Nikolai Chernyshev "Worked only with delight..."
“The goal of my life is to find the connecting link between the grand heritage of ancient Russian art and the tasks of today, not to reconstruct the old to make a stylized, dead, inorganic version of it, but to create a new harmonious art for our time, which everyone would believe in, abandoning arguments and divisions...”
Fate gave Nikolai Mikhailovich Chernyshev a long life — 88 years. He started his creative work at the turn of the 20th century and lived a life that is an example of selfless service to his motherland and faith in the spiritual ideals of Russian art. Chernyshev was a man with many titles: People’s Artist of Russia, professor, painter, graphic artist, creator of monumental works, theoretician, and teacher.
He was bom into a lower middle class family (“meschanin”) in 1885 in the village of Nikolskoye in the Tambov province. His childhood was not easy, but he was persistent in moving forward towards his goal.
When he was sixteen, he passed a competitive exam to enroll into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpting and Architecture, where he had outstanding teachers — Abram Arkhipov, Valentin Serov, and Konstantin Korovin. The lecturers were the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky and art historian Vladimir Giatsintov, but the archeologist Petr Golubtsov was “the first to reveal the beauty of ancient Russian painting to me” — remembered Chernyshev.
In 1910 Chernyshev went to Paris to study in the private studio “Academie Julian”. He went to the Louvre, and studied the newest French painting. After he returned from Paris, Chernyshev went to St. Petersburg to continue his studies in the Academy of Arts with professors Vasily Mate and Dmitry Kiplik; the latter armed Chernyshev with a knowledge of monumental painting, a fact that shaped all of his further creative work.
Chernyshev studied the great masters of old Russia from his youth to the end of his life. The initial stage of his creative development as an artist and writer was connected with the literary and artistic journals “Mlechny Put” (Milky Way, 1914-1916), and “Makovets” (1921), which his brother Alexei Chernyshev published and sponsored. In these journals, in addition to his drawings, Nikolai Chernyshev wrote essays under the pseudonym “Omutov”.
“Makovets played a crucial role in my artistic development: “To see nature with your own eyes — this was the slogan of the day,” he wrote later.
In 1921 Chernyshev took part in creating the Union of Artists and Poets “Iskusstvo-Zhizn” (Art-Life) as one of its founders.
“My creative personality was not defined right away, I was struggling to find my theme... And only in 1923-1924 my images started taking shape. I began passionately drawing sketches of youngsters in orphanages, on playgrounds, in young pioneer camps. By then my main genre was found: a young teenage girl in the charming age of transition from childhood to girlhood, full of austerity, purity and grace.” In this light we see the origins of Chernyshev’s paintings, “The Wounded Dove”, “The Fluff is Flying”, “A Young Girl”, “Braiding Hair”, “Returning from Bathing”, and others.
He stood at the origins of monumental art, and for 30 years was a professor of monumental painting. Together with his students he went to Ferapontovo, where the great Dionysius lived and worked. There he found more than a hundred hues of mineral paint in the multicoloured rocks on the lakeshore. The result of his research was the book “The Art of the Fresco in Ancient Russia”, which he dedicated to his wife.
When he turned 75, Chernyshev had an idea to paint the cycle of works “The Masters of the Moscow School.” He saw this as his moral duty as an artist. He created images of Andrei Rublev, Dionysius, Daniel Cherny, Alimpy Pechersky. Such outstanding artists as Vladimir Favorsky and Sergei Konenkov posed for him. His last painting depicted the first Russian artist mentioned in the chronicles, Alimpy Pechersky. The painting was left on the easel after Chernyshev died. It was a covenant and a hymn to all artists.
Hymn to Youth
I love Nikolai Chernyshev’s art. It seems to me that drawing thin-legged girls was his main love, which he carried through his whole life. He yearningly watched their fleeting movements, which seem to be impossible to catch — for instance, when a girl is putting a glove on while moving. Looking at his small drawings and watercolours, one always feels his sharp eye and sharp memory that allowed him to depict that beauty.
Out of the multitude of Chernyshev’s pieces, I would like in my mind to single out all the “girly” things: what a song to the beauty of the world they are, anxious in its defenselessness, and joyful with the awareness of the presence of art’s beauty.
First, the artist absorbs himself in drawing the girls of Isadora Duncan’s studio (he touchingly calls them “dunkanshi”), then he draws Tonya, his future wife Antonina Alexandrovna, followed by his three daughters: life bestowed generous gifts on its faithful artist. Through all his years he held closest to him what he loved most: his beloved girls.
Girls, like birds, fly up on swings, bathe from a boat (the shore is swampy) on Myachino lake, wring out their dresses,
splash in the shower so that we hear their joyous squeals, collect rocks on the beach, braid their hair while holding the end of it with their teeth, shy away from somebody, tenderly hold a baby goat, a wounded bird, a tree branch, an apple. One, two, three, and finally, five girls — groups of them connect and create a plastic idea. Their figures linked in the finely outlined silhouette, in free and loose movements, these sweet friends in life and on canvas seem to sense one another all the time. They enter the landscape and dissolve in this big whole world, merging with a warm evening when the nightingale sings.
There is an early watercolour, “Recollection of Novgorod”. Novgorod’s green spaces, with white ancient churches by blue-gray water. A girl’s figure. As if taking advantage of the lull in the world, the artist wants to grasp and assert this fleeting beauty. Chernyshev’s work sings with the unity of the beauty of youth and the beauty of the ancient Russian land. But soon the fire of the war would blaze over Novgorod’s churches, over the thin-legged girls, over Volkhovo, scorching the grass and the frescos, the people and birds... All of Chernyshev’s art is one protesting cry: “No to war!”
We look at his frescos and mosaics with excitement. The fine lines of the frescos, reverently drawn by the artist’s hand, stir up the memories of the frescos of Dionysius at the Ferapontovo monastery.
I saw the same drawing there, as ifjust now applied by the ancient master’s hand on the rough surface of the wall. A monastery guard there showed me Nikolai Chernyshev’s book on ancient frescos. Chernyshev himself had given it as a gift; it bore his inscription. I think that this present was important to the artist himself, as well: he hoped that the beauty would be preserved better if it is known and understood.
What I find endearing in Chernyshev’s art is the complete lack of “artistic chic”: his constant work over many years did not depend on quick success. In his search for the truth, Chernyshev did not think of success; he worked intently and unhurriedly, studied himself and taught others. This whole process — life in art — was his joy; the creation of the works themselves came naturally to him as a part of that process.
He was a true master of watercolour, the “fresco in miniature”, as he called it. Favorsky remembered how Chernyshev, when he came to Samarkand during the war, amazed and gladdened everyone with his watercolours, which were not just sketches drawn from life, but depicted the world where people lived and something significant happened all the time. I am deeply convinced that Chernyshev is a true artist of monumental feeling, close in his creative nature to the ancient masters of Pskov, Novgorod, and the Belozersky (White Lake) lands.
I have always thought that Chernyshev was unable to get angry, to lose his temper. But sometimes he spoke sharply, defending an artist’s right to be brave and daring. Artists of all kinds were drawn to him; he tried to help them understand each other. He was open-minded in his view of art and possessed a talent for helping others.
He regularly went to the studio, to his easel with the next canvas he was working on. As I said, he had a remarkable talent for helping others: I also felt this support from Chernyshev. Once I brought the etching “Morning at Favorsky’s” (he asked me to give it to him). And later I received a book from Nikolai Mikhailovich, “The Icons of Serbia and Macedonia”, as a gift to thank me for “the image of unforgettable Vladimir Andreevich Favorsky with his grandson”, as the inscription said. This attention from a remarkable artist supported me. I take good care of this book.
Nikolai Chernyshev gave his rich creative life to others. His outward modesty and humility turned out to be a shining spiritual strength. Now, when he is gone, he continues to call for honest work, teaches us to improve ourselves, to love people, to preserve Russian culture. He said, “Always remember your moral duty, however difficult things may be. Be courageous and firm in everything you do, be sincere and kind, but most of all, be joyful, and I will always be with you.” These are his parting words to all of us.
Unselfish Service to Art
From his youth to the end of his days, Nikolai Chernyshev studied as an artist and researcher of the creations of the great masters of old Russia. He tried to give to his students what he knew himself.
The 1920s. Churches are being closed, icons and precious religious articles confiscated by the state. Who needs the images of saints, while the “world fire of revolution” is blazing and all bourgeois values are brought down; who needs ancient fresco paintings? But they are needed. In those terrible times Chernyshev was teaching at VKHUTEMAS (the Higher Art Technical Studios) the technique of monumental painting and telling students about the value of these frescos. Favorsky talked about the meaning of black and white space, and Chernyshev talked about the greatness of ancient Russian painting, and the students — hungry, illiterate — at first did not understand anything. So these great teachers — Favorsky, Chernyshev, Istomin, and others — impressed upon them and made them understand and love our great heritage.
There were purges, professors were scrutinized, including the entire teaching staff. When they asked Favorsky if he believed in God, he replied, “Yes, I do”. In those times religion was under persecution, and Chernyshev also risked finding himself among those who propagate religion. He instilled in students the understanding of icon and fresco painting. When he showed us icons in Pskov, he tried to tell us about them. He connected the plot of an icon’s story with history and literature, everyday events in the lives of the Russian people. Such illustrations made it easier for us to understand.
The monumentalists occupied the left wing, which faced Rozhdestvenka Street. Chernyshev reigned in the monumentalist department. The Subject Committee consisted of all the teachers, professors of the department, and a student representative. Chernyshev, the head of the department, was the chairman of the Subject Committee.
When he came there, there were just bare walls. So he asked the janitor to bring sand. We mixed lime, and covered the walls with it. And the students began painting frescos. Chernyshev taught the technique and technology of wall painting. Strange as it may seem, students played an active part in the educational process at our school.
He gave us tasks: how to compose plaster as the base under a fresco. We had to remove saltpeter, and then stir that lime to make it consistent. We had to create an ornament ourselves, which he then would approve. We chose a wall. We took a certain amount of lime, sand, oakum, cut the oakum (the Italians used straw). We mixed everything. Then we threw it all on the wall, added another layer, and then transferred the drawing from tracing paper by pressing or by making a dotted line with charcoal. We took natural pigment, mixed it, diluted it in water, and painted upon damp plaster.
Students treated Chernyshev like an older peer. During examinations, we painted on a wall; afterwards the surface would be chipped off, and a fresco-secco would be made. We mixed paint over burnt lime. Under Chernyshev’s supervision, we painted a school on Zubovskaya Square.
We made a stencil based on a design, and then painted it with tempera.
On holidays, everybody left in all directions; on return Nikolai Mikhailovich always asked us where we had been, if we brought a lot of work back, what we painted. He took students on trips to visit ancient Russian cities to see frescoes, icons.
Nikolai Chernyshev was very attentive to students. He took us to Pskov, Vladimir, Novgorod, Kiev, the Ferapontovo monastery.
When Chernyshev showed us the frescos he always spoke of the composition of the whole wall, the rhythm of spots, the overall colour scheme, the wall structure, and the formation of the whole monastery. This developed our taste, and made us artists.
His students were all different, but it was interesting for everybody. At that time we students were not yet able to appreciate the true value of those trips. We would appreciate it much later. Perhaps only now.
Nikolai Mikhailovich often allowed students to be late to classes if they stayed in ancient Russian towns and copied frescos. Together with his students, he found remarkable colourful rocks on the shore of Borodavsky lake by the monastery walls. He proved that Dionysius used these pigments while he painted the monastery. Samples of local Ferapontovo pigments, discovered in 1925 were exhibited in the workshop laboratory; specialists from other cities came to look at them.
Chernyshev often told his students about Dmitry Kiplik, about encaustic painting. A book by Hans Schmidt, “The Technique of Ancient Fresco and Encaustic Painting” was in German, and I, knowing German, began translating it. When Chernyshev learned about it, he praised me, and afterwards he asked A. N. Tikhomirov to translate the whole book. Thus this book was published with Nikolai Chernyshev’s foreword.
Diego Rivera came to visit. We had barrels of lime by the entrance to the workshop. He dipped his finger into a barrel and tasted it to check if it was washed well. He left us his notes. Henri Barbusse came to visit, a skinny, impulsive man. He talked to Nikolai Mikhailovich for a long time, about what specialists graduated from the department, and how they might be of use in their country.
Chernyshev was the soul and the guardian angel, the good genius of the Monumental Department and was treated with respect, great love and warmth. He fussed over us like a hen over her baby chicks, explained and showed things to us, spent time with each of us individually, was at school every day and was fully responsible for the whole department. If he met a student, he would always ask, “How are you feeling? What are you painting? How is life?” He drew us like a magnet. He tried to promote knowledge as he had learnt it himself. Chernyshev educated us tactfully, without imposing himself on us. He was amazingly modest, attentive. Students were not cultured people. Nikolai Mikhailovich tried to reform and re-educate us, engrain culture in us. He sowed the seeds of culture in our souls.
Among the students of professor Nikolai Chernyshev who graduated from VKHUTEMAS were: Bubnov, Gaponenko, Malaev, Odintsov, Lukomsky, Nevezhin, Aslamazyan, Elkonin, Edelstein, Chesnokova, Markov, Stepanov, Khlyupin, Maltsev, Mochalsky, Tsirelson, Gustav Tsilya, and many, many others.
Oil on canvas. 72 × 54 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Photo from the artistʼs family archive
(upper row, third right) with a group of students of VKHUTEMAS. Trip to Kiev. 1928
Oil on canvas. 99 × 71 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 54 × 72 cm. Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum
Oil on canvas. 54 × 106 cm. Radischev Art Museum, Saratov
Watercolour on paper. 36 × 26.5 cm. Collection of the artistʼs family
Watercolour on paper. 38.7 × 28 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 88 × 102 cm. Kasteev State Art Museum, Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan
Pencil on paper. 38.5 × 27.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Charcoal on paper. 35.8 × 27 cm. Collection of the artistʼs family
Charcoal on paper. 35 × 26 cm. Russian Museum
Tapestry motif. Oil on canvas. 100 × 140 cm. Collection of the artistʼs family
Oil on canvas. 93 × 70.5 cm. Collection of the artistʼs family
Oil on canvas. 140 × 100 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Mosaic. 87 × 56 × 4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery