The Call of the Future

Tatiana Plastova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2012 (37)

Try not to live as a pretender,
But so to manage your affairs
That you are loved by wide expanses,
And hear the call of future years.

Boris Pasternak

For nearly 50 years the Chernyshev-Gorsky family has played a vital role in the Russian visual arts. In 1969 Dmitry Zhilinsky, a student and associate of Nikolai Chernyshev, painted "The Artist's Family. The Chernyshevs" (Russian Museum), and a year later "The Chernyshev Family" (Tretyakov Gallery), thus completing the family's image. He wrote of the works: "I imagined all the Chernyshevs walking in an autumnal forest. Nikolai Mikhailovich, in profile, against Antonina Alexandrovna, full-face; further on, young oak trees, branching out, and between them the trio: daughters Katerina and Natasha, and son-in-law Andrei Gorsky. To the left, grandson Kolenka hopping around like a grasshopper, daughter Polina to the right, behind the trees. The composition and the colour seem to have been decided. A golden autumnal background. Chernyshev in a light-coloured raincoat, nearly weightless. Behind him, Antonina Alexandrovna, serious and close to the earth, stands quietly, holding a bunch of autumnal flowers. He is narrow and light-coloured — an incarnation of spirit; she is wide, quiet, beautiful — his support."1 Many years later, in the picture "Paths of Childhood" by Nikolai Chernyshev's grandson Nikolai Gorsky-Chernyshev, this chain of times would be looped back: the boy (Kolenka from the Zhilinsky painting) running along the road to a church and Nikolai and Antonina, supporting each other as they walk behind him, embody that continuous, endless road of spiritual quest which the members of this admirable Russian family have been treading for a century.

Nikolai Chernyshev is rightly considered one of the prominent figures of Russian culture of the 20th century — as a painter, graphic artist, muralist, teacher, researcher, and most importantly someone who kept alive the honour and dignity of Russian art during the most dark and dramatic periods.

Educated in the traditions of the Russian art school, and heir to its legacy, Chernyshev had grateful memories about his teachers — Abram Arkhipov, Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov. "Valentin Alexandrovich Serov was one of the late peredvizhniki [Wanderers], but he introduced to his students the group's finest precepts formed during its most fruitful years.

The precepts of Russian great artists such as Ghe, Repin, Surikov, Vasnetsov, Kramskoi ... Ryabushkin, Sergei Korovin, Nesterov... I personally appreciated the importance of their precepts thanks to Serov's teaching... Serov demanded from his students an impeccably polite and virginal attitude to sitters. I remember him saying repeatedly: 'There is nothing more beautiful in the world than a woman's naked body'. Serov also demanded an absolute likeness to reality, 'so that it would be the reality, not its sister', and a portrait-like similarity between the painted figure and the sitter's body, ' must look similar without the head'."2

These lessons were brilliantly applied by Nikolai Chernyshev in his art. In an age dominated by abstract down-to-earth or pragmatically athletic images in the vein of "Soviet Venus", the virginal vulnerable femininity of his young sitters, and the lively lineaments in his drawings and finished compositions marked a loyalty to altogether different ideals.

A milestone in the artist's development was his journey to Paris in 1910. He took classes at the private Academie Julian, studied the art of old masters at the Louvre, and visited an exhibition of the Impressionists arranged by Paul Durand-Ruel. But he was particularly impressed by the works of Paul Cezanne and Puvis de Chavannes. Cezanne, that unmatched teacher of form for many Russian painters, eclipsed much of what was happening in the fascinating and diverse artistic life in Paris for the young artist.

"I saw 26 pieces by Cezanne and, so it seemed, divined his secret from the colour scheme of his self-portrait. An unusual sharpness of vision astonishes you, and the ruthless austerity of colour, the lively, synthetic French types stare at you from the pieces of canvas."3

Puvis de Chavannes's frescoes were another very important discovery Nikolai Chernyshev had to make. "I cannot get enough of Puvis de Chavannes's frescoes. If I owe to anyone a debt for my development, it is Puvis. Today I saw his fresco4 at the Sorbonne. My eyes were fastened on the monumental, heavenly painting. I noted to myself the secrets of its charm: the sketch-iness of his composition, and his repetitiveness of poses, which strengthened the impact. I studied well his light-coloured, pearly palette, whose allure consisted in the arrangement of mutually complementing tones."5 The visual language and spiritual essence of another of Chavannes's works, "The Poor Fisherman", at the Musee du Luxembourg, enraptured the young artist: "Looking at the fisherman's face, I see Christ. This is a true agony in the garden, I thought, remembering Rembrandt's 'Christ at Emmaus'."6

These discoveries made by the 25-year-old artist had a significant impact on his further life in art: Puvis de Chavannes's symbolism, the allegorical nature of his images, his colour design and compositional structure of the paintings would find a way into Chernyshev's artwork. This was the source of his special "fresco-like" quality, the original visual language of his art, and perhaps of scholarly interest to fresco art in general.

Chernyshev graduated from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1911 and received the title of artist, after which he moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied etching at Vasily Mathe's workshop and techniques of monumental painting at Dmitry Kiplik's decorative art workshop, all at the Academy of Fine Arts.

In the mid-1910s the artist worked for a Moscow-based magazine "Mlechny Put" (Milky Way) published and edited by his brother, A.M. Chernyshev: writing articles and critical reviews, he was also an art director there. At the same time he was creating graphic pieces of a "mythological alphabet" — interpretations of mythical allegories, symbolical images of letters.

By the early 1920s the artist was again in thrall to French painting, which was by then accessible at the Shchukin Museum. During this period of fascination with Picasso and a short but meaningful engagement with cubism he carefully studied form in painting: "As I studied Picasso, I developed a more profound and professional judgement in matters of painting. There was a total break with the learning period, now it was on to joyful creation."7

His life in art during the first years after the Bolshevik revolution appears to have been quite successful: he was surrounded by like-minded artists, such as Sergei Gerasimov, Pavel Kuznetsov, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Shevchenko and Vasily Chekrygin. He participated in exhibitions, contributed to publications of lithographs, and created designs for revolutionary festivities. His works of the period ("Self-portrait against a Red Background", 1920; "Rosy Still-life", 1921; "Venus", 1918) reflect the stylistic experimentations of the age and fit well within its artistic context. But the music of revolution and the romantic spirit of destruction and creation did not become central to his art. Even local red colour in Chernyshev's works of that period ("Red City", "Pioneer Girl", "Duncanshas"), which looks like a natural feature (a spot or a highlight), is more of an objective statement rather than an exultant declaration.

"It took a while for my creative personality to form. The search for my theme was an agony," he remembered. "Observing and sketching homeless children, the humiliated, the dispossessed in a shelter for the blind. And only in 1923-1924 did the contours of my images begin to take shape... By that time I was clear about my preferred genre: teenage girls full of the charm of the age of transition from childhood to early adulthood, full of strictness, chastity and grace (rivalling that of the ancients), but still unaware oftheir beauty..."8

From that moment on, the poetry of ideal images beyond one's reach, seen through the lens of the forms of international art, would become the backbone of Chernyshev's works. His young female models — female dancers from Isadora Duncan's ballet school, pioneer girls, girls bathing — evoke the poetic spirit of the Greek myths, the visual language of Botticelli, and the symbolism of Puvis de Chavannes.

"The insatiable delight, platonic, pure, boundless. The myths coming alive — the maiden tied with the belt of Aphrodite and unaware of her beauty. The abduction of Persephone. Spring is Persephone. She does not come to the Earth but quickly walks across it. Enraptured with the gifts of spring, we do not immediately notice her departure."9

The early 1920s witnessed an important development in the life of Nikolai Chernyshev and other artists of his circle — the creation of the Union of Artists and Poets "Art-Life", and the publication of the magazine "Makovets". "Makovets, makovka (top, summit). We were looking for a Russian name. After 'Donkeys' Tails' and ' Slap in the Face of Public Taste', there was a first discussion of the moral import of art."10

"We believe that the revival of art is possible only on the condition of strict continuity with the great masters of the past and uncompromising reanimation of what is alive and imperishable in it," ran a statement in the first issue of the magazine.11

In those years Chernyshev visited Pskov, Novgorod and Ferapontovo for the first time. He began a study of frescoes and a search for the formulas of mineral paints used by the old masters. 1930 saw the publication of his book "Techniques of Mural Paintings", which combined an in-depth theoretical overview with practical guidance for mural painters. The artist himself undertook several related projects, using for some assignments the resurrected techniques such as stucco-lustro, sgraffito and mosaic technique; he wrote several short and long articles, and in 1954 published the book "The Art of Fresco in Old Rus'".

"My life's goal is to find the nexus between the grand heritage of old Russian art and the challenges of today. By no means to recreate the past, which would produce a stylisation — something defunct, non-organic. But to create a lively, harmonious art of today into which everyone would believe, casting aside prejudice and sectionalism."12

Nikolai Chernyshev was a prominent teacher who mentored a number of notable artists including Taras Gaponenko, Dmitry Mochalsky, Andrei Mylnikov and Dmitry Zhilinsky. He invariably incorporated his artistic and theoretical discoveries into his teaching practice first at VKHUTEIN (the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts) and then at the Moscow Art Institute (now the Surikov Institute). In 1949, when personalities associated with the so-called formalist movement suffered persecution, the institute fired its best professors, including Sergei Gerasimov and Nikolai Chenyshev.

("Successful pedagogy... The students. The crackdown on the institute... I haven't figured out who is behind it?.." Chernyshev bitterly remembered13).

Chernyshev's last outstanding work was a series called "The Masters of the Moscow School". The images of Andrei Rublev, Daniel Chorny, Dionisius and Alipy of the Caves (Alipy Pechersky) appear to have resonated strongly with the painter's creative consciousness and personality.

"My life has dragged on for too long, as if to make me experience all phases of troubles and lucky breaks, the worst afflictions and infinite happiness, destitution and unexpected wealth at sunset, when the last rays of sun have begun to fade away."14

Nikolai Chernyshev's art and spiritual journey were undoubtedly central to his family's life. "So many unaccounted-for efforts to procure pieces of cobalt glass. Many times my wife and Polina [Chernyshev's elder daughter] made trips to all possible locations. Last summer Katya and Andrei [another daughter and her husband] brought many pieces from Vyshny Volochok,"15 Chernyshev wrote about his work on the mosaic composition "Adolescence". Two of Chernyshev's daughters, Polina and Yekaterina, made art their profession. The youngest, Natalya, became a historian.

Yekaterina Chernysheva — the middle daughter of Nikolai and Antonina — resembles both her parents even in appearance, inheriting her mother's earthly Russian beauty and her father's sublime spirituality. Her childhood coincided with the war, and she created her first pictures, which already showed promise, in Samarkand, where the family was sent to live. Yekaterina's spiritual affinity with her father, his constant presence in his daughter's life as artist and teacher, their joint journeys to Novgorod, Pskov and Ferapontovo, her companionship with other notable artists from Chernyshev's circle such as Pavel Kuznetsov, Vladimir Favorsky, Sergei Gerasimov and Alexander Matveev, all undoubtedly had a great impact on the development of her artistic personality.

Like many artistically gifted children of that time, Yekaterina studied at the Moscow Secondary Art School, after which, in 1955, she enrolled at the Surikov Institute. Yekaterina was fortunate to have studied under such great masters as Alexander Deineka and Dmitry Mochalsky, but even then her father's influence was paramount.

The period when the young artist was coming of age and developing an individual style coincided with a special time in the history of Russian culture. "It seemed then that in our visual art we got rid forever of the falsehood that characterised the pompous compositions of colossal sizes depicting the Party leaders, Party congresses and industrial conferences, so typical for the so-called Socialist Realism," she recalled. "The art shows in the 1960s were ever more frequently featuring emotionally coloured landscapes, views of cities, villages and rural settlements represented 'without embellishment', as well as hastily-achieved pictures with scenes from the life of different social groups, images that were produced not on assignment but in response to the stirrings of the artists' souls."16

The theme of Yekaterina Chernysheva's first serious pieces — athletics — seems to have come naturally to her. Her father had a focus on the movements of bodies, and her teacher Deineka was an acclaimed master of "athletic" images. Athletics became an important element of people's lives in the 1960s and the subject of many brilliant pieces of art (Dmitry Zhilinsky's compositions included).

The sketching outings and regular painting sessions in the open air shaped Yekaterina into a consummate landscape artist. She also produced several very compelling portraits of her father, but children's images are central to her art. This subject, too, was inherited by Yekaterina from her father. But while his images of children were fascinating for the visual language and heavenly harmony of the lines and the forms, Yekaterina's portraits present the image of a soul in the finest sense, akin to the one that the creators of the Ancient Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits had in mind. It is important for her to capture the child's angelic nature, its closeness to God and to preserve in art this pure image not yet contorted by life's experiences. The painter took on this artistic challenge as a special mission, a spiritual purpose.

Children in Chernysheva's paintings are beautiful and inspired. They are featured with their grandmothers and grandfathers ("Peaceful Life", 1974-1975; "Summer in the Countryside", 1977; "Under the Roof of One's Home", 1987), against the backdrop of walls or in the windows of family homes in the country (" First Flowers", 1963; "Ulia", 1971; "Haymaking Season", 1993) with flowers and other domestic animals. Connections with the clan, the family and the village are emphasised in the titles of the paintings: "The Arkhipov Children" (1969), or "Tonya from the Borovno Village" (1995). Because she grew up during the war and suffered privations living in wartime evacuation far from home, the artist seems to be praying for these children's happiness and trouble-free future ("Distance Beyond Distance. Trouble-free Childhood", 1967). She portrays village children with the same degree of attention, devotion and love as she does her own son: "Village children touch my heart with their sunny and pure sweet-smelling world, closeness to nature, trustfulness and kindness to all things living on earth".17

The images of children produced by Yekaterina Chernysheva are portraits of the nation's future in which she believed, and which she wanted to be nice ("Brides from Vyshny Volochok", 1983; "Loving Memory of the Earth", 1992; "Swallows", 1985).

Stylistically, the artist's works fit naturally in the artistic context of her time, that of an art which is now considered in many ways as classical (artists such as Gely Korzhev, Viktor Popkov and Nikolai Andronov come to mind). Her paintings radiate light like frescoes, and spaces in the artist's compositions are often shadowless, in the vein of religious paintings; she prefers to paint figures in frontal positions, representing them almost as ideal human beings. Yekaterina Chernysheva's oeuvre is like a female face in the era of the "austere style" — the feminine, but at the same time demanding and uncompromising regard of a mother and a sister.

Yekaterina's husband, Andrei Gorsky, joined the Chernyshev family when he was already a mature master firmly set in his ways, but as it turned out he had much in common with the family in terms of ambitions related to life and art. A Muscovite by birth and by soul, Gorsky is one of the prominent figures of the Moscow school of painting: he has childhood memories of "august Moscow with Ivan the Great's bell tower and the Sukharev tower, the Assumption (Uspeniya) church on Pokrovka, and the Kitai Gorod wall..."18. Moscow would become one of central themes in his work.

His earliest unforgettable memories include "first acquaintance with the Tretyakov Gallery, which became. an inextricable part of my life", and exhibitions of the second half of the 1930s. "At that period we, art students, were most impressed by two exhibitions — 'The Industry of Socialism' and '20th Anniversary of the Russian Red Cross'. And the works of Arkady Rylov, Boris Ioganson, Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, Arkady Plastov, Boris Yakovlev and Vasily Yakovlev, Pyotr Konchalovsky. held us spellbound."19

The Great Patriotic War became for Gorsky and others from his generation a milestone in their growing-up and a lifelong source of artistic inspiration. The Secondary Art School where he had studied since its opening (together with Gely Korzhev, Ivan Sorokin and Alexei Tkachev) was evacuated to Bashkiria.

He would later write: "All that was created, all that was painted then was filled with an infinite love for the Motherland, it was very sincere and unaffected by wisdom received at school. It never fails to amaze me how, in those early years, we succeeded in achieving so much subtlety and truthfulness in sketches created in one breath, during just two sittings. The entire stock of knowledge accumulated before the war, loyalty to the art of the great artists of the Russian school (Surikov and Nesterov, Repin and Serov, Korovin and Vrubel), as well as the masters of the Soviet school (Plastov and Ioganson, Korin and Konchalovsky), study of their methods, the desire to fathom the secrets of their art — all this gradually led us to adopt, and therefore to directly continue their deeply realist traditions."20

As a student at the Surikov Institude, Gorsky carefully studied the masterpieces of the great painters of the past like Serov, Repin, Vrubel and Korovin. The process of evaluating and adopting these traditions is reflected in the artist's early pieces, such as "Portrait of Mikhail Kurilko" (1952), "Valya Gerasimova from Pereslavl-Zalessky" (1949), the triptych "A Whiff of Autumn" (1954), "A May Morning" (1956), and "The Hidden Rus'" (1951). The late 1940s and mid-1950s were arguably the period of young maturity in Gorsky's life — many of the works he produced at the time are held today in the major art museums of Russia (Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum) and the former USSR.

Gorsky's landscapes are among the best works of art created in Russia in the second half of the 20th century. The artistic discoveries of Leonard Turzhansky, Pyotr Petrovichev, Konstantin Yuon and Nikolai Krymov were reconsidered in his works, which are distinguished by the solid quality of their palette which has value in its own right, tangibility of pictorial texture, and a wide range of colour tones.

The artist's images of Russian historical and architectural landmarks occupy a special place in his oeuvre. In these pieces every brushstroke is filled with reverence for the genius of Russian architects and the greatness of Russian culture. One clearly feels the love with which the artist arranges the visual mosaic of the Pokrovsky Cathedral while creating an exemplary modern painting. The artist's admiration for the masterpieces of the past naturally transformed into his public stance on related matters, and relentless social activism in the field of the preservation of historical landmarks.

The theme of war — the irrecoverable nature of losses and the elation of victory — runs throughout Gorsky's artwork, showing off his compositional versatility ("Every Inch ofthe Ground", 1962-1964; "Missing in Action. 1946", 1962; "May 9 1945", 1982-1984). The drama ofthe nation's history in more recent decades is reflected in the monumental composition "Last Residents of the Martus Village", which echoes the musings of writers like Valentin Rasputin, Viktor Astafiev and Vasily Belov.

Andrei Gorsky's and Yekaterina Chernysheva's son, Nikolai Gorsky-Chernyshev, is an heir to, and a keeper of, the family's rich cultural legacy. He is old enough to have had the opportunity to enjoy the surprisingly warm atmosphere of his grandfather's family, and he witnessed his parents at work on paintings and was their sitter and first viewer. Nikolai's choice of art as his profession was a carefully considered decision taken contrary to the wishes of his family, who thought he had a great talent for music; his choice meant acceptance of the colossal artistic and human responsibility which always comes to the offspring of famous families.

After graduating with a Gold Medal from Moscow's Secondary Art School, he enrolled at the Surikov Institute, where he studied at the workshop of the prominent painter and excellent teacher Tair Salakhov. This master's influence in many ways shaped Gorsky-Chernyshev's creative individuality and proved to be a felicitous match for the family's rich artistic tradition. Even his early pieces ("Paths of Childhood", 1989; "Morning in the Country", 1988; "March. An Academic Country Cottage", 1982) are marked by finely calibrated compositional arrangements, careful choice of details, and harmony of colours.

Gorsky-Chernyshev's images of the interiors of rural homes — "Inside a Rural Log Hut with Blue-bonnets" (1990), "Favourite Flowers", "Saviour ofthe Apple Feast Day" (1992) — make for a lovely series. Love for country living, traditional ways of life, and the simple but very poetic details of the interior of a village home fill his images.

The landscapes of the Russian heartland, portraits, and traditional decorative paintings with inner depths ("Everything Is in the Past (To the Memory of the Groom Vasily Sokolov)", 1990-1995) — there is hardly a genre with which the artist has not engaged. In recent years Nikolai's artistic focus has been on the holy places of Christian Orthodox religion, the life of monasteries brought back to life, and the Holy Land: ("The True Cross", 1998-1999; "A Quiet Prayer", 2004); "Nilov Monastery. Vesper Bell", 2002).

Continuing his grandfather's legacy, Nikolai Gorsky-Chernyshev teaches at the Surikov Art Institute. There is no doubt that he will be capable of passing on to his students, future painters, the spiritual treasures of his family: the three generations of the Chernyshev-Gorsky dynasty indeed epitomise much of the history of Russian visual art of the 20th-21st centuries.

Exhibitions of the Chernyshev-Gorsky family which took place in Italy (1991) and Moscow (2011) in the halls of the Russian Academy of Arts, became memorable events in the history of contemporary fine art.

  1. Zhilinsky, Dmitry. 'My portraits'. From: "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev". Moscow: Sovetsky khudozhnik, 1978. Pp. 194-195
  2. Ibid., pp.153-154
  3. "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev. A Catalogue of Works". Moscow: 1990. P.134
  4. Fresco, "Sciences and Arts".
  5. "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev. A Catalogue of Works". P.134
  6. Ibid.
  7. Zhilinsky, Dmitry. 'My portraits'. From: "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev". Moscow: Sovetsky khudozhnik, 1978. P. 30
  8. Ibid., p. 32
  9. "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev. A Catalogue of Works". Moscow: 1990. Pp.156-157
  10. Zhilinsky, Dmitry. 'My portraits'. From: "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev". Moscow: Sovetsky khudozhnik, 1978. P. 177
  11. Ibid., p. 31
  12. Ibid., p. 12
  13. "N.M.[Nikolai Mikhailovich] Chernyshev. A Catalogue of Works". P. 163
  14. Ibid., p. 161
  15. Ibid., pp. 158-159
  16. Petrova, Ye.N. 'Verity is a way to learn truth'. In: "Realism in Russian Art of the Second Half of the 20th Century". St. Petersburg: Palace editions, 2012.
  17. "Yekaterina Chernysheva". Moscow: Bely Gorod, 2006. Pp. 6-7
  18. "Andrei Gorsky". Moscow: Bely Gorod, 2002. P. 9.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., pp.11-12





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