SOMETHING very special is taking place at the New York Academy of Art here. A group of Soviet student artists is proving that figure drawing is alive and well, and that large-scale narrative compositions are not necessarily a thing of the past. The students aren't here in person, of course, but their work is - in the form of 62 paintings and drawings on loan from Leningrad's I.E. Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. They constitute the initial phase of a two-part exchange program, the second half of which will be a display of works by New York Academy of Art students in the Soviet Union in the fall of 1989. The present exhibition was organized jointly by the academy and Boris Ugarov, a leading Soviet artist and president of the Academy of Arts of the USSR, as a way of acquainting Americans with the Repin Institute's rigorous six-year training program.
The show's an eye-opener, to say the least, with everything from first-rate life drawings (including an astonishing rendering of hands and feet by Alexei Semyonov) and excellent oil studies of individuals and small groups, to large, multi-figure ``diploma paintings'' that depict one or another aspect of Russian life, past and present. The latter range in subject from the historical ``Decembrists,'' by Anna Loseva (painted when she was 24), to the contemporary ``On the Road,'' executed by Vasily Teviashov at the age of 29. In every case, the choice of subject was left to the student; the only stipulation was that it be appropriately optimistic.
Talent notwithstanding, such extraordinary accomplishments by so many young artists could have been achieved only by intensive study. And, indeed, that was the case. The Repin Institute, the oldest and most prominent educational institution of the fine arts in the Soviet Union, demands highly disciplined classroom work as well as clearly defined creative objectives. Everything is based on the study of man and nature - especially man as he is perceived and given form and expression, first through the agency of line and tone and then through the dynamics and subtleties of color. Throughout, the primary emphasis is on drawing, beginning with an analysis of the human head, and then progressing, year by year, to the body as a whole and to the manner in which it occupies space and relates to other figures and objects.
This is not, however, a mindless continuation of 19th-century academic teaching principles, but a carefully thought-through painting and drawing curriculum first put into effect in the 1950s. It is predicated on the conviction that artists who have mastered traditional skills have a distinct advantage over those who have not. With mastery of the human form and knowledge of how it works, the argument goes, the artist can conceive and construct human figures in every position entirely from memory and imagination - much as Lautrec and Picasso did in many of their works.
But do these methods really work? According to Dr. Gregory Hedberg, director of the New York Academy of Art, they do. ``The Soviet students demonstrate a general level of technical achievement in contemporary painting that is truly astonishing and for the most part unfamiliar to Western eyes. The young Soviet artist Vasily Teviashov, who executed ``On the Road'' as his graduating piece, literally had skills at his finger tips not found in 98 percent of the graduates of American art schools. ... After 40 years of emphasis in the United States on artistic innovation and experimentation, and on unfettered personal expression in our schools and studios, we are beginning to recognize that the knowledge and skills of the traditional fine arts - in anatomy, drawing, composition, and the like ... is in very short supply in our schools and in our society as a whole.''
Recognition of this fact, coupled with a desire on the part of a handful of concerned art lovers to raise the technical standards of American art education, prompted the founding of the New York Academy of Art in 1982. Its goals are clear cut: to offer the most advanced fine arts curriculum in the US to young artists of extraordinary talent - and to do so free of charge. The only requirement is that the 20 working artists and recent graduates of college art programs selected every September, from the hundreds who apply, take the entire two-year course exactly as it is set up and without electives.
These goals have produced what is almost certainly the toughest art school in America, but also one that more and more aspiring artists, including several from other countries, want to attend. And no wonder, since its no-nonsense, systematic approach to anatomy, life drawing, sculpture, perspective, color, etc., guarantees mastery of the basic skills of art production upon graduation. Furthermore, significantly, no attempt is made by either faculty or administration to influence the students in their ultimate choice of style.
Proof of an art school's effectiveness, of course, lies in its product, and in this regard, the academy has done extremely well in the six years of its operation. The quality of its student work, especially in the areas of drawing and life studies, is remarkably high - so high, in fact, that there is little doubt that its exchange exhibition in the Soviet Union next year will be a resounding success.
``Soviet Art From the Academy'' will remain on view at the New York Academy of Art, 419 Lafayette Street, through Nov. 27.