Alexei Shmarinov and His "Exquisite Simplicity"

Tatiana Kochemasova

Magazine issue: 
#2 2013 (39)

Nullus enim locus sinegenio est
No place without its genius

Servius, Rome, 4th century AD



Alexei Shmarinov was born in Moscow on April 4 1933. His father De-menty Shmarinov was one of the main book illustrators of his era of Russian and foreign literature, his drawings to Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment", Tolstoy's "War and Peace", Lermontov's "The Hero of Our Time" and Pushkin's "The Captain's Daughter" among the classics of Russian graphics.

Difficult though it was to continue in the wake of his father's achievements, Alexei was nevertheless determined to follow him into the world of art and went to study at the Surikov Art Institute. Having graduated magna cum laude from the painting faculty, he began with paintings, but was to find his true calling in graphics - both easel works and book illustrations. Under his expert touch each graphic technique - watercolour, lithograph, lino print or etching - became a way to reveal the artist's special world. While using different materials like oil, tempera and watercolour or embodying his thoughts and feelings in forms as varied as painting, easel graphics, book graphics or poster drawing, he never spared himself from the demands of professionalism, depth of knowledge and emotional intensity.

"For me the essence of artistic exploration is grounded in the Divine creation and all its manifestations. As far as I am concerned the ultimate task of the artist is striving to understand and express the exquisite simplicity, the wisdom and the beauty of creation within the constraints of natural human perception," the artist has said.

In his many landscape paintings Shmarinov aspires to see and depict nature as the heart of creation. Like the legendary Francesco Petrarch celebrating the One "who in creation showed the Creator's flawless plan," he has chosen to devote himself to the same ideals in the second half of the 20th century. Singing praise to the sovereign power in the diversity of nature, he was aware of the responsibility that came with calling oneself a creator and therefore assuming to be on a par with the "Inimitable".

"The World Around Us" is not only a lithographic series, but the core of the artist's work. Daniel Defoe could just as well have dedicated his famous "Life and Amazing Adventures of ..." not to Robinson Crusoe, but to the biography of Alexei Shmarinov whose travels could inspire volumes to be written, films to be released (with sequels), and stories of romance to be told. The artist's first trips on the icebreaker "Lena" took him to Arkhangelsk, Dickson, Novaya Zemlya and the islands round Eastern Siberia. Playing football on the ice a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole, making his solitary way in Kamchatka on foot or on horseback, having lunch on the edge of the Avachinsky volcano crater... And maybe even more fascinating - sailing as a crewman on a Black Sea steamship, navigating the jungles of Bangladesh, going out to Egypt, India, Ceylon and Central Africa - all were part of Alexei's turbulent youth.

In Europe Shmarinov's favourite country has always been Italy, where his inspiration came from visiting places sacred in the eyes of any artist. On the whole, however, his art is more of a kaleidoscope of events and impressions that spin the master's creative fabric.

It was mainly from traveling that he acquired such a trained eye and professional touch. His paintings, based on the wealth of the world's knowledge, are a feast of colours, full of expressive images, playing with dimensions, texture and hues and thus forming a particular and distinctively free artistic landscape that slotted easily into the "fresh drive" in the fine arts of the 1960s. Shmarinov has managed for many years to preserve that life-affirming quality of his art.

His "thoughts" embodied in painting and graphics about the environment and the importance of holding on to the delicate noospheric balance are as relevant as ever. Damaging the world around us we are driving our own existence to destruction. The issues of environmentalism and sustainability that have recently become so trendy, were already there in the art of the older generation, expressed in a most unassuming, natural and extremely sincere manner. Shmarinov was certainly one such artist.

He affirms that humankind can only flourish in an ongoing dialogue with nature. As an heir to centuries-old artistic traditions, he suggests we read the book of the environment as a coded message, where every sign and symbol can be deeply meaningful and of great value. Looking at the graphic series of 1982 entitled "Taking Care of Our Land" is like leafing through the troublesome pages of our life, full of uneasy anticipation. The images of nature invoked in the coloured etchings "The Dying Trees" and "The Flower of Hope" are almost like a scream, or a cry for mercy.

The main concern of the artist is with Russia - the land that, in his own words, he has "trodden through and through". The lines of an ancient epic "How the Russian soil perishes..." that tell us about "the fair beauty and glorious splendour of the Russian soil, the many wonders it contains..." are often quoted by the artist himself and could serve as the quintessence of what he does. For Shmarinov it is "interconnected with my home county - the land of Radonezh, with Abramtsevo - the places where St. Sergius of Radonezh attained the spiritual heights and the best representatives of art of the past came up with their masterpieces". Those poetic lines he has "translated" into the language of art in multiple landscapes and miniature watercolours, representing the faces of Russian nature, illustrating that special "Russian world" and its spiritual fullness and moral content.

Abramtsevo and its surroundings are a sacred space for Russian culture where Alexei Shmarinov belongs heart and soul, and where he met his genius loci.

"Russia - Love of Mine" was one of the vast easel watercolour series (comprising over 160 paintings), exhibited many times both at home and abroad. Russia's spiritual journey and its historical memories have a major presence in Shmarinov's art. Graphic series such as "Heroes of the Russian People. 13th-15th Centuries" (lino print, 1968-1969), "Zadonshc-hina" (etchings, 1977-1978), "On the Field of Kulikovo" (coloured etchings, 1978-1979), "The Battle of Kulikovo" (coloured lithographs, 1979-1980) and many others are regarded as classics of Russian graphics today.

While everyone was on their own private way to faith, it was in Shmarinov's work that they could encounter saints like Andrei Rublev, Sergius of Radonezh, Dmitry Donskoy and Alexander Nevsky. The encounter appeared to be spiritually beneficial for the artist as well: in that search for roots, for the true history of Russia, he was joined by a friend, the famous film director Andrei Tarkovsky who was at the same time casting his film "Andrei Rublev". While one of them was studying old Slavonic and looking for material for "Heroes of the Russian People" in ancient manuscripts, the other was in need of ideas to put on screen. They were both fascinated by nature, by the "quiet beauty of the Radonezh land" that seemed to retain through the centuries memories of the past, the ancient history of Russia. Tarkovsky considered casting Shmarinov as Andrei Rublev - he thought he had found an artist capable of comprehending the divine mysteries. But all his powers of persuasion failed to convince Alexei, who just got on with his paintings of Russian history.

An artist and editor, putting together a whole series of historical studies "Stories from the Russian chronicles and war time narratives of the 14th-16th centuries" ("Who Comes with the Sword", 1973, 1975; "On the Field of Kulikovo", 1980; "Heroic Russia", 1988), Shmarinov gradually turned into an expert on the old Russian chronicles. Those publications received national and international awards and wide professional acclaim. Dmitry Likhachev described Shmarinov's illustrations of old Russian literature as being "... laconic yet ornate, in prose but rhythmic, full of personal feeling while epic...". He used to tell Alexei that "even if your drawings do not look like ancient Russian paintings (and why should they?)... it is more important how they recreate the most significant characteristic of old Russian literature: its laconism and 'heraldic flair'."

Shmarinov has indeed acquired a flexible language of his own based on the cultural notions of Ancient Russia. While keeping the finely thin balance of the centuries-old tradition of religious art he managed to maintain his own view of the "sacred geometry" and relate the irresistible appeal of that very "exquisite simplicity".

Alexei Shmarinov was forever in search of the "Divine creation" in the "exquisite simplicity" of the Russian landscape, in watercolours filled with special light and lyric mood; he was illustrating Russian and foreign literature, all the while remaining exceptionally open-minded about world culture and its spiritual values. Among his book graphics there is a series of illustrations to the well-known classic of Georgian literature, Shota Rustaveli's "The Knight in a Tiger's Skin". They are in some sense a tribute to his wife Karina, who was of Georgian descent on her father's side. The couple shared more than half a century of happy married life until her death in 2012: a talented actress who played brilliantly the part of Princess Mary in the film of the same name, she dedicated herself totally to her beloved husband, children and grandchildren, becoming a muse, guardian angel and faithful friend.

It is quite understandable then that the exhibition starts with the portrait of Karina Shmarinova. Even the title "Abramtsevo. Karina Expecting the First-born" (1955) is very telling, underlying the sanctity of Abramtsevo for the family and its dominant place in their lives.

There was also international recognition over the years, on a scale rarely attainable even for contemporary Russian artists. Shmarinov's shows were a success in Germany, Austria, France, the Czech Republic and some Middle Eastern countries. The geography of these exhibitions is impressive - Berlin, Straubing, Landshut, Passau, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Munich, Prague, Vienna, Paris, Atlanta, Alicante, Addis Ababa, Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus. Today Shmarinov's work can be found in the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, other major Russian museums, in some of the museums and private collections of the Union of Independent States (CIS), Germany, France, USA, Austria, Japan, Italy, Norway and many other countries.

To name a few of the honours and awards received by Shmarinov: he is a People's Artist of Russia, winner of the State Prize of the RSFSR, full member of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts serving on its governing board, recipient of the medal of Honour, Medal of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the international "Golden Laurel" award for "contribution to fine arts" from the "Kunstlerhaus" society of Austrian artists, Silver Medal of the Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Joseph Strauss, winner of the famous German collector's Peter Ludwig Prize, and correspondent member of the Society of Austrian Artists.

"Is Alexei Shmarinov a national treasure or rather a citizen of the world?" wondered the German newspaper "Starnberger Merkur". We would say that he is both.

The artist was fortunate to meet some of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century, among them Carlo Levi, Duke Ellington, Renato Guttuso... It was such international networking that often triggered recognition at home, but the painter himself did not care much: all that mattered to him was staying in the service of art.

Shmarinov has made a significant contribution to art education and to the preservation of the cultural heritage. Along with the other members of the Russian Academy of Arts he actively participated in the work of the committee on interior restoration of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. He has also devotedly and consistently protected the unique historical, cultural and environmental heritage of his beloved Abramtsevo.

Since 1977 Shmarinov has led his own graphics workshop at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow; as a member of the governing board he was in charge of the Moscow Academic art lyceum named after Nikolai Tomsky.

Nowadays when the temptation grows stronger to experiment and to go with the flow of various "-isms", Shmarinov remains faithful to his own choice, not only as to his professional basis but also to a kind of spiritual core, an unchangeable grounding.

"My artistic life is an effort to attain the high standards set by the school of Russian realism," he has commented on confessing himself to be a realist. Such a confession is as daring as it sounds at a time when sticking to "Realism" is neither popular or relevant, but can rather invite labels such as "retrograde" and "rusty conventionalist". But there is no such fear where the master is concerned: his experience of life and art supports quite a different point of view, one which does not require discussing things within the narrow constraints of personal and group conflicts or clashes of interests. He belongs to those artists - both at home and abroad - who do not wish to do away with "Realism" as some sort of historical trash, but would like to analyze it as one of the phenomena of creativity.

"Now when so much has been said about religious decline, art is being reduced to a set of techniques and somewhat similar methods, and yet remains incapable of a miracle, of providing us with a new ideology," Marc Chagall said in a speech at the University of Chicago back in 1958. "These patterns and methods are part of modern art. And as a matter of fact, it is the same ancient Realism. The only difference is that instead of meticulous depiction of every position and detail, like body postures, faces, trees and objects as the masters of old used to do, we now depict - and with far less precision, as it were - information of another kind about objects and matter, the kind that can be found written on walls, on pavements and found under the microscope. But it is still the same realistic method."

So should we be so quick in leaving the principles of the "realistic school" behind or should we show more interest and respect to what the past is teaching us, to understanding the classics through the best it has to offer? Maybe it is that drive to create "dogma", to worship an "idol" and later to obsessively destroy everything that we have praised before, that often stands in the way of just accepting and loving the past, of recognizing its moral potential?

In 2012 the Georges Pompidou Centre hosted an exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the birth of the German painter Gerhard Richter. It was a display of artistic variety of one of the most prominent 20th-century painters, with work ranging from wild experiments filled with anguish and passion to the peaceful longing for the beauty of creation. One particular message of that exhibition merits closer attention in the light of any discussion of the merits of experiment and the significance of the classics in art: "The classics are something that preserve my integrity. Something that provides me with form. A rule that is worth abiding by. Something that tames my chaos or restrains it in a way that allows for my existence. It has always been quite clear to me that it is absolutely essential." Such comprehension of the classics, as showed by Richter, is one of the ways to form the basis of understanding of the academic school, the basis of that grounding which is usually obtained by life-long commitment, by trial and error, by denials and upheavals. Perhaps it is the harmony, love and beauty that are the foundations of being, the source of life.

Like every "child" of the 20th century Alexei Shmarinov went through and endured a great deal, but even to this day he remains an example of nobleness, intellectual refinement, fervent devotion to art, proving with his own experience that loving life and his fellow people, and having the capacity to forgive, are still the main way to save one's soul and keep one's freedom.

"I have been doing what I love best. I did not belong to the one and ruling (the Communist Party), neither followed the herd nor been an outcast. And I see this alternative part of my life as a kind of miracle, Divine providence, a sweet dream continued, and making the sign of the cross, I thank the Lord for being able to retire to my studio, to my work and my hopes." Alexei Shmarinov's words truly sum up the life and work of one of the outstanding masters of our fine art world.





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