Elena Marttila: Art and Endurance in the Siege of Leningrad


Exhibition at Darwin College, Cambridge

20 January – 19 March 2017

Fridays 2-6pm, Saturdays 1-5pm, Sundays 1-5pm

Marttila, Soldier from hospital, 1942

E.Marttila, Leaving hospital, 1942, engraving on cardboard

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the most terrible pages in the annals of World War II. For 872 days the city was surrounded by the Axis forces and cut off from vital supplies – food, electricity and water – as well as all sources of information. The people of Leningrad endured the most extreme conditions, particularly during the appalling winter of 1941–2. They were subjected to unremitting bombing and shelling. Death was a constant presence, and the loss of life in the siege – a million of the city’s inhabitants – was immense.

In the midst of this human catastrophe was a remarkable witness – an 18-year-old art student, Elena Marttila, whose work is celebrated in this exhibition. Elena continued to draw in the most difficult conditions and with whatever materials were at hand.

The exhibition includes her portraits of famous figures – Olga Berggolts, the poet and writer, whose radio broadcasts helped keep up the people’s spirits, and Dmitry Shostakovich, sketched at the 1944 performance of his Leningrad symphony.

However, it is her record of the lives of the ordinary people of Leningrad that is most remarkable and moving. She shows us the musician dragging his cello on a sledge to one of the concerts that continued against all the odds, the truck driver who evacuated children across Lake Ladoga, and the bodies of those who had collapsed from hunger and exhaustion in the snow.
Elena’s vision of the Siege of Leningrad conflicted with the heroic narrative promoted by the authorities, and after the war she was ordered to destroy her work. However, she was determined to preserve it as a witness for future generations. She worked up her rapid sketches into full images using lithography and engraving on cardboard, vividly recreating, through her unique printmaking techniques, the blurred sight that afflicted Leningrad’s malnourished inhabitants. Marttila’s art allows us to see the Siege of Leningrad literally through the eyes of those who endured it.

The exhibition will show 15 of her most dramatic lithographs and engravings. Maps showing the disposition of the German forces, the Russian defence, and the famous ‘Road of Life’, extracts from the poetry and music that continued to flourish in the direst conditions, photographs and film of the city under siege, together with a programme of talks and film screenings, will enrich the visitor’s experience of the wider cultural and historical context.

Marttila, Leningrad is speaking. Olga Bergholz, 1941-42, engraving on cardboard

E.Marttila, Leningrad is calling. Olga Berggolts, 1941-42, engraving on cardboard

The Siege of Leningrad was lifted on 27 January 1944. Elena Marttila, who will be 94 years old in January, is one of the last living witnesses. This exhibition would not be possible without her invaluable support and inspiration. It is a tribute to her life, legacy and artistic integrity, and is dedicated to the City of Leningrad, to those whose lives were lost in the blockade, and those who endured it but are no longer with us.

The exhibition will take place in Darwin College, Cambridge, from 20 January until 19 March 2017, to coincide with the College’s annual Darwin Lecture Series, which this year is on the linked theme of ‘Extremes’. It will be accompanied by a programme of talks, film screenings and discussions.

The exhibition will be curated by Ksenia Afonina – an independent curator and researcher into the art of World War II, and Libby Howie, an independent curator with a specialist knowledge of graphic art.