THE FORCE OF TRUTH. The Tkachev Brothers

Anna Dyakonitsyna

Magazine issue: 
#1 2011 (30)

A retrospective exhibition of the artist-brothers Alexei and Sergei Tkachev, running in the Engineering Wing of the Tretyakov Gallery from April 15 through July 17, presents the oeuvre of two figures who in many respects define the trajectories of the Russian school of painting in the second half of the 20th and at the start of the 21st centuries. The exhibition features around 180 pieces representative of the main stages of their work and the main directions of their artistic explorations. The pictures on view include large-scale “exemplary” compositions, the results of the brothers’ collective effort from the gallery’s collection, as well as earlier paintings, from their Moscow studio, created by one or the other brother independently, and a large assortment of sketches. All this is but a fraction of the vast body of work created by the artists who continue working to this day.

Sergei (born in 1922) and Alexei (born in 1925) Tkachev are a part of the generation on whom World War II left an indelible mark. The war forced many from their generation to grow up prematurely, wiping out their entire pre-war past. Thus, the war destroyed the village of Chuchunovka, where the future artists were born. It also destroyed their house in Bezhitsa (a town near the city of Bryansk), where the Tkachev family settled in 1929. It was in Bezhitsa, in the decade before the war, that they started on their path as artists: following the example of their elder brother, Viktor, the three younger brothers — Sergei, Alexei and Vasily— began to attend a young artists’ group at a local Young Pioneer Club. But it was Sergei and Alexei who took up art for life, and their creative cooperation became a landmark in Russian-Soviet art.

When they were young, their lives followed different courses. In 1938 Sergei Tkachev became a student at the Vitebsk Art College, famous for its historical legacy and professional traditions. After three years of instruction, he was conscripted, fought in the war, was wounded, and after recovery was again sent to the battlefield. A relic of the time, Sergei Tkachev’s 1944 sketch “A Military Shoemaker” has survived.1 Later this sketch was used for the image of the main figure in the composition “In Difficult Years”.

Alexei Tkachev by the start of the war was studying at the Moscow Art School, a unique educational institution for artistically gifted youngsters who came there from all over the USSR. Like others, Alexei experienced in full measure wartime hardships and deprivations. When the German units were approaching Bryansk, the family was evacuated to Sverdlovsk. “So I was separated from the school I loved, my friends and all that I cherished and treasured,”2 Alexei Petrovich reminisced. He worked at the Uralmash military factory for more than six months. “I was toiling like all other workers, without notice of my young age, marking the parts of tank engines. Night shifts were especially taxing, I constantly felt like falling asleep, and hunger was my permanent companion.”3 The events that followed seem now miraculous indeed for the talented young man. Alexei learned the new address of his evacuated school, sent a letter to one of the teachers and soon received an invitation which made it possible for him to rejoin his classmates and continue his pursuit of choice. He wrote about his travel to the Voskresenskoe village in Bashkiria, where his art school was temporarily located: “It was 1942, the situation on the front line was very difficult, my three brothers were in the army — Serafim, Sergei, Vasily. A skinny sickly youth at that time, I was preparing for a long, distant travel full of hardship. On my way to the school, I changed more than 10 train vehicles, put up for a night in the oddest places, ate whatever I could lay my hands on. But I had a great goal in sight — I was on my way to the school, and when you have a goal, any obstacle seems like nothing.”4

Many graduates of the Moscow Art School who later achieved prominence recall that period as one of the brightest and most productive in the history of the institution. Under the mentorship of Mikhail Dobroserdov, Sergei Mikhailov, Vasily Pochitalov and other outstanding art educators the students not only learned the basics of their craft but also developed their creative individualities, making their first accomplishments in art.

Upon their return to Moscow, in 1943, the best works of the pupils (including Alexei Tkachev) were put on display at the Tretyakov Gallery. “While somewhere over there the war was still fully raging, we were learning the finest points of art. The country did not abandon us — so, we learned, it needed us too. In the harsh realities of wartime Moscow we saw that art lived and functioned.”5

The return of the Tretyakov Gallery’s collections from evacuation in 1944 was an event that everyone celebrated. Together with other pupils from the Moscow Art School Alexei Tkachev helped to carry paintings to their assigned rooms. “I remember Vrubel’s small pieces: ‘Venice’, ‘Ophelia and Hamlet’. But it was Surikov’s paintings that impressed me the most. Frames were still missing on the portraits and sketches which we carried in our hands. <...> For us it was more than just learning,”6 the artist recalled.

Alexei Tkachev’s appearance at that period is captured in his 1944 “Self-portrait” distinguished by its finely tuned harmony between close tones and a composition focused on the youth’s face — pensive and concentrated, as in those of the old masters.

The teachers at the school nurtured in their pupils an interest in art’s great historical legacy. This close attention to the traditions of painting — above all the national tradition — would prove very important in the formation of the Tkachev brothers’ artistic individualities.

After the end of the war their paths crossed again. In 1945 Alexei enrolled at the Moscow Art Institute (which did not yet have Vasily Surikov’s name in its title), and a year later Sergei became a student at the institute’s department of painting as well. He had gone through the school of hard knocks on the battlefield, and was eager to return to his pursuit of art that had been interrupted by the war. He had to work hard to prepare for the entrance exams at the institute, so he was very lucky to be offered a helping hand by his younger brother who had matured as an artist during the previous period.

Sergei Tkachev affectionately reminisced about his student years: “The war had just finished, and yearning for a life of peace, we assiduously studied nature in workshops and listened to lectures on art. <...> In the years immediately following the war, the teaching staff at the institute included great masters: Igor Grabar, Sergei Gerasimov, Georgy Ryazhsky, Alexander Osmy- orkin, Alexander Matveev. Some of the young artists were invited to teach as well: Viktor Tsyplakov, Yury Kugach, Vasily Nechitailo, Konstantin Maximov. During our first years at the school <...> Dmitry Konstantinovich Mochalsky was our teacher and friend. You can say that we have been connected with Mochalsky for all our life.”7

Among the pieces created at the institute, such as drawings from nature and compositions accomplished by students indoors, as a part of the general curriculum, the works created by Alexei and Sergei Tkachev during summer holidays stand out. Leaving Moscow, they travelled along the Oka and Volga rivers, visited their parents, who were settled in the Nizok village in Belarus, and relatives who had stayed in the Urals after the war. From their journeys — across Astrakhan, the Caspian Sea region, the Zhiguli Mountains, the city of Kostroma — in which they were often accompanied by other young artists, the Tkachevs brought lots of artwork: portraits, landscapes, genre compositions which captivated with the freshness of their imagery and precision of characterisation. “Review of works accomplished by students over the summer was always an exciting event. It was these pieces created outside the curriculum that showed what sort of artistic individuality this or that young artist would develop. We remember how, after one such review, <...> the head of the teaching department was making the rounds of the school looking for the Tkachev brothers in order to introduce them to the renowned professor Sergei Gerasimov. For the first time in our life Servei Vasilievich, who was highly respected by students, shook our hands and congratulated us on our successful internship.”8

Today, displayed at their retrospective exhibition, the Tkachev brothers’ works accomplished in their student days impress with their painting style. These works bring into relief each brother’s artistic individuality. Sergei Tkachev’s compositions are marked by focus on genre and characterisation. Small sketches (“A Lonely Fisherman”, 1948) reveal his search for a story worthy of development into a painted composition. That was how Sergei Tkachev’s 1948 watercolour study evolved into a big composition called “Kids” (1958-1960, Russian Museum), accomplished a decade later.

Like Sergei’s sketches, the pictures made by Alexei Tkachev at the institute feature a wide variety of human types and sharp characterisations — an assortment of people of different ages and occupations. The exhibition presents only a handful of them: “A Girl”, “A Hunchback” (both from 1947), “Zina Voronetskaya” (1949), “A Girl with Braids” (1950) and others. Alongside these portraits, there are genre pieces and landscapes, where the artist is focused not so much on a story as on a visually impressive motif at the core of the composition: a road leading up to the horizon (“Nightfall. Koltovo”, 1946), the smooth contours of boats and their reflections in the river (“Evening on the Volga”, 1948), human figures in boats sketched out as dark silhouettes against the silvery smoothness of the stream (“On the Caspian Sea”, 1948).

This approach would be taken to new levels by Alexei Tkachev slightly later. One example of this sort of sketched picture is “A Herdsboy” (1954), featuring a faithful rendition of the lunging movement of the horse in the foreground. The compositional mainstay of the piece includes not only the motif but also the visual texture where every movement of the artist’s hand is clearly visible.

This tradition of the sketched picture is closely connected with the history of the Russian school of painting. It originated in the works of Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, as well as certain pieces by Ilya Repin. The principles of open air painting became pivotal in the artwork of the painters from the “Society of Russian Artists” and were later employed in the compositions of Arkady Plastov, Sergei Gerasimov, and Alexei Gritsai. These masters’ oeuvre became an example to look up to for the young artists who emerged in the cultural arena after the war. Relying on such a tradition, the Tkachev brothers were seeking out their path in art as well.

In the second half of the 1950s their artistic language started to come into its own, and that period witnessed the creation of a number of remarkable works. The show features a couple of them — portraits produced as drafts for future genre compositions: Alexei Tkachev’s “Zina by the Window” and Sergei Tkachev’s “Tamara” (both from 1955). For all the features they have in common, the pictures have clearly distinguishable differences in style: one is more free-flowing and liberal, with a subdued overall colour scheme featuring very fine nuances of colour, the other palpably dense with rich colours.

Fluent brushwork distinguishes not only their croquis but also many painted compositions created by the Tkachev brothers in those years, like “A Windy Day” (1957, Russian Museum) and “Laundresses” (1957, Kiev Museum of Russian art). This lively open air style applied to the format of grand painting became the artists’ innovative contribution to art in the 1950s.

Alexei Tkachev’s composition “ Going Home After a Party” (1956) is incontestably one of his masterpieces. Small in size, with a seemingly simple storyline, the piece is marked by its effortless and brilliant execution. Quick and precise strokes of the brush, leaving either disconnected dabs of paint or, to the contrary, continuous lines, trace out the wooden bridge drawing the viewer’s eye into the depth of the composition, to the figures of a boy and a girl walking away from the viewer.

The storyline of this painting, created by the Tkachev brothers during their stay at the “Akademicheskaya Dacha” (Academic Countryside Retreat) near the town of Vyshny Volochok, is related to the artist’s life. Alexei Petrovich, a young artist at the time, met at a dance party there a girl, a native of the area, whom he married and who became his life-long companion. So the Tkachevs, who worked at the Akademicheskaya Dacha for several years, went on to settle not far away, and in this neighbourhood near the city of Tver they conceived the ideas for and executed the bulk of their landmark works.

In the late 1950s-early 1960s the Tkachev brothers became famous for compositions in which they tackled the task of creating a grand painting significant both in form and in substance. The exhibition features their large painting “Between Battles” (1958-1960) — the brothers’ first piece acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery, although for many years it remained in the gallery’s reserve funds.

This painting, referencing an episode from Russia’s civil war after the Bolshevik revolution, was largely inspired by stories told by the artists’ father. In the first years of Soviet rule he was the director of a village club whose activities included amateur stage productions and grammar classes for the illiterate. Thus, the process of creation of this scene with middle-aged men — Red Army soldiers — seated at their desks, instead of children, involved many changes to the composition. Not only the number of figures in the picture but also their arrangement was repeatedly changed, and new highlights came to the treatment of the episode with every alteration. Carefully working on the human figures, the artist sharpened the appearance and characterisation of each — the elderly soldier, the woman teacher, the young Red Army soldier.

A huge body of preparatory art created by Alexei and Sergei Tkachev over five years includes several drafts of the composition, more than 300 sketches and a nearly finished version of the painting rejected by the artists. All these pieces not only help to trace the history of the creation of the final version but also demonstrate very clearly the features of the Tkachev brothers’ creative method as it shaped in the 1950s.

Though it changed from one painting to another, this method nevertheless for many years remained intact in several very important characteristics. At the stage of sketches each brother usually works independently. Then they discuss their studies and choose what they think is the best draft. Then the skeleton of the chosen piece is copied onto a canvas and the artists go on to make changes relying on their numerous sketches from nature, which include more than a few truly exceptional pictures. Whereas these preparatory pieces demonstrate the distinctive individualities of each of the brothers, when it comes to large compositions produced by them both, we can speak about the birth of a new artistic “self”. Indeed, when incorporated into the final composition, the sketches become an integral part of it.

Overall, one cannot remain unimpressed by their utmost thoroughness and exceptional focus on detail in their large compositions. Thus, for the painting “Between Battles” the artists found an appropriate school building not far from the Dacha and “thinking out every little detail, carefully chose the clothes and the shoes; a Red Army soldier’s spiked helmet (‘budenovka’) was fashioned relying on a sewing pattern borrowed from the Museum of the Revolution; the book with a red cover which the young soldier holds was found at the same museum...”9

Not only history or literature, but often life itself has suggested themes for the Tkachevs’ pictures. This is precisely how the composition “Mothers” (19601961) came into being, to become one of the key works of the post-World War II art on display in the Tretyakov Gallery’s permanent exhibition. The artists had this to say about women featured in the painting: “On a wooden bench sit side by side women of different ages: an expectant mother in white, next to her a matriarch in a dark-blue dress and black ‘kerchief, slightly resembling in appearance our mother. At the centre of the picture is a mother holding a child. And finally, on its right flank the composition is rounded out with the figure of a young woman who looks rather like a city woman on a visit to a village.”10 The new goal was matched with a new artistic approach, especially since the artists worked on the composition not only in their workshop but also in the open air. “Sometimes we brought the painting out into the courtyard to look at it from afar, to make sure we’d got the proportions right, and we added some details directly onto the canvas. Our models were at hand, there was always someone seated on our small bench near the bathhouse.”11

“Mothers”, ready for display at a Soviet national exhibition, unexpectedly became a target of criticism from the Soviet Ministry of Culture for alledgedly distorting the image of the Soviet woman. The expressive genre element in a monumental painting seemed too unconventional. “The future of our piece was hanging by a thread, so to say. We felt like we were in the epicentre of a drama arising in connection with the preparation of the exhibition, and fought tooth and nail for our picture,”12 the artists recall. After the show the Ministry of Culture assigned the piece to the Saratov Museum, but the Tretyakov Gallery sent an official request about this picture and it was added to the country’s largest collection of national art.

The compositions “Between Battles” and “Mothers”, created by the Tkachev brothers in the late 1950s-early 1960s, defined in their creative cooperation the main directions which they would pursue over the next decade. Their paintings such as “Children of the War” (1984, Tretyakov Gallery) and “Old Men” (1991) are devoted to dramatic turning points in the nation’s history. But there are even more pieces focusing on the simple joys of life: “In a Bathhouse” (1974, Tretyakov Gallery), “Wedding Beneath the Moon” (1990), “Summer” (1991), “Two Mothers” (1990-1991) and “A Day of Heat” (1995). These works are arranged by series, each devoted to one theme, treated differently and featuring novel compositional arrangements in each piece.

The Tkachev brothers’ entire artwork — from their early painting experiments to their most recent pieces — is distinguished by a particular responsiveness and attention to realities and events of the surrounding world and to people’s destinies. Thus, it is no accident that their format of choice is a grand composition, one which not only incorporates a colossal body of preparatory art but also affirms the artists’ civil and ethical position, their reflections on the country’s past and future. This ambition “to marry beauty and truth”, incorporating a focus on substantive aspects of art, is one of the features of Russian national culture.


  1. Unless otherwise mentioned, all works remain in the collection of the artists.
  2. Tkachev Brothers. The Artists About Themselves. Moscow, 1999. P. 37. (Hereinafter - The Artists About Themselves)
  3. Tkachev Brothers. From Memory’s Trove. Moscow, 2007. P. 49.
  4. Ibid. P.50.
  5. The Artists About Themselves. P. 40.
  6. From a recorded interview with Alexei and Sergei Tkachev, taken by the author.
  7. The Artists About Themselves. Pp. 45,47-48.
  8. Ibid. Pp. 51-52.
  9. Lapshin, Viktor. The Artists Alexei and Sergei Tkachev. Leningrad, 1962. P. 61.
  10. The Artists About Themselves. P. 97.
  11. Ibid. Pp. 97-98.
  12. Ibid. P. 99.





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