Ilya Mashkov - Nikolai Zagrekov A Master and His Disciple

Olga Malkova

Magazine issue: 
#2 2011 (31)

The exhibition “A Master and His Disciple” opened at the Mashkov Fine Art Museum in Volgograd on June 10 2011. It charts the relationship between the Soviet master Ilya Mashkov, and his pupil Nikolai Zagrekov, who studied under Mashkov at Vkhutemas, the Arts and Crafts Workshops, from 1919 to 1921. Zagrekov went on to work and achieve fame in Germany, and the exhibition addresses points of comparison between the subsequent work of the “teacher” and the “pupil”.

All of Ilya Mashkov’s students developed their own original artistic individuality, created a unique world, in effect, a metaphor of a distinct worldview. Stunningly different from their teacher and disinclined to imitate him in details, they nevertheless inherited something seminally important - the determination to “be oneself”, along with respect for the artist’s craft and the tradition of painting. Russia and Germany — these two centres, two poles of cultural and political life in Europe — helped to form his unique creative individuality.

Different generations, different cultures and different life stories: Zagrekov, with the powerful dynamics of his compositional decisions, vigorous spatial swings, sharp foreshortenings, and keen anxiety reflective of the rhythms of the times, at first glance seems to be Mashkov’s direct opposite. Yet, comparing the oeuvre of these two artists, who were separated from one another by a generational divide and national borders, one realizes how much Zagrekov learned from his mentor during the short spell of his apprenticeship. The connections between the artists are varied, each having a different nature.

Zagrekov’s immense legacy — diverse, rich, reflecting the many sharp turns in the development of Russian and German cultures — includes a number of works that demonstrate his loyalty to the essential ideas and creative priorities found in Mashkov’s art. The majority of such works were created in the 1920s, and it is only reasonable to mention “the echo of Mashkov’s system”, a kind of a genetic link, a succession from teacher to student.

Zagrekov’s style is marked by what is commonly labelled as the “Jack of Diamonds” approach to painting, after the name of the famous group of Russian artists: the distinct treatment of models, preference given to easel painting, the choice of genres (landscape, portrait, still-life), a “mobile”, vibrant plane, the manner of moulding forms with colour, and polychrome rich brushwork. The full-blooded, complex artwork, vibrating colour spots, and the swinging intensity of the colour scheme are a metaphoric reflection of a richly nuanced life.

However, even those of Zagrekov’s paintings that seem to have little in common with Mashkov’s creative principles and to be a part of the context of German culture reveal a similar approach to painting. It is important to mark the surprising tenacity, and the vitality of the “Jack of Diamonds” traditions, which remained preserved in an utterly foreign cultural environment, conditioned to the greater extent to the humane ideas of perennial importance.

The influence of Mashkov’s art school can be most clearly seen in Zagrekov’s static, balanced compositions — his portraits and still-lifes such as “Pears and a Jug” (first half of the 1920s); “Cyclamens” (from the 1920s); “Fruits in a Vase on a Table” (from the 1920s); “Portrait of the Boxer Hans Breitenstroter” (1925); “Portrait of the Artist KlaBnitz” (1928); “Still-life with Oranges” (1930s); “Sunflowers” (1936). Many of his still-lifes are evocative of Cezanne in terms of the choice of subjects, composition, wide range of colours, and massive forms. Yet, his pieces combine emphatic voluminousness and a sense of heaviness and solidity with a tendency for textural diversity, the vital strength of growth, and the admiration for the beauty of what is painted — all these qualities, too, evoke the principles inherent in Mashkov’s art. This closeness shows itself in the balanced nature of the compositions, the emphatic weightiness of each object, the use of colour for the moulding of forms, the liveliness of the planes, and the overall “ornamentality” of the imagery. The still-lifes such as “Cyclamens” perhaps stand closer to Mashkov’s Abramtsevo series (“Black Cherry”, 1939).

Like Mashkov’s portraits, Zagrekov’s are not focused on the psychological depths of the sitters — the artist highlights just one aspect of the character important for him. Both artists appear sensitive most of all to the sitters’ will-power and physical attributes (“Portrait of My Wife”, 1928; “Female Athlete”, 1928). In intimate portraits Zagrekov combines a soft, complex visual language with crispness and clearness of form. These portraits — with respect to the palette — are close to the works of another “Jack of Diamonds” artist, Robert Falk. A scintillating surface, a colour composed of numerous tones, and one layer of paint showing from under another suggest a hidden life, a concealed strain.

Different approaches to space in Mashkov’s and Zagrekov’s art, as might be expected, make their respective landscapes look more dissimilar than their bodies of work in other genres. But even Zagrekov’s ascetic, non-figurative, explosively tragic pieces (“Ravine”, from the early 1920s; “Tree Crowns”, 1920s), with the least resemblance to Mashkov’s art, have a genetic streak of the “Jack of Diamonds” style: they are paintings with a lively plane, moulding of volume with colour, and diverse, uncontrolled brush- work comprising many hues and tones. The dashing, ornamental landscape “First Snow on the Fields” (from the 1930s), which seems to be closer to the works of the artists from the OST group (the Society of Easel Painters) than to the “Jack of Diamonds”, as well as the “Landscape with Poplars” (from the 1930s) and “Road” (1934), are distinguished by an unerring treatment of colour, apprehension of life through colour, and reliance on the classic tradition of painting. The same qualities, to some extent, distinguish the paintings embedded into a different aesthetics, such as new materiality, and art deco (“Female Athlete”). Even in his later pieces, made in the 1960s-1990s (“A Flower and Fruits on a Red Cloth”, 1983), a sophisticated, intricate treatment of colour and oil paints indicate that the principles passed on to the artist by his mentor were still important to him.

Nikolai Zagrekov’s most rich graphic legacy, which includes posters, magazine illustrations, portraits, and drawings from nature is very diverse in terms of style. Quite a few pieces seem to be influenced by such artists as Dmitry Kardovsky and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. A closeness to Mashkov’s art is probably nowhere better to be seen than in the portraits (“Head of a Gypsy Man”, 1927) and his nude drawings.

Both Mashkov and Zagrekov had superb drawing skills thanks to their great sensitivity to colour and keenness on the material qualities of nature. Yet, their graphic pieces have a painterly quality, such as the richness of tonal spots serving to recreate the lively, mercurial, material and palpable surfaces, and the diversity and mixing of techniques. Keen on the decorative side of art, the artists naturally preferred media producing velvety, rich, deep strokes: Mashkov employed charcoal and charcoal pencil (“A Sitting Female Model (View From the Back)”, from the late 1910s to early 1920s), while Zagrekov used red chalk, sanguine and charcoal (“Half-Naked Woman Holding a Flower”; “A Female Model”, both from 1927). For all that, Zagrekov’s and his teacher’s graphic pieces are very sculptural, even “corporal”. Throughout their lives both artists drew nude models, and these pieces, too, demonstrate the closeness between the two masters in the energy of strokes and love for complex angles emphasising bodily forms (Mashkov’s sketch “Female Model Sitting With Her Legs Crossed”, second half of the 1920s; Zagrekov’s drawing “Sitting Female Model Leaning on Her Hand”, from the 1920s).

Both Mashkov’s and Zagrekov’s graphic portraits can be roughly divided into two groups: pieces in a painterly, decorative vein (Mashkov’s “Portrait of a Girl With a Crimson Cap and Red Necktie”, 1922; Zagrekov’s “Head of a Gypsy Man”), and more restrained, austere pieces taking a shot at photographic likeness (Mashkov’s “Portrait of a Nurse M.M.Vinogradova,” 1942-1943; Zagrekov’s “Portrait of a Nurse”, from the 1930s).

The affinity between Zagrekov and Mashkov reaches beyond the lasting loyalty to the “Jack of Diamonds” artistic principles and is rooted in the two artists’ characters. For all the dissimilarity between Mashkov’s sociability and openness and Zagrekov’s restraint and taciturnity, the two shared in common great perseverance, resolution, independence, and extensiveness of creative effort. Both had a passionate temperament that was essential to their talent.

Their power of self-expression and the heightened energy of creative techniques arguably constitute the fundamentals of the connection between the works of these two very different artists. His visual language colourful, dashing and brusque, Zagrekov, with his frantic persuasion verging on aggression and his vigour, appears to have much likeness to his teachers, the founders of the “Jack of Diamonds” group. The definitude and articulacy of the imagery, and the clearness of the artist’s standpoint, along with a hypertrophy of visual language give him artistic kinship to Mashkov, this affinity invigorated by the elevated, non-prosaic, festive mood of his works. A heightened tone of Zagrekov’s and Mashkov’s artwork, bespeaking an intense living of life, shows itself in the tightness of forms.

Each of the artists was a master and a toiler. Arguably, the likeness between them lies in a tireless, persistent striving for perfection, in the abruptness and suddenness, for an outside observer, of their evolutionary turns. Both had an independent mind and self-confidence bordering on egocentrism. They knew how to fend for themselves, were practical, and had an exclusive ability to survive and to adapt themselves to the most difficult circumstances. Both lived within a rapidly changing cultural environment, in an age of dissonance, at a crossroads of cultures; however, the impact of all this on them both was different.

Ilya Mashkov remained a peasant’s son even after he settled in Moscow; fully equipped with his skills honed in the capital, he still had a strong accent both in his speech and in his most deeply held ideas about art. The language of primitivism, which was part of his nature, resurged every now and then throughout his long life as an artist. Despite that, when, in the 1930s after a long absence, he returned to his native village Mikhailovskaya, he turned out to be a stranger there.

Zagrekov’s pieces were clearly influenced by the Saratov school, and his style has echoes of symbolism, modernism, cubism, expressionism, new materiality, and the art of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Alexander Savinov, Ferdinand Hodler and Edvard Munch — all these strands interwoven with the “Jack of Diamonds” group’s creative principles. Zagrekov’s works of different years combine the boldness of the avant-garde and a sense of time with its riveting perspectives with “the art of museums”, sophisticated culture of colour, and an academic approach to form. For all the sharpness and, often, shocking value of his artistic self-expression, his loyalty to the principles of classic art remained unfailing. Having spent most of his life in Berlin and won acclaim as a German artist, Zagrekov, who spoke, wrote and thought in German, had his mind focused on Russia before his death, creating a landscape featuring a sand beach on the Volga river caressed by the rays of a setting sun.

Mashkov and Zagrekov realized their potential not only as artists but also as educators and active community leaders, which could not but have had an impact on their creative work. They wanted to be in demand, to have a strong say in cultural affairs. The eagerness to stay in step with the times drove them to address topical motifs and subjects, such as creating portraits of political leaders.

There are parallels to be found in the respective legacies of Mashkov and Zagrekov due to the certain similarity between the cultural contexts of Germany and the USSR in the 1930s — much has been written about the totalitarian similarities between German and Soviet culture. Portraits as representations of social types, stilted images of “masters of the earth” (Mashkov’s “A Woman From a Collective Farm with Pumpkins”, 1930; Zagrekov’s “The Mower”, 1938) are still marked by the artists’ creative priorities and distinct intonation. Energetically asserting the idiosyncratic ideas of the age and responding to the cultural demands of officialdom, these works carry meanings that are essential to the artists’ nature. The masters captured the great myths, illusions, anxieties and dramas of their era — not only and not so much in the narratives as in the undercurrents, “betraying” themselves through the strain and rigidity of forms overcome by a mortal numbness, heaviness of colour, and aggressive hypermateriality (Mashkov’s “Pioneer Girl With a Bugle”, 1933; Zagrekov’s “Peasant With a Prize-Winning Rabbit”, 1925).

But overall, their art has a different message to convey. For these artists, the ultimate meaning of art was in life itself with its diversity of feelings, colours, scents, and touches. Their outlook was optimistic and positive rather than otherwise.

Prominent features of both Mashkov’s and Zagrekov’s art, the cult of the material object and body and an emphatic materiality of vision are the manifestations of their confidence in the cardinal principles of the world order. Their art asserts the value of an object beyond symbolical meanings. Enthusiasm and admiration for the richness of the world were a part of the ethical foundation of the “Jack of Diamonds” approach.

Mashkov and Zagrekov were “maximalists”. Their maximalism showed itself in the public activities they relentlessly pursued throughout their careers, as well as their striving for universalism: they worked in monumental art and illustrated magazines; Mashkov realized his potential as an author, a historian of his native province, a builder of “the city of the future”; Zagrekov worked prolifically in poster art and advertising, and as an architect as well. Both artists exhibited a lot (as their time permitted), directed workshops of young artists, and educated many students. As a teacher Nikolai Zagrekov was without doubt guided by Mashkov’s set of educational principles.

Remarkably, both artists in old age focused on still-lifes with flowers (Mashkov’s “Bright Bunch of Flowers in a Clay Jug Against a Light Background”, 1936; Zagrekov’s “Flowers in a Vase” (1973), “Autumnal Flowers” (1978), “Dahlias” (1990)). The mining of this intimate, very personal vein of art, free of any demands that may be imposed by political officialdom, was most of all a purely painterly experimentation and remained a preserve of pure art — art harmonious, joyful, peaceable, and enlightened. Nikolai Zagrekov’s last work “Boats on a Beach” (1992) seems to convey a dream about return, about a safe haven.

Thus we see points of contact between two artistic universes embedded in different cultures and different countries and created by artists, each unique, belonging to different generations.

Zagrekov had an idiosyncratic sensitivity to the spirit of the times, of modernity which, it should be noted, was much more in tune with the ideas of most people than Mashkov’s “place-time” paradigm. Zagrekov’s 20th century has dashing, accelerated rhythms that draw into themselves space and matter. His style is distinguished by its dynamics, an energized sharpness of motion that produces the impression of speed, potent brushwork, and sweep betraying the artist’s inclination towards monumentality. Mashkov in most pieces ignores space, while in Zagrekov’s art space is usually the mainstay of imagery (“Winter Landscape”, 1946). Zagrekov’s compositions are less loaded, and his paintwork is lighter than that in Mashkov’s pieces, which creates an impression that a lot of physical effort was put into their creation and the paints were applied not without struggle. The teacher’s works have more excitement and passion, the student’s, more calm, sober observation. Mashkov appears more direct, open, sincere, generous, exuberant. Unlike Zagrekov’s, his vision of the world is rooted in the soil of the traditional consciousness.

These are but a few points of convergence of the trajectories of their creative evolutions — but there are quite many such points and they are quite meaningful.

Nikolai Zagrekov’s revisiting Russia’s cultural space is an important event: its significance lies in the fact of re-discovery of a fascinating, original artist whose life incorporated not only the history of his generation but also the ups-and-downs of the history of two countries. The master’s legacy testifies his close connection with the Russian painting tradition. The artworks he created at different moments of his long life all have echoes of Vkhutemas and Mashkov’s school, so what we have here is not just a set of techniques but a certain worldview and approach to the world and art.

The ultimate value of Ilya Mashkov’s and Nikolai Zagrekov’s art is in their capacity to convey freely and faithfully their existential experience and to recreate the living and grandiose universe with a painterly, non-literary, metaphorical language, capturing its very texture. They created art that reflects the most convoluted aspects of reality.





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