A Russian Artist Exhibited in Greece: "The Spheres of Light and the Stations of Darkness. The Art of Solomon Nikritin (1898-1965)"

Natalya Adaskina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2004 (05)


In the second task, they were successful. More than 300 works were presented at the exhibition - in total the catalogue has 336 exhibits - the major part of which was from the Kostakis collection. The major part of that collection had been donated to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1 977 by the collector himself, while another was acquired by the Greek government at the end of the 1990s, and became the foundation for the Saloniki Museum of Contemporary Art (SMCA). As a result, this museum effectively became the only government-funded museum of the Russian avant-garde in the world. The museum's officials, as well as its staff, consider research into and popularization of Russian art dating from the first third of the 20th century, as a mission, one which was passed on to them by Kostakis together with his collection.

Alongside exhibitions put together entirely from the museum's collection, SMCA's activities include a number of shows that put its resources alongside separate pieces acquired or lent from different galleries and museums. One of these was the retrospective solo-exhibition of Solomon Nikritin's art, consisting not only of works from the Kostakis collection and a few pieces from other sources, but also a large selection of works donated to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1975 by Nikritin's widow, D.I. Kazhdan. That donation was made possible through the initiative and remarkable intuition of A.M.Raihenstein, a member of the department of Soviet art at the Tretyakov Gallery.

However, there have already been attempts to complete the first task of the Saloniki museum - to acquaint the public with Solomon Nikritin's art. Since the Tretyakov gallery holds so many of the artist's works, in the early 1990s the gallery was trying to organize a solo- exhibition. Yet the Tretyakov Gallery had to delay their idea - given difficulties in publishing the catalogue, as well as an even more vital problem, the impossibility of showing the two main parts of the artist's work together. But ten years later, thanks to initiatives from the SMCA, it became possible to realize that original plan.

The project came to reality thanks to the efforts of an international team.

The creators of the catalogue were Maria Tsantsanoglou of the SMCA; Irina Leytes, Irina Lebedeva and Natalia Adaskina (of the Tretyakov Gallery); and John Boult, Charlotte Douglas and Nikolette Misler, Russian avant-garde experts from the US and Italy. Professor Boult was the editor-in-chief and coordinator of the publication. The catalogue includes several articles analyzing different aspects of Nikritin's art, texts written by the painter himself, alongside memoirs by Vladimir Kostin and Isa Berdichevski, who knew the artist personally, and other materials. The entire contents of the catalogue form the main idea behind the exhibition - a multi-faceted analysis of Nikritin's extensive artistic legacy. The same principle served as the background for the exhibition: it was based on the main artistic themes that unite material that is sometimes very similar, but often very different.

Solomon Nikritin is a very peculiar artist. There are painters who "open" new artistic horizons, and others - geniuses who literally "conclude" entire movements in art with their creativity, since it subsequently becomes pointless for others to continue in similar directions. Of course, too, there are also painters who work within the context of certain artistic tendencies of their time. Nikritin, however, does not belong to any of these categories. He cannot be called either a founder of any trend in art, nor a master who provides the denouement to a long creative quest; nor is Nikritin an ordinary member of any artistic movement. Nikritin is simply himself: he just does not belong to any known artistic "direction". His art is versatile, but not eclectic. Nikritin is truly original - that is his main characteristic, one which both explained the rejection of his art during the period of Socialist Realism, and determined its fate through his own lifetime and after his death.

What unifies Nikritin's art is his unique perception of the world, bringing together a sense of unity, and continuity, in everything - from the cosmic grandeur of the universe, to the history of mankind and the outreach of the human mind and psyche. Hence the artist's love for multi-piece graphic series on a particular theme, such as "Revolution", which creatively joins realistic images of the revolutionary period with - in some ways emblematic, but very lively - animal-characters (the British lion, the bear, and others), as well as fantasy illustrations that also carry a symbolical and allegoric meaning (such as, the peasant's bed).

This feeling of unity, with an accompanying eternal continuity of space, meanings and emotional states, is realized in a number of separate sketches on the same theme, including spirals, ovals, cobwebs and squares. These amorphous motifs seamlessly metamorphose into forms of imagery.

The SMCA attempted to reflect all these complicated processes in the exhibition. Its building was constructed more than a century ago as a Catholic monastery and was converted into a museum in the late 1990s; this gave an opportunity to place the works exhibited in seven different halls, and made it possible to separate thematic and plastic series in separate rooms. The hall with the graphic series "Revolution" looked especially spectacular: a scarlet wall, painted that colour especially for the exhibition, gives the series of rather small drawings with elements of the grotesque an extra emotional colour and sense of completeness. In the same way, Nikritin's series "War" and others were given their separate halls.

The SMCA had intended to group numerous sketches connected with one of Nikritin's few finished large paintings, "The Old and the New", around the main canvas in a separate hall. Unfortunately, that idea was not to be realized, since several vital pieces were not delivered to Saloniki, despite long and difficult negotiations on the part of the organizers. The paintings "The Old and the New” and ”A Woman in Red" should have been brought from the Nukus Museum, but were held up by the Uzbek government. Another painting belonging to the collector Igor Dychenko, "A Trip Around the World", was not allowed to leave Kiev by Ukrainian customs. The above works were supposed to act as centres - or nuclei - to collect various sketches and pieces related to them. The remaining large paintings created the necessary accents in a sea of smaller canvases and graphic artworks located in two of the museum's spacious halls. A very important point in Nikritin's art is that the same plastic and thematic ideas are presented in different ways, in different techniques. Therefore, it is of principal importance to put paintings together with graphic artworks in a complex, or context.

Nikritin is an artist of process, not result. For years he carried his ideas within himself, and developed them in various genres, including diary entries and plans, theoretical ideas, talks about his ideas and schematic drawings that followed the flow of his thought, and sketches and studies in both graphic techniques and painting. This is why both of his ways of expression are particularly interesting: whether it is the continuous "stream of consciousness" demonstrated in the drawings and miniature painted sketches, or the rarely completed works, in which the artist reached a conclusion of certain emotional tensions, thoughts and research on a definite theme.

Nikritin's best known, and more- or -less complete, painting is "The People's Trial" (1934). In this work, perhaps unintentionally, the artist expressed the atmosphere of consistent war between social classes and people themselves, as well as the inevitable human sacrifice to the governmental machine: all things that Nikritin had seen during the postrevolution years. The exhibition follows this theme by its representation of a natural opposition of opinions in "The Argument" (1930), then switches to the dark image of a tribunal, one ruling without giving the defendant a chance to speak, in "The People's Trial". The second most important finished work is the above- mentioned "The Old and the New" (1935): an entire catalogue article by Boult is devoted to the painting. Thanks to the efforts of Igor Savitsky the painting is in the collection of the Nukus Museum. In the painting, the artist came very close to his ideal: to sum up, in one work, different and even contrasting themes and symbols which were emotionally close to him for months or years. Thus the images of the young Komsomol (Communist league) members and construction workers depicted in the canvas are intertwined with that of a war cripple, and themes of eternal beauty as well as ancient art. To each of those special themes Nikritin devoted many years of work, investing considerable thought and feeling in them. These themes are all reflected in the series of drawings such as "War", with sporting figures, invalids and other elements. Nikritin's works represent the atrocities of both the First World War and the Russian Civil War. The motif of classical art can also be seen in all of his artwork; Nikritin tried to figure out the formula of beauty and ultimate mastery and grasp it in all possible ways by creating replicas of various famous artists' works, as well as drawing well-known sculptures, which took him years to complete.

Nikritin's art is quite unconventional in respect to its chronological parameters: in the early 1920s he created a number of experimental works. They were associated with his activities at the Moscow Museum of Artistic Culture, as well as some with experiments in theatre. Much of that theatre work is reviewed in several articles in the catalogue. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Nikritin devote himself mainly to landscape painting; his artwork from that period can be characterized by its very fine colour spectrum and liberal brushstrokes. In his brushwork, Nikritin could convey emotionally diverse yet always expressive impressions: a stream of people at a demonstration with banners held up high, the dynamics of cityscapes, or frightening images of screaming drunken women. Arguably Nikritin's brightest and most powerful achievement in this genre was the painting ”A Man and a Cloud” (from the late 1920s, in the collection of SMCA). In that colourful and very emotional canvas he transferred his own perception of the complicated and edgy relationship between man and the universe.

All sorts of themes, from birth and death to factory workshops with workers pushing machinery, were of interest to Nikritin. He managed to engage with all possible genres: his world of imagery was built on very varied stylistic trends, one of which was that of the grotesque. In that style the artist created an entire cycle of works that are all grouped around the picture ”A Trip Around the World” (from the mid-1920s, in the collection of Igor Dychenko, Kiev). In the series all the characters appear naive, ugly in their own gaucheness, yet still manage to generate our sympathy. Grotesque images on the theme of the monument are perceived in a very different way. In these works, the disagreeable-looking bodies and faces of people - and sometimes even monsters - that unite human and animal nature reflect the repulsiveness of the inner world of the characters depicted, and convey the artist's pessimism. Nikritin's unique surrealism, just like most other works of the artist, does not fit into any of the established frames of perception, and is derived directly from a very specific attitude towards the grisly sides of surrounding reality.

The self-portraits that Nikritin created throughout his life were a separate theme in the master's art. In them he could express his personality, his life- story as an artist and his fate. Nikritin's art is a challenge for researchers and critics alike: it is much easier to interpret the symbols and images of his art than to build a chronological table of his works and follow the logic of his artistic evolution, despite the existence of many archives and texts that have been available for analysis for some years. Even while working on the exhibition those involved in the project could not reach a final conclusion on a considerable number of very ambiguous questions. For example, nobody could provide an acceptable explanation of the name given to the artistic group founded by Nikritin, "Catio". The Russian participants of the project always believed that this name was of Latin origin, or at least should be written in Latin letters. However, their foreign colleagues could not figure out the etymology of the word either, thus suggesting that perhaps Nikritin creatively combined the letters from the Cyrillic alphabet with those from the Latin alphabet. Even seen in the perspective of this full and innovative exhibition, Nikritin remains a contradictory artist in very many different ways.

Solomon Nikritin. The Old and the New. 1935
The Old and the New. 1935
Oil on canvas. 119 by 105 cm
Study of the Painting “Farewell with the Dead”. 1920-e
Study of the Painting “Farewell with the Dead”. 1920s
Oil and varnish on cardboard. 23,8 by 30 cm
Solomon Nikritin. Journey around the World. Mid-1920s
Journey around the World. Mid-1920s
Oil on plywood. 47,7 by 59,7 cm
Solomon Nikritin. The Resurrection of the Registration Clerk. From series “Journey around the World”. 1924
The Resurrection of the Registration Clerk. From series “Journey around the World”. 1924
Gouache on paper. 43 by 36,2 cm
Solomon Nikritin. Composition on the theme of “Revolution”. No Support is Permissible to the Bourgeois Government. Mid-1920s
Composition on the theme of “Revolution”. No Support is Permissible to the Bourgeois Government. Mid-1920s
Pen and ink on paper. 13 by 18,3 cm
Solomon Nikritin. From the “Monument” series. 1930
From the “Monument” series. 1930
Crayon, ink on paper. 17,4 by 14,6 cm
Solomon Nikritin. Man and Cloud. Late 1920s
Man and Cloud. Late 1920s
Oil on cardboard mounted on canvas. 142,3 by 142,3 cm
Solomon Nikritin. Argument. 1930
Argument. 1930
Tempera, watercolour on paper. 30,3 by 21,7 cm
Solomon Nikritin. People’s Court. 1934
People’s Court. 1934
Oil on canvas. 143 by 142 cm





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