The siege of Leningrad was one of the most terrible events 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 from 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 inhabitants – was immense.

There was a remarkable witness in the midst of all this human catastrophe – 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 to hand.

This exhibition includes her portraits of famous figures – Olga Berggolts, the poet and writer, for example, 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 a 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 testimony for future generations. She worked up her rapid sketches into full images using lithography and engraving on cardboard, vividly recreating the blurred sight that afflicted Leningrad’s malnourished inhabitants through her unique printmaking techniques. Marttila’s art allows us to see the siege of Leningrad literally through the eyes of those who endured it.

The exhibition will show a selection 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 films of the city under siege, together with a programme of talks and film screenings, will enrich the visitor’s experience by providing a wider cultural and historical context.

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 have been 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’. The exhibition is 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.

The exhibition is hosted by Darwin College and is organised with the support of Sotheby’s and in collaboration with The Cambridge Russian-Speaking Society.

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