Loyalty to One’s Calling

Alexander Rozhin

Magazine issue: 
#1 2022 (74)

In the historiography of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “crepuscular” - in the words of Konstantin Simonov - novel “The Master and Margarita”, we can identify only a handful of creative works based on it within Russian artistic culture, despite the widespread interest it continues to attract from readers across the world. Among these few are Yuri Lyubimov’s production at the Taganka Theatre (with conceptual decorations by David Borovsky), Vladimir Bortko’s television series (with the artists Vladimir Svetozarov and Marina Nikolaeva), Yuri Kara’s film with its outstanding cast, and the unique animation experiment by Sergei Alimov, as well as a range of works in the genres of book illustration and easel painting.

The Master and Margarita” is one of the most mysterious and phantasmagorical novels in world literature and has been subject to an incredible variety of readings and interpretations. It captures multi-layered perspectives of the author’s philosophical reflections on the fictional and real phenomena of human existence.

The most empathetic expression of an artist’s interest in the novel and in its figurative interpretation, alongside a striving to examine the essence of and interactions between its characters and times, is embodied in the illustrations of Professor Vyacheslav Zhelvakov, a member of the Russian Academy of Arts and a People’s Artist of Russia. They were created for the edition of the novel published by People’s Artist Sergei Stolyarov Cultural and Education Fund in 2006, and were also used in the amended and extended edition published by Verget (Moscow 2017).

Not everyone possesses the courage and sense of responsibility necessary to become a “co-author” to a writer and dramatist of Bulgakov’s stature.

Zhelvakov began reading and studying the novel in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He had, of course, previously encountered other illustrations of the work, which was then already considered a classic of Russian literature. Nevertheless, and with all respect for his colleagues in the art world, he was searching for his own individual reading of the novel and investigated its characters as if from the inside - trying out for size the like nesses and contradictory personalities of the protagonists.

Unlike adaptations for the stage and screen of Bulgakov’s novel - itself not fully understood to this day - in which a collective creative process is nearly always dominant, Zhelvakov took on the seemingly inconceivable task of graphically embodying his own personal ideas about the romantic mysticism of the novel’s dramatic collisions. It is as if Bulgakov - using everything from satire and irony to sarcasm and the grotesque - reproduces his own personal life and creative experience, linked with his own fate as ‘The Master’ and that of his ‘Margarita’, his muse and wife. Zhelvakov naturally sought out a new and original reading of the novel. While repeatedly re-reading the novel’s chapters, he also turned his attention to the author’s early work (“The Fatal Eggs”, “Diaboliad”, “Heart of a Dog”) and to the later “Theatrical Novel”. There, he found the very driving forces, impulses and motivations that were transformed - in Bulgakov’s final novel of life and death - into a co-dependency of good and evil, into an unfinished parable about the unattainability of absolute truth. We can identify more than a few forerunners of Mikhail Bulgakov in world literature: from Dante and Boccaccio, Jonathan Swift and Cervantes, Goethe and Hoffman to Gogol and Dostoevsky.

The triad of irony, sarcasm and the grotesque - as the highest form of artistic self-expression - has always been an inherent element of the greatest works of world literature.

Zhelvakov researched and unified the creative experience of illustrating major philosophical conclusions as embodied in the work of such masters of Russian literary art as Andrei Goncharov, Vladimir Favorsky, Mikhail Verkholantsev, Sergei Kharlamov, Igor Makarevich, Sergei Alimov, Andrei Kostin, Garif Basyrov and Dmitry Sandzhiev.

Artists such as Boris Markevich, Gennady Kilinovsky, Sergei Tyunin, Yuri Smirnov and others have all engaged directly with Bulgakov’s work, and each, in my opinion, revealed in their own way various facets of the writer’s talent while creating literal visualisations of Bulgakov’s texts.

Returning to cinematographic adaptations, and in particular to Bortko’s series, we can consider, for example, the ball scene. The production designers staged it in an effective and original way, yet at the same time, it follows literally word for word every element, from entrances made through hellish fires to the captives emerging from their coffins and visually reacquiring the flesh of long-dead villains. The scene looks persuasively groundless. In contrast, Zhelvakov’s more than 50 illustrations - including flyleaves and headpieces for the novel - are not so cut and dry. In his graphic productions, reality often looks more threateningly dramatic than any phantasmagorical visions: we are left with a singular switching of the real for the imaginary and vice versa. Such transformations, however, in no way prevent a properly accurate reflection of textual characterisations or descriptions of the appearance and motivations of Bulgakov’s characters.

The tragic polyphony contained within the novel is reflected not simply by the formal stylistic rhythm of the illustrations accompanying various chapters, but also by the technique in which they are rendered and the visualisation of the images: from classically executed realist headpieces illustrating the locations in which the plot unfolds to unreal paintings resembling dreams and presentiments, created with the use of chromatic scores reminiscent of Scriabin’s clavier a lumieres.

The cast of characters in Bulgakov’s novel - Berlioz and Ivan Bezdomny, Professor Stravinsky, the Master and Margarita, the cat Behemoth and Mark Ratkiller, Pontius Pilate, Yeshua and Caiaphas, along with Woland - are all illustrated in Zhelvakov’s graphic productions with the artist’s own orchestration, rather than literally reflecting the text. This affords the reader-viewers the opportunity of formulating their own images of the characters in their own way.

The book’s physical structure is defined by an astonishing logic and significance: the two flyleaves that open and close the book are like mirror images. Between those two flyleaves, we find the endless content-space of the great writer’s thoughts and feelings.

The artist’s previous treatment of the classics of world literature such as Hoffman and Goethe, Gogol and Dostoevsky anticipated in many ways his interest in Bulgakov’s legacy and have permitted him to portray this magical world in such a multifaceted manner, to prise open the secret of the author’s moral striving after an abstract absolute truth “the far side of good and evil”, which gives his
magnum opus the character of a parable contained in a novel.

Only a great master in possession of the remarkable talents, creative vision and practical experience of Vyacheslav Zhelvakov could reasonably attempt to create a graphic scheme worthy of the magic of Bulgakov’s prose. These are precisely the character traits of the artist that are exemplified by Zhelvakov’s graphic works that were exhibited at the Sergey Andriaka Academy of Watercolour and Fine Arts from November 2021 to February 2022. Around 200 pieces were included in the exhibition, all of which strike one with the mastery of their execution, the virtuosity of the draughtsmanship, the sensitive awareness of colour and the composition of space, the flawless choice of tools and materials and, in the final analysis, the sense of taste they display. The exhibition represents a certain resume of many years of work that has benefited from the artist’s impressions and thoughts upon his travels around this country and the wider world as well as conversations with colleagues and students, specifically students of the Ilya Glazunov Academy[1] and the Sergey Andriaka Academy, at which he has taught for many years.

Zhelvakov is generous when it comes to sharing his knowledge and experience with his students, always conscious of his own teachers and mentors. He is, naturally, above all grateful to fate and to his father - Yuri Andreevich, an Honoured Artist of Russia - who spent his whole life in Yaransk and dedicated himself to his art. Among Zhelvakov’s more well-known teachers at the Surikov Moscow Art Institute were Nikolai Ponomarev, Boris Uspensky and Anatoly Yakushin and, at the Drawing Studio Workshop of the USSR Academy of Arts, Orest Vereisky. Each of them imbued their student with an understanding of the foundations of professional culture and Zhelvakov now does the same for his students. All this enriched his natural gifts and erudition and laid the basis for the emergence of his own unique and original intonation, the independence of his graphic thought and the freedom of his self-expression.

The range of the artist’s work presented is so broad that it resembles a kind of historical encyclopaedia, which has formed the basis for his investigation of life in modern society.

This exhibition of the artist’s work gives us a remarkable understanding of the many-sided nature of his talent, experience and mastery. In his capacity as a member of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Vereshchagin Artistic Studio, he has created several series of work dedicated to the Soviet Militsiya and the Russian Federation’s Police. These include “Maslenitsa”, “Policemen”, the graphic series “Chronicle of the Gendarme and Traffic Police”, as well as the triptych of works: “Black Cat”, “Zheglov (Vladimir Vysotsky)”, “Sharapov”, “History of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Images of the Police” and the graphic series “The History of the Militia is the History of Our Country”.

Each of these pieces demonstrates the artist’s strong link to the spirit of the time and his engagement with the history of our country, although they represent only a small part of the full spectrum of Zhelvakov’s historical and patriotic works. The most important element in his art is his relation not only to the re-creation of realities (past and present) and the appearances of their inhabitants, but his approach to the graphic resources of artistic expression. On each and every occasion, he strives to make the best possible use of the opportunities afforded by each particular technique or material, taking into account the graphic approach selected for the subject or event in question. One of the very best graphic works - in terms of its figurative dramatism and artistry - from the cycles mentioned above is the piece “Khitrov Market”, in which historical truth and its creative interpretation chime in many ways with the works of Vladimir Gilyarovsky, the author of criminal news reports and the book “Moscow and Muscovites”. In this work, the artist offers the viewer his personal feelings and unique intonation, based not only on literary texts and news reports from the time, but also on his own actual experience of the authentic atmosphere within Moscow’s criminal world.

The formalist and stylistic features of this and other pieces are paired with a selection of materials and techniques that somehow convey the patina of time via the lines, strokes and texture of the artwork, in the same way as the nuances of light and darkness interact to create the impression of a three-dimensional image on a twodimensional surface.

The artist’s interest in our country’s history, and his idea of restoring the achievements of its heroes to popular memory, was realised in the cycle of graphic pieces “Military Commanders of Russia”. In it, Zhelvakov manages to reflect and bring to life the heroic pages of our ancestors’ deeds: Alexander Nevsky and Dmitry Donskoy, Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov, Mikhail Skobelev and Georgy Zhukov. Each image is complemented by a concrete historical symbolism introduced via a unique cartouche, each one framing the figures of Russia’s most glorious sons.

Zhelvakov is also a formidable connoisseur of global art history and, in his work, constantly brings to bear his own creative research, based not only on archival data and information, but also on his personal impressions, garnered during his many trips to the cradles of civilisation. Testimony to humanity’s long history, the ruins of antiquity, the early Christian holy sites of Mount Athos and Meteora and, of course, the Holy Land, Jerusalem and everywhere linked with the name of Jesus Christ are all places that form a special part of the artist’s creative world. Everything he saw and drew at those sites - shrouded in myths and legends and described in countless tracts and investigations - have since formed an important part of his spiritual fate and the artist has dedicated dozens of his works to them. Among many such drawings and lithographs, there is one sheet that stands out, conveying the feelings and impressions of the artist as a witness to the sacred powers of inspiration found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The portrayal of this Christian holy site appears before the viewer as if from some unreal environment. For all the exactitude with which the architectural details and ensemble as a whole are re-created, the artist avoids presenting us with scenes of solemn liturgies or pilgrims and clerics. Instead, the church is presented to us in its own aura of mysterious and impenetrable spiritual beauty and greatness.

Zhelvakov often also turns to landscape painting in which yet another aspect of his talent is apparent. We can find this in both the fine colouring of his Russian landscapes as well as in the pieces inspired by trips to China, which are executed in a completely different colour range.

Coloured sheets that simultaneously represent with special acuteness a heroic or patriotic theme and a series of tragic events in our own time are presented at the exhibition in the form of an installation dedicated to the heroes and victims of the Budyonnovsk Hospital Hostage Crisis.

This retrospective exhibition of the works of Vyacheslav Zhelvakov gives us a convincing account of the artist’s loyalty to his calling, the breadth of his creative worldview, his dedication to the great traditions of world art and the gift for teaching that he inherited from his elder colleagues and mentors.

His art is possessed of independent style, aesthetic, philosophical insight and an openness to dialogue with its viewers.


  1. The Ilya Glazunov Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Moscow.
Mikhail Bulgakov. 1997. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov. 1997
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Autolithography. 57 × 53 cm
Chase. 2014. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Chase. 2014
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Pencil on paper. 32 × 32 cm
High priest Caiaphas, Yeshua. 2004. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
High priest Caiaphas, Yeshua. 2004
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mixed media. 32 × 32 cm (both)
Thunderstorm over Yerushaláyim, Centurion Ratkiller. 2004. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Thunderstorm over Yerushaláyim, Centurion Ratkiller. 2004
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mixed media. 32 × 32 cm (both)
Magical Skin Ointment. 2004. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Magical Skin Ointment. 2004
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Pencil on paper. 32 × 32 cm
Styopa Likhodeev. 2004. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Styopa Likhodeev. 2004
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Pencil on paper. 32 × 32 cm
Rendezvous of Margarita and Azazello in the Alexander Garden. 2015. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Rendezvous of Margarita and Azazello in the Alexander Garden. 2015
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Pencil on paper. 32 × 57 cm
Meeting of the Master and Margarita. 1997. Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Meeting of the Master and Margarita. 1997
Illustration to the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Autolithography. 32 × 57 cm
Corinthian Column. 1995. From the series “Fragments of Ancient Civilization”
Corinthian Column. 1995. From the series “Fragments of Ancient Civilization”.
Autolithography. 60 × 60 cm
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 2006. From the series “Hot Summer of 2006. Jerusalem”
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 2006. From the series “Hot Summer of 2006. Jerusalem”.
Pencil on paper. 80 × 60 cm
Sukharev Square. 2001
Sukharev Square. 2001
Pencil on paper. 60 × 63 cm
Master of Khitrov Market. 2001
Master of Khitrov Market. 2001
Pencil on paper. 60 × 63 cm





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