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.