Aleksandr Kamensky

Aleksandr Kamensky

Aleksander Abramovich Kamensky (Александр Абрамович Каменский) (1922 – 1992) was a prominent Russian art critic and art historian who coined the term tough style.

Aleksander was the son of Abram Kamensky, a temperamental party functionary who fell victim to Stalin’s repressions in 1937. Charismatic Aleksander turned to the world of art. He has written more than thirty books and thousands of articles, helping to popularize such now famous artists as Marc Chagall, and Martiros Sarian.

Life and career

Aleksander Kamensky was born in 1922 in the family of a government and party functionary, who was repressed in 1937.

From 1940 to 1945, studied with B.R. Vipper and G.A. Nedoshivin, majoring in Art Criticism at the Philology Department of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History; than from 1941 at Moscow University. Kamensky received his “diploma with merit” for a paper titled “Drawings of Valentin Serov”.

From 1946 Kamensky appeared in the press as an art critic, while at the same time undertook his graduate studies at Pushkin Museum of Fine Art.From 1949 to 1952, he chaired the department of Art History at the Art institute in Vilnius. Upon his return to Moscow, he became very active in his country’s cultural life.

He was persecuted for fictitious charges of “cosmopolitanism” in 1949, than again in 1962 as the ideologist and defender of “tough style”. These malicious attacks continued until his death. In spite of that, Aleksander Kamensky had great authority among artists; was a close friend of many great masters; wrote about them; helped young emerging artists; propagated their art; was elected as a member of the governing body and Secretary of Moscow Union of Artists; headed the Moscow association of artists and critics.

While there were strict restrictions on immigration from the former USSR, an internationally acclaimed critic, A. Kamensky, could easily move abroad, to any country of his choice and find peace and success there. But he was unwilling to live without the Russian culture, the Russian scientific circles, art born on Russian soil, without the passionate Russian antagonism to any form of evil!

He paid dearly for his patriotism. Kamensky was living in a constant state of anxiety especially during the 1950s and 1990s. They say cancer is related to anxiety. (Kamensky died of langue cancer.) There were reports on him, telephone threats, slanderous articles against him.

Till his last breath Kamensky was bitterly hated by those who kowtowed with bated breath before Socialist Realism and after perestroika lost no time in embracing National Patriotism.

Not long before his death Kamensky wrote in a letter to his grandson in Texas:

"Clearly it’s wonderful that every day you are absorbing lots of impressions of a different order; that you are mastering new languages, and so far haven’t forgotten Russian. But I am somewhat frightened about an artificially conceptual and nationless direction of your development. In our suffering country there is a special quality, which perhaps can’t be found anywhere else – a tendency to see a hidden spiritual essence in everything. (Of course I am speaking about people with rich spiritual life. God forbid you’ll encounter the psychology of the Russian Brute, shallow and impudent and in many ways reigning in our midst, despite (and now even because of) various “perestroikas”."

Equally witty and brave Kamensky stated that he wasn’t offended by being called a “judeomason” (a fictitious title used to target dissidents), since he never denounced his ethnicity, while he felt it an honor to be listed among Aleksandr Pushkin, Pyotr Chaadaev and other Russian greats who belonged to the Masonic lodge.


Kamensky had a strong sense of purpose, and his enthusiasm increased with age. One of his goals was to tear down incompetent Soviet puppet artists, whose bogus reputations were puffed up by the official Soviet critics and academia, and at the same time restore authentic talent their rightful prestige. He analyzed what it took for these great creative personalities to be formed.

In the early 1960s Aleksandr Abramovich did not hesitate to back up with a passion a new generation of artists whose aim was to counter the pompous deceptiveness of official exhibitions with the truth of life. Of course this truth was an implacable one – that’s why he christened this movement with the term “tough style”. Aleksandr Abramovich’s name is associated with a vast plethora of art movements. Not one can claim him all for itself. But Kamensky would have nothing to do with mediocrity, arrogantly ignorant nationalism, political correctness in art. His absolute unwillingness to compromise his principals made him the most targeted art critic in history. He remained optimistic even in the worst moments. He built up artists who were on the very forefront. He was more than a brilliant art-critic and knowledgeable art historian – he was writer, and he could explain complicated concepts to the laymen. That’s why he wrote for popular newspapers and magazines, not specialized ones. He stood for unified culture. He didn’t see painting, poetry, or literature as distinctly separate fields. While discussing some master’s technique he would quote poets and writers.

Kamensky’s integrity, the expressivity of his speeches on radio and television, his persuasiveness, his colorful language rich with fresh metaphors – made him the most notable Russian art critic of the second half of the twentieth century.

Postthomous Honors

In 2005 (thirteen years after the critic’s death) the unabridged version of his biography of Marc Chagall, Marc Chagall An Artitst From Russia was reprinted and presented in a conference room at the Tretyakov Gallery with Marc Chagall’s granddaughters in attendance.


On Tough Style

"The primary characteristic of "tough style" was the choice of daily life as subject matter and strict, exact, deeply truthful, depiction of it, without any hint of embellishment or pageantry. At the same time the inner core of the style was a romanticized perception of contemporary reality. There was absolutely no trace of pessimism, that the numerous blocker critics tried to attribute to "tough style". The only way these experts knew how to judge a work of art was by finding a similarity with one of the preconceived notions in their cheap toolbox of stereotypes that the academia supplied them with."

"They were not in the habit of looking at reality, but rather used a primitive conceptual model. Of course next to pieces that depicted huge smiling crowds cheering and applauding for any and every reason, the canvases of the "tough" could easily appear pessimistic. But if you examine these paintings with an open mind, you’d see that they are clearly life affirming."

"The characters of "Our Weekdays", "Repairmen", "Polarmen", are intimately affectionate with the everyday life that surrounds them. They live and breathe this, such days make up the fabric and furthermore, the meaning of their lives. They seem enlightened, as if every normal day was consistent with their long-term goals. This is the gist of "tough style"."

"Sure, the heroes of the "toughs" don’t get emotional over every event, but live in agony of everyday struggles, and get their jollies from it. The contrast of a passion for life and enduring hardship is quite characteristic to "stern" art… Willful, manly traits are the trademark of "tough" art, smoothing the distinction between it and historical compositions (the best among them: "Communists", 1957—1960 and "Burned by the martial sun"," 1964—1967 by Gelij Korzhev)."

"Obviously this manly attitude in perception was not new to Soviet art. The masters of the 20’s and 30’s (Gerasimov, Kuznetsov, Drevin) used a similar style. The compositions were different, but there definitely was something common in the attitude. It is not surprising that the "stern" have chosen the stylistic preferences of these masters."(an excerpt from Romantic Montage)


"As in folk tales, animals have the same rights as man. Moreover, in following his creative impulses the painter touched on the very foundations of existence in which everything is united in a marvelous pantheistic universality." (From Chagall, The Russian Years)

elected Bibliography

*Konenkov (1962)
*Vernisages (1974)
*Nathan Altman (1978)
*Knightly Feat: A Book About The Sculpture Of Anna Golubkina (1978) (reprinted as Anna Golubkina, Her Personality, And Age in 1990)
*Etudes On The Artists Of Armenia (Erevan, 1979)
*Martiros Sarian (1987) []
*Chagall: The Russian Years 1907-1922 (1988-1989) []
*Romantic Montage (1989)
*The World Of Art Movement In Early 20th Century Russia (with Vsevolod Nikolayevich Petrov) []
*Oleg Tselkov (1992)
*Marc Chagall, An Artist From Russia (unabridged version of “Chagall: The Russian Years” published posthumously)

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