NIKOLAI ANDRONOV TODAY
I have known Nikolai Andronov for as long as I have remembered myself as a professional art critic. When I was graduating from college, in December 1962, the famed show at the Manezh was taking place, with Andronov’s “Rafters” one of those works that especially impressed us at the huge exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the Moscow branch of the Artists’ Union. It was not that you understood or liked everything in the picture, but it left an indelible stamp on the memory.
The ensuing campaign of trashing waged in the newspapers and magazines and the echoes of dramatic clashes within the Artists’ Union made the painter, whom we did not yet know in person, something of a friend, almost one of us, because young people at the universities genuinely disliked the clique headed by Vladimir Serov (then the Artists’ Union chairman). As is well known, the clique made the “unrepentant” Andronov one of the main targets of their “unmaskings”, and succeeded in having him stripped of his Union membership. However, after a pause that does not seem long by today’s standards, Nikolai Andronov’s name started to come up again, in connection with the large-scale and stylistically daring monumental paintings which he accomplished in Moscow in partnership with Viktor Elkonin, Andrei Vasnetsov and, of course, Natalya Yegorshina. The artists formed a “Group of Seven” and arranged a group show, which too stirred a great deal of interest.
After that exhibition I got a chance to meet Andronov in person. In the late 1960s I started to participate in preparation and organization of young artists’ exhibitions at the Moscow branch of the Artists’ Union, where Nikolai Andronov was not only well known but influential as well. Still recently an “outcast” and a “formalist dabbler”, dubbed in such words by the unprogressive elder generations from the Nizhnyaya Maslovka studios, he was re-admitted to the Union without much noise and became one of the leaders of the Moscow artistic community along with artists such as Igor Popov and Boris Talberg. And at the young painters’ shows and at all sorts of controversial exhibitions he sometimes had a unique role to play.
Every exhibition had to be approved by specially assigned officials of the Communist Party and the municipal Culture Board, who took great bureaucratic pleasure in removing from the display so-called “controversial” pieces. Often their interference could deprive the inspected show of its most interesting exhibits. When that was the case, Andronov’s colleagues detached him to show the censors around the exhibition being prepared. Like nobody else, Andronov was capable of remitting their vigilance, erecting a palisade of arguments around them and thus rescuing for the public many outstanding pieces. Andronov was a very influential figure in matters concerning the management of the Moscow branch of the Artists’ Union. I remember very well how he succeeded in persuading the reluctant participants of a meeting to have Vladimir Yankilevsky admitted to the body. The meeting voted in favour of the applicant who was censured by “the powerful and the faithful”. At the same time, Nikolai Andronov was quickly developing as an artist, and the results of this evolution probably came as a surprise even to those who did not watch it closely.
Barely had colleagues become accustomed to the “austere style” and appreciated the mosaics and murals at the “Oktyabr” movie house and the “Pechora” cafe, when Nikolai Andronov, one of the pioneers of the movement that seemed to many of us innovative and promising, radically shifted the course of his explorations. What happened to him seemed a little strange and even somewhat “wrong”. Firstly, some of our critics, in their disapproval of the sugary style of Socialist Realist non-decorative paintings, claimed that Soviet art was capable of overcoming the afflictions inherited from the past if it injected topicality into monumental art and design.
Andronov, on the contrary, obviously favoured non-decorative art, especially in its fairly traditional Russian format, nearly forsaking large-size paintings — the kind of paintings with a straightforward, open style characteristic of its public message and enthusiasm that was a trademark of the first outings of the 1960s artists. Another important change in Andronov’s art, not quite understood at first, was the disappearance of the familiar hero. Gone was the “hard-boiled” worker whose energy of honest and pure making and doing was in sharp contrast to the spurious enthusiasm evinced by the human figures in the falsely cheerful paintings produced in the decade following the 1941-1945 war. Does it mean that the artist dismissed the challenges inherent in the human models featured in the “Rafters”, “Our Weekdays”, “Builders of the Bratsk Hydro-electric Power Station”, who, as Andronov put it once, looked demandingly straight into the eyes of the big bosses, be they the minister of culture or members of Politburo?
Only later did we understand that, to use the most accurate assessment provided by Lev Mochalov in his recent article (“Andronov. Yegorshina”. St. Petersburg, 2006), the change consisted in a re-consideration of the idealism of youth and hopes of the “thaw” period — the new worker figure of the rejuvenated art was to help to overhaul the reality of our “real Socialism”. Mochalov, a critic who knew Andronov well, correctly believed that the topic of “farewell”, which fascinated the artist in the period from 1965 to 1995, was his conceptual response to the romantic ardour and “futuristic intentions” (Mochalov) of the “Rafters” created at the turn of the 1960s. But the two versions of the “Rafters” were among the few big-size paintings that Andronov created after the Manezh show: the bulk of the pieces he produced during the last 30 years of his life are fairly modest in look and size genre paintings, portraits, and landscapes. In this new capacity as a creator of primarily nonutilitarian artwork Andronov showed himself off to the big crowds that visited his solo shows in 1977.
The shows featured an array of paintings inspired by the artist’s travels across the Russian North, Vologda and Kostroma regions, as well as his self-portraits, which captured the critics’ attention at once. One is tempted to interpret this shift in Andronov’s creative interests as a salutary escape from the persecution to which Khrushchev, Iliychev, Serov and others subjected the “leftist” youth, and as such an escape it would be perfectly understandable, especially since Andronov received his portion of blows from these politicians.
One can recall the experience of our art in the 1920s, when an artist hounded by the Bolshevik and Soviet bureaucrats could find relief in an internal immigration of sorts, immersing himself into the domain of the personal and the “politically unaffiliated” realm of nature, trying to warm himself on a mound of earth by a peasant’s hut in his home village... Maybe Andronov indeed needed to run away from the insulting falsehood of the Soviet rituals of political indoctrination and the big-city showcases of Communist prosperity. In fact, though, he ran away from things that he could no longer bring himself to view as real — to the reality of the authentic existence of his country and its people. He saw this authentic life in the environs of Kirillov and Soligalich, in Ferapontovo, which he came to see, over the years, as his spiritual homeland. What he found there was not so much oblivion or repose but purification by truth; it was not for nothing that his family portraits and self-portraits feature a rustic bathhouse. That was purification by that truth of life which the artist had the rare and unbending courage to confront, giving due to its intrinsic drama. The never-ending farewell ceremonies marking the departure of the healthy youths of this country for the ever-multiplying battlefields stand as a symbolic culmination of the drama of Russian life in Andronov’s paintings. As has been said, the images of the village folk saying goodbye to the freshly-recruited young men captured the artist for decades.
In the world of Andronov’s images the northern village stands as the heart of Russia. Those sagging, dilapidated wooden cabins. A deserted street with a disabled man limping along on crutches. Women who carry bucketfuls of water, take care of children and cattle and stand still at night by the doors, waiting. A few surviving cows and horses on grassy knolls and dogs of unknown origin barking at the moon. Even the local scenery is depicted by Andronov in a most matter-of-fact manner. This manner is always visible in the colours and tonal gradations of Andronov’s landscapes; in some cases it is under-scored even by the picture captions — for instance, “Pines Whose Branches Were Chopped in Order to Get Seeds from the Cones”. But for all that, what a world of unaffected and tangible harshness, what a scorching and untameable energy of existence, one that cannot be explained in words, seethes in his paintings. This energy has an equal in the vigour of Andronov’s visual repertoire where the brushstrokes of widely-varying configurations, compositional planes, splashes of colour, verticals, diagonals, contrasts of light and dark, and roseate, green, blue, blackish and golden hues of a uniformly ashy palette lock together.
That was the sort of style Adronov came up with when he recollected himself several years after the lashing by the champions of Socialist Realism. That was the sort of style the artist continued to hone from one show to another. In the last decade of Nikolai Andronov’s life, we all believed that he was incontestably one of the greatest masters of modern Russian visual art.
Moreover, he was also a fine teacher. His funeral service, in 1998, brought real sadness to all the students from his workshop at the Surikov Institute. As many remember, this tragic and truly public event took place concurrently with his big solo show which occupied an entire enfilade at the Academy of Arts.
However, as Lev Mochalov bitterly notes, today “in comparison with some other artists who were brought to the forefront of cultural life during the last two decades, Andronov ... was relegated to a remote and dark corner ... Which is not only unfair, but also unpractical in a very Russian manner” (op.cit., p. 6). This was written in 2006, and since then the situation has grown only worse, in my opinion. Especially now, with the international economic crisis underway, we have a growing number of people ready to struggle tooth and nail against the entire Soviet cultural heritage, to which nearly all of Andronov’s art belongs. Moreover, influential public figures say that a colloquy between the viewer and the picture (s)he beholds in a museum is no longer important and that what truly matters is only the mass communication of the public pivoted around artefacts of all kinds at modern art shows.
Following this logic, art within its classic dimensions, be it Andronov’s or anyone else’s art, exists in plusquamperfect (in the past perfect), or, to put it bluntly, is completely dead. I think this is the attitude of aggressive barbarianism. The fuss around artefacts? Leave the fussing to those who like it. But what should all other people do — those who like traditional museums, who paint and cannot live without painting, who enroll at our art colleges? And, finally, what will happen to Nikolai Andronov? I personally know quite a lot of people who are concerned about all this; I personally am concerned. Do we all belong to the past and are we not alive?
In the summer of 2009 an event took place in Moscow that inspires some hope in spite of all odds. I am talking about Andronov’s show organized by his daughter Masha at the Shchusev Museum of Architecture. Not only I, but all from Moscow artistic circles who came to the opening had an amazing feeling: we had never before shown so powerful an Andronov, even though the opening was attended by people who knew him quite well and loved him. The imagery described above and the world of the artist was now shown to us in forms singularly holistic and condensed. Held together, those plastic, spatial, compositional, and spiritual ties, hammered out by the artist’s entire creative and human experience, became even more visible. To put it differently, forsaking large-size paintings in the style of Manezh exhibitions, Nikolai Andronov, a monumental artist by nature, nevertheless continued for many years to create a grandiose super-painting — and ultimately this picture came about, pieced together from his numerous excellent works each of which was produced seemingly separately from the others.
The physical discreteness of these canvases, and in many cases quite small pictures on paper or cardboard was abrogated by the inner tenor of each of them. There are several points especially important in this regard: Andronov’s genre pieces, still-lifes, portraits — all of them well crafted — have their compositional pivot within themselves, and yet they, as a rule, seem open to the outer world. Potentially these images are ready “to step outside the frame” and look like natural components of easily-imaginable bigger spaces: a table and a human figure are part of the room; the inner space of a peasant’s hut is juxtaposed, in one way or another, to the natural environment outdoors; a fragmentary landscape can be easily visualized as a part of a panoramic landscape. In Andronov’s oeuvre, this superior integrating function is conferred on the large-scale landscapes with a lake, the sweep of a forest, the horizons beholden to a person who step by step climbs a hill...
Andronov assigns to depiction of windows a key role in collating intimate, domestic spaces and the realm of nature; here we notice the substantial expansion of the symbolical meanings contained in the collations of visuals and plastic forms offered up by the artist. From the top of a hill, we see huts nestled at the foot. Now, a closer focus. Let’s have a closer look at the windows. Zoom in! At that point we can already slip inside, see the family at a table and even Andronov himself. It is as if we go all the way from a landscape to a self-portrait, both in our minds and in the relevant series of Andronov’s pictures. Or in reverse: the view from the window offers the sight, not only of a close-by lakeside, but also of a pine wood on a distant hillock, and behind it, against the backdrop of towering sky, the white churches of a monastery. Viewers are bound to feel the connection between those who stand by the window in the hut, the “oikumena” of nature and these churches. Thus a new axis of meaning is born: a human being in the space of nature and in the space of culture. Or, rather, in the space-time, because humans in Andronov’s works always live in the “now”, while symbols of culture draw them and us into the depth of time.
This approach is vitally important for the artist. This is not to say, however, that he was the kind of person to rhapsodize about such things as Orthodoxy, some special Russian quality and Nationality. On the other hand, he would equally be the last person to underestimate our spiritual tradition: the religion-themed legends, folklore, old architectural landmarks — these churches that he painted so often and with such an ardour — as well as the memory of his favourite icon painter Dionysius, and the sublime images on the icons, and the icons’ colours, which he contemplated so intently both in museums and in peasants’ huts. Most essentially for Andronov, all this was not just particles of memory, but, to a great extent, the exertion of the soul and a test of the live human conscience.
The most burning issue that haunted the master throughout his work and self-sacrificing life was that of the fate of culture versus the fate of man within the Russian realities. Andronov never stopped contemplating over these painfully complex and disputable problems. Many self-portraits that Andronov created between the 1960s and his death in 1998 were pivoted around this subject. Just think of the toll it took on him! In each of his self-portraits — without a shadow of complementarity! — he appears to make a kind of a diagnosis for himself. And for us. And for our age. The portraits bear flawless resemblance, i.e. are very faithful, to the model. At the same time, they are distinguished by a rare psychological consistency as well as a generalizing typicality — in approximately the same sense as the images of Russian cultural figures painted by Vasily Perov, Ivan Kramskoy and Ilya Repin were typical. Although Andronov, as might be expected, plied his brush quite differently; if he had not, the paintings would have lacked connection to our age.
Alexander Herzen wrote an article “The Russian at the Rendezvous”. So it can be said about Andronov’s self-portraits that they image the Russian at the rendez-vous with his very own Soviet reality of the second half of the 20th century. Or it can be put even more accurately: some of Andronov’s self-portraits feature him with icons in the background. The paradox of these pieces is that they seem to be about the only Soviet paintings featuring a truly recognizable image of the Russian of the 1960s’ generation. Take Andronov’s “Self-portrait in a Museum”. The model, in a sweater patterned with crosses like the robe of a saint, is spiritually connected to the same soil that produced the old iconic imagery. And at the same time this man is a true sixties’ man who parted with the bright hopes of youth and survived the era of the CPSU General Secretaries, and came close to the verge of the new historical shift, which was to occur in the second half of the 1980s. “Self-portrait with Nikola” (Self-portrait with St. Nicholas) features the same man from the same generation and Nikolai Andronov himself, but the model seems to have already lived through the age of the political transformations. The image evinces the same powerful faith and force, but the wrinkles on the forehead of the sitting man are deep and his raised hands are stiffened in an agonizing twist: they either prop up the head or beseech the Divine Protector. All this speaks of the vast genuine being of our existence, akin to Andronov’s genuine, historic and contemporary images of Russia already mentioned above.
Another reason why Andronov’s super-painting fascinates and thrills the viewers so greatly is undoubtedly in the fact that it is suffused with the energy of the singular painterly enthusiasm and unique temperament, to which the pure techniques of the craft lend a special material and, if we may refer to it once again, symbolical cogency. As is well known, the artist worked with natural pigments, often mixing oil and tempera, or watercolour and gouache, with soil and mud from Ferapontovo, thus enhancing the quality of the elemental, geographic and historical authenticity of the form in the making. This truly fruitful focusing and exertion of all of the artist’s might and faculties created art that would endure the passage of time and withstand the entropy of values that we are experiencing nowadays.
Oil on fibreboard. 80 × 60 cm
Watercolour on rice paper. 56 × 45 cm
Oil on canvas. 202 × 251 cm
Mixed media on cardboard. 55 × 38.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 147 × 86 cm
Oil on canvas. 160 × 110 cm
Oil on canvas. 130 × 80 cm
Tempera on canvas. 51 × 63 cm
Oil on fibreboard. 41 × 32 cm