Efrem Zverkov. THE VIBRATION OF SILENCE
On the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Efrem Zverkov
An elevated relation to the world, delicate lyricism, poetry and a sense of nature’s harmony are all elements in the art of Efrem Zverkov (1921-2012). The artist’s creative path began during the years of Krushchev’s Thaw. The art of the Shestidesyatniki (the generation of the 1960s) is both an artistic and a cultural-historic phenomenon as the era’s leading painters undoubtedly reflected their personal perspective on the key moments of the period and were able to raise our country’s culture to new heights.
Changes in the social consciousness of the time acted as an impetus for a re-evaluation of the aesthetic principles of reality and an understanding that the old artistic forms had been exhausted. A process, in short, that involved a new figurative understanding of the world and changes in all forms of culture: music, cinema, theatre, literature and the fine arts. These dynamic processes were also occurring in painting. The centre of the new, young art was, to a large degree, Moscow. Numerous artistic groups strove to build a system for perceiving the world that would differ entirely from the previous one. The art of painting was suffused with brave ideas, the materiality of contemporary life, the energy of the images created, acuteness and freshness. In that complex cultural and historic context, the creative energy of Zverkov’s artistic personality was nurtured.
As a native of Tver Province, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, and a graduate of the Surikov Moscow State Art Institute, Zverkov was a genetic carrier of the nation’s mentality and an inheritor of its cultural traditions. In his landscapes from the 1950s, he gives life to a traditional system of spiritual values, portraying the commonality between the genesis of man and the universe itself. As well as being talented, ambitious and hardworking, his identity as an artist-intellectual that created an individual style shone through, even in his early works. Contemporaries called him the “founding father of the meditative landscape.”
One of the period’s most important achievements was a turn in the public conscience towards universal human values and national traditions, which signified a growth in self-awareness and the acquisition of historical memory.
The leaders of the art world in the 1960s, the Moscow painters Nikolai Andronov, Dmitry Zhilinsky, Efrem Zverkov, Viktor Ivanov, Gely Korzhev, Pavel Nikonov, Pyotr Ossovsky, Viktor Popkov and Tahir Salahov, all, to a great extent, belonged to one school of art, to a single cultural circle. Nonetheless, they all had their own individual creative paths. They all left behind the fundamental world view of Socialist Realism, with all its grand insincerity. Many of the members of this circle were to become the founders of the “Severe Style”, which exerted a powerful influence on Soviet art in the second half of the 20th century. No less important was the development of a Russian Impressionism orientated towards the art of the members of the Union of Russian Artists. Zverkov became one of them. He felt a kinship with the artistic and formal methods used by Impressionism to reflect the world. It is important to note the influence of Zverkov’s teachers in his formation as an Impressionism artist: Nikolai Borisov, a student of the great Ilya Repin; Boris Ioganson, who studied under Konstantin Korovin; and the outstanding Arkady Plastov, who had been personally acquainted with many of the members of the Union of Russian Artists.
Zverkov’s individuality blossomed during the process of creating his northern landscapes - from 1957 to 1969, he undertook six extended journeys to the Russian north. He was won over by the primordial beauty, vastness and grandeur of the the northern countryside, which nurtured a perception of space completely different from that inspired by Russia’s temperate zone, engendering an artistic renewal and a desire to portray its emotional expressivity. Openness to new impressions formed new artistic images in his consciousness - the large canvas “New Boat” (1961, Tretyakov Gallery) was painted working from plein air sketches. The foreground of this landscape painting is occupied by a large, newly built boat standing on trestles, gleaming and gold-tinted on the banks of the wide northern River Mezen, whose cold and dark waters stretch out to the far shore, severe and overgrown with forest. The landscape’s expressiveness is achieved by the large-scale treatment of space, the harmony of its forms, the unusual texture of the painted surface (applied in single strokes) and the sonority and special luminescence of the painting as a whole. Executed with harsh poetry and romanticism, the painting “New Boat” calls forth universally significant associations with renewal and the eternal movement of life.
The long, serious work of creating his northern landscapes played a special role in the oeuvre of an artist who was in the process of forming his own artistic style. At some stage in 1961, Arkady Plastov happened to drop by Zverkov’s workshop and, having looked attentively at the young artist’s northern landscapes, said “Efrem, congratulations, you have found your path!”
Zverkov’s deep sympathy with the nature of the north flowed into the creation of a major cycle of “pure” landscapes, into which he poured the romantic worldview called forth by his feeling of veneration and wonder before the power and primordiality of nature. We can agree here with Alexander Blok’s assertion that romanticism “never leaves our tongues and continues to disturb us”, causing “ideas of something elevated, of some sort of attitude to life that surpasses our everyday attitude and thus becomes festive.” The artist’s emotional perception was refracted in deep, synthetic images and his compositions were almost always constructed on multiple planes in large and glacial rhythms - as if the artist was literally capturing the whole massive space of earth and sky in his panoramic gaze. Zverkov’s work was innovative both in terms of its generality and in terms of its range of emotional characteristics, conceptual meanings and graphic intonations. Convincing demonstrations of this can be found in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in the form of his famous landscapes “Flood on the Vashka” (1965) and “Northern Spring” (1969). The countryside of the north in his paintings is a phenomenon founded on universal harmony, the sacred affinity between nature and man. In the 1960s, there was a surge of development in Russian landscape painting as a medium for the expression of society’s spiritual life, which gave it prominence as a genre. The creation of philosophical landscape paintings with epic resonance moved out into the foreground, thanks in large part to the multifaceted art of Zverkov. He opened up new perspectives for Russian Impressionism on the basis of his own, deeply individual artistic conception of time. In his works, the painter moved from the poetic expressivity of a motif to its associative properties, to the creation of a syncretic image of nature. Although ultimately a short interlude, the Thaw became an important landmark in the cultural and artistic history of our country. With the passing years, paintings from the period have taken on an all-encompassing significance.
Following his creative impulses, Zverkov tried to convey his inner poetic sensations and states more and more frequently in his landscapes. The moment of creation, composition and improvisation becomes more and more important within his creative process. In the following decades, Zverkov created a whole series of landscapes, captivating in their freshness, the fineness of their colouring and the lyricism of their mood, which were to reveal a new way of showing the countryside of Central Russia. By putting a piece of his soul into each of his paintings, the artist managed to achieve a psychological exegesis of natural images. His works are filled with harmony and silence, along with a delicately conveyed sense of sorrow.
In their book “Soviet Painting”, the well-known art historians Anatoly Paramonov and Svetlana Chervon- naya note that: “Zverkov discovers a unique beauty and poetry in the Russian landscapes of each of the four seasons. In his painting, there is no hint of triteness, as each work is permeated with the trembling agitation of the explorer.”
Zverkov achieved a uniquely spiritual portrayal of existence by depicting the surrounding world in its more complex states: tranquil early dawns, springtime twilights, autumn days with air left moist by the rain. Fog and humidity engender the most delicate and also the richest nuances of the artist’s palette, while simultaneously softening the contours of trees and buildings and conveying a special emotional state (“Summer Twilight” (1972) and “First Green Shoots” (1974) among others). Every landscape painting was transformed from a depiction of nature into an individual spiritual vision. People are absent from the artist’s works - he was convinced that the very image of nature was capable of wringing thoughts and feelings from an artist. The harmony, philosophical contemplation and spiritual tension of Zverkov’s works contain a wealth of feelings, thoughts, associations and metaphors (see “The Solitary Apple Tree” (1973) and “Silence” (1972) among other works).
The interpretation of images in Zverkov’s works from this period is deeply individual: the foreground is lightly and freely sketched out, as if the gaze passed over it and raced on to where the soft outlines of a river or contours of a forest show through. The overall impression is based on a true tonal construction and the harmonic combination of blots of colour of various intensities, managing to convey the impression of a rising morning mist or moist spring air. Zverkov’s lucid paintings, enriched by a complex system of nuances, half tones and inflections, depict a natural world that is imbued with light and air (see: “Autumn Time” (1970) and “Summer Twilight” (1972), among others).
The very rhythm of the brushstrokes in the artist’s paintings is musical and, with their help, the wonderful texture of the canvas becomes intrinsically valuable. In the famous piece “Slender Birches” (1971), the portrayal of the white-trunked birch trees shrouded in an ethereal cloud of just-budding green leaves, standing on their sun-filled hillock, is like a song about youth, vivid and delicate in its defenceless.
We think of Alexander Blok. For all the endless variety of motifs in Zverkov’s oeuvre, we can identify a certain emotional and romantic resonance (“Downpour” (1974), “Rainbow” (1974) and “Spring” (1975) among others). The artist’s enthusiasm for rare natural phenomena, complete with complex and contrasting lighting, is vividly illustrated in “Rainbow”, one of Zverkov’s most significant landscapes. Thanks to the sharpness of his gaze, he is able to create a spatially expressive composition and imbue with monumental character what is, at first glance, a familiar subject.
Exhibitions and the stock-taking they involve are, for any artist, the culmination of certain creative periods in their career. In 1975, at a large personal exhibition held in the halls of the Moscow Union of Artists (11, Kuznetsky Most), Zverkov emerged as a fully fledgedmaster, in possession of his own style, which was rightly given his name. The works he had created over a period of 20 years inspired a huge amount of interest. Art historians and journalists wrote about the artist’s work as “a significant phenomenon in the fine arts” and noted a special transparency in the silvery tones of Zverkov’s painting, as well as the “indescribable harmony and peacefulness” characteristic of his landscapes. Zverkov’s name became well-known, and he himself became a synonym for sincerity and lyricism in landscape painting, invited to participate in a great many exhibitions at home and abroad.
Contemporaries noted that, among landscaper painters of the lyrical tendency, “the best representatives in Russian art are Aleksei Gritsai, Nikolai Romadin, Efrem Zverkov and Boris Domashnikov.”
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Zverkov, now possessing all of the techniques of a master painter, reached a complexity of rhythmic convergence that created a sense of a certain changeability of space and a special musical vibration of the world. Immediacy born of the artist’s heightened powers of observation was combined with a clear, affirmative organisation of composition and an overall generalisation, while also facilitating a unique sense of melodiousness as, for example, we can see in the landscape “Golden Evening” (1995). The artist depicted the bank of the River Osyotr (located not far from Moscow) in that rare moment in nature when the sun’s last ray casts a golden light on the hushed earth and the motionless water of the river. The overall compositional logic of the piece is mirrored by the rhythm and direction of the structural brushstrokes. The surface of the water in the foreground is painted sweepingly, as if it were composed of light, while tensely rhythmic strokes are used to convey the extended stretch of the treeline, ablaze with the heat of autumn colours, and the multicoloured reflection of the bank in the clear river water. The pure blue sky of a warm, clear autumn day is delineated with barely perceptible strokes of the brush. The whole surface of the painting fuses the huge, coalescing planes of colour into one triumphant and sublime melody.
Zverkov’s art was constantly developing throughout his artistic career. He was blessed with an innate feeling for the processes of life, for its endless movement and renewal. Constantly perfecting his technique, he always went further, was constantly changing, with an energy that was owed, largely, to his own imagination. For Zverkov, modernity in art was revealed as the artist’s ability to see, feel and interpret the essence of his subject.
Zverkov’s oeuvre is multifaceted and diverse - he created a panoramic image of Russia. The inexpres sible, calm, shining purity of his landscapes, along with their delicate lyricism, inevitably leads to a philosophical understanding of life. Imbued as it is with thoughts on the elevated moral and ethical criteria of art, Zverkov’s work is notable not only for its lyricism, but also for something far deeper and broader. The historical significance of his work also lies in the manner in which his art acts as a bridge between the landscape painting of the 20th century and the art of the 21st century and its imperishable value lies in the fact that each new generation will interpret it in their own way.
- O. Nikulina, “Nature in the Eyes of the Artist: Issues in the Development of Contemporary Landscape Painting” [“Priroda glazami khudozhnika: Problemy razvitiya sovremennoy peizazhnoy zhivo- pisi”], 21 ill. (Moscow: Sovietsky Khudozhnik, 1982), p. 175
- Alexander Blok, “On Romanticism” [“O romantizme”] in: A. Blok. On Art [A. Blok. Ob iskusstve], (Moscow, 1980).
- A. Paramonov, S. Chervonnaya, “Soviet Painting” [“Sovetskaya Zhivopis’’’], ill., (Moscow: Prosveshcheniye, 1981), p. 247.
- Ibid, p. 246
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