Mikhail Ivanovich Kurilko and the History of His Collection
It would not be an overstatement to say that my father Mikhail Ivanovich Kurilko (1880-1969) was a legendary person. Over the course of his long life full of various adventures and reversals of fortune he accomplished a great deal. And most essentially, although in terms of pure numbers his achievements in different fields of knowledge, art and science look fairly modest, the mark he left in each is tangible; his name was quite famous in the last century, and many gratefully remember him to this day.
His graduation work at the Academy of Fine Arts gained him a Gold Medal and an international travel fellowship. His series of works themed on the ordeals of the period around the Bolshevik revolution, too, comprises only a few pieces, but they are unique in terms of artistic insights into the tragic collisions of the time. Stagewise, Mikhail Kurilko produced at the Mariinsky Theatre Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, and repeated this production, to great acclaim, in 1926 at the Bolshoi Theatre; also at the Bolshoi, and at about the same time, he conceived and created a first modern ballet “The Red Poppy”, to a score by Reinhold Gliere. The production caused a sensation across the nation; many other Soviet theatre companies followed suit and staged the ballet. A theatre building he put up in Novosibirsk astonished with its size (the architect took out several patents on his pioneering inventions). This veritable palace was crowned by the biggest dome you could find anywhere — it had a diameter of 60 meters and, according to the design, should have served as a screen for public outdoor entertainment and big-scale outdoor theatrical productions. That was a theatre of the future which came into being ahead of its time.
Having taught for many years, Kurilko created an original method of teaching drawing skills.
A fine connoisseur of styles and a great expert at distinguishing works of art from frauds, Kurilko put together a small but unique-in-composition collection of antique objects. Forever loath to be called a “collector”, my father had only one name for himself: a gatherer. He believed that a collector was a person whose focus was forever confined to one single thing. You could collect lighters, ashtrays, clocks, dog-collars, etc. He would invariably bring up the same example: a very famous and talented choreographer committed himself to collecting porcelain tea-pots of the 18th-19th centuries. “Oh my God, how many fine tea sets he ruined over his life taking out tea-pots alone,” my father would say dolefully. He recognized and defended gathering as a pursuit that empowered an artist to appreciate the time, style, and beauty of any work of a certain time period.
Working in the theatre, I too tried to follow in the suit of my father, who was very knowledgeable about different stylistic trends of different eras, and could figure out how the whole object looked judging only from the design and structure of its leg.
Thus, passing time once in a clamorous and smoke-filled tearoom, he dropped his favourite smoking pipe and, inclining to pick it up, saw a curved leg with a tip shaped as a springy little hoof, typical for furniture style of the 17th-18th centuries. Such hoofed tips were common in tables and armchairs of that era. The remaining spots of oil paint crudely applied to the leg glimmered on the piece made of whole wood. It was not difficult to scratch the paint away with a knife to reveal the old mahogany. But the divan itself looked like a swollen beastly animal: the back-rest, the chintz-lined side cushions were shapelessly ugly with their straw padding. Having made a small slit on the side-frame, my father saw leather upholstery strewn all over with little heads of brass tacks. He had no trouble tucking the loose straw back into the hole and striking a deal with the tearoom owner, who was astonished by the offer. But when the divan was brought to St. Petersburg, it took my father a lot of time and labour to bring back into view the much anticipated divine proportions of the back-rest, arm-pads and side-rests punctured with tacks, and most essentially, to renovate the authentic antique leather.
An architectural exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1911 featured several furniture pieces. In a booklet devoted to this celebrated show, a section on furniture of the Peter I period features, on page 89, an image of a similar big divan, albeit with a damask upholstery of later origin and with an embedded seat cushion. The same page has an image of a unique armchair, upholstered with leather and featuring a leather cushion insert. All these items were from Mikhail Gorchakov’s collection. Both the Hermitage and the Museum of Peter I’s Little House at the Summer Garden contain divans, albeit without an original upholstery. Certainly, preserved leather needs special care. In Paris you can still come across old jars of grease for lubricating the folding leather tops of carriages. Fortunately, we have brown horse-smelling grease — a gift from Paris — to take care of the unique divan.
Yet another unique piece of furniture was discovered by father in a house in one of the old towns of the Russian North. The cabinet was built into a wall, and its Russian Northern origin made one wonder whether it could have once graced the interior of a wrecked ship? The legend might have had an air of mystery and beauty around it, but iron keylocks, hinges and decorative nails in this Western object disprove this suggestion. The entire exterior of the cabinet is adorned with carvings with a mirror-like design, dark veneer
alternating with light, producing a repetitive pattern of dark embossment against light-coloured background succeeding a section with light-coloured embossment against dark background and so on. On top, a date is clearly visible — 1787 — and the schematic representation of an escutcheon is flanked with the Latin letters LCCG.
The panels on the doors are flanked with corrugated golden trimmings and adorned with bicephalous eagles. The cabinet was coated with lacquer, by then much darker than originally. Presently the coat of lacquer has a rich honey colour.
Another unique cabinet, which served as a cupboard in our home, has a very unusual upper part. The painted base supports the low cookware closet, designed in an old Russian style, with mica panes instead of glass inside the door frames. You can come across low painted cookware closets every now and then, but how many of them have mica instead of glass?! My father passed this cabinet to the Museum of Boyars’ Everyday Life (a part of the History Museum), where it is held to this day. By the way, the Museum displays the exhibit without any indication that it was donated.
I would also want to mention another undoubtedly noteworthy piece of furniture. Many museums showcase German and Flemish ironing presses for table linen. The Dutch still-lifes feature the radiantly fresh sweet-scented whiteness of tautly folded and unfolded napkins, towels, table cloths, bed sheets. Prior to being put on display, all these linens, folded and ironed, were stacked in the bottom section of a buffet, under a screw press. This press has an original, unique structure. All the details and the decorative wood laminate on the doors and the flanks were designed by a skilled craftsman. The press was transformed from a household item into a high art object.
The treasures of the collection include chairs supposedly dating to the late 17th-early 18th centuries. They too were found in the Russian North during one of my father’s many trips. They have tall straight back-rests; the narrow seat cushions are flanked with embossments; and the seats are semi-soft. All of the carving, emulating Western patterns, is astonishing for a free sweep of the craft. The vertical bars of the back-rests, as well as the top and the stretchers between the legs are made of birch. They were once painted red, and faded traces of the paint are still visible here and there. Only in one of the four chairs are the vertical bars and legs made of oak. Of course, the original upholstery was replaced in the course of a very thorough renovation. The asymmetry and a relaxed design of the embossments lend a special charm to the objects.
The structure of numerous chairs featured in Alexei Zubov’s print “Peter I’s Wedding” somewhat resemble the structure of my father’s chairs. The chairs in the print look very much like the four chairs under discussion. The Russian Culture Department at the Hermitage, too, holds similar chairs.
My father believed that this unusual stool was very old, and he greatly treasured and jealously guarded it. But during the war half of the stool was used as fire wood. The two new legs, their structure, the concave seat lined with a very old Oriental rug call for a careful study, because the extremities of its carved legs made of very hard wood are exact replicas of the seats of thrones featured in icons. And the round cushion with tassels, with its diameter of 20 centimeters, fits the concave seat very well. My father’s stage sets for a production of Mussorgsky’s opera “Khovanshchina” featured precisely such stools. The lining made of an old rug and the wood provide a very good clue as to the time of origin of this mysterious object.
There is yet another literally and figuratively “sweet-scented” curio, brought by father from one of his trips. The rim of a barrel made of dark dense timber is girded with a carved inscription. It says: “Tsar's gauge from customs office in Byelozersk, and there is a heap to gauge”.
Father puzzled out the recondite Old Slavonic carved letters and the meaning of the phrase. The barrel was used to size up a batch of sun-dried whitebait. The barrel was filled up to the brim with the amazing little fish, sweet-scented and dried, and the odd pieces were cast aside. Another surprising aspect of the story was that this object, utterly unique in itself, preserved from wreck, inside its womb, three other antique objects — holy vessels, then subject to immediate destruction as were all church belongings. The magnificent, already decaying odd parts of church chandeliers perfectly fitted into the unique gauge-cum-container. Safe and sound in the barrel, the pieces valiantly sustained all the hardships on the way to Petrograd; once there, the items, seriously bent out of shape, were set right and became a notable complement to a collection of Russian interior design.
Now one of the chandeliers is held by our relatives, and another one is at the Golovanov Museum. Nikolai Golovanov was presented with the chandelier as a token of gratitude for his great conducting talent.
My father’s home, appointed in Russian style, was adorned with brass lamps and chandeliers. The solid hand-made screw fastenings, the type of cast molding itself and the special features of the forms provide a clue as to the time of origin.
The Russian collection includes two tables, which, however, were replicated many times over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. The authenticity of both the large and the small tables is confirmed by their structural features; a major renovation revealed the specifics of all their fastenings. Besides, the proportions of dark and light wood inlays on the table tops are very elegant, in contradistinction to newer add-ons where chiseled ornamental grooves across the oak tops are uncouth, and out of proportion with the tabletops. The side-leafs, when unfolded, make the table nearly twice as large. The form of the sliders and the marks of wear and tear on them, too, indicate the origination date of these most comfortable oak tables with a richly-hued exterior, while the proportions of all its parts confirm all of the above-mentioned characteristics.
Objects originating from the West seemed to complement the Russian-style design of the Petrograd lodging which combined a workshop and a living residence. Father probably brought them from his international travels after graduation from the Academy.
One thing is clear: these items were selected first and foremost due to the artistic articulateness of their forms — as exponents of certain styles and time periods. The snug little one-shelf cabinet was singled out by father because of its very specific adornment such as a carved figurine of the god of war Mars. The turn of his torso, the posture whereby the full weight of his body is being shifted to one leg — all this bespeaks a naive view of the traditions of antiquity expressed very originally and confidently. The walnut coating of the door and the semi-column, damaged by wood-borers and time, amounts to a long tale about things most important for an artist, such as the culture of evocative detail imbued with an awareness of the vicissitudes of time.
Look, for instance, at this traveler’s trunk with its leather-upholstered lid firmly secured in place with lacy brass strips which can sustain any vagaries of the road. Its frame of thin oak planks, which are also secured with lacy steel strips, is the fixture of a carriage; placed on the footboard, this “passenger” can accommodate many objects. “He” successfully continues to serve as a container to this day, enjoying a well-deserved rest in our home.
Two armchairs, these fine 16th-century objects, are august witnesses to a strict regime of life. The armchair must have belonged to a cardinal, for the stretcher beneath the seat is adorned with a carved relief imaging a cardinal’s head-dress with tassels.
The wide sweep of the armrests reminds us about the amplitude of the sitter’s vestment. It appears that during the life-time of this majestic throne the upholstery was replaced more than once. Similar surviving items with original upholstery are invariably leather-lined, so in the course of renovation the armchair’s seat and back-rest were upholstered with leather. Its trimmings — bronze fire- coloured golden cones as well as decorative heads of wrought iron tacks — are elegantly painted. The armchair lives and serves us thanks to its powerful frame of dense wood.
Another armchair is less majestic, more trim, so to say; it seems that it was made in Spain. Numerous recent add-ons speak of its troublesome life; El Escorial museum has similar armchairs on display. The bottoms of the legs and the carved board are not original; the renovation must have been made very long ago. The new tacks, the fabric, and the add-ons date to the 20th century. But the photo of the armchair was published in the “Sun of Russia” magazine in 1915. The picture features the artist Konstantin Makovsky, which suggests that after his death the armchair went up for sale, and was bought by Mikhail Kurilko at approximately the same period.
The typical Italian chest-“cassone”, with its proportions, menacing paws, caryatids and a roundelay of carving, witnessed many a household scene in Italy in the 15th-16th centuries.
All these astonishingly graceful and high-bred objects lift the spirits and convey the sense of time and the tenor of that life.
During his life as a gatherer of art objects, my father had very diverse experiences, and I will recount here only two episodes. An enthusiasm for old Russian icons that was sparked in the early 20th century could not leave my father unaffected. But this is a distinct and complicated story to tell — I will tell only two typical episodes, and spare the rest for another article.
During one of his trips Mikhail Kurilko saw an 18th-century church, started to ask local old-timers about it and learned that in the old days the site had been occupied by a very fine, albeit small, church building, which fell into decay.
Father tried to find out where the church accessories had gone, but to no avail. The new church was good-looking and had an air of wealth about it, but there was not a single trace of the old church. However, there were several old dark log buildings thereabout, piquing my father's interest. After very careful questioning and bold raids into one such huge vacant log home with darkened walls (it had once housed a school), my father, with great difficulty, searched its loft. At the very bottom of a pile of rubbish he discovered two very small decorative boards. On their obverse, under a dark layer of oil varnish and mud, the boards had barely visible traces of paints.
The value and impressive history of this find made my father donate this precious icon to a church in Tsarskoe Selo designed in an old Russian style by the architect Vladimir Pokrovsky.
Professor Alexander Krylov, an excellent teacher at the head of the church painting workshop at the Repin Institute, knows well about my father’s contribution to the design of this royal residence. The tragic upheavals of this town during wartime are well-known. This truly unique object was destroyed by war alongside everything else.
The mystery of an icon devoted to Archangel Michael, still unsolved, tells a great deal about father’s skills in addressing the complicated task of identifying the time of origin and the style of individual artefacts.
This icon, which my father could not even dream of owning, belonged before the Bolshevik revolution to a very rich gatherer who was greatly proud of it (his own considerable bulk seemed to highlight the size of his capital).
The Bolshevik revolution and the numerous ensuing tribulations dispersed the once closely-knit community of people with similar interests and aspirations. Different, earthlier concerns overwhelmed them. The same happened to the owner of the icon loved and hopelessly coveted by my father. Much later he ran into that fortunate and wealthy noble — an “oligarch”, as they say today. Father barely recognized him; the clothes hanging loose on his appreciably thinner frame, his face reflected absolutely every tinge of his inner pain. “All is lost,” gasped the erstwhile giant. “You were so eager to have this rarest of the rarities, so go ahead, take it as a keepsake to remind you about me.” The icon’s upper rim, heavily renovated, carried the remains of an inscription: “Church of Archangel Michael and re...”. The bottom rim was likewise destroyed and then reconstructed. But the image itself is in excellent condition, with very fine cracks and very thin paint with white spaces, serene red and serene blue. The emblematic representations of the saints’ visages and figures are largely similar to the well known artefacts from that honourable era. May I repeat again that while there is no modern research, the legend persists.
According to father’s words, many of the objects brought from his trips to provincial Russian cities or found at the Alexandrovsky market in St. Petersburg, and now dispersed among its new owners, once formed solid ensembles of interior decor. Embracing the informal dignified tradition of fitting together, in the design of an interior, most favoured and inspirational curiosities, father told me stories about his home at 15 Karpovka and enthusiastically reminisced about how this or that object was acquired. Arranged within a single space, these things formed a homely and vibrant living environment.
Father did not have a studio, so the proximity of all these wonderful objects invigorated and kept him in a working mood. The vivacious big flowers on a rug from Kursk, cross-stitched patterns on lambrequins over the doors and on an old screen served as an energizer keeping off dull routine. The austere and finely tuned beauty of the interior decor in old Russian style, on the contrary, disciplined and deterred you from spontaneous and ill-considered decisions. Father had a way of very touchingly complaining about his provincial roots and the difficulty of overcoming their influence. Living among the superbly crafted objects and checking himself against the beauty of their neat aristocratic shapes, he became noble and beautiful himself.
His sensitivity to the style and soul of an object is unmatched. These notes for me are a way to recall him, to say that, in gathering rarities, he did not simply enjoy them but could fathom their souls.
Detail. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
64 × 88 cm. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Etching on parchment. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
30 × 50 cm. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
47.5 × 59 cm. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Etching. 17 × 26 cm. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Colour etching from the original watercolour. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Pencil on paper. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Netherlands. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Italy. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection
Russia. Mikhail Kurilko’s collection