IN THE 1970S, when President Urho Kekkonen still ruled the country, the Finnish art world experienced an exceptional phenomenon when the Soviet painter Ilya Glazunov gained a sudden success.
Ilya Glazunov became known especially for the portrait of President Kekkonen that he painted in 1973 and for the successful exhibition that was held in the Kunshalle Helsinki two years later. In Finland, the time was favourable for using art and its publicity value both in domestic and foreign policy.
Portraits form a central part of Glazunov’s Finnish production. They build quite a gallery of the leading figures in politics, organisations, and cultural circles. A productive artist, Glazunov also depicted many of his Finnish friends and supporters in paintings and drawings.
The style of this unofficial art ambassador of the Soviet Union was different from Social Realism it had a strong base in Byzantine art and Russian tradition. Some Finnish critics partial to the realism of the time also shunned Glazunov’s stylised pieces and especially his audacious role as a favourite of the high society – and the President himself.
With Glazunov, many typical extremes of the commercial art world emerged: the artist’s publicity with all its curses, like rumours of copies, forgeries, and vague purchases. Each era has its own Glazunovs – artists whose production tell of the erratic art taste of the elite and whose works are used as instruments in political action or other image-making.
Ilya Glazunov’s main artistic production from the 1970s forms a completely different story than his series of portraits made in Finland. The grand depictions of Russian history, Soviet life and illustrations of classical literature are addressing a different public, closely tied to nationalistic spirit.
In the exhibition at Kiasma, the focus is in the values and artistic ideas of the Finnish society in the 1970s, all reflected through the Glazunov phenomenon. How do we view that time through today’s perspective, do we still recognise the people in the paintings and know their stories – and who still recalls Ilya Glazunov?