Pavel Leonov was born in 1920 in Orel, a town south of Moscow, not far from the Ukrainian border. Leonov left his family at age 16 to escape his father, a man he described as a “professional alcoholic.” A few years later, Leonov served in the military, hoping to rise through the ranks, only to clash with his superiors and even some of his subordinates. Trouble with army officers led to Leonov’s initial confinement in a prison camp in Georgia. Although Leonov was released after a few years of service, he found himself in and out of labor and prison camps until 1955, two years after the death of Stalin. Over the course of his confinement, Leonov learned a variety of trades, including woodcutting, ship repair, road-building, sign painting, farming and metal work. Leonov’s first attempts at painting came while in the army, when he started drawing portraits of his fellow soldiers. Unfortunately none of these works survive. Later, while working in a tractor factory, the ever-ambitious Leonov taught himself to draw from a manual. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Leonov attended Open University, where he was influenced by the significant underground artist Michail Roginsky, who was lecturing there. Soonafter, Leonov’s works appeared in several Soviet exhibitions of amateur art in Moscow. In 1988, Leonov’s works were exhibited in Paris and Laval, France. Leonov lived in the country from the mid 1970’s until his death in 2011.
Leonov’s paintings are fantasies, or what he terms “inventions.” They are large, colorful works painted on unstretched, roughly cut canvases that depict idealized scenes of people, nature and town life. The images within the paintings are neatly compartmentalized into sections Leonov calls “rooms” or “television sets,” that reflect his obsession with order. By combining images of historical events (scenes of famous battles) and Russian cultural icons (the poets Pushkin and Esenin) with present day landscapes, Leonov’s paintings collapse time and reality. Leonov often transplants images from his travels or from passages in books to embellish the remote landscapes of his surroundings. The hard life Leonov has lived gives way to an orderly, peaceful never-never land, where elements from old and new harmoniously mix. Animals dance, while birds and helicopters fly overhead; an audience visits Leonov’s studio and commends him for his beautiful paintings, while a group of peasants listens to a famous poet speak. Leonov’s fellow villagers even now make fun of his artwork and his “fanciful” stories, but the paintings are a chance to pursue his dreams, yet are universal enough to allow us to enjoy those fantasies for ourselves.
While Leonov has gained some recognition in his homeland, as well as in Europe, the Galerie St. Etienne is the first American gallery to feature his work.