Ivanova’s book explores real story of artist Gaspard

“San Geronimo Fiesta” by Leon Gaspard is on display at the Stark Museum of Art. It is one of 30 Gaspard paintings in the museum’s collection. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When we look at a work of art, we expect that the artist has taken some creative license, that he has drawn on his knowledge of composition and technique to maximize the visual effect. He also draws on his personal experiences to give us an image that is “real.”

However, when the artist embellishes his biography, does that make the work less real? Elena Ivanova has spent more than a decade researching the life of Russian-American artist Leon Schulman Gaspard, trying to separate fact from fiction. The result is “Leon Schulman Gaspard: The Real Story,” a biography that is as much detective story as art history.

Ivanova, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, became interested in Gaspard when she joined the Stark Museum of Art in 2009 as Curator of Education. The museum has 30 of the artist’s paintings. Ironically, even though she and Gaspard both hail from Russia, she was not familiar with his work until she was working on a Master of Liberal Studies with a museum emphasis from the University of Oklahoma (her American degree, she said. Ivanova already had a doctorate in pedagogy in Russia).

One of her classmates was from Taos, New Mexico, and said the arts community there featured two Russians. Nicolai Fechin (who is also represented at the Stark Museum) she had heard of. But the other, Gaspard, was new to her. His name doesn’t even sound Russian, she said (his name transformed through the years).

There is plenty known about Fechin. So, when she went to the Stark Museum, she chose to research Gaspard. There were plenty of articles written in the 1920s when Gaspard’s fame was at its height and a monograph written by his friend, Frank Waters, but the more she looked into his life, the more inconsistencies she found, and, to quote Sherlock Holmes, the game was afoot.

Ivanova’s book is an intriguing mix of art history and mystery. She has set out not to destroy a myth, but to cast light on the truth behind this underrated artist. In reality, Gaspard created himself as much as he created his work, which, by the way, is brilliantly rendered technically, with the artist proving himself a master colorist.

In the book’s epilogue, Ivanova gives us insight into the amount of work that went into the research, including several trips to Paris, Russia and Belarus, where she spent weeks holed up in records offices scouring through documents that would reveal the artist’s journey from Leiba Schulmann to the decidedly French-sounding Leon Gaspard. Along the way, Ivanova charts his course from the prestigious Odessa Art School to Taos, via Paris and Chicago.

Gaspard also made a trip to China and Mongolia and the works he produced after that expedition are what made his fame. In the 1920s, his subject matter was not only expertly painted, but also featured exotic locales that were highly sought after. Gaspard claimed he spent two years traveling through Asia, although Ivanova proves it was only months.

Gaspard was a notorious name dropper, but Ivanova carefully explains that many of those encounters could not have happened. Early in his career, Gaspard would simply allude to experiences but as he aged his stories became more outlandish. When Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” was released in the West, the Russian author became a celebrity. Gaspard claimed to have studied under Pasternak’s father, Leonid, at the Moscow Art School, even going so far as to claiming a painting of a boy to be the young Boris. However, Ivanova tells us that Gaspard moved to Paris from Odessa and there is no timeline that makes studying in Moscow feasible. And before Pasternak became a celebrity, Gaspard never mentioned him.

So why would Gaspard tell so many tall tales? As a young man it served him well to create a story that would make him stand out among other artists. After all, no one has internet back then, so it was not as though the truth was available at the click of a button. Gaspard’s painting and subject matter already made him interesting, so a few embellishments couldn’t hurt, surely.

The truly outlandish tales did not come until he was much older, when the art world had shifted to regionalism, and abstraction was all the rage. He settled to become a Taos artist, although he had spent his life positioning himself as an internationalist.

Ivanova’s book doesn’t just dwell on the biography, however. She also shows up his process. He was technically superb, and his work developed over time. His peers and critics consistently praise his use of color. If one was to describe his style, I would say it is a bridge between Impressionism and post-Impressionism, with increasingly Expressionistic brushstrokes. His work is beautiful and the subject matter, whether Russian, Chinese or Pueblo Indians, shows a fascination with the rituals and routines of ordinary people.

Ivanova’s book is well researched and a fascinating glimpse into an artist should be better known.

As part of her research, Ivanova said she listened to recording of Gaspard at a house party. After a particularly grandiose story, someone says, “But Leon, did it really happen?” And Gaspard says, “Well, isn’t it a good story?”

Ivanova has tried to get to the bottom of Gaspard’s biography. And it is a good story.

“Leon Schulman Gaspard: The Real Story” is available through the Facebook page and Ivanova will sign copies. Cost is $27 including shipping.

This story first ran in the Jan. 6, 2023 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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