The Leningrad Underground and a Russian Rebel

Self-Portrait by Ilya Shevel
“Self-Portrait” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel.

Leningrad, Russia – 1970s. A talented young painter, Ilya Shevel, enters the Secondary Art School of Russia’s Academy of Fine Art, but finds the Soviet-mandated academic style of realism too restrictive and “uninteresting.”

At home, the artist is surrounded by the art and creative thinking that truly inspires him. His father, architect Vladimir Shevel (Shevelenko), enjoys regular discussions with four painters who became part of a rebel culture of creative intellectuals often referred to as the Leningrad Underground.

Shadows by Ilya Shevel
“Shadows” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel

Brooklyn, New York – today. Ilya Shevel now lives in New York City, creating and exhibiting his unique style of painting as well as designing the intricate backdrops and exquisite scenery for the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center. I was intrigued by his work and found it even more captivating after learning his story.

What was it about the Academy of Fine Art in Russia that didn’t resonate with you?

Ilya Shevel:
I found it difficult to stay there because I wasn’t working the same way, I wasn’t working within the same line of realism being taught at the Academy. I tried to stay “within the lines,” tried to be as realistic as possible, but I couldn’t agree with them – there was something else I wanted to explore. The Academy was OK in terms of learning how to draw and paint, but there was a lack of interesting teachers. Most everything was focused on drawing from life, painting still lifes and the heroics of Soviet propaganda. There was no variety.

I was not afraid to explore color, but their palette was based on a semi-gray scale and I found it quite boring. So I never went to the Academy itself, I just went to the Secondary School there.

Tell me about the Leningrad Underground in the 70s, this underground community of writers and painters whose work did not conform to the official school of Socialist Realism and produced what came to be known as Nonconformist Art.

Ilya Shevel:
I’m from a younger generation – that generation was my father’s. That group was born in the 30s and four of them were friends of my father who would come over to talk about ways of looking at life, about their work. One of the core artists in that group was Alexander Arefiev, who became my teacher. The others were Vladimir Shagin, Sholom Schwartz and Richard Vasmi. It wasn’t any major movement of any kind, just a group of artists with their own aesthetic ideas who created a circle of their own – social but secret.

Why did they have to be secretive?

Ilya Shevel:
They were basically rebels of the Soviet system who had attended the Academy of Fine Art in their youth like I did, but didn’t agree with the Academy’s teachings either. They loved life and they loved people and enjoyed observing them, and therefore much of their work portrayed interactions with people and did not conform to the official Soviet Realism.

At the time, you had to be employed somewhere. If you weren’t employed, you could be arrested and incarcerated for violating Soviet law. Arefiev spent a few years in jail. Some of the group worked as house painters by day and later they would go home and paint in their apartments. That’s what they’d do as artists. Arefiev didn’t work much but he did do some illustrations. They lived their lives apart from Soviet society and weren’t looked upon kindly.

Were they not able to show their work?

Ilya Shevel:
If you belonged to the Union of Russian Soviet Artists, you had the right to exhibit in a group once or twice a year, or perhaps monthly. I wasn’t fond of those shows, except for a few of the younger artists that were in the Union – artists who “stepped sideways” from the directives. But mostly it was all Social Realism. This form, that form, all same, same, same. Glorification of Labor, glorification of Farm Life, glorification of this, of that. Not much room for personal interpretation.

The artists who didn’t conform weren’t able to show their work so they formed a sort of underground culture in Leningrad. They’d have “apartment shows” where several artists would get together in an apartment and there would be wall-to-wall paintings. Many would go to these shows and there would be a great gathering of people. Foreigners would even know about it and correspondents could come in. That was the type of life that these artists lived.

Arefiev was quite active in this lifestyle. Schwartz and Vasmi were more alone but came to the surface in the 90′s when more kinds of painting were allowed and they finally did get to show their work.

Esther by Ilya Shevel
“Esther” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel

It was risky to arrange these shows, yet these artists had that passion to create their own work and exhibit it. How did that influence you?

Ilya Shevel:
That pulled the rebel out of me in a way. It coaxed me to be myself. I left Leningrad with my family, my youngest sister and the dog to study at the Estonian State Art Institute in Tallinn. Estonia was very free – you could do what you wanted. When I worked there, I had a little studio off the main room and when they had a live model in the main room, I’d go in, take a look, then go to my studio and paint. I didn’t need to have the model directly in front of me to copy. My teacher was surprised but I’d say that’s just how I trained myself. I look, I remember and then I work. And that was allowed, unlike the Academy of Fine Art where they wanted you to paint exactly as they say.

What else did you learn from this group of underground artists?

Ilya Shevel:
Arefiev was my professor who gave me the ability to look and to express what I see with maximum expression. That’s what I’m after in my work….looking at life and expressing it. He also taught an incredible love for the subject. You have to be in love with what you’re painting.

Growing up with these kind of people, with their stories and discussions, with their kind of art on our walls and with my father who appreciated it and taught me to appreciate it, became part of my teaching as an artist. But I was growing up in a different time. Things were much freer in Russia when I was a child. The spectrum of world art was much wider for me than it was for those people. They kind of laid a base for my aesthetic as a child, so it was never a question of whether or not I was going to become an artist.

Ilya Shevel emigrated to the United States in 1978 when he was twenty-one and began showing his work right away. He was in Boston for couple of years before moving to New York. He joined the Scenic Artists Union and started working for theaters during the day to make a living, then came home to work on his own art.

“The George Washington Bridge” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel

When you arrived in the U.S., did the art you encountered surprise you?

Ilya Shevel:
Yes and no. By that time, everyone in Russia knew what was going on in the rest of the world. So there were no real surprises there. The biggest surprise, however, was the variety of art materials available! It was amazing! In Russia, it wasn’t so easy.

How has your art evolved over the years?

Ilya Shevel:
If you do something and you get comfortable with it, you want to go on and do something else. I think I’m becoming freer in what I do color-wise and now I can work in larger formats. More expression, moving more towards line.

My main theme lately has been scenes of New York City. I’m in love with New York and I’ve been trying to combine the city’s intensity with its poetry. I walk around the city with a little sketchpad…I see something, make a few drawings. Not photographic – just the general image, the feeling of a particular place, a particular moment. I don’t bring paint with me, so I have to indicate the color and the theme for when I return to my studio to paint. The results are all “impressions” of the city.

“Afternoon” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel

You lived in Russia for the first seventeen years of your life. Have you ever returned since you left?

Ilya Shevel:
I hadn’t been back at all until 1995 when I brought a retrospective exhibition of my work to the Urban Sculpture Museum in St. Petersburg. I saw people I had known, friends from school I had left behind…it was all very emotional. But a good experience and my work I was received quite warmly by the public.

Shevel maintains that his “rebellious” views on color and expression are part of his character rather than any particular childhood inspiration. The artists of the Leningrad Underground served only to confirm what he already believed about creating art, as he states in his artistic statement:

“…Color and form are two great vehicles of expression. By using just these two elements, my goal is to reach a maximal point of tautness, without incorporating any literary context into my work, which has become so popular in our days. Each painting should be like a ripe fruit with juices seeping through its skin. It can be a long and painful process to achieve this final product but in the end it is very rewarding.”

“Night Skating” by Ilya Shevel. Oil on canvas. Copyright © Ilya Shevel

For more information on Ilya Shevel and his work, visit his websites at: and

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