VEHEMENT WISDOM OF THE INSPIRED. Nikolai Chernyshev and the “Makovets” Society
“We believe that the revival of art is possible only given strict continuity with the great masters of the past and the definitive resurrection of the living and eternal basis within art.
“Our art does not proceed from creative fantasies or only from the feeling of form, which is unavoidable for an artist. We value that sublime feeling that generates monumental art. We know that art becomes monumental only if the artist achieves a high degree of artistic skill...
“The time of elevated creativity will come when one needs unshakeable values, when, in the process of its endless development, art is revived and requires only the vehement wisdom of the inspired.”
‘Our Prologue’, “Makovets”.»*
One of the luminaries of the Russian visual arts, “the last of the Mohicans” as he was referred to by his contemporaries in the late 1960s, Nikolai Chernyshev lived a long life filled with great events and rich in artistic impressions. The beginning of the 20th century saw him move, with his family, from a remote region of the Russian Empire to Moscow. He displayed considerable enthusiasm for drawing, submitting his sketches for the entry examinations to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. When, to general surprise, he was accepted, he immersed himself passionately in his studies there.
As he himself described it, the crucial factor in his artistic development was the creation in 1921 in Moscow of the "Makovets" society (it was initially titled "Iskusstvo-Zhizn", or "Art Is Life"). Its activities in Russian artistic life of the 1920s are mainly associated with the name of Vasily Chekrygin: Chernyshev was engaged in all kinds of organizational initiatives involving the association, as archival documents and the diaries kept by his family record. He can be called one of the main "chroniclers" of the society from the moment of its formation to the end of its existence.
The members of "Makovets" were known for their striving towards an existential art, powerful synthesis and monumentally. Such concepts were fully represented in the works of Chekrygin and Chernyshev and also, to a lesser extent, in those of Alexander Shevchenko and Konstantin Istomin.
Attention should be paid to another artistic association that formed around the magazine "Mlechnyi Put'" (Milky Way), the first issue of which appeared in 1914. It was a predecessor of sorts of "Makovets", and Chernyshev was one of its most enthusiastic creators. By that time he had already graduated from the Moscow School, where he was taught by such outstanding masters as Valentin Serov, Abram Arkhipov and Konstantin Korovin. It was Korovin who highly praised a sketch for Chernyshev's graduate work "Abandoned Bench", and gave the young artist a parting message which remained with him throughout his life: "Paint more that which is here, in the street, in front of your eyes... Paint with all kinds of materials, try everything... It's better to live in a hole and endure hardships and find delight in your own art... Be aware of Faith, Hope and Charity and through all your hardships remember those three. If you forget a single one of them, it will be the end of you".
During the same period Chernyshev discovered the beauty of ancient Russian art, prompted by the lectures of the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, the art historian Vladimir Giatsintov and the archaeologist Alexander Golubtsov. The subject of ancient Russia, touched upon in the "Makovets" manifesto, later became an important part of Chernyshev's activities: he wrote a book "The Art of the Fresco in Ancient Russia" and created a number of paintings dedicated to masters of the ancient Russian visual arts.
In 1910 another milestone event in Chernyshev's life took place: through his portrait painting he earned enough money to visit Paris. "In Paris I simultaneously admired the work of Cezanne and Puvis de Chavannes, I copied works by Leonardo Da Vinci," he wrote in his diary.
A year after that, upon receiving the qualification of painter at the Moscow School, Chernyshev went to St. Petersburg to study at the Imperial Academy of Arts. He worked in the graphic workshop of Vasily Mathe, and studied monumental painting under Dmitry Kiplik... But Chernyshev's soul was in Moscow, with his associates who shared his devotion to "Mlecnhyi Put'".
It was intended as a monthly publication, not associated with any literary school and appealing mostly to talented young beginners in art and literature. The chief editor and publisher was the poet Alexei Chernyshev, Nikolai's elder brother. He not only invested all his income in the magazine - altruistically, with no expectation of profit - but put his whole soul into it, too.
Nikolai Chernyshev tried in every possible way to help his brother in the creation of the magazine. He proposed the title "Mlechnyi Put'", designed the cover of the first issue and wrote short stories under the pen name of "Omutov", or "O-ov". In collaboration with Matvei Dobrov and Nikolai Yanychenko he designed a cover and vignettes for the first five or six issues of 1914, the themes of which were based on the magazine's title. The publisher's emblem created by Viktor Bart for the earlier magazine would remain in use for the Makovets Society.
Critical essays published in the magazine revealed its aesthetic programme, some principles of which were later continued in that of Makovets, and it became a gathering place for a number of authors and artists who would subsequently join the later movement, including Alexei Chernyshev, Nikolai Livkin, Bart and Nikolai Chernyshev himself. The list of contributors to the magazine included the artists Nikolai Yanychenko, Ivan Skuye, Nikolai Tyrsa, Vadim Chernov, Mikhail Rodionov, Pyotr Lvov, Pavel Shillingovsky, Anton Yastrzhembsky, Mikhail Kurilko, the sculptor Stepan Erzya and others. With regard to the avant-garde art of the 1910s, the magazine's position was moderately critical, as is clear from its review of an exhibition of the "Bubnovy Valet" (Jack of Diamonds) association or a St. Petersburg show of Natalia Goncharova.
It was during his work for "Mlechnyi Put'" that Chernyshev realized for himself the main thing about the then - national Russian culture, namely the unity of all its facets and manifestations. The poet Alexander Blok wrote: "Russia is a young country and her culture is a synthesis. The Russian artist need not and should not be a narrow specialist. The writer should not forget the painter, the architect and musician; it is even more important for the writer of prose to remember the poet, and vice versa... In Russia, painting, music, prose and poetry are equally inseparable from one another... Word and idea become paint and edifice..." In this context the history of the association of artists and poets "Iskusstvo-Zhizn" (the future "Makovets") reveals the solidarity of different creative individuals, their close interconnections, and their pursuit of a shared cause, that of the revival of art.
The years 1911-1916 saw the appearance of Chernyshev's wonderful graphic series "A Mythological Alphabet": it was created especially for "Mlechnyi Put'" and closely related to the artist's poetical short stories that were published in its issues. Chernyshev's works of that period are characterized by their conscious orientation towards the past, which makes them partly similar to works of Passeism of the "Mir Iskusstva" (World of Art) association. Thus, his "Self-portrait" and the portrait of the poetess Maria Paper (both from 1915), as well as the portraits of the writer Knut Hamsun (1913) and the artist's brother Mikhail (1915), hint at the works of Hans Holbein.
Major historical events interrupted the path of Chernyshev's artistic exploration. The First World War, service on the Romanian Front, and time in a military hospital, where news of the victory of the Soviets reached him, as well as his design work for the first revolutionary celebrations, diverted him from his artistic work for some time. But by the late 1910s and early 1920s he had started to experiment with the techniques of Cubism and Futurism ("Still-life with a Red Bucket", 1919; "City", 1920; "Little Blue House", 1921; "Buildings and Trees", 1921).
The artist wrote in his diary: "Starting from 1918, while still in the Red Army, I became caught up in the French painting of the Shchukin Museum, which by that time was [open to the] public. For a period of time I was mainly under the influence of Picasso. As I began studying Picasso, I started a more profound and more professional process of research into painting. I abandoned my apprenticeship and immersed myself in joyful creation. I remember those days as a happy period in the course of my progress."
Returning to his artistic activities Chernyshev continued to search for a theme of his own. He made drawings of whatever caught his eye: he portrayed heart-wrenching scenes of war-devastated Moscow and homeless children, and made a series of sketches of the blind in an asylum. These laconic drawings have a distinctive acuity, without a single superfluous detail or note of humiliating pity. They embodied simplicity, clarity, precision. "In this way a series of drawings appeared, titled 'In the Streets of Moscow' (1917-1922), which contains tragic images of the city at the time of its Civil War devastation."
In the early 1920s Chernyshev worked a great deal at Isadora Duncan's studio: he was attracted by the gracefulness of the young dancers and the spirit of the modern age that they radiated. In Duncan's studio he found the image of contemporaneity envisioned in fragile youth - the beginning of life. It was then, at the turn of the 1910s and 1920s, first under the slogan "Iskussvto-Zhizn" (Art Is Life), that the artistic association that was soon renamed "Makovets" appeared.
Much of what "Makovets" proclaimed was close to Chernyshev's views and interests, to his eager engagement in direct observation, and his enthusiasm for monumental and ancient Russian art. The years of the society's existence would prove the time of the formation of his distinctive and recognizable style. The first issue of the magazine "Makovets" contained Chernyshev's graphic drawing of a thin young girl holding a twig. Despite the sketchiness of the drawing it is the first example of an image of a delicate youth that became typical of the "Chernyshev style".
"In 1923-1924 the first contours of my images emerged," the artist would write. "I enthusiastically started to draw young people in children's homes, at playgrounds and in summer camps, at industrial schools and youth technical centres, on parades and at Congresses of the Young Pioneers." In such a way the master discovered his theme - the 1920s and 1930s can be considered the time of Chernyshev's maturing as a creative individual: all the distinguishing characteristics that became the basis of his works were developed during that period.
The subject of the synthesis of art corresponded to the principles of "Makovets", and was uniquely implemented in Chernyshev's works. It is significant that one of his final unfinished paintings devoted to icon-painters was an image of Alypius of the Caves: his image of the figure who is traditionally acclaimed as the first icon-painter of Kievan Rus' was still on the artist's easel at the time of his death.
In this context it is worth remembering Chernyshev's travels to old Russian towns in the company of Sergei Gerasimov, Mikhail Rodionov and Matvei Dobrov; his books on fresco techniques; his essays about Alexander Ivanov, Andrei Rublev, the frescoes of Dionysius and the paints with which they were created; his creative interactions with Vladimir Favorsky and his research, together with Igor Grabar, into the Novgorod and Pskov churches, which had been destroyed by war, which became the first step in the process that led to their reconstruction. In short, the creative integrity of Nikolai Chernyshev was developed under the influence of the spiritual, moral, cultural and artistic aspirations proclaimed by "Makovets".
Once again, the origins of the graphic romanticism which is so typical of Chernyshev's works can be found in the "Makovets" programme. The theoretical objective of the society was based on development of the concept of "eternity", which meant reinforcement of timeless aesthetic and moral values. The society's creative activities simultaneously demonstrated a connection to nature and a yearning for the "transformation of nature", the desire to discover in random and ordinary things traces of a "beauty that is revealing itself but not revealed".
One of the special traits of Chernyshev's work was his passion for creating thematic variations, and his insistent return to a certain plastic image: the artist's search came through a process of trying numerous iterations of the same motif. In such cases, only certain nuances of the artistic image would change: for instance, one can see a strong continuity running from his painting "Flying Fluff" (1958), through its variant "Embracing the Whole World" (1962), and on to the painting "Paradise on Earth" (1970).
In the letter to his brother written on March 24 1960 on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Chernyshev said: "The seeds of the 'Mlechny Put'' and Makovets sown by you are sprouting and the harvest will come soon. These days you hardly can find a competent fine art expert who doesn't know about them. Though there are still some obscurantists and mudslingers who want to make a bugaboo out of it. But there are also those who see in them an unquenchable spark of profound art."
The ideal of "Makovets" was a realism that united the Russian school of art and European art principles - not a realism of everyday "small" things, exact description and naturalistic detail, but a spiritual realism blessed by beauty and the power of the human mind, a realism of lofty spiritual yearnings. One of Chernyshev's diary entries confirms this: "Beauty is something that raises the human spirit... Beauty is a rare thing, but it's natural. If it was distilled to a concentration, it would burn to ashes those mortals (who will see it). Isn't that the reason why beauty is dispersed around, and to notice it one should always be on the lookout". Such ideas remained with Chernyshev throughout all his creative life.
He distilled his artistic credo, too: "The task of my life is to find the connecting link between the tremendous heritage of ancient Russian art and the concerns of the present day. I don't mean a recreation of the old - the result of that would be stylization, something extinct, inorganic. Rather, I mean the creation of a living, harmonious art of modern times, that would be believed in by all people." Such was the ideal of "Makovets", and Nikolai Chernyshev dedicated his "life in art" to its implementation.
- Chernyshev family archive.
- They seem to call upon "people who are painfully hugged by daily routines and fettered to the ground by chains of hectic troubles and sufferings" to look up to where "the Milky Way shimmers serenely, reminding of eternal, immortal beauty". (Alexei Chernyshev, 'Entering the ranks of periodicals...' // "Mlechnyi Put'", 1914. No. 1. P.1.) The vignettes and images mostly feature solitary figures strolling in the moonlight, the "ocular" of the starry sky in a "crown" of clouds, graceful silhouettes, and outlines of slightly stylized animals and birds, delicate profiles of female heads, and the like.
- Ilyukhina, Yevgenia. "The Artistic Association 'Makovets'". // Makovets. 1922-1926. Collection of Materials on the History of the Association; Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 1994. P 8.
- Argos // "Mlechnyi Put'". 1914. No. 5. P 12.
- Cited from Alexander Blok, "Bereft of God, of inspiration" (Acmeist Guild). First published in: Collected Works "Contemporary Literature". Leningrad, 1925.
- "People's Artist of the RSFSR Nikolai Mikhailovich Chernyshev. 18851973". Moscow. 1978. P 30.
- "People's Artist of the RSFSR Nikolai Mikhailovich Chernyshev. 1885-1973". Exhibition catalogue. Compiled by L. Gromova and P Chernysheva. Moscow. 1990. P 12.
- "Makovets". 1922. No. 1. P 10.
- "People's Artist of the RSFSR Nikolai Mikhailovich Chernyshev. 1885-1973". Exhibition catalogue. Compiled by L. Gromova and P Chernysheva. Moscow. 1990.
- Vendelshtein, T.; Ilyukhina Y; and others. "Makovets 1922-1926. Collection of Materials on History of the Association". Moscow, 1994. P 12.
- Cited by Minina, Y; Chernysheva, P 'Chernyshev and His Magazine "Mlechnyi Put"' // "Delfis". 2011. No. 3. P 107.
- From Nikolai Chernyshev's diaries. // Chernyshev family archive.
- From Nikolai Chernyshev's diaries. // Chernyshev family archive.
Oil on canvas. 70 × 50 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Photograph. Archive of Nikolai Chernyshev’s family
22 × 15.5 cm. Archive of Nikolai Chernyshev’s family
24 × 19 cm. Archive of Nikolai Chernyshev’s family
21 × 16 cm. Archive of Nikolai Chernyshev’s family
22 × 18 cm. Archive of Nikolai Chernyshev’s family
Oil on canvas. 60 × 50 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 71.1 × 51.5 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 53 × 69 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Pencil on paper. 31 × 24 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Sketch. Oil on canvas. 57 × 68 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Oil on canvas. 95 × 56 cm. Private collection
Watercolour on paper. 22.5 × 32 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 97 × 71 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 42.3 × 35 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Oil on canvas. 64 × 102 cm. Nizhny Tagil Municipal Art Museum
Etching. 24 × 18.5 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Pencil on paper. 21 × 16.5 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Charcoal pencil on paper. 23 × 27.5 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Oil on canvas. 102 × 62.5 cm. Private collection
31.5 × 24.5 cm
5 × 4 cm. The publisher’s emblem of the “Makovets” magazine created for the “Mlechnyi Put'” magazine (used in the “Makovets” magazine)
Pencil on paper. Collection of the artist’s family
With a gift inscription to Nikolai Chernyshev. Charcoal pencil on paper. 27 × 20 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Charcoal pencil on paper. 22.5 × 32.5 cm. Collection of the artist’s family
Oil on canvas. 95.5 × 68.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 81 × 132 cm. Perm Art Gallery