For over six decades, and through incredible circumstances, Leo Saal managed to draw, sketch, do printmaking, make collages and paint--often inspired by early references to turn-of-the-century Russian paintings. Recurring themes were frequently related to European history, the circus metaphor, mother and child, the beach, and Washington DC. Saal was primarily self-taught and created thousands of pieces with strong influences from Beckman, Picasso, Manet, Feininger, Velasquez and Goya.
Leo Saal was born in the present-day Russian city of St. Petersburg at a time of great change. Then known as Petrograd, it was the capital of Czarist Russia and the center of the country's cultural and artistic life until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when it was renamed Leningrad. Saal lived through these and many other changes to see the city ultimately restored to its historic name of St. Petersburg after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
His early life, though happy, was caught up in these and many other events surrounding the collapse of the Czars, in a series of revolutions and changes of government. A first revolution in 1905 faltered, to be followed by the harsh totalitarian regime of the Bolsheviks. Saal's family and their businesses survived the first revolution but not the second. During these turbulent times, Saal completed his high school education, and, not long thereafter, was sent to Soviet prison camp for the first time, as had his father before him. On his return to Leningrad, he worked in the city's nascent film industry until he was rearrested and sent to a Siberian labor camp ("The Gulag") at the age of twenty-one, where he survived due to his knowledge of photography and his filmmaking skills.
After his release in the early 1930's he lived outside Moscow, married, and continued to pursue his interest in art and photography. Captured by the German army during the siege of Moscow, he was separated from his wife and would never see her again. After his release from a displaced person's camp at the end of WWII, Saal literally joined the circus, using his artistic talent to create set designs. Around this time, he remarried and found some success selling paintings. To support his new family, he took a job with the U.S. occupying forces in Munich, and later moved to Washington DC in the early 1950s to work for the CIA as a Russia analyst.
The landscape was always a topic of choice for Saal. The Ruhr, Munich, Freiburg, Bethany Beach, Southern Shores, Cape Henlopen, Boothbay, Chincoteague, Ocean City, Old Rag Mountain, Lake George, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Salinas, Mount Diablo, Tuscany, Toledo, Rome, Hamburg, Paris, wherever he was, landscapes and city scenes would always inspire him.
When Saal retired in his seventies from being a Russian analyst he was able to realize his dream of becoming a full-time painter, collage artist and printmaker. Abstractions and large-scale work became his focus for a time as he formed important friendships with local D.C. artists. He joined cooperative galleries and workshops, most notably Ann Zahn’s private print studio in Bethesda, Maryland. During that time, he revisited his circus, family and beach motifs using various print media.
In the 1980s Saal added a new art studio wing to his home. Tuesday mornings became figure painting time with a live model for Saal and his group of D.C. artist friends. Prior to that he had studied figure drawing during night classes at the American University and also taken correspondence art courses. Painting the model brought back memories of one of his first jobs sketching asylum inmates in Germany.
His use of color and his ability to depict fantasy through symbolism became especially strong in the last decade of his life. Leo Saal died at eighty-four in 1996. Saal once said, “painting is not reproduction of the visible but its discovery.”
Leo Saal’s excellent memoir, “Crossings”, was published by Chronos Press in 1996. His three-part catalogue raisonné was published in 2012 by his daughter, Irene Holmes. Both can be purchased through Amazon.
We want to thank Leo Saal’s daughter, Irene Holmes, for diligently cataloguing her father’s oeuvre and enabling us to represent this historical body of work and story.