Ernst Neizvestny, Russian sculptor who stood up to Khrushchev, dies at 91 | Arts | DW | 10.08.2016
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Ernst Neizvestny, Russian sculptor who stood up to Khrushchev, dies at 91

He boldly confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a Moscow art show, but went on to design his memorial. Russian-born sculptor Ernst Neizvestny has passed away in New York.

Ernst Neizvestny is known for his monumental sculptures, including his "Mask of Sorrow," a 1996 memorial to the victims of the gulag work camps in Soviet Russia.

The sculptor passed away Tuesday in New York City, reported Russian media on Wednesday. US-based Russian journalist Oleg Sulkin wrote on Facebook that Neizvestny's death was a "huge loss for Russian culture."

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinski told Russian news agency Tass that Neizvestny had "expressed the power and indestructibility of the human spirit" in his work.

Ernst Neizvestny's memorial at Nikita Krushchev's grave in Moscow, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Raitman

Neizvestny's memorial at Krushchev's grave in Moscow

The artist versus the Soviet leader

Neizvestny is remembered in particular for his courage in confronting powerful Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. During a 1962 contemporary art show in Moscow, Khrushchev came and hurled insults at the artists, labeling them "degenerates" and calling their work "shit."

"I'm not afraid of your threats," Neizvestny later recalled telling the Soviet leader. While Khrushchev accused Neizvestny of wasting metal that was valuable for industry, the artist defended the integrity of his work.

While the incident resulted in Neizvestny's expulsion, the two men later took a liking to each other.

"You're an interesting person. There's the devil in you, but an angel somewhere too," Khrushchev reportedly told Neizvestny, according to news agency AFP.

Neizvestny immigrated to the US

When Khrushchev died in 1971, his family asked Neizvestny to design a memorial to the former leader in the Moscow cemetery where he was buried. The sculpture - designed in the modern style the politician once criticized - places Khushchev's head in the middle of the piece, symbolizing his conflicted personality.

Ernst Neizvestny receiving Russia's Order of Honour from President Putin in 2000, Copyright: cc-by 4.0

Neizvestny received Russia's Order of Honour from President Putin in 2000

Born in 1925 in what is now Yekaterinburg, Neizvestny's family suffered repression under the Stalin regime. He went one to fight in World War II, where he was severely wounded. The artist was later decorated for his bravery.

While Neizvestny studied art in Moscow and Riga, he left the Soviet Union in 1976, citing "aesthetic differences with the regime." After a time he Switzerland, he settled in the United States, where he would go on to teach art at a number of universities.

In addition to his "Mask of Sorrow" - which stands in Magadan, Russia, to honor gulag victims - Neizvestny has large-scale works at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, the United Nations in Geneva and the Vatican.

kbm/rb (AFP, dpa)

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