Painting. The Leningrad Version
Artists from the city on the shores of the Neva River do not often exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There are different reasons for that, but the museum’s project of 2007, dedicated to the Russian “1970s” artists, could not dispense with the works of such Leningrad painters as Zaven Arshakuni and German Yegoshin. It should be mentioned that the exhibition took place due to the financial and practical support of the collectors Dmitry Pinsky and Nikolai Botka, sincere lovers of art.
The names of Arshakuni and Yegoshin always provoked much interest in Leningrad artistic circles, forever watching the newest cultural trends. And outside the city, all over Russia, every exhibition of these artists, whether in Moscow or other regions, drew crowds consisting of the most diverse groups of the artistic intelligentsia, including nonofficial artist groups. This is because Arshakuni’s and Yegoshin’s art has been linking different layers of Leningrad culture — professional art founded on the grand tradition and non-conformist art, or the art of protest. Their works, interesting as they were for representatives of different “guilds” as an effort to update classic trends, created the sort of atmosphere which, during the period of Soviet stagnation, was conducive to the germination of new meanings of modern art.
It is widely assumed that the Leningrad art school has distinctive features — a fondness for academic style, an equilibrium of colours, and finely executed drawing. The venerable Russian Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, beginning from the middle of the 18th century, was a breeding ground for generations of artists who felt they were heirs to the general European canons of beauty. And in Soviet times, too, following the traditional norms, such as the tradition of major themed paintings, that was regarded as a characteristic of Leningrad art. These qualities were counterbalanced to the art of the more versatile Moscow, where artists were eager to make bold advances, to take a step ahead of their time and amaze with their daring results.
The new offering to viewers, the project “Painting. The Leningrad Version”, is intended to show whether this was actually the case and whether the reality corresponds with prevailing preconceptions.
Zaven Arshakuni and German Yegoshin, each now aged more than 75, have mounted at the Tretyakov Gallery individual retrospective exhibitions of their art covering the period from the watershed period of the 1960s onwards. Without doubt, the artists, very different in their style and artistic priorities, have had the vectors of their art reaching in different directions. Arshakuni, with his characteristic childishly sunny worldview, has always drawn inspiration from fantasies and from a “theatralisation” of environment. Yegoshin in his take on colour, his concept of space, and love for the object has been close to the followers of Russian Cezannism. Each artist, following his own course, from the beginning was set to realize himself in an art free of musty dogmas, whether politics or academic cliches.
From their first steps in art Yegoshin and Arshakuni, who received an academic training, caught the attention of viewers for their destruction of entrenched stereotypes. The artists started out in the 1960s, the period of the “thaw”, when any romantic interpretation of Soviet realities challenged the language of power.
It is no accident that Arshakuni seeks artistic inspiration in motifs of his historical homeland Armenia (born in Leningrad, he revers his ancient venerable dynasty of Arshakunidi). Or he tries to discover the modern poetry of urbanism, for instance, in the images of city neighbourhoods intersected with powerlines, embankments with moored ships, and streetcars moving about. Arshakuni’s love for the art of Martiros Saryan, Aristarkh Lentulov, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall has guided the artist.
Yegoshin, in his own words, was enthralled by the works of Alexander Drevin, Robert Falk and David Shterenberg which he saw in Moscow at an exhibition dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Moscow section of the Artists Union. In 1962 he created an austere “Still-life with Electric Stove” in the 1920s style and a composition “Ships”, evoking the art of Albert Marquet, and attempted a big colourful composition titled “Circus”. Encouraged by his friendship with like-minded artists from Moscow Nikolai Andronov, Pavel Nikonov and others, Yegoshin with great enthusiasm started working on a painting titled “Mayakovsky”. But the picture of the then idol of the young in a “no-frills style” received a pummeling from official critics. This forever turned the artist away from making portraits of anyone but his family members and close friends. Nevertheless, a year later his picture of Mayakovsky was put into mass circulation in the media (it was printed in the “Yunost” (Youth) and “Iskusstvo” (Art) magazines), bought by the Mayakovsky Museum and acknowledged as one of the best modern images of the poet of the Bolshevik revolution.
The face-off with the highly partial official bodies over the new aesthetics did not dampen the artistic zeal of the young artists. Reluctant to expend their energies on confrontations with the authorities, they devoted themselves to studying the secrets of the painter’s craft. Painting was their lifework. They saw their mission in engraining and developing the figurative language of the 20th century — a Modernism adequate to its time and space. The artists dedicated their ensuing life in art to pictures free of social fuss, such as still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings. Arshakuni even spent some time working at the Theatre for Young Viewers on the invitation of the theatre’s artistic director Zinovy Korogodsky. Here no one restrained him from creating pictorial fantasies, which were limited only by the theme of the particular stage production. Coincidentally, the theatre was at that time very popular with audiences.
The turning point in the creative life of the artists happened with the foundation of “Group 11”, eleven standing for the number of its member artists. It was becoming intolerable to work “if not for the present, then with a hope that the posterity maybe will see”, to experience endless criticism from bureaucrats and rejections by exhibition committees. So Arshakuni, Yegoshin and Valery Vatenin came together and decided to seek out options to show to the viewers their works and works of their like-minded associates such as Vitaly Tulenev, Viktor Teteren, Valentina Rakhina and others. A talented art scholar Lev Mochalov was invited as the group’s curator.
The exhibition opened in 1972, in an exhibition hall in the Okhta neighborhood, far from the city centre. The professor of painting Yevsei Moiseenko and the director of the Russian Museum Vasily Pushkarev lent their authority to the exhibitors. To the show organizers’ big surprise, the exhibition drew big crowds. At that period of stagnation a show of politically non-committed paintings whose creators tackled exclusively the problems of colour and form caused a sensation. Visitors to the show from Moscow included Dmitry Zhilinsky and Maxim Birshtein, the writer Fyodor Abramov, and many others. It turned out that Leningrad, always regarded as a Mecca of graphic art and the bulwark of traditionalism, had a strong, interesting, stylistically diverse modern painting movement, artistically on a par with Western modernist trends.
No, the Leningrad artists with their low-key art did not appear as fringe figures, contrary to what today’s champions of actualism often claim. “Group 11” organized a memorable visual presentation which formed a bridge between the stagnant 1970s and the period of bloom of the St. Petesburg school early in the 20th century, including an avant-garde group called “Krug” (Circle), keen on modernizing classic art. This dialogue opened up channels for the circulation of new artistic ideas, which were to greatly influence the rethinking of artistic priorities by contemporaries.
What were those ideas? A society isolated from European modernity was interested in and attached much importance to the achievements of the Impressionists and the art of Cezanne, which were brilliantly assimilated by the Russian painters of the “Knave of Diamonds” group already early in the 20th century. Yegoshin made this plentiful cultural fountain, access to which was barred by the ideologists of Socialist Realism, the fulcrum of his new artistic quest. Relying on Paul Cezanne’s principle of “realizing your own perception of the world”, all the artist had to do was to look around. Simple household articles be-came the main subjects of his art.
The show at the Tretyakov Gallery features several pieces in Yegoshin’s most favored genre illuminating the artist’s decade-long quest for colour and form. The crisp contours of the objects and the hard-boiled style in a still-life “Lamp” (1965) demonstrate that the artist was fond of Expressionism. This strain appears to have been replaced later with more energetic modeling of shapes and vigorous tackling of shape and form in “Two Fishes” (1965) and “Still-life with a Samovar” and “Still-life with Vegetables” (1966), paintings where the material essence of objects is conveyed with colour.
In “Still-life with a Brush” and “Copper Ladle” (1969) every depicted object gives off numerous hues imparting to the colour design of dense brushstrokes a special fluidity. “Thorns” (1971), “Still-life with Lamp” (1978), and more recently “Winter Window” (1995), “Peonies” (1999), “Still-life with Peppers” (2004) — each of these pieces is distinguished with a rare sense of shape and form. At his easel every day, the artist always tackles anew the problem of representation of the structure of objects on the canvas, discovers light-and-colour and spatial interconnections, and shapes the rhythms of the linkages between colour patches. Impasto brushstrokes interweaving the surface of the canvas seem to be fused together by a dusk light. Subdued in a typical St. Petersburg manner, the light softens the contours of objects but does not make them seem immaterial. Far from being a sketch, each of the still-lifes is the pictorial development and consummation of a tonal mode, akin to a fugue in music.
Landscapes — not only those of Leningrad, but of Crimea as well — became another favourite. From the 1960s onwards the artist visited Crimea frequently, in some years several times. He would stay at the Konstantin Korovin Artists’ House in Gurzuf, and these visits became a most important part of his life. In Crimea the artist was meeting professionally like-minded fellows and making friends. This group of people included many nationally prominent figures engaged in the arts — Illarion Golitsyn, Mikhail Ivanov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Natalya Nesterova, and others. They all painted Crimean landscapes, and all made them differently.
Yegoshin’s images of Crimea are probably the most low-key chromatically, in an un-Southern way. In plein air, Yegoshin would most often select simple motifs for his landscapes — an old house, a solitary tree, a deserted beach, an abandoned quay — and later in his studio, alone, he would pore over it and, using paints, model on the canvas the texture of the ever fleeting state of nature. Only in his painting “Festival in a Black Sea Port” (1979) Yegoshin created a clamorous, bustling, bright image of a spell-binding place. But perhaps in this picture as well the northern nature of a St. Petersburg native restrained the artist from any indulgence with colours, making him tone done the image of non-stop festivities at a resort with the blackness of the summer night.
“Self-portrait in an Old-time Costume” (1967), with its surprising evocation of classic European art, is marked by stylistic restraint. This painting oddly combines old-style composition, a dense and astringent, as if made to an old recipe, colour design, and a modern impasto painting style. Using colour, like Cezanne, to bring out the material essence of the sitter and his trappings — a goblet of green glass, yellow fruits on a blue plate, breezy flounces of an ancient dress — the artist defiantly engages in dialogue with the classic past, a dialogue that becomes an important part of the poetics of art of the second half of the 20th century. It shows Yegoshin’s attraction, not so much to the psychologism favoured by Russian art, but to a spiritual harmony of images.
This harmony can be seen most clearly in elaborate paintings such as “Concert of Ancient Chamber Music” (1980) and “Philharmonia Hall” (1986). At the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery these pieces appear as the high point of the maestro’s art. They are a solemn model of the spiritual world the artist has been seeking throughout his life in art.
In contrast to the introvert Yegoshin, who is keen on the subtle nuances of images, Arshakuni is a painter of exuberant artistic temperament. He creates his images using universalized shapes and forms and boldly juxtaposing enhanced hues of contrasting colours. Perhaps the artist’s remote Oriental roots may have influenced his choice of artistic techniques — as a result his paintings are marked by a great emotional expressiveness.
Characteristically, the artist is never interested in imaging specific objects as such — he is not in thrall to nature. He feels more affinity with visionary aesthetics. Metaphors and allegories in Arshakuni’s paintings naturally co-exist with real objects. Whether the subject of his painting is “Spring. Birds Are Coming” (1975) or scenes from life, as in “Conversation” (1978), “Women Friends” (1978), “In a Studio” (1980), he is keenly focused on bringing out with artistic means the creative élan, the trustful state of mind which, evading verbal articulation, occurs between close friends.
Unlike Yegoshin, Arshakuni is willing to return to already-used motifs. In spite of a compositional likeness, his “Bride” (1981), from the Russian Museum, and “Belle” (1979), from the Tretyakov Gallery, placed side by side at the Tretyakov exhibition, are two autonomous pieces. The “Bride”, with its bold combinations of the patches of the clear local colours of red, blue, violet, with its crisp contours of the figures and the exuberance of brushstrokes belie the artist’s enthusiasm for Russian folk paintings and shop signboards for their naïve primitivism. Meanwhile, the painting from the Tretyakov Gallery is marked by a lighter and softer style highlighting the delicate sensitivity and poetic nature of the maiden’s image.
Looking at three specific paintings — the pictures of the Summer Garden (1985, 1987) and the “TsPKiO (Central Park of Culture and Rest)” (1986) — the viewer sees that the artist seeks not so much to produce a specific picture of crowds walking around the parks as to convey the fresh breathing of nature through a free-flowing painting style abundant with greens.
In his compositions — “Theatre” (1986), “Circus” (1986) — Arshakuni creates a vigorous image of cheerful festivities. But what stirs the viewer the most in these pictures is Arshakuni’s faculty to convey in painting a fascination with carnival, a state which can occur only within a child’s spontaneous perception.
The Oriental profusion of colours is certainly a distinctive feature of Arshakuni’s art. But the artist changes when he turns to things more private. The painting “Couple” (1990) alludes to the story of a modern Adam and Eve, or Mars and Venus, love stories that transcend time. The archetypal images of lovers in the painting are full-blooded in an earthly manner. To sustain the deeply intimate tone of the picture, the artist, untypically, keeps within the limits of artistic austerity. His colour design, without losing its expressiveness, becomes uneffusive and especially precise. Meanwhile, the strength of emotion emanated by the painting only grows: the painting acquires an epic sweep.
Pictures with nude models as an autonomous genre have always been fairly unusual for Russian art. Arshakuni displays a series of pictures featuring nude female sitters — “In a Studio” (1987), “Garden” (1989), “In a Bathroom” and “Fixing Oneself up in the Morning” (1991), and “Summer” (1997). Not beautiful in a classic image, his sitters were not selected for the beauty of their body proportions or sensual nudity. Rather, the reason for painting them was to show a harmony between animated nature and a body full of female force, whose shape is highlighted with beams of sunlight or jets of water and, finally, with the joy of living. Here Arshakuni’s art speaks the language of modern lyrics.
In Arshakuni’s paintings of the last decade scenes of family life become interlaced, absolutely seamlessly, with biblical themes — “Annunciation”, “Nativity”, “Flight into Egypt”, “My Family” and others. The variations of the subjects he constantly uses weave modern themes into the Christological canon. Thus, Archangel Gabriel reveals God’s message to a real looking woman wearing a modern dress. And the Nativity happens in a house filled with recognizably modern objects. Far from detracting from the sacred quality and significance of the events depicted, this combination only makes them look more veritable. This is because the paintings were created by an artist who is sensitive to beauty in a peculiarly Leningrad manner and has a high level of artistic culture.
The exhibition of the renowned “museum artists” German Yegoshin and Zaven Arshakuni at the Tretyakov Gallery was distinguished by its freshness.
Oil on canvas. 145 by 135 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 115 by 140 cm
Oil on canvas. 175 by 195 cm
Oil on canvas. 145 by 135 cm. Russian Museum
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Oil on carton. 68 by 60 cm
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Oil on canvas. 90 by 100 cm
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Oil on canvas. 80 by 70cm