, and insisted that the son also mastered the craft of bondar. Not understanding the boy’s cravings for the visual arts, considered him to anything not a suitable futility. Didn’t give a penny to pay for his studies. And in general refused to give the naughty scion any kind of support.

Michael left his parents’ home early and could only count on himself. His life was full of deprivation and ordeal. It happened to be wandering and wandering, to survive poverty and hunger. By military draft and mobilization twice (1907 and 1914) he served on ships of the Baltic Fleet. He was an active participant in the February Revolution and the July Bolshevik Mutiny in Petrograd. After the conflict of the new power with Kerensky retired, politics no longer engaged.

Fully devoting himself to pictorial work, Sokolov begins writing in various techniques and exhibiting his paintings. He leads classes in the State Art Workshops of Yaroslavl, Tver, Yakhroma. In his homeland he headed the provincial decorative workshops at Narobraza, held classes at the art school. In 1923, after receiving a place as head of the IO studio in Proletkulta, he moved permanently to Moscow. He taught in such educational institutions as the Moscow State Technical School of Fine Art, the Institute for Advanced Training of Painters and Painters under the MosKh. He works hard and fruitfully and very soon becomes popular in the circles of the metropolitan bohemian. The artist’s work was shown at the Biennale in Venice (1924), in the exhibition “Russian Drawing for Ten Years of the October Revolution” (1927). In 1928 — the first purchase of graphics “Tretyakovka”. But a successful career is not being asked.

Sokolov’s inspiration and creative soulful impulses are above the desire to profit from painting. He doesn’t make compromises with himself and refuses custom work. The only exception is the illustrations made for the publishing house Academia for Voltaire’s “OrlĂ©ans Virgin” (1935). The denial of everyday writing and the demonstration of declarative distraction from the actual subject matter of Soviet time made his works unclaimed from customers. He paints mascara and watercolors (cycles “Circus”, “Musicians”, “Horsemen”); writes artistic still lifes, in oil painting appear deserted landscapes of Moscow. His works from cycles are exhibited: “Saint Sebastian”, “Passions”, “Beautiful Ladies”. But there is no recognition. Many express disagreement with his approach to subjects of the visible world and his treatment of pictorial problems. Categorically rejecting social realism artist is declared a formalist in fine art. And such did not rely their own room for the workshop. Sokolov had to work where he lived — in a room allocated by Proletcult in the “kommunalka” house on Arbat.

1934 — admission to the members of the Moscow branch of the Union of Artists of the RSFSR. 1936 — a solo exhibition on Kuznetsk Bridge, which was a great success. And finally, the long-awaited decision of MosKha to give him a workshop. The talented single artist, never involved in artistic groups and creative associations, has many admirers and followers, but no less outspoken detractors and hidden enemies. The State Academy of Art Sciences holds meetings dedicated to Sokolov’s work. At work and in the press, persecution begins. After appearing in the “Komsomolskaya Pravda” article “Against formalism and “Levatsky” ugliness”, Sokolov is declared a “henchman of bourgeois art”. Now in Soviet visual art he is a persona non-grata.

In terrible and fatal for the whole country, 1938-8 Mikhail Sokolov was a victim of political repression. At the denunciation of one of the students, he is accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to 7 years of correctional labor camps. While serving his sentence, the artist continued to work and in letters to friends sent artistic miniatures painted with handy materials. These “moles” and “trifles,” as the author called them, made on smoking paper and scraps of newspapers with surrogate paints, are among the artist’s best creations.

In 1943-m, Sokolov was released ahead of schedule from Taigin camp, as incapable of labor “reach”. Not having permission after exile to return to Moscow, Mikhail Ksenofontovich goes to Rybinsk. Inside this outwardly harsh man, whose entire appearance spoke of the adversity and sorrows suffered by him, continued to live an incorrigible romantic and idealist. The terminally ill artist found the strength to work (he directed an ironclad in the local House of Pioneers), returned to work. Creates cycles of still life, draws illustrations for Pushkin and Gogol, Dickens and Maupassant. In correspondence with friends greedily interested in the paintings of the Dresden Gallery brought to the capital after the war.


was allowed to come to Moscow only in the summer of 1946. Despite all efforts to achieve the removal of criminal records and restoration in MosKhe Sokolov failed. But he doesn’t lower his hands: he visits exhibitions, meets colleagues, makes plans for the future. Severe illness chainds Mikhail Xenofontovich to a hospital bed in “Scliff” and in his 63rd year breaks his life. The gravestone on the modest grave in Pyatnitsky Cemetery is a black granite slab with a 1925 graphic self-portrait carved not by it.

The true tragism of M. K. Sokolov’s “Calvary Way” was that for many years it remained incorrigible dreamer and uncompromising neo-romantic. The idealist artist fought not for the mundane benefits, but for the very opportunity to create. For Mikhail Sokolov, there were always two aesthetic coordinates: the surrounding reality in which he was forced to live and the invented artist world, where he sought with all his soul. And if in the inner illusory world he felt comfortable, then in the outer, real everything was much more difficult. Sokolov’s worlds intersected, in fact, only at one point, and that was his creativity. In Mikhail Xenofontovich’s letter to his wife read: “… life for me was an evil and merciless stepmother. She strangled me “earthly”, the prose of life, and the soul didn’t accept it.” Hence the sense of complete loneliness, and conflict with oneself, and tragic fate.

Aspects of personal life

Dreamer and romantic in kind, Mikhail Sokolov was an aesthete in everything — from the ability to think inspiringly and express his views to the habit of deliberately exquisitely and aristocratic to dress. It was distinguished not only by artistic appearance, but also by special attraction. Smolodu Mikhail literally mesmerizingly acted on the provincial barysheni. His pale lean face, ironic smile and romantically excited speech fascinated young individuals. The artist was in no hurry to start a family, having bound himself by the bonds of marriage after 30.

  • His first wife was the artist Nadezhda Viktorovna Stemberg (from 1917 to 1919). The rapid termination of the relationship occurred because Sokolov baselessly blamed the spouse for the death of their son.
  • Marina Ivanovna Baskakova became the artist’s second wife and muse in 1928. Fine and mysterious, in Blokowski “breathable spirits and fogs” Marina was younger than her husband by 18 years. Moscow moved from Ukraine, after the shooting of her father. She worked as a typist in a small institution. During the years they lived together, Sokolov painted about one hundred portraits of his wife. These are drawings in pencil, works made by pen and mascara, paintings in the technique of oil painting. The paradox was that the artist created from Baskakova a certain image of an exquisite lady and in ordinary life: forced to wear ridiculous hats, dressed as he liked, without regard to desires and tastes women. In addition, he did not pay attention to living difficulties: lived in tight conditions, often they lacked money, sometimes there was not even a normal meal. After 7 years of such marriage, the muse left the creator.
  • Sokolov’s last love and companion for several years of his life was Nadezhda Vasilyevna Rozanova (according to Vereshchagin’s first husband). The daughter of writer and publicist V.V. Rozanov was a longtime acquaintance of Mikhail Xenofontovich. She became a pupil of an artist, cluttering about preserving his creative legacy. Nadezha Vasilyevna arranged the returned exiled to work; took measures to restore him in MosKh; helped fight serious disease. Their marriage was registered in 1947, shortly before the master’s death.

As for Sokolov’s character, he was extremely uneasy. It is inherited from his father a cool temper, insidiousness and hotness, excessive self-confidence, increased exactness and picky towards people. Although he was a man completely unevil and often revealed his soul to others. Complications in his personal life were added to his incontinence in judgment and manifestations of injustice to others. A close friend of the painter, historian and art historian N. Tarabukin characterised him as follows: “In life – a srebrenik and an aesthetist ascetic, in work – an “apostle of the beautiful” and a “knight of art”. M.K. Sokolov himself in a letter to his wife gave himself such self-esteem: “Let me be accepted as it is — with all feelings gone into “unreal, non-existent” — a non-ordinary, incorrigible dreamer and romantic.”

His way in art

Firmly determined to devote himself to painting, Michael received his initial art education in Yaroslavl city drawing classes (1898—1904). The formation of philosophical views and creative style began when he received financial assistance from a local patron he went to study in Moscow. But very soon the young man leaves the Stroganov school. Sokolov wrote that staying here gave him nothing, but brought only disappointment. He sought to master the mysteries of craftsmanship, to develop an artistic gift, and had to “overcome what the academic school imposed”. The novice artist makes a decision to study classical painting independently on works of European and Russian masters in museum collections of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In the 1920s, young Soviet art was overwhelmed by all sorts of “isms”. Sokolov does not stay on the sidelines and tries different avant-garde directions. It is as if he is looking for himself in others: then fascinated by Malevich’s supermatism, then adjoining the Impressionists or maintaining a futuristic current, he turns to cubistic forms or religious symbolism of the circle “Makovets”. But at the same time remains internally intact, retains its own creative face. Critic D. Nedovich writes: “He tries different approaches, as if trying on different clothes. But he is in his vagrancy and faithful to himself.” By his essence Mikhail Sokolov is a “museum artist”. And stylistically it is closer not to post-Impressionists, but to Western art of the XVI-XIX centuries.

While Russian masters who passed the muschtra of academic school broke out of the shackles of classics into the expanses of modern futurism, Sokolov moves almost in reverse. He gets rid of left-wing avant-garde and creates his own original version of sophisticated, slightly theatrical, timeless art. Most often the artist improvised (imaginary portrait, book graphics), in the natural images (landscape, still life) too many internal visions: it is difficult to determine the moment of work from nature. .

It is clear that Sokolov did not fit into Soviet art nomenclature; his works looked foreign in a land of mass forced collectivization in art. According to N. Tarabukin, the artist sought to highlight the joy of being, which people do not always know, and most often do not want to notice, “representing the image of the creator in the most romanticized hypostasis”. The work of M. K. Sokolov is the author’s sum of the European artistic experience (from Poussin and Tiepolo to Rembrandt) combined with the antiophytious principles of “quiet art” based on eternal plots (beauty, love, heroism). But as D. rightly observed. Nedovich, obsessed with his picturesque dream the creator carries stubborn romantic images. He “revels in his fantasy and does not acknowledge the day becoming.”

For many connoisseurs and connoisseurs of art, Mikhail Sokolov appears to be the author difficult, sometimes obscure and summarily. But certainly he is recognized as the brightest personality in the Soviet visual arts of 1910-1940. Having passed the stage of fascination with the fashion directions of the avant-garde, preserving the taste for a sharp form, but still remaining a follower of romantic symbolism, the artist created his unique style in art — niggling lyricism in pictorial works and unparalleled virtuosity and flight in the graphics.

Creative heritage 

Biographers and art historians characterize Mikhail Xenofontovich Sokolov as a man who felt his artistic gift and was in constant creative combustion. He was adept at creating works under all circumstances, always remained a romantic and humanist, unable to compromise either in art or in life.

Long years M. Sokolov, accused of dissociation from reality, which in 1936-Đą A. Ephros called an “unnoticed artist”, such and remained. The scale and peculiarity of the gift of the master was appreciated only in the early 1960s. By this time, his creative legacy (not only artistic, but epistolary and poetic) had been collected, systematized, and studied. And widely available to the mass viewer the name of Mikhail Xenofontovich Sokolov became in the year of his 100th anniversary. A huge success was a retrospective exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery (2005-2006). The enormity of the master’s contribution to the Soviet visual arts became even more tangible after the publication in 2018 of the three-volume book, which included 1200 drawings, pastels and artistic miniatures.

The best known among his works are:

  • art cycles “Moscow Departing” and “Birds”; graphic cycles “Musicians”, “Circus”, “St. Sebastian”;
  • a

  • special place takes “Siberian camp miniatures” — “small – large painting in which freedom breathed”;
  • from a huge number of book and graphic illustrations to literary works stand out “The Adventures of Oliver Twist”, “The Orleans Virgin”, “Dead Souls”.

According to critics and art historians, Mikhail Sokolov’s merit is that working in large, varied cycles, he crossed the bridge out of symbolism by the forties of the 20th century.

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