Sergei Merkurov (1881-1952), Soviet artist
“The Great October Socialist Revolution [of 1917] defined my place in the ranks of the builders of the new society. But not only that—it widely opened the door of my studio” (Merkurov, quoted in “Sculptor”).
Lotte Jacobi, Sculpture by Sergei Merkurov at His Outdoor Studio, Moscow, 1932
Although we do not have a record of Jacobi meeting many visual artists, on September 18, 1932, Jacobi visited the Moscow studio of the prominent Soviet sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov (1881-1952). Merkurov was apparently not there at the time, but Jacobi was able to wander around his outdoor studio and see some of the colossal sculptures of major political figures that occupied most of his time.
A cousin of the mystic George Gurdjieff, Merkurov was born to Greek parents in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1881. He studied in Kiev, Zurich, Munich, and Paris, and settled in Moscow in 1909. In Paris, Merkurov went to Rodin’s studio in 1906-07 (Hovhannisyan) and was greatly influenced by the French artist’s work. Merkurov first heard Lenin speak when he was a student in Zurich, and he later became Lenin’s primary sculptor. He also had a long, but not as close, relationship with Joseph Stalin. Merkurov made colossal statues of each of these Soviet leaders, as well as sculptures and death masks of other prominent figures of his day, such as the writers Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), and the Armenian revolutionary Stepan Shaumyan (1878-1918).
Lotte Jacobi, Two Sculptures of Stepan Shaumyan at the Studio of Sergei Merkurov, Moscow, Russia, 1932
Merkurov’s politics, as well as his work—idealized realist sculpture—was the perfect fit for Lenin’s “Monumental Propaganda” program of 1918 that called for monumental art to spread the “cult of personality” and communist propaganda. With the support of Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was in charge of Narkompros (The People's Commissariat for Education), Merkurov received important commissions. Merkurov’s tallest statue, a 1931 statue of Stalin in Yerevan (destroyed in 1950), the capital of Armenia, was over 160 feet high (Bayrakdarian). For his loyalty, Lenin gave Merkurov land in the Izmailovo District of Moscow, where he had a menagerie, home, and studio, which Jacobi visited (Neumeyer 56). A devoted communist and primary sculptor of the Socialist Realist movement, Merkurov received many state honors, among them the title of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1943, and he was the director of the Pushkin Museum from 1944-1949. Though his relationship with Stalin cooled somewhat in later years, Merkurov survived Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and died in Moscow in 1952.
Lotte Jacobi, Sculpture of Lenin at the Studio of Sergei Merkurov, Moscow, Russia, 1932
At Merkurov’s studio, Jacobi made photographs of sculptures of Lenin and Shaumyan, a Bolshevik who led the Russian revolution in the Caucasus but was captured and executed by anti-Bolsheviks in 1918. Merkurov’s statue of Shaumyan was erected in Yerevan in 1931. Jacobi also viewed some of the hundreds of death masks for which Merkurov was famous. Fifty-nine of his death masks, including those of Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorky, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vladimir Mayakovsky (the latter two photographed by Jacobi in Moscow), can be found at the Merkurov House Museum in Gyumri, Armenia, where Merkurov was born (“Sculptor”).
Contributor: Eleanor Hight
Bayrakdarian, Kristen Anais. “The Sculptor of Death Masks.” EVN Report (June 27, 2018). https://www.evnreport.com/arts-and-culture/the-sculptor-of-death-masks
Hovhannisyan, Marianna. “Speculative classification: Tracing a disputed portrait between the archives of Malvina Hoffman and Sergey Merkurov.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies (2019). https://doi.org/10.5070/D4152042699
Neumeyer, Joy. “The Death Artist.” Russian Life 56:5 (Sept/Oct 2013): 50-58. https://www.evnreport.com/arts-and-culture/the-sculptor-of-death-masks