Pavel Nikonov: Moving Towards Freedom. REMEMBERING A MOMENTOUS EPOCH
On the eve of his 90th birthday, which will be marked in 2020 by a major exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, Pavel Nikonov (born 1930) looks back on nearly 70 years of his activity as an artist. From his involvement in crucial cultural events of the 1960s, including the confrontation with Khrushchev around the legendary 1962 Manezh exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists”, his participation in the progressive “Nine” group and his pioneering development of the “Severe Style”, through to the new artistic directions that followed his choice in the 1970s to spend much of his time in the village of Aleksino on the Volga, Nikonov has never ceased his creative explorations. He continues to move forward today in the most productive sense, a deeply original expressionist artist working within the traditions of figurative art.
Nikonov’s evolution in art has been far from linear. His first works, like his graduation piece “October" (1957) and the paintings “Fishermen" (1959), “Our Weekdays" (1960) and “Geologists" (1962), demonstrate the rapid development of the young artist. Moving beyond the art school rules in which he had been trained, he began searching for a new voice, one that would have greater resonance with the era in which he was living. The guidance of Alexander Deineka, an artist senior to him by a generation, was important: it was Deineka who bought Nikonov's “Fishermen" when it was first shown at a youth exhibition. But Nikonov's next painting, “Our Weekdays", which was painted with reference to the compositional structure of Deineka's “The Defence of Petrograd", left the elder artist perplexed. “It's strange - where did you get this German Expressionism from?" Deineka asked Nikonov. It is interesting that “Our Weekdays", viewed with some wariness when it was first shown, was soon accepted very differently - “already looking like a kind of classic", the art critic Vladimir Kostin noted in 1962. “Geologists", for many years Nikonov's most famous work, was accomplished in a completely different style. When it was shown at the 1962 show “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists" at the Manezh in Moscow, which evoked public controversy, not least from the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself who angrily attacked a number of the exhibiting artists, “Geologists" became a key target for criticism. Lacking any diverting subject and nobly restrained in its palette, the work marked a new stage in the artist's career.
Oil on canvas. 185 × 225 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Now held in the Department of Manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery, Nikonov’s notebook accompanied him over several decades of his life. The artist, then aged 31, took it with him for the first time on a geological expedition to the Eastern Sayan Mountains. Nikonov created “Geologists", which for many years has been on uninterrupted display at the Tretyakov Gallery, based on materials from that trip.
Nikonov recorded each day of the expedition, which lasted from June to October 1960, in his field diary (sadly, some pages have been lost): “2) Passed along the Iden. It starts at the lake. Lake at the mountain pass. Snow. Reindeer in the snow. We crossed the pass. Went along the Malaya Kishta. Waterfall at Kishta. Camping by the river. 3) Passing along the Kishta to Kazyr... Koshurnikov inscription. 4) Arrived at the fire, having passed along the Kazyr. Devil’s bridge. Chopped logs. Made an airfield. Continued on our way... Old camping spot by the river. The best. 5) Continued further into the heat. Passed over Vankin (on reindeer)... 6) Held up due to rain. 7) Crossed over a pass covered in firs. Majestic peak, saw a bear. 8) Reached camp. Tough." The process of how the new figurative imagery and form of the “Severe Style" came into existence can be appreciated from lines such as these. At times, Nikonov’s notes are interspersed with quick sketches.
Across 18 double-page spreads of his notebook, Nikonov gave a detailed synopsis of the meeting between Khrushchev and the creative intelligentsia that was held at the Kremlin on March 71963. The discussion concerned poets, writers, musicians, directors and artists. “You two [Golitsyn and I], stand up.’’ In the heat of the debate, Khrushchev had noticed that Pavel Nikonov and Illarion Golitsyn had applauded the poet Andrei Voznesensky.
Nikonov’s notebook ends with drawings and notes made during his trip in 1978 to the Far East: “16 [November]. Flying to camp... 19. Today I drew and painted. It was cold. Herding the reindeer. Tomorrow they will be slaughtered. 20. Today the slaughter began. Drew and painted a lot, but very scatty, a lot of impressions.’’ The trip came close to encountering serious problems: “December. 1) The plane did not arrive. Painted a hill. I froze. Waiting for tomorrow... 11) The plane did not arrive. I’m panicking. Sketched a lot and am pleased with the drawings. Will the helicopter come? Lord, help me!" There is a very personal tone to the way in which this journey to the Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM) was reflected in the artist’s diary sketches and works.
The decade of the 1960s was full of significant developments for Nikonov. It was during this period that the “Thaw" reached its peak, before the process of its reversal, the retreat from the progressive intentions with which it had started, duly began. After the opening of the exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists", as well as during the vigorous debates that followed that event at different levels of society, the visual arts came to occupy a central place in public life that was unprecedented for its time (and which has never been repeated since).
During this era, the individual quests of these young artists overlapped with the opening-up of a huge, hidden reserve of works of art from the first half of the 20th century that had been banned, and of which the new generation thus had no knowledge. Nikonov continued to work eagerly, the coincidence of these events stimulating in him a feeling that the direction of his art needed to be fundamentally readjusted. His experiments at this time alternated between seeking an ultimate painterly expression (“Meat", 1961) and creative reinvention of the traditions of primitivism (“Beer", “At the Butcher's", both 1968).
This period in Nikonov's biography is associated with the “Group of Nine" (often known simply as the “Nine"). Although a detailed history of the group remains to be written, it included at various times the painters Nikolai Andronov, Boris Birger, Vladimir Weisberg, Natalya Yegorshina, Mikhail Ivanov, Kirill Mordovin, and Mikhail and Pavel Nikonov, as well as the sculptor Leonid Berlin and the ceramicist Maria Favorskaya. Emerging as it did from within the Union of Artists, the “Nine" was a harbinger of renewal in Soviet art. Chronologically, this “Left-leaning MOSKh [Moscow Union of Artists]" preceded various of the phenomena that would emerge later in the sphere of non-conformist (“Other") art. After boldly making itself known in the early 1960s, the “Nine" later experienced internal tensions that were linked to its participants' need to find their individual creative expression.
For Nikonov, the 1970s and part of the 1980s marked a period of transition, as his large-scale works of the 1960s were replaced by small canvases and graphic works. The artist travelled a good deal and painted from life, trying to create a synthesis between his impressions from nature and the figurative traditions of the 20th century.
Nikonov first visited the village of Aleksino, near Kalyazin, in 1972; soon afterwards he bought a house there and settled down, building a studio. It was while working there at the end of the 1980s that he came to find the perspective and language that remain decisive for the artist to this day.
The “modern" period in the work of Pavel Nikonov, blessed as he has been with such exceptional creative longevity, is represented by large-scale canvases painted with a free brush. The expressiveness of his brush strokes and use of colour in simple, everyday subjects contain an entire cosmogony. In his mature years, the art of this master is filled with a keen sense of the flow of life, of existence at its purest level.
During preparations for the 2020 Tretyakov Gallery exhibition that will mark the 90th anniversary of his birth, Pavel Nikonov spoke with the “Tretyakov Gallery Magazine" about the past and the present, two centuries of art that he has both participated in and witnessed.
Your path as an artist has been associated at different stages with overcoming the limitations of routine artistic practice. What was the school or environment that influenced you in your student years?
We were taught that the main task of the painter was to paint a picture: such were the school's expectations. There was a specific method of working that was categorically imposed upon us. All the practices of the Institute were geared towards the student creating a painting. It was a way of getting us to collate material for the final piece.
In 1948 - I was still in art school then - the darkest, most obscurantist period, in my opinion, began, the period that marked the end of Stalin's life, the final years of his rule. It was then that the struggle with cosmopolitanism began, which in art meant a refusal to tolerate study-like pieces. The Museum of New Western Art was closed under the pretext of bourgeois influence, and in 1949 the Museum of Fine Arts began to house a museum of gifts to Stalin.
New people were joining the Surikov Institute. In 1953, the department of painting and composition was headed by [Fyodor] Nevezhin, who had previously been an active member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Artists. I remember once how [a tutor at the Institute, Pyotr] Pokarzhevsky was preparing the set-up for a model and asked for an object that would shade the whiteness of the body. One of the students handed him a black reedpipe, and the whole thing became almost a kind of Greek motif.
Right at that moment Nevezhin appeared and said: “What sort of ancient motif is this! What's this, Pok- arzhevsky, are you returning to your old allegiances? You know what we can do with...’’ Pokarzhevsky looked like he might be going to have a heart attack. That showed just how much the desire to look at anything other than the “Peredvizhniki" [Wanderers] had to be suppressed.
What was student art practice like then?
In the past, the Institute had a permanent base in Kozy, a stunning place in Crimea. I arrived too late to visit it, but I did see the works of other students who worked there because, when the Institute returned from its summer practical experience (under the leadership of Sergei Gerasimov), an exhibition was organized at Park Kultury.
I remember I did my practical experience in Vladimir and the surrounding area. Back then, Suzdal was an unspoiled but dilapidated ancient city. The Pokrovsky Monastery was occupied by the workhouse poor, with a colony of underage criminals in the St. Euthymius Monastery. We'd go, and we'd paint our studies. Everywhere there were amazing churches, incredible monuments! They'd gather us together and say: “No sketching!" I remember once, after we had arrived in Vladimir, they said, “This group will go to the Vladimir Tractor Factory, that one to ‘Avtopribor' [a factory manufacturing automotive parts]. And remember please, by the end of the practical experience, you must have finished paintings!" I remember painting one subject, an old foreman passing on his knowledge to his apprentices. The pictures were dark, the content strictly true to reality, which sometimes looked comical. Nonetheless, the compositional task, how to position the figures in the space, was quite a challenge.
Later I thought the focus on producing a picture was excessive, too driven. But the arrangement was right. Not everyone can create a painting. Some return to sketching. An artist can work across all genres.
How did you paint your graduate work and, later, your first paintings for exhibitions?
When it came to graduation from the Institute, they set us themes for the graduation work (not like today). It was 1956, the following year would be an anniversary, 40 years on from [the] October [Revolution]. Everyone was given the same theme: revolution. I painted my picture, defended my diploma, and the picture attracted attention. Then they gave me a work commission for a new one: “Off you go to Bratsk, and produce a piece on the theme of the [Great] Construction Projects of Communism." I did some sketches, then completed “Our Weekdays" and showed it to them. My next piece was “Geologists". The rhythm of my creative work was totally predetermined. It consisted in collecting material, returning home and preparing the stretcher; then I stretched the canvas, and painted my piece for the next exhibition.
Does working by commissions like that in some way emasculate the artist?
You have to acquire a lot of life experience, huge creative experience and pure craft experience. You have to paint, to observe, to see - a lot! And then the theme emerges of itself. You shouldn't have to force yourself to respond to any theme that is suggested from outside.
The initial period of my transition to independent creative exhibition work came to an end after “Geologists": that's how I see it.
Some of the drawings and watercolours that you did while on the geological expedition survive. They suggest you could have created a whole series of paintings from all that you saw, rather than just one painting.
Quite possibly. When I was travelling with the geologists, one of our guides was a man who had led the expedition for Alexander Koshurnikov, who died in the autumn of 1942. Where we were, the snow would already start falling by August. And when there is snow in the taiga, you depend on reindeer. Koshurnikov started to lose his deer. The guide refused to go any further into the taiga and insisted that they turn back. But that was not an option for the geologists - it was wartime, after all. So they carried on, and they all perished from hunger and cold. Back then in the Sayan Mountains, I experienced what it means to traverse the taiga. I felt the tragedy of those who came to be lost in the taiga.
So existential motifs were beginning to play their role even then?
Yes, that's right, I had begun thinking about it back then. When I painted “Geologists", they told me that I had drawn on the work of Alexander Drevin [a Latvian artist who in the 1920s and 1930s painted landscapes, frequently expressionist in style; he was arrested and executed during the Great Purge of 1938], whereas in fact, I did not know about him then. Drevin's exhibition came only later. I was thinking more of El Greco and the frescoes of Giotto. I was trying to get away from the materialized style, the realist vision. I wanted to create a scene with vast generalizations.
“Geologists” has an extraordinary story: it was shown, and much criticized at the exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists” in 1962-1963. What was its subsequent fate?
It was whilst the exhibition was still running that I was supposed to receive the final settlement of the fee. But as the picture had been so harshly criticized, they told me that if I agreed that the work was a “creative failure", I could hang on to the advance and keep the picture as well. Of course, I was happy to agree to that. So I wrote a statement saying that I requested my work be classed a “creative failure". They returned it to me.
I brought it back to my studio and removed the picture from the stretcher because I needed that, and the canvas, too. I was intending to pour boiling water over it to remove the paint.
And then use it for another painting?
Yes. And then at just that moment, Tair Salakhov came to see me in my studio and asked, “What are you doing?" “I'm just taking it off the frame to wash it off," I said. “Let me have it," he says. “What would you want it for? Okay, take it." Then he says, “I'll bring you a new canvas." I tell him, “There's no need. Just take it." Tair rolled the painting up, then towards morning he left. It got a bit damaged in the process: if you look at it carefully, you can still see the cracks.
Then he took it off to Baku, where at the time Pyotr Yelistratov was the Second Secretary of the Central Committee, a remarkable figure in our country's history. This was a man with just four years of school behind him, who had dreamed of becoming an artist. He served in the navy in the Far East. Then he was transferred elsewhere, on the instructions of the Party. And so his career proceeded in a completely different direction. But his passion for fine art stayed with him. Wherever they sent him, he did what he could to help artists.
What did Yelistratov do with your painting?
He always had it hanging on the wall of his dacha. Later, we [Salakhov and Nikonov] both travelled to visit him in Baku. I even have photographs somewhere.
And how did Korolev find out where the work was?
Tair told him, when [Yury] Korolev became director of the Tretyakov Gallery. By that time, Yelistratov had been transferred to Saransk. He didn't have a dacha there like the one in Baku, so he had nowhere to hang the picture... Meanwhile, Tair had become secretary of the Soviet
Union of Artists. He told Korolev that Yelistratov was looking after “Geologists". Then Korolev asked for it to be transferred to the Tretyakov Gallery. “Unfortunately, I won't be able to offer you good money for it," he said. Yelistratov replied, “I'm not after money." Korolev then paid him something for it. Yelistratov made it clear that he was giving him the picture on the condition that it would hang in the Tretyakov Gallery.
Your involvement with the “Nine”, the creative group of young artists, was a particularly interesting time in your life...
The first “Exhibition of Nine" was held in 1961 on Beg- ovaya, with the agreement of the Presidium: [Dementy] Shmarinov was head of the Moscow Union of Artists at the time. The exhibition was considered an internal Union affair, a kind of “closed" exhibition, because as an “open" exhibition it would never have been allowed.
What did “closed” mean, in reality?
It meant that admission to the exhibition was restricted to those who had a membership card of the Union of Artists. And it lasted only a single day, followed by a discussion.
But nothing turned out as expected. As soon as people found out that it was a closed exhibition, interest shot up a hundredfold. Lots of university students came, art critics and others, none of whom were members of the Union. Then a crush of people started, and eventually they broke through. The whole thing turned into a protest for the rights of artists to hold similar exhibitions. Whatever you might call them, closed exhibitions, “creative" exhibitions, artists should have the right to display whatever work they chose. Everything should be exhibited, and then everything could be critiqued. At the same time, they brought up the issue of changing the practice of how the all-Union exhibitions were held, and carrying out selection via open exhibition committees.
What were the results of all this?
The outcome was the same as it always was back then: the Party committee demanded that the exhibition be closed, and Party penalties followed. But it created a knock-on effect in other art circles! The non-conformist ones. They started holding exhibitions, in private apartments and in closed scientific institutes. My brother held one in the Institute of Hematology. The Kurchatov Institute held exhibitions, too: the idea came from the physicists themselves. All these shows came to an inept end for the authorities - they issued their bans, they called in the militia. There were scandals. In addition, the openings of these exhibitions were becoming more than just arts events; they were part of a more general conflict in society. And the final exhibition, the Bulldozer exhibition [in September 1974], led to the whole thing making the news in the West. Basically, the whole thing ended up as the complete opposite of how it had been supposed to.
Did the “Nine” group exhibitions continue?
They went on for a long while. But serious internal conflicts very soon began to affect the group as well. Various internal tensions arose. Kolya Andronov and Natasha Yegorshina matured as artists earlier than the others. Nikolai had travelled to the North, and at one of the group's exhibitions presented a very powerful series of his works from there. After that, he said that he was planning a solo show. And then he left the group. The “Nine" carried on right up until the 1970s but the later exhibitions were less interesting, whereas the initial exhibitions were really vital and strong.
What about the “Nine” exhibition at the Leningrad Union of Artists...?
Probably the most dramatic moment in the group's history was associated with that trip to Leningrad. It was in 1962, when the exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists" was already running in Moscow. Boris Birger had agreed a parallel exhibition with the Leningrad branch of the Union of Artists. When the exhibition opened at the Manezh [in Moscow], there was an immediate response, and people started talking about it. There were even queues to get in, quite a scandal. And in the context of this apparent success, we held our own exhibition in Leningrad. It was a pity that Leonid Berlin did not go, but sculpture was difficult to transport. Masha Favorskaya was not there, either.
It was an interesting exhibition. There were lots of people there, plenty of socializing and discussion. The Leningrad Union of Artists came. I particularly remember meeting [Nikolai] Akimov. Everything was so much more serious than in Moscow. There were artists there: [Yevsei] Moiseenko and all the well-known “five Leningrad artists", the sculptor [Mikhail] Anikushin, too. They were all really good people. I was trying to work it all out. It was all so very interesting and instructive. In any case, a lot became clear to me after that exhibition. We were euphoric about it. Akimov went to the exhibition and was looking around. I didn't know who he was at that point. He had a gloomy look about him. “Is this your work?" he asked. “Mine!" I answered proudly. He says, “You know, if you poked your finger at this work, it would push right through it." And then he left. “What does he mean?" I wondered. And then I understood. Because I felt inside me that there was something not quite right. It did not have any real depth, or fullness. As a piece of art, it was just a little bit raw. You really could give it a poke and your finger would go right through. He expressed it perfectly! It is one thing when someone tells you, “You're a formalist!" - you don't take the criticism on board. But when an artist, who has himself been accused of formalism - Akimov's theatrical performances, they were also criticized as being too formalistic... as an artist, he was incredible - when a person like that tells you, the words hit home.
You were one of those trying to re-establish the interrupted connection between the picturesque tradition of pre-war art and the wider context of world culture?
It was a hunger for information that drove us to pick up whatever we could, wherever we could. I received a medal at the 1957 [World] Festival [of Youth and Students] for my diploma painting “October". So we, the sculptor [Fyodor] Fiveisky and I, were awarded a trip to Europe. The planned itinerary started as quite a long one but ended up with them sending us to Czechoslovakia. What were we going to do there? Art later than the baroque? There was nothing worth seeing! Then Academician Laptev, who was with us on the trip, fell ill. They asked me to stay with him and help. At first we were living in a hotel, then in the apartment belonging to [Vaclav] Fiala, who was chairman of the Union of Artists in Czechoslovakia. I later worked out that he was married to [David] Burlyuk's sister. Anyway, I was clearing up the room one day and could see that the hoover was pushing up against something under the bed. I looked and saw piles of magazines; they turned out to be Russian emigre literature. I didn't leave the flat to go anywhere after that. It was only then that I learned about the artists Marc Chagall and Boris Grigoriev, who had emigrated, to say nothing about historical white emigre literature that looked at the entire story of the Civil War and the events of October 1917 from a completely different angle.
What else was decisive for you in the 1960s in discovering early 20th century art, the paintings of the 1920s and 1930s?
It was the moment when we first had the opportunity to view art from that period. An Englishwoman called Camilla Gray had written a book, “The Great Experiment", about the art of the avant-garde. And Camilla Gray was married to the artist Oleg Prokofiev, who studied at our school, so we knew him and were friends. It was through him that the book reached us. That was how we learned that there were entire closed vaults in the museums containing art that we had never seen in the original.
At that time, we were in close contact with [art historian] Myuda Yablonskaya. Myuda taught at Moscow University, was active at the Union of Artists, but, most importantly, was either an employee of the Tretyakov Gallery or had the opportunity to take people there. And although the reserve vaults were closed after the release of Camilla Gray's book, Myuda managed to pull some strings and arranged for us to visit. She accompanied us. This was an absolute revelation for us, of course, because it's one thing to have an approximate knowledge of various pieces from reproductions and quite another to see the originals with your own eyes.
The pictures were all laid out on roughly stacked wooden racks. And the gap between the racks was very narrow, so it wasn't possible to pull out the works fully. Yablonskaya moved the pictures around, and we looked at them. I will never forget the Mashkov portrait with the goiter! “Oh, what's that?" We would say, and she would pull the picture out a bit while part remained hidden from view. “And what's that? And this?" “There's Malevich." Imagine being able to see all that for the first time! And we were no longer young. This was in the years between 1965 and 1968. I mean, we'd seen reproductions, but only then were we seeing them with our own eyes. It was as if Einstein's theory of relativity already existed, but we were still back doing addition and subtraction. Of course, we felt really indignant. Why? What were the grounds for hiding these works? Why should anyone else decide for us what we should or should not see? Let us work it out for ourselves!
Which other artists were with you then?
Our “Nine": Kolya Andronov, his wife, Natasha Yeg- orshina, then Volodya Weisberg, Misha Ivanov and my brother.
Where else were you able to visit, who else did you meet in your search for this “Other” art, the one that didn’t follow the official line?
Mikhail Konchalovsky, the son of Pyotr Konchalovsky, took us to his studio on Sadovaya and showed us his father's “Jack of Diamonds" works. Then we met [Alexander] Tyshler. Then [Robert] Falk. I did not know Falk personally but Misha Ivanov and Volodya Weisberg managed to get to know him before he passed away, and there was a chance to show him our work. I only made a connection with the artist's widow [Angelina] Shekin- Krotova. She made a real effort with us, welcomed us to his studio and showed us Falk's works.
So it turned out that we were making connections not with our contemporaries, not even with the previous generation, but with older artists and their art, a still earlier generation. We gleaned everything we could from them. The professional art historians and theorists played a very important role, too. Mikhail Alpatov, Viktor Lazarev, Andrei Chegodaev, Dmitry Sarabyanov and Alexander Kamensky all took part in exhibition discussions.
Kamensky organized special “Thursdays", when we read Camus and Sartre and Roger Garaudy's “D'un Realisme sans rivages".
In short, we collected information in crumbs like this. There was so much to consider, so much rethinking to do.
It’s clear that the well-known exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists” was actually a key event in the rehabilitation of 1930s art. You have mentioned that, during preparations for the exhibition, young artists collected up the works of little-known, if not completely forgotten artists of the older generation.
That was Dementy Shmarinov's idea.
It was Shmarinov who suggested introducing a heritage section?
It was not about heritage as such... the whole thing was presented far more acutely. Shmarinov was proposing that we show the works of artists who had been right at the top of the Union. Over the years, the Union had been subjected to repeated purges, during the repression and the campaigns for purity in art. Shmarinov wanted to find those artists, and their canvases. Some of them were still alive, some had passed away. We volunteered to be his assistants. For example, it was Petya Smolin and I who first tracked down Boris Golopolosov, whose paintings are being exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery at the moment. That was in 1962. Golopolosov was a portrait artist, he painted using the dry brush technique. He was even surprised that we had found him. “Can it really be that you remember us?" he asked. Then he brought out several works and we took them with us.
It was not easy to follow Shmarinov's plan through, however. Not everyone supported the idea of putting paintings on show by artists who had in their time been expelled from the Union. Or even to return to the territory of art such masters whose work had been forbidden. And then at a general meeting of the exhibition committee, one group spoke out against this so-called “under-the-sofa art". It was literally what they called it, because the canvases we tracked down were usually pulled out from underneath a sofa. I remember [Konstantin] Istomin's pieces particularly. He had a friend [who kept his works: the artist had died in 1942], who lived on the outskirts of Moscow. We arrived at his place. The flat was very bare and he was sitting on the sofa. “Well, what do you want?" he asked. “Istomin," we said. “There you go, take it." And with that he lifted up the cover and pulled out a number of canvases from under the sofa.
Some were stored in rolls, others simply lying there unframed. We took whatever we thought could be restored and stretched.
How did you manage to convince those who were “categorically against” such an idea?
They put it to a vote, which they lost. They turned out to be in the minority. Then the losers left the exhibition committee in protest. That really marked the moment of a major rift. For the first and the last time, the visual arts were at the forefront of the “Thaw" movement of protest.
At about that same time, Solzhenitsyn's story [“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"] was published, and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize... The intelligentsia split right down the middle. And it was especially noticeable when Khrushchev held his two meetings with the creative intelligentsia. I was at both those meetings.
What do you remember?
Everything. You can't imagine how deep the rift was. It was so intense that it affected where people sat - who would agree to sit next to whom.
After Khrushchev visited the Manezh, and the communique was published, we immediately returned to Moscow from Leningrad.
Why were there two meetings with the creative intelligentsia, not one?
The nomenklatura really didn't like the first meeting at all. It came across as a triumph for those who were demanding an end to the senseless censorship, arguing for new solutions, new tactical approaches to the issues. The nomenklatura and the extreme reactionary portion of the creative intelligentsia were categorically opposed to change. And, since they were dissatisfied, a second meeting was planned. The first was in December. The second, in early March. And at the second meeting the atmosphere was pretty tense. It was held in the Sverdlov Hall at the Kremlin; there was no reception, no celebratory meal, nothing. I took a small notebook with me and decided to take notes. Larion Golitsyn was sitting next to me. He was scribbling something down, too. I was wearing a red shirt and Larion was wearing a red sweater. After the altercation with Voznesensky, the meeting took place in an atmosphere of crackdown. Everyone in the hall started to stomp their feet and hoot.
He [Khrushchev] went for Larion: “Who are you clapping?" Larion said, “If we aren't clapping you, what does that make us, enemies? I'm applauding the person I agree with." “We don't need your applause. Go on then, speak..." Larion: “Comrades, I was clapping Voznesensky because I like his poetry. And I'm not an agent for anybody - and never will be."
Did they call you to speak?
They were going to call on me next. But, then Furtseva [Yekaterina Furtseva, the then Soviet Minister of Culture] leant over and reminded us that an event was about to start at the Bolshoi Theatre: the women had already gathered. The meeting was held on the eve of International Women's Day, and Khrushchev would soon have to leave for the Bolshoi where he was supposed to be speaking. Then he read a report which was delivered in a very different tone. That was the beginning of the end of the “Thaw".
What happened next with your creative work?
After “Geologists" and everything that followed, I felt a sore lack of creative experience, most of all in solving even the simplest tasks in an independent manner. I felt like art school, with its academic study, was hanging over me all the time. It maintained a grip on me for a long, long time. I did not feel free. I realized that I had to recalibrate, find somewhere where I could re-define my foundations, because really, I loved working from life - but Moscow was just not my theme. That's when I discovered the village of Aleksino on the Volga. At that time, there was a general movement in which loads of artists left, either for the North or for other places. I settled, shut myself off and tried to find my own path. The whole process was extremely important to me because I still felt oppressed by the official doctrine.
But by the 1970s and early 1980s, that was much more relaxed, wasn’t it?
More relaxed? I would hardly say that. The Brezhnev era was a dead-end period. They call it the era of stagnation and that's precisely what it was. The intelligentsia could find no way out.
And then in the 1970s, you seemed to produce fewer works...
At that time, I had only just started the move and I was settling into the village. It was a period of crisis. Yes, I was painting from life, but at the same time I was looking for a way of dealing with a serious, problematic theme. That takes time. The task was to find my own vocabulary - and that's a real challenge.
With recent exhibitions, the term “new Nikonov” has been adopted to describe your creative work from recent decades. When did this “new” Nikonov emerge - towards the end of the 1980s?
It is a purely arbitrary term, but, yes, you are probably right. By that time, I had defined my personal principles as an artist - figurative, thematic and semantic.
In compositions of this period, the expressiveness of the figures sometimes carries over from the face to the plasticity of the body, and the environment. The figure is depicted as being in a totally integral relationship with its surroundings.
You know, when I first settled there, I arrived - the snow hadn't gone yet - we were just in a hurry to get there, and lived there right up until the first snow (from early Spring to early Winter). And when you sit and observe people, how they are dressed, how the entire old village lives - things have changed now - everything, the huts, nature, human figures, all of it is transformed into a single picture of symbols and signs. You perceive everything as if it were a still-life - the figure, the landscape, the house. Everything merges into a common source of fluidity.
Sometimes your works appear to highlight the tragedy and drama of a scene, even at a cost to the painting itself - the painting somehow elevates it all, clears it..
Yes, there are moments like that. There are the most extraordinary skies there, and it's quite a flat landscape, too. We live by the Volga so there are always clouds in the sky. And when you have the earth and the sky together like that, it's as if the human layer dis solves into it all - the earth and the sky, that's it, nothing more.
You have even started preparing your own paints, using natural pigments - there’s a direct connection with the earth there, too.
Yes, I collect pigments from the earth, mix the soil with yolk and create tempera. They don't produce egg tempera anymore, but it's great to work with. It's like using watercolours, only tempera has more density. You can apply it like oil, so it gives the opportunity to vary the stylistic approach, from a technical point of view.
And how do you see your most recent art has developed?
I used to limit my subject to village motifs, but not anymore. Now I try to solve more general problems, whether they concern subject matter, form or plasticity.
There seems to be an expansion of your view now, an increased perspective: it is there both in your large-format canvases and your smaller works.
I think that's true. With every year, I sense that I have more and more freedom. And nothing can be more important to an artist.
- Anna Dyakonitsyna spoke with Pavel Nikonov on April 24 2019.
- Gerchuk, Yury. “Haemorrhage at the Moscow Union of Artists, or Khrushchev in the Manezh”. Moscow, 2008. P. 57.
- The route of the geological expedition that Nikonov accompanied coincided with that taken by the famous expedition led by Alexander Koshurnikov, all of whose participants died in Autumn 1942.
- Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 4, item 3148, sheet 44. Published here for the first time. Names conform to standard spelling.
- Ibid. Sheet 21. Published here for the first time.
- Ibid. Sheet 44, 45. Published here for the first time.
- Ibid. Sheet 47, 48. Published here for the first time.
- Vaclav Fiala (1896-1980), Chairman of the “Hollar” Association of Czech Graphic Artists, 1956-1960.
- Nikonov may have confused here quite which items of red the two artists were wearing, the point being that Khrushchev reacted to them like a bull to a red rag. In his memoirs, Illarion Golitsyn wrote that Khrushchev did indeed respond to red: “‘There is an agent of imperialism, a bespectacled man in red.’ (I had a nice but not very red Polish shirt under my jacket.)” (Golitsyn, Illarion. ‘Now It's My Turn' // Gerchuk, Yury. “Haemorrhage at the Moscow Union of Artists, or Khrushchev in the Manezh”. Moscow, 2008. P. 279.
Photograph: Boris Sysoev
Oil on canvas. 50 × 40 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 280 × 300 сm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 214 × 248 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 170 × 290 cm
© Kasteyev Museum of Arts, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 4. Unit 3148
Oil on canvas. 120 × 189.5 cm.
© Deineka Picture Gallery, Kursk
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 4. Unit 3148
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 4. Unit 3148
Oil on canvas. 140 × 160 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 80 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 120 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 90 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 123 × 79 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 300 × 340 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Diptych. Oil on canvas. 200 × 150.5 cm (each part). Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 165 × 245 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 120 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Tempera, pastel, levkas on canvas mounted on cardboard. 58.5 × 85 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 110 × 130 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 126 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 149 × 180 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 70 × 100 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 100 × 80 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 180 × 500 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 107 × 105 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 90 × 110 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 110 × 130 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 110 × 105 cm. Property of the artist
Oil on canvas. 100 × 120 cm. Property of the artist
Photograph: Boris Sysoev