The greatest sculptor of our time, author of “The Heart of Christ” and “The Tree of Life”
Ernst Iosifovich Unknown is an outstanding Soviet and American artist of the XX early XXI centuries, famous for creating expressive expressionist sculptures with powerful plasticity and deep philosophical meaning. The work of Ernst Neizvestny is based on a difficult life path, reflects the milestones of the biography, values and character of the master. His paintings, sketches, sculptures, paved of stone and cast in bronze, are filled with struggle, human pain and strength.
Ernst Unknown often called himself “Russian sculptor in America.” In his life, some trials were replaced by others: war, political intrigue, exile. He was scolded for half a century and then extolled. And he had the courage to remain himself, believed that he was “protected by higher powers”, and recreated in his works the world of man, his language and soul.
Biography of Ernst Unknown
Unknown was born on April 9, 1925 in the Ural Sverdlovsk. With the advent of the new government, his father changed the last two letters in the surname, which allowed the family to live and work in Soviet Russia. The future artist grew up in a cultural, intelligent environment and from an early age was fond of art, which later became his life’s work.
Eric’s youth began with the war. Unknown went to the front as a volunteer when he was 17 years old, straight from a school for artistically gifted children. He was a paratrooper, commander of a platoon. As part of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, he liberated Romania, took Budapest and Vienna. He was wounded and wounded. The last time, two weeks before the end of the war, an explosive bullet pierced the chest, knocked out three ribs, and tore the pleura. He, not showing signs of life, was considered dead, sent a funeral to his parents and even managed to posthumously reward for heroism.
The war with its antihuman strength turned out to be an initial experience for the young man, changed his attitude to life, made him look at art in a new way. Later, years later, he will say that the opposition “life-death” has become a fixation of reality, “almost an obsession, capable of much more fully and deeply express the inner state of a person’s soul.”
Ernst Neizvestny arrives in Moscow in 1947.
To study art he goes to the Surikov Institute and at the same time studies philosophy at Moscow State University. By the mid-1950s, he became a famous sculptor. His workshops, first in the basement on Sretenka and then on Prospekt Mira, become the center of intellectual communication of the sixties, a bohemian island of Moscow. It is visited by scientists, artists, poets Konstantin Merabishvili, Pyotr Kapitsa, Lev Landau. There are scientific conversations and heated debates about the fate of Russia, the world, and humanity.
Since that time, a variety of difficulties have appeared in the life of Ernst Neizvestny. In his work, he is far from socialist realism and everything that in the USSR is called “art for the people.” His works, strong and unlike the officially approved works, are regarded as a challenge to the system. The young master has to fight for his views and principles.
The situation was aggravated by 1962. A group of avant-garde artists, including Unknown, were allowed to take part in the official exhibition. After her visit by Nikita Khrushchev, a huge scandal broke out. The general secretary, not hesitating in expressions, attacked the artists and their abstract works with harsh criticism and stinging remarks. Ernst Iosifovich, offended by the cruelty of the authorities and the ongoing bacchanalia, was the only participant in the exhibition who dared to object to the ruler.
After the incident, Unknown was ostracized.
He did not have the opportunity to exhibit his works, he was practically deprived of state orders, which meant the end of his career for the monumentalist. To earn a living, the sculptor works as a bricklayer, foundry worker, apprentice. In his free time, he works furiously to create his works, spends almost all the money he earned on casting them. Realizing that he was dying as an artist, in 1976 Ernst Unknown emigrated to the West.
In 1977, after a short stay in Europe, Unknown moved to the United States, where in just a few years he found world recognition, which he lacked in his homeland. Arranges a workshop, lectures on art and philosophy at universities. He belongs to the circle of the world’s artistic intellectual elite. He is accepted by Arthur Asher Miller, Princess Grace Kelly, Henry Alfred Kissinger, Andy Warhol.
Since the 1990s, Ernst Neizvestny began to create again for Russia: he created magnificent monumental works, visited Moscow and Yekaterinburg many times, brought exhibits, and organized exhibitions. He spent his last years on Shelter Island, New York, in his house-museum overlooking the sculpture park. On August 9, 2016, after a long illness, the great master passed away. He was 91 years old.
The most famous sculptures by Ernst Unknown
- “Nuclear Explosion” (1957) the work that brought the master the prize of the World Festival of Youth and Students, is an allegory of deadly weapons created by human hands.
- Lotus Flower (1968-1971) is a 75-meter memorial erected near the Aswan Dam in Egypt in honor of Soviet-Arab friendship. This is one of the four monumental works of the Soviet period by Ernst Neizvestny, for which he received an order thanks to his anonymous participation and victory in the competition.
- “Monument to Nikita Khrushchev” (1974) a black and white block reflected the impartial gaze of the master and put an end to the difficult relationship between the sculptor and the politician. The memorial was made at the personal request of Khrushchev’s son and installed at the Novodevichy cemetery.
- “Heart of Christ” (circa 1973-1975) the shape of the cross fascinated the artist and went through a continuous line in his work the acceptance of torment for the salvation of mankind. In 1981, after the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II (Italian: Giovanni Paolo II), the artist presented him with a sculpture. The work is now in the Vatican Museum.
- “Golden Child” (1995) the idea of a sculpture in the form of a tree, from a flower of which a child appears, visited Ernst Neizvestny in 1944 during the liberation of Odessa.
- The Tree of Life (2004) is the artist’s main work, a three-dimensional sculpture in the form of a crown of a tree, whose branches, like Mobius strips, personify the essence of life. The sculpture is installed in Moscow City, in the Bagration pavilion.
- “Masks of Sorrow: Europe-Asia” (2017) the idea of creating a memorial dedicated to the memory of the victims of Stalinist repressions, originated in the 1950s, the opening of the monument according to the prepared model took place after the artist’s death.
Ernst Unknown went from a boy from Sverdlovsk to a citizen of the World. Turning to history and philosophy, revealing the secrets of the human soul, he left a powerful legacy to his contemporaries and descendants.