Membri del Circolo di Aref'ev.

Members of the Aref’ev Circle.

Dates: late 1940s-early 1960s

Place: Leningrad

Members: Aleksandr Aref’ev, Roal’d Mandel’shtam, Richard Vasmi, Sholom Shvarts, Vladimir Shagin e Valentin Gromov

Also known as the Orden nishchenstvuiushchikh zhivopistsev (Order of the Poor Artists) and Boltayka (from the verb boltat’, meaning ‘to chat’), the circle of artists, who gathered around Aleksandr Aref’ev, is one of the earliest expressions of unofficial Soviet culture. Except for the poet Roal’d Mandel’shtam and Richard Vasmi, who trained at an Institute of Architecture, the members met at the Leningrad Art Middle School. Their enrolment at this institute differentiates the Aref’evtsy artists from later non-conformist painters who did not have a traditional artistic education. The most innovative aspects of the group’s work are their unique ways of using colour and the attention they give to marginal topics and subjects (also geographically marginal), which were banned from official art: Shagin, during the Stalinist era, drew a prisoner dragged away by a policeman, Aref’ev portrays the scene of an execution, taking Goya as a model. In Aref’evtsy’s paintings the darker side of the former Russian capital is represented, with courtyards, staircases and squalid chambers, but harmonious scenes are not entirely absent and stand out in contrast with the grotesqueness and harshness of other paintings. The works, painted on small canvases, are often simple drawings made on makeshift materials. The Aref’evtsy artists have also been called “the last Impressionists” (Poslednie impressionisty), due to the influence that the French movement, (to which an area on the third floor of the Hermitage is dedicated) exerted on their art; they are often quoted as being an example of a synthesis of the arts, because of the combination of figurative and verbal language in their works. Aref’ev was a legend for independent contemporary artists and a lasting influence on succeeding generations. His talent went hand in hand with an addiction to alcohol and drugs that eventually led to his arrest.  In 1977 he emigrated to  France, where he died a few months later. Among the other members of the group, the most significant is Roal’d Mandel’shtam, the first Leningrad poet whose work and reputation were preserved thanks to the samizdat network. Mandel’shtam died in 1961 of tuberculosis at the age of only 28 after years of suffering; he was a self-taught expert on classical culture as well as Chinese, Japanese and European art and literature (he was especially interested in García Lorca, who he translated) and Russian poetry (cf. Sabbatini 2008: 34).  He became a reference point for the ‘Second Culture’ (Osip called him an unsurpassed example of civil courage during the Stalinist terror) and had an enormous influence on future underground circles, especially in Leningrad (cf. Ivanov 2002: 543). The themes of his poetry, influenced by the avant-garde and modernist movements (in particular Nikolai Gumilëv), range from the intimate to the historical; his mystical verses can be seen as part of a tradition of Petersburg texts. During his final illness Mandel’shtam was confined to his room in Kanonerskaia ulitsa, where the group used to meet: they called it  “the salon of the rejected”. The group, who were compared to the contemporary American beat writers, staged their first exhibition in 1974, in an alternative venue held at the cultural circle of the Kirov Plant.

Federico Iocca
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Alice Bucelli


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To cite this article:
Federico Iocca, Aref’ev Circle, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0