All Is New, and All Is Exciting!

Alexander Rozhin

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

Like many of his compatriots, the painter Nicolai Fechin (Feshin) (1881-1955), following the 1917 October revolution, emigrated from Russia. A similar fate awaited Konstantin Somov, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova, Marc Chagall, Yury Annenkov, David Burliuk and hundreds of other Russian artists, musicians, writers, actors and philosophers. Even as emigres, however, these people did not lose their connection with Russia's culture and traditions, remaining faithful to their historical roots throughout their lives.

An exhaustive monograph on Fechin, which brought together comprehensive material on the artist's diverse legacy, was recently published. Its author, Galina Tuluzakova, an art historian from Kazan, the artist's birthplace, is an absolutely dedicated expert on the outstanding painter, sculptor and graphic artist.

Like the spiritual and aesthetic content of his works, Fechin's talents, his artistic gifts, were inexhaustible. This is amply evident from the work of the renowned master's first biographer, Fechin's close friend Pyotr Dulsky, as well as from the articles and memoirs of the artist's pupils and contemporaries, the accounts and impressions of the sculptor Sergei Konenkov, the theatre director Alexei Popov, the art critic Pyotr Kornilov and painters Nikolai Nikonov and Pyotr Kotov. Among the published works on Fechin, Sophia Kaplanova's essay from the 1973 collection of documents, letters and memoirs devoted to the artist published in Leningrad, is likewise particularly worthy of note.

Fechin quickly found fame both at home and abroad, and was often compared with the greatest masters of European and Russian art of the early 20th century. A graduate of the Kazan Art School and the Higher Art School of the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts, Fechin studied under Ilya Repin. Fechin's "superlative technical skills in art" ensured that the painter received ample attention from the very beginning, Nikonov noted.

Every exhibition of Fechin's work has proved a memorable event — a voyage of discovery. The current display in the Engineering Wing of the Tretyakov Gallery is no different. In addition to works known to the Russian viewer, the exhibition includes paintings and sketches from private collections in the USA, never before shown in Russia. Among the initiators and organizers of the event is the Moscow collector and patron of the arts Andrei Filatov, a fervent admirer of Fechin's work.

The exhibition uncovers new facets and idiosyncrasies of the artist's unique talent. Yevgeny Katzman notes that Repin called Fechin the "best contemporary painter". As Fechin studied under Repin, he has always been considered a pupil of the great Russian artist, and Repin's influence is, indeed, obvious in Fechin's work. In my view however, the art of Vasily Surikov made a far greater impression on the painter. Yet neither was instrumental in forming and developing the young Fechin's novel views — views which encompassed not only the sensory aspect of producing an artistic image, but also the tools and technique necessary for creative endeavour.

Fechin has often been compared with Abram Arkhipov, Filipp Malyavin and Valentin Serov. Comparisons of Fechin's understanding of his creative task with that of Mikhail Vrubel are heard less frequently, although there is ample basis to back up such a view. In technique, plasticity, approach to colour and composition, Fechin's first independently created works show a certain affinity with those of Repin and Surikov. His images of his father are a good example. One of those presented at the Moscow exhibition is full of the force, boldness and energy characteristic of Surikov. Other works, such as the portraits of children, particularly those of the artist's daughter Eya, appear to paraphrase the "Girl with Peaches" and other similar, equally brilliant canvases by Serov. Tracing a similar pattern of light and shade and using similar colours, they appear to radiate inner light, openness to the world and a quiet sense of jubilation.

Fechin worked in many genres and forms of art. A virtuoso draftsman, he produced graphic art, book and magazine illustrations, sculpture and stage design, yet his true calling was undoubtedly painting. He devoted much energy to developing his own system of reproducing colour, perfecting his materials and preparing his prime coating to create pure, vibrant hues and avoid unnecessary patches of light. At the same time, the artist often said to his pupils that one needs to be able to draw in order to paint. Fechin's drawings show his constructive approach to composition, and to depicting the head and hands of his model. He creates an invisible carcass to ensure the sculptural, plastic quality of his images: thus, he is able to draw and paint that which is before him in the most convincing and lifelike manner.

Finding difficult, unusual angles from which to construct spatial projections, Fechin would depict objects from an unexpected perspective, offering the viewer the impression of being able to walk around the model as if it were a sculpture. Drawing this skill from meticulous study of the drawings of the Old Masters such as his beloved Holbein, Fechin integrated it seamlessly into his painting process.

Despite the diversity of his interests and of the genres with which he worked, Nicolai Fechin was first and foremost an inimitable master of the portrait. Paying due respect to his genre paintings such as "Woodworker's Workshop" and "Bearing Away the Bride" (known in Russia as "Cheremis Wedding"), both of which are at the exhibition, as well as to certain landscapes and still-lifes, the portraits not only dominate Fechin's legacy, but were also the ultimate expression of his unique talent. Among the artist's early works, often displayed at exhibitions of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) group exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as abroad, in Germany and France, the portraits always attracted the most attention from viewers and critics alike. In 1910s, Fechin's "Portrait of an Unknown Lady in Violet" received a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Munich.

His subsequent travels in Europe provided ample new impressions for his receptive nature, broadened his artistic vision and helped him develop a new perspective on his creative tasks. In Fechin's works from the 1890s and in certain later canvases, executed in thick strokes, with vigour and inner force, we still see the connection with the traditions and painting styles of Surikov and Repin; from the early 1910s the surface of Fechin's paintings, and indeed his entire artistic interpretation of the image took on new qualities. All but abandoning the traditional artist's tool of the brush, Fechin mostly used a palette knife, administering the paint in thin, diaphanous layers, thus lending the paintings a particularly airy, musical quality.

Fechin worked with the palette knife in the same way that a sculptor uses his chisel or modelling tool to create a three-dimensional form. In all probability the artist inherited this remarkable sense from his father, a woodcarver. Having left Russia and settled in his new home in Taos, New Mexico, in 1923 Fechin decided to decorate his house with wooden furniture which he nostalgically carved himself, to remind him of Russia and of his childhood.

To return to Fechin's portraiture one should state that pieces displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition are his masterpieces, and illuminate the evolution of the artist's creative process and technique. Fechin would always continue to experiment. He desired not originality for its own ends; nor did he attempt to follow the vagaries of fickle fashion. Fechin constantly sought his own unique style, his own system of coordinates. A well-known, distinctive and well-respected figure in the art world, his individuality was apparent in everything. He had a large circle of buyers and admirers, yet preferred to paint his family and close friends, frequently turning to the same sitter time and time again, thus producing portraits of remarkable psychological depth and exceptional expressivity. A true master when it came to rendering faces and hands, Fechin created convincing, true likenesses of his sitters, charged with an emotional sense of their feelings and traits of character.

This was particularly true when he painted people with whom he had a special bond, such as his pupil Nadezhda Sapozhnikova, his wife Alexandra, Varya Adoratskaya, the daughter of family friends, Natalya Krotova, the artist Pavel Benkov, with whom Fechin had taught at the Kazan Art School, Nikolai Yevreinov, author of the wonderful book "An Original on Portrait Painters (On the Problem of Subjectivism in Art)", David Burliuk and his wife Marussia, the wood engraver William G. Watt and, of course, his daughter Eya. Some of these works were created in Russia, and others appeared during Fechin's first years abroad, but all of them, regardless of the date of their creation and artistic technique, are imbued with Fechin's particular style and brimming with emotional content.

Comparing these works with portraits by Fechin's contemporaries, certain common traits are evident. In their approach to the inner world of the model, and in their psychological treatment of the sitter's disposition and fate, the Russian masters of the early 20th century shared a number of characteristics. Such similarity is clear when comparing, for instance, Leon Bakst's portrait of Sergei Diaghilev together with his nanny, and Fechin's likeness of David Burliuk sporting an earring. Although the first unfolds from right to left, and the second from left to right, Fechin's portrait mirrors the outlines and composition of Bakst's work created some 20 years earlier, in 1906. The similarity does not end there. The two artists were united not only in formal elements, but also in their attitudes towards the personality and artistic nature of their subjects. Both Diaghilev and Burliuk are shown demonstratively posing, exhibiting a sense of superiority and lordly self-consciousness. Fechin paid tremendous attention to the hands of his sitters. Burliuk's gestures speak volumes, revealing his self-satisfaction and pompous confidence. The two figures, however different, have been depicted with a similar approach.

The parallels between the models of Fechin and Serov are equally noteworthy, as is abundantly clear when comparing the portraits of women and children created by the two masters. Serov painted many portraits of members of the aristocracy and other eminent figures, created with pure genius and hailed as classics of Russian and world art in the artist's lifetime, among them his likenesses of Nicholas II, the Countess Orlova and Prince Felix Yusupov.

Working on portraying his sitters, Fechin was doubtless inspired by Serov's masterpieces, yet always strove to remain true to himself, following his own understanding and interpretation of his painterly and plastic tasks, and of how this or that image should be rendered. Despite some obvious similarities in composition and treatment of space, as well as in the use of striking poses, angles and accessories, Fechin's models came from a different social background to those of Serov. The portraits of his daughter's governess taking tea, of Mlle. Girmonde busy with her manicure, Nadezhda Sapozhnikova playing the piano, Madame Stimmel, and the artist's wife Alexandra by the mirror vividly recall many techniques used by Serov. Yet Fechin's sitters are different in nature. If Serov's portraits are filled with aristocratic elevation and stateliness, those by Fechin show people ennobled by their spirit rather than by their birth. The pomp and grandiosity of Serov's sitters, the marked splendour of their surroundings give way in Fechin's works to that peculiar poetic, musical quality that distinguishes the emotional tone of Fechin's images from that of portraits by the master he so admired. If in Serov's portraits the elements of the sitter's surroundings serve to highlight that figure's high standing, Fechin, on the contrary, impressionistically dissolves the settings, leaving only a few details to create a gentle, intimate, poetic atmosphere around his model. The statuesque quality of Serov's portraits is practically absent from Fechin's likenesses — the models of the latter could hardly aspire to grandeur. Nevertheless, Fechin's portraits are painted in such temperamental, dynamic strokes; they vibrate with such air and light, breathing inimitable charm. Again the painter's portrayal of hands is significant — they are a poignant tribute to the fragility of the women and young girls he depicted; an illustration, perhaps, of the vagaries of feminine nature and of the sitters' emotional states, captured in pure, singing tones. Fechin's portraits show the artist's keen psychological insight in capturing his sitters' moods. The same is true of his poignant self-portraits.

All such qualities can be observed in the portrait of the wood-engraver, shown for the first time in Moscow. However, the exhibition would not have provided a full picture of Fechin's diverse talent, had it not included some of his wonderful nude portraits, which recall the models of Renoir, Degas or Serebryakova. Fechin's still-lifes are also worthy of separate note - although few in number, they shine with the same true, unique light of his talent.

The exhibition includes a significant number of Fechin's works created in America. These show the evolution of Fechin's palette in his new surroundings: although he had to take into account the work of artists from the South West, who gave preference to historical and ethnographic images and themes, the painter nonetheless remained unique. Regardless of the art market or the whims and tastes of buyers and admirers, Fechin kept his independence of style. He knew how to please the public, working with the preferences of his potential clients in mind. The upkeep of his house in Taos and treatment for his lung condition — most probably, the official reason behind his move to America — required significant funds. Yet Fechin remained always a master of exceptional technical skill, whose level of professional culture came to be seen as a measure, a standard to be striven for in high art.

Nicolai Fechin lived and died a great artist with a truly Russian soul. Endowed with huge natural talent, he was an exceptional painter and draftsman, whose work has stood the test of time to take its well-deserved prominent place in the history of 20th-century art.


Images photographed by Vladimir Chernomashentsev,



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