Pre-war creative work of Z. I. Azgur

Довоенное творчество З.И. Азгура

Z.I. Azgur: First Steps into the World of Sculpture

1920 – 1930s – The period of apprenticeship and the artist’s formation. This is the least studied period of the sculptor’s creative activity. Sculptures created by Zair Azgur during the pre-war decades have not survived. Information obtained from archival sources, periodicals, catalogs of pre-war exhibitions, the artist’s correspondence, memoirs of his contemporaries is scarce and scattered. Judging the character and stylistics of the master’s works is possible based on the collection of photographs and reproductions of his works stored in the Memorial Museum-Workshop of Z.I. Azgur, Belarusian State Archive-Museum of Literature and Art, National Archives of the Republic of Belarus, National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Museum of Contemporary Belarusian Sculpture named after A.O. Bembel, and others.

The first teachers of the future artist were woodcarver Yughan Glek and potter Philip Potapenko. Under the guidance of P. Potapenko, Zair Azgur mastered the basics of sculpture. In addition to craft items and clay toys, at the beginning of his artistic path, he also tried himself as a portraitist.


A pivotal moment in Azgur’s life was his meeting with I. Ryabushkin, a student at the Vitebsk Art and Practical Institute (VHPI), who showed the future sculptor’s works to Y. Pen. As a result, Zair Azgur was admitted to the “School of Drawing and Painting of Artist Pen”. Under his leadership, Azgur studied throughout 1921, mastering the art of drawing, composition, and painting. In the same year, he entered the Vitebsk Art and Practical Institute – the first and only higher art educational institution in Belarus at that time. Azgur studied painting in the workshop of S. Yudovin. His first serious work during his studies at VHPI was the thematic composition “The Death of Religion”. According to Zair Azgur himself, this painting was exhibited in Vitebsk and was successful.


In 1923, the Vitebsk Art and Practical Institute was reorganized into a technical school. The impetus for the reorganization of the institute was the reporting exhibition of students’ work. At the V Congress of Workers of Arts of the Vitebsk Province, the works for the academic year 1922/23 presented at the exhibition were deemed unsatisfactory, and the institute was considered not meeting its purpose and name. Students were offered to take a verification exam, allowing those who passed it successfully to continue their education at the Vitebsk Art Technical School (VHTE). Azgur passed the exam and was enrolled in the sculpture department.


Practically all of Azgur’s works in the 1920s were of a class nature. In terms of composition, these were predominantly busts with a high cut along the shoulder line, prototype portraits. The artist studied the specifics of volumetric representation, the language of plastic arts, which can be observed in works belonging to the “Kerzin period”: “Worker Nadya” (1924), “Head of a Locksmith” (1925), “Cartman. Balagola” (1925).


The sculptor’s works were first exhibited at the reporting exhibition of the Vitebsk Art Technical School for 1923/1924. From 1924, Azgur participated in republican art exhibitions. In 1925, he participated in the I All-Belarusian Art Exhibition with typical VHTE studios “Head of a Worker” (2 sculptures), “Head of an Old Man”.


After graduating from the technical school, Azgur moved to Leningrad, where he continued his studies at the Higher Art and Technical Institute (VHUTEIN) (1926-1928) under the guidance of professors R. Bach, G. Manizer, V. Lishev, V. Simonov.


In the works of the Leningrad period, Zair Azgur focused purely on compositional tasks—positioning human figures within space. Within the walls of academic studios, he continued to work on portraits. The only known work from this genre, dated 1926, is “Leningrad Worker”.


Confident in the necessity of further professional growth, in 1928-1929 Azgur continued his studies at the Kiev State Art Institute, and from spring 1929 in Tbilisi at the Academy of Arts under Y. Nikoladze, a disciple of Auguste Rodin. Here, unlike his previous artistic institutions, he worked independently, with free access to Nikoladze’s studio.


This period of the sculptor’s apprenticeship ended. In 1930, he returned to Belarus and actively engaged in the artistic life of Minsk.


The 1930s marked Azgur’s period of artistic formation and the beginning of independent activity. This decade was characterized by his exploration of new expressive means and the refinement of his sculptural language. He aimed to create artistic images that organically combined the individual and the typical, capturing the multifaceted nature of the depicted personalities, primarily working in studio sculpture. It was during the 1930s that Azgur also began realizing his monumental ideas.


During this period, Azgur started a cycle of portraits of state figures. Based on iconographic material, he created portraits of K. Marx, F. Engels, Y. Sverdlov, V. Lenin, I. Stalin, and the sculptural group “V.I. Lenin and I.V. Stalin” (1939); also the portrait and monument project of Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1937).


A different approach and working principle characterized the cycle of portraits of Belarusian creative intelligentsia representatives. Portraits of cultural figures, contemporaries of the sculptor, were predominantly done from life. The main task, in this case, was to provide an accurate psychological characterization of the depicted individuals, conveying the complexity and multidimensionality of their creative personalities.


The portrait of writer, director, actor, and theatrical figure V. Golubok (1930) was commissioned by “Glaviskusstva”. It stands out for its compositional completeness, energetic and dense modeling, and clear, distinct silhouette. Stylistically and plastically, the portrait of Golubok is akin to the portrait of People’s Artist of the BSSR, director, and educator M. Rafalsky (1935)—architectonic, compact, with a dominance of vertical directions, smooth texture, and meticulous facial detailing. This approach continues in the portraits of psychiatrist K. Monakhov (1937) and People’s Artist of the USSR, opera singer L. Alexandrovskaya (1937), characterized by utmost purity of volume, softness of forms, and smooth, clear silhouette.


The depictions of A. Brazero, Y. Kupala, and Y. Kolas were approached differently. In the portrait of sculptor, painter, and graphic artist Brazero (1935), Azgur applies a compositional scheme typical of the works of the portrayed artist—where the lower cut runs along the line of the depicted’s bare chest. This work lacks the smoothed-out form characteristic of the previously discussed portraits. The modeling is impressionistic, with uneven, painterly texture, and the model’s face is expressively portrayed with mobile mimicry and irony. The portrait was sculpted in one session, yet retains its sketch-like quality despite its integrity and completeness.


The portraiture of Y. Kupala (1939) and Y. Kolas (1940) shares similar pictorial and expressive structures, allowing them to be perceived as pairs: nervous, with deep relief modeling; identical compositional construction—frontal bust depiction with head placement. In both cases, the pedestal is designed as an unprocessed stone block.


Thus, Azgur’s pre-war works highlight two different approaches to character interpretation. The first is based on the laws of representative, strictly regulated depiction, while the second finds application in studio portraits from life, requiring an understanding of the model’s inner essence, characterized by broad, free modeling.


By the 1930s, the sculptor’s name was well-known in Belarus, and his art was in demand. Azgur, among other Belarusian sculptors—graduates of the Vitebsk Art Technical School A. Orlov, A. Glebov, A. Bembel, G. Izmaylov, together with Russian Soviet sculptors M. Manizer, M. Kerzin, V. Riter—participated in the first major government commissions: decorating interiors of administrative and public buildings such as the House of Government, Minsk Opera and Ballet Theater, Pioneer Palace, Officers’ House.


In 1932, according to architect I. Langbard’s project, construction of the House of Government of the BSSR began in Minsk, initiating a unified architectural-sculptural complex. In the square in front of the building, a monument to V. Lenin executed by M. Manizer was installed, uniting and completing the overall architectural-spatial situation. After the completion of construction, Kerzin created interior sketches under the general artistic guidance of Manizer. According to the plan, portraits of revolutionaries were placed on the stairs leading to the rooms of the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR, executed in the same size, material (toned plaster), and on identical bases. For the House of Government, Azgur created portraits of the French communist utopian Gracchus Babeuf, Soviet state and party figures F. Dzerzhinsky and A. Myasnikov (1932-1933).