by Jeffrey Morseburg
Sergei Bongart (1918-1985) was one of the most dynamic painters and colorful characters in the history of post-war California art. He was a charismatic, even flamboyant man who spoke passionately, delivering his lines with a thick Russian accent. To women he was a romantic figure who filled the role of the cultured, “old world” bohemian to the hilt. As for his art, Bongart’s expressive style – he was known for his colorful palette and bold “bravura” brushwork – defies easy categorization. While the artist himself wasn’t given to describing his work with “isms” or the writing of manifestos, his paintings were a synthesis of the traditional academic training that he received in the Ukraine and Europe – the influence of what has come to be known as “Russian Impressionism” – and his own unique artistic voice.
Bongart worked in pen and ink, oil, watercolor and acrylic, masterfully exploiting each medium for its unique qualities. The artist was famous for his “alla prima” approach, whereby he painted “wet on wet” with only the most minimal of preparatory steps. Bongart was also a legendary teacher whose students are now some of the most-respected contemporary landscape and figurative painters. He was a master of the demonstration – of painting before an audience, and art organizations always clamored for the opportunity to have him paint in front of their members.
Sergei Bongart was born in Zukovki, a village near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, during the last stages of World War I and on the cusp of the Russian revolution. He was fortunate to grow up in Kiev, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and to come from a sophisticated and successful family. His father, Roman Ivanovich Bongart, was a poet, athlete and horseman and his mother, Anna Ivanovna Bongart, was as highly cultured as she was striking. Together they opened their son’s eyes to beauty and learning. Bongart was precocious child with a keen intellect, but like many gifted boys he had a difficult time adjusting to the regimentation of formal education.
The October Revolution and the repressive policies of the Soviet dictators Vladimir Lenin and then Joseph Stalin indelibly stained the life of every citizen of the Soviet Union and its Republics, especially those who were wealthy or those who possessed an independent mind or spirit. As Stalin “collectivized” the Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Russia,” the resistance of the peasant farmers to communism resulted in Stalin’s unique form of retribution, a forced famine that killed millions, sent hundreds of thousands to labor camps and eventually brought the proud Ukrainians to heel. In 1933, during this man-made Ukrainian tragedy, Bongart’s mother Anna died of typhus. However, even during the most trying of times, man tries to create a semblance of normality, so Bongart’s youthful artistic talent was still noticed. Through his father’s efforts, the reluctant student first began his artistic studies with a wonderful older painter named Mikhial Mikhaylovich Yarovey (1864-1940), a student of Repin, who gave the young artist a thorough grounding in drawing and the traditions of Russian art. Not long after Bongart began his studies, the artist’s father, Roman, was denounced and arrested by the KGB, and ended up in one the infamous Siberian Gulags. His health broken, the elder Bongart died soon after he was allowed to return home to Kiev. Sergei Bongart saw what the Soviet regime did to his family and to millions like them, and so he remained a bitter opponent of Stalin and his political successors for the rest of his life.
Because of his talent, the young Bongart was able to win a spot at the Kiev Art Institute while still in his teens, studying with Pitor Ivanovich Kotov (1889-1953), who had been a student of Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955) before he fled to the west. In spite of his resistance to doing paintings that glorified the Soviet regime, Bongart’s rise was rapid, and by the time he was twenty he had already had his work accepted for museum exhibitions.
Unfortunately, the final years of young Bongart’s art education was interrupted by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 followed by the brutal Nazi subjugation of the Ukraine. Because of the Soviet Union’s murderous polices of the 1930s, the Germans were often treated as liberators when they first invaded the Ukraine, but as their mistreatment of the population increased and their reprisals for the resistance of the partisans became more savage, most Ukrainians turned against the invaders. Bongart lived in this terrible twilight where people had to choose between the murderous racial ideology of Hitler and Stalin’s unstinting paranoia and class hatred. Millions of Ukrainians died during the four-year struggle between fascism and communism, perishing from combat, spontaneous executions, starvation, disease, or from the brutal conditions in Soviet labor camps or German death camps.
In the midst of this maelstrom of war Bongart was married briefly. The story of his life during the war remained sketchy by design as the community of Soviet emigres had more than its share of intrigues. Somehow, in the middle of the epic and bestial war between the Nazi Wehrmacht and the Red Army, Bongart managed to escape the Soviet Union and make his way to Europe, narrowly avoiding the forced repatriation that many Soviet citizens suffered due to agreements between the allies and Stalin’s regime. He traded sketches for necessities and eventually found some old friends from Kiev who had also managed to escape to the west. Bongart and these opponents of the Stalin regime lived a life of intrigue among the Russian émigré communities, as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe. After the war, he painted portraits and continued his studies in Prague, Vienna and Munich, waiting desperately for the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, where he hoped his life could take on some sense of normalcy.
Bongart finally received his visa, allowing him to come to the United States in 1948. He initially settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he again turned to formal portraits as a means of support. There he began to build a following, even though the area didn’t have a vibrant art scene. Bongart came to Los Angeles in 1954, with the intention of painting western scenes. Instead, he built a following for his still-lifes, landscapes and genre scenes. Bongart’s early works tended to use a more limited palette, but his colors were always rich and the technique bold and confident.
Recognizing that there was a lack of classical training available to American students, Bongart opened his first teaching atelier in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, where a number of art schools were located, soon after his arrival in the Southland. In a matter of months his studio was a beehive of activity. In 1964, he purchased Nicolai Fechin’s old studio in the beachside neighborhood of Rustic Canyon, still in Los Angeles, but adjacent to Santa Monica. The studio had been built in 1930 and was used for many years by husband and wife sculptors Holgar Jensen (1895-1980) and Helen Jensen (1899-1990) before Fechin acquired it and used it for painting and teaching, so it had a long artistic tradition. The lower Rustic Canyon neighborhood was an inspired choice for Bongart and he painted, demonstrated and taught for the last twenty years of his life among the eucalyptus, sycamore, oaks and sequoias that populate the bohemian paradise, located just a short walk from the coast.
As the years went on, Bongart became a legendary teacher. He was responsible for transmitting his traditional artistic values, and his way of looking at art – and life – to generations of students. His studio became a haven for artists who wanted the type of traditional art education that had all but disappeared from larger institutions. His students did not want the “do your own thing” artistic ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, but real instruction from a teacher who could actually paint. Bongart was a generous teacher, but he could be an acerbic critic and studying with him often required a thick skin. His classes included amateur painters for whom painting was a pastime as well as serious artists with advanced degrees but who had lacked critical instruction. Bongart chose the most promising prospects as “scholarship students” and they paid for their instruction by assisting with classes and workshops and performing tasks for their teacher. Today, a number of Bongart’s scholarship students are prominent artists and teachers in their own right, including Sunny Apinchapong Yang, Dan Pinkham, Ron Lukas, Dan McCaw, Joseph Mendez and Del Gish.
Bongart’s old-world charm, theatrical manner and artistic temperament complemented his artistic genius and helped to make him the center of a circle that included fascinating characters from the other arts. He always made friends easily and some of Hollywood’s most famous actors came to study with him and became collectors of his work. Late in his life, the actor James Cagney became a student and close friend of the Russian painter. The two made an extended “Grand Tour” of Europe together in 1963, one of the greatest experiences of the artist’s life as Cagney’s name opened doors to unique opportunities. After Cagney went home, Bongart ventured further south to the Middle East.
In the 1970s, Bongart found another piece of paradise in Rexsburg, Idaho, just outside of Idaho Falls, which has the majestic Teton range as its backdrop. He purchased a twenty-acre parcel of land, where he had a main house and cabins for artists to use. In Idaho he began to teach popular summer workshops, where students could paint landscapes or work on open-air still lifes under the master’s critical gaze. The most popular aspect of these summer sessions was the opportunity to watch Bongart, ever the showman, paint, whether it was a summer still life with watermelon, a floral with the lilacs so beloved by Russian painters or one of his bold landscapes. We should never forget that the best teachers are really actors and indeed Bongart was a dramatic demonstrator who painted as if he was a fencer, stepping lightly backward and forward while he applied paint in bold, slashing strokes while delivering a steady narration on life and the art world, peppering his speech with classic “Sergeisms.” These summer classes, with their emphasis on painting directly from nature, were a major factor in the revival of plein-air painting in the Western United States that has occurred over the past twenty-five years.
In his later years Bongart began working on the type of western pictures that he had always wanted to paint. He produced large works of the Southwestern landscape with its Native American inhabitants. He won a Gold Medal at the Cowboy Hall of Fame’s famous Prix de West in 1982, a large annual exhibition put on by the National Academy of Western Artists, an organization made up of the finest western and landscape painters and sculptors. In the last months of his life, Bongart married Patricia Le Grande, a painter and one of his students. When he died in 1985, the Russian painter was still at the height of his artistic powers and popularity. Copyright 2001-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without the author’s specific written permission.