THE INHERITOR: Alexander Rukavishnikov and His Forebears
Alexander Rukavishnikov belongs to the third generation of a remarkable sculptural dynasty. Equally and extraordinarily accomplished in both monumental and medium-scale sculpture, his work has developed organically out of that of his grandfather, Mitrofan, and of his father, Iulian, alike.
Although separated by decades, the lives of Alexander Rukavishnikov and his grandfather Mitrofan show unexpected parallels. At the very beginning of his career as a sculptor, at the age of 22 Mitrofan Rukavishnikov created masterful works that rivalled those of his great teacher, Sergei Konenkov. Alexander was the same age when, in a show of remarkable talent, he carved his spectacular marble “Michelangelo Buonarroti" (1972).
All three members of the Rukavishnikov dynasty gravitated to monumental sculpture, creating a sense of professional continuity within the family. Whereas Mitrofan Rukavishnikov's monumental sculptures are well known, Iulian, his son (and Alexander's father), preferred to combine architecture and sculpture in creating an integrated artistic space.
In an interview in 2000, Iulian Rukavishnikov said that it was his father's influence that opened up the world of sculpture for him; he, in turn, mentored his young son Alexander: “I like everything [all sculptural media - I.S.], so I taught my son to be the same way. A sculptor should be able to do it all: carve from stone, cast in bronze, mould in clay... I still have photographs of him as a child - he would sculpt things all the time, and later put them together to create good pieces." These words are a testimony to the fact that teaching his son the nuts and bolts of a sculptor's craft was a given for Iulian Rukavishnikov.
Monument to Mstislav Rostropovich. 2012
Bronze, granite. Moscow. Detail
Alexander has provided a very good picture of the advantages that came with his upbringing when he talked about his father: “I have to thank my family for the fact that I did not have to travel the long road that others take if their parents are not sculptors. For both him [Alexander's father, Iulian] and me, things happened immediately - think Tarkovsky's ‘Mirror': the child is taught what is good early in his life. This sums up how different it is to be raised in an artistic family. Naturally, higher education pays off, but 80 or 90 percent of what I have came from my father. I have been around my mum and dad since birth."
It is significant that Alexander Rukavishnikov puts so high a value on his family's role in his evolution as an artist and gives it more credit than he does to formal education. He also makes a very important point, seemingly in passing: “For both him and me, things happened immediately - think Tarkovsky's ‘Mirror': the child is taught what is good early in his life." Accordingly, the circumstances of their lives were quite similar: the father did not wait to share with his young son the most important moral and professional lessons. This intense focus on passing the secrets of craftsmanship on to the next generation hastens the teaching process, making it so much more effective and personal, since many a technique is learnt from practice, bypassing theoretical knowledge.
Alexander Rukavishnikov did not know his grandfather - Mitrofan died four years before his grandson was born - but still learned from him as a professional sculptor. As he carefully examined photographs of his grandfather's sculptures, Rukavishnikov often asked himself why his grandfather chose to ignore all the established rules of rendering human faces: “He [Mitrofan Rukavishnikov] always went against the canons of classical Greek sculpture; indeed, he did exactly the opposite. For example, he exaggerated the space by the lacrimal bone at the expense of the cheekbone. It was only much later that I came to understand why he did it: to make the sculpture that was set for an exterior location more expressive. The fact is that a sculpture that looks beautiful in an interior would not necessarily work in the open air. Thus, Mitrofan came up with his own techniques that allowed the human eye to appreciate a sculpture from a significant distance. This was not something I had seen done by any other sculptor. With time, I began to do as my grandfather had done."
lulian Rukavishnikov used his understanding of monumental sculpture to continue his highly successful work on his medium-scale pieces, such as his famous series “Nature. Evolutions and Transformations", while for his son Alexander's medium-scale works provided the foundation for the creation of a unique plastic language of monumental sculpture.
Only seven years after “Michelangelo Buonarroti", Alexander Rukavishnikov created his “Female Archer" (1979, bronze, granite), the work that marked the beginning of bold experimentation in sculptural form. In this respect, his art, with its variety of subjects and themes, is still clearly defined by two main directions, the first (on which the sculptor began working in 1989) being the invention of new forms through joining and transforming its various structural elements, an approach that could be called “constructing form".
At the same time, a second direction was present in Alexander Rukavishnikov's art, one that could be loosely defined as “organic form", aligning the inner organic form as it is being modified in a natural plastic way. Among the sculptures that reflect this are “Universe" (1980, fireclay), “Shaman" (1982, limestone), “Astronaut" (1984, tinted gesso), “Circus Wrestler" (1985, marble), “Swimmers" (1986, marble, bronze, aluminum), “Sumo" (1992, ceramics), “Pagan Pioneer" (1993, wood, bronze), “Pagan Goddess with Birds" (1993, painted wood), “Breed" (1996, bronze, granite, marble), “Secret Virtues" (2000, bronze), “Finnish Women" (2007, bronze), “A Woman in a Quilted Jacket" (2008, wood, bronze), “Animal Husbandry" (2008, wood, bronze, leather); and the series “Roots of Russia" (1977-1987, wood, limestone).
Alexander Rukavishnikov always sought the highest degree of self-expression when he worked on his many traditional monuments to public figures - some examples are his monuments to Fyodor Dostoevsky (1996) and Mstislav Rostropovich (2012), both sited in Moscow. For the former, the sculptor relied on the symbolic meaning of a drawn bow to give the writer's entire figure a feeling of intensity; as for the latter, Rukavishnikov used hyperbole to achieve a powerful emotional impact on the viewer. Nevertheless, all these techniques are “tiny liberties", taken within the boundaries of the tradition. It is not often that the sculptor's individual manner is felt strongly in his monumental works - in most cases, this is due to external factors that have nothing to do with the sculptor's personal views. Monumental sculpture is always in some way “commissioned" by society, and both the subject, with its scope and framework, and the “client" lay out their terms. That said, recently Alexander Rukavishnikov has succeeded in fully implementing his creative intention in a monumental sculpture by using artistic and spatial insights that he had worked on for many years - in his “Spartacus", erected in 2014 at the “Otkrytiye Arena" stadium.
Naturally, creating a monumental sculptural homage to Spartacus prompted Rukavishnikov to look back to antiquity and draw on more traditional forms of plastic expression, which was reflected in the sculptor's early studies for this work. However, at some point he demonstrated real artistic courage in taking a bold decision to draw on the constructivist method of expression.
Alexander Rukavishnikov with Konstantin Khudyakov. Avant-garde exhibition. Photograph
If we were to define the cornerstones of Alexander Rukavishnikov's creative approach (apart from his interest in monumental sculpture), we find two fundamental qualities that he shares with both his father and his grandfather: an exceptional command both of his medium and of symbolic imagery. In this respect, Mitrofan and lulian Rukavishnikov had different motivations - influenced by his mentor Konenkov, Mitrofan saw the mythological aspect of images in sculpture through a fairytale viewpoint, with a touch of innocence characteristic of youthful impulsiveness. In contrast, lulian took the folkloric imagery to a deeper level of artistic expression: in his art, shapes found in nature acquire symbolism that is not easy to grasp or appreciate, with a strong element of abstraction that often approaches conceptual thought.
Alexander Rukavishnikov with Mikhail Shemyakin. 1998. Photograph
Nevertheless, it is clear that Mitrofan, as Konenkov's student, had a strong influence on the direction of Iulian's evolution as an artist.
Mythological motifs in Alexander Rukavishnikov's art are revealed through ancient Slavic and Old Russian pagan images and subjects. It is important to note that these are not direct parallels to pagan beliefs, rather proto-historical allusions interpreted in a contemporary context as the artist tries to define the ultimate “truth", historically, culturally and spiritually. Rukavishnikov's “paganism" is an experiment of imagery and form. “The 20th century was defined by artists who were sharp, who tested boundaries, who worked persistently on the issue of accepted meanings and artistic idioms, of the very limits of art's potential. Or, if you will, the issue of expanding art's boundaries and the limits of such expansion." This definition fits quite well the purpose of Alexander Rukavishnikov's artistic immersion into pagan themes. As he stretched these boundaries, he took his personal plastic expression from the 20th century into the 21st, creating a unique vocabulary of pagan symbolism that may be called a “system of myths", with its foundation steeped in the original concepts of ancient Slavic and Old Russian pagan mythology.
Alexander Rukavishnikov at the opening of the monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky, with Elina Bystritskaya. Photograph
Thus, for more than a century now - and despite the very personal ways in which mythological themes have been transformed in the work of each of the three Rukavishnikov sculptors - the shared tradition of seeking inspiration in myths remained at the centre of their art; indeed, it grew a great deal stronger and even became essential.
Mitrofan Rukavishnikov cherished the idea of tradition and innovation as the driving forces of art; his son Iulian developed and changed that same idea to fit his own work; while his grandson Alexander, throughout his career, has used it to the fullest and allowed it to grow into an independent, complex system of mythological symbols.
Alexander Rukavishnikov with Mstislav Rostropovich. 1995. Photograph
- Ustinova, Irina. ‘Iulian Rukavishnikov’ // “Personalities”. No. 2, 2000. URL: http://www.peoples.ru/art/sculpture/rukavishnikov/iulian/
- Quoted from the author’s interview with Alexander Rukavishnikov, November 2015.
- Quoted from the author’s interview with Alexander Rukavishnikov, August 13 2016.
- All sculptures by Alexander Rukavishnikov are currently in the Rukavishnikov family collection.
- Yakimovich, A.K. ‘The 20th Century. Three Faces of Mysteries’ // “Collected Works”. 2011, Vol. 1. P. 65.
Bronze, aluminum. “Otkrytiye Arena” stadium, Moscow
Bronze, aluminum. “Otkrytiye Arena” stadium, Moscow. Detail
Bronze, granite. Moscow
Bronze, fireclay, steel, hay. 200 × 285 × 120 cm
Bronze, marble, aluminum, wood. 70 × 25 × 32 cm
Wood, bronze. 80 × 107 × 62 cm
Bronze, marble, granite. 103 × 97 × 33 cm
Bronze. Tambov. Detail
Bronze, wood. 300 × 150 × 80 cm. Solnechnogorsk
Bronze. 220 × 170 × 80 cm
Bronze, marble. Moscow
In cooperation with Filipp Rukavishnikov. Bronze. Montreux
Wood, bronze, steel. 350 × 150 × 80 cm. In cooperation with Iulian Rukavishnikov
Bronze. 300 × 250 × 150 cm
Model. Granite. 75 × 30 × 24 cm
Bronze. 270 × 360 × 140 cm
Marble, bronze, aluminum. 62 × 84 × 30 cm
Part of the composition dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov. Bronze. 360 × 400 × 150 cm