Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny (born 1925
Sverdlovsk) is a famous Russian sculptor of the second half of the
20th century. Ironically, his surname (often taken for a pseudonym)
translates to "unknown" or "not famous" in English. He currently lives
and works in New York City.
His parents, Jews, were purged in the 1930s.
At the age of 17, Neizvestny joined the Red Army as a volunteer. At
the close of World War II, he was heavily wounded and sustained a
clinical death. Although he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner
"posthumously" and his mother received an official notification that
her son had died, Neizvestny managed to survive.
In 1947, Neizvestny was enrolled at the
Academy of Arts in Riga. He continued his education at the Surikov
Moscow Art Institute and the Philosophy Department of the Moscow State
University. His sculptures, often based on the forms of the human
body, are noted for their expressionism and powerful plasticity.
Although his preferred material is bronze, his larger, monumental
installations are often executed in concrete. Most of his works are
arranged in extensive cycles, the best known of which is The Tree
of Life, a theme he has developed since 1956.
Although Nikita Khrushchev famously derided
Neizvestny's works as degenerate art at the Moscow Manege exhibition
of 1962 ("Why do you disfigure the faces of Soviet people?"), the
sculptor was later approached by Khruschev's relatives to construct a
tomb for the former Soviet leader at the Novodevichy Cemetery. Other
well-known works he created during the Soviet period are Prometheus
Artek (1966) and the Lotus Flower at the Aswan Dam in Egypt
(1971). In 1976, he moved from the USSR to Switzerland.
During the 1980s, Neizvestny was a guest
lecturer at the University of Oregon and at UC Berkeley. He also
worked with Magna Gallery in San Francisco, and had a number of shows
which were well-attended in the mid 1980s. This gallery also asked him
to create his "Man through the Wall" series to celebrate the end of
Communism at the end of the 1980s. He subsequently ended his
relationship with the gallery.
In 1996, Neizvestny completed his Mask of
Sorrow, a 15-meter tall monument to the victims of Soviet purges,
The same year, he was awarded the State Prize of the Russian
Federation. Although he still lives in New York City and works at
Columbia University, Neizvestny frequently visits Moscow and
celebrated his 80th birthday there. A museum dedicated to his
sculptures was established in
Uttersberg, Sweden. Some of his crucifixion statues were acquired
by John Paul II for the Vatican Museums.