Kultura weekly newspaper
No. 7 (7568), 22–28 February 2007
Evgraf Konchin interviews the artist

— You’re celebrating your 60th birthday, a relatively young age for a creative person, an artist, but enough to draw an interim conclusion. How would you describe your life in art?

— My creative path was a fairly long one. In 1971 I graduated from the Architectural Institute. I studied painting at various art studios. I continue studying to this day. I went through many different styles and schools. I began doing non-conformist art together with artists who are now widely recognized as Russian classics: Rabin, Tselkov, Nemukhin and Plavinsky.

I belonged to various non-official groups and participated in nearly all the non-conformist exhibitions — the one at Izmailovo, for example — and apartment showings. For this reason I had many troubles with the authorities. I’m considered an avant-gardist, a representative of “left-wing” tendencies that were until recently subject to various persecutions in our country. But no matter what group or tendency I’ve associated myself with or whomever people have considered me to be, the aim of my art has always been painting, the quality of my work. Even when I was engaged in formal experimentation or political novelties such as Soc Art and its caricatures, painterly virtues and professionalism were always in first place for me and continue to be today — in my still lifes, my current favorite genre, and in my quest for new visual and pictorial forms. And I daresay that in painting I’ve achieved a certain success.

When I was accepted into the Artists Union in 1978 I received recommendations from such respected and authoritative artists as Ivan Vasilievich Sorokin, Pavel Fyodorovich Nikonov and Eduard Georgievich Bragovsky, the best representatives of the Russian painting school, which I consider the best in the world. And this despite the fact that I was considered an incurable avant-gardist at the time, an adherent of artistic tendencies hostile to official Socialist Realism.

— Are you still an avant-gardist?
— Of course. Because in my painting I always try to find something new, unknown, heretofore untried. This is my avantgarde orientation.

— Sometimes in the literature we encounter the terms “first-wave”, “second-wave” or “third-wave” avant-garde. What do they mean?
— In my opinion, there can be no waves in Russian avant-garde art. The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s was a unique, inimitable phenomenon of worldwide significance for painting. The artists of this school were pioneers; they created a new kind of art the world had never seen before. Everything else that was later created in our country was a continuation of the avantgarde art of the 1920s, the basis of Russian painting’s greatest achievements.

I also consider myself an avant-gardist because I strive to continue and develop the traditions of this school in today’s modern forms. But above all I’m a painter. And whatever tendency I or others might associate me with is only a secondary matter. I’ve always striven to go my own way and have my own views on the artist’s function, painterly signature and methods of reflecting the reality of his time. This was true even when I brought politics into my painting. Take, for example, the grotesque triptych Scarecrows, which I painted in 1986. There I depicted something resembling the suits of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev crucified on crosses. Naturally, this picture couldn’t have pleased the authorities.

— Do you consider yourself a practitioner of contemporary art?
— I’ve been a contemporary artist for the course of my whole creative life, because I reflect the reality and issues of my times. As do the majority of other contemporary artists, by the way. We live in this reality; it surrounds us on all sides, every day and every hour. To live in a society and not respond to its current concerns is impossible. This is how I understand the word “contemporary” in art.

But at times “contemporary art” is defined to mean something super-modern that allegedly dominates the development of the visual arts in our times. And I don’t understand such a definition. When you walk through the halls where these super-modern works are displayed — various installations, for example, especially the ones at highly-promoted modern art festivals — you can’t help but wondering whether the authors of these installations made of bottles or other objects know how to paint or draw at all. For some reason these works are considered to be visual art, but what’s visual about them? Their creators seem never to have held a brush or paints in their hands. These are flash-in-the-pan works. After the exhibition everything is carted off to the dump. If anything remains of them at all, only photographs. Yet I’ve heard that enormous public funds are spent on these festivals. We’ve been through this all before, in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then there were innovators who proclaimed “Death to painting!” and threw themselves headlong into decorative and applied art, monumental design and the holiday decoration of streets and squares. But the most talented ones returned to painting. And today’s installation boom will pass too, will disappear
without a trace.

— Can anyone in our day claim a leading role in the development of modern art?
— Earlier it was the official organs of party and state, via the Artists Union, that claimed such a leading role. Then came complete creative freedom. But, as the saying goes, “A holy place never remains unoccupied”. A new force arrived on the art scene: commercial gallery owners. Earlier, the Artists Union was run by artists who were at least professionals, whether you call them good or bad. Today they’ve been replaced by businessmen who often have nothing in common either with art or with taste and culture in general. They spend enormous money promoting this art in advertising and the media. In general, gallery owners could care less what sort of art they promote, be it non-conformist, Socialist Realist or contemporary, as long as it brings them a profit.

— Does Socialist Realism possess any definite artistic traits? Or were the artists working within this tendency completely diverse, united only by living under the Soviet regime and loyalty to it in their choice of subjects?
— There are different opinions regarding this. But those, especially the youth, who today reject all visual art from the Soviet period are committing an unforgivable error. This happens mainly out of ignorance about the art of that time. Or from the desire for personal gain. In those days, you see, there were proponents of Socialist Realism like Alexander Gerasimov, who’d today be considered a pure Surrealist, and such remarkable masters as Brodsky, Juon, Sergei Gerasimov, the entire “Jack of Diamonds” group and Plastov… I consider Arkady Alexandrovich [Plastov] to be nothing less than a great, world-class artist. His best paintings were devoted to Soviet village life and kolkhoz peasants, yet they’ve become classics of Russian art. This means that the main virtue of painting lies in its quality rather than its subject matter. I’ll permit myself another example, that of our legendary shestidesyatniki, Nikolai Andronov, Pavel Nikonov, Viktor Popkov and Tair Salakhov, who were known mainly for their industrial pictures.

— The examples you’ve mentioned, these artists’ names, confirm once again that the main thing in painting is quality, a high level of professionalism.
— Subjects are another matter. In Soviet times, the content of paintings was strictly defined and imposed by the official state organs. As a result, perfectly viable and justifiable subjects would turn into their opposite. You’d walk through exhibitions and see one kolkhoz girl, another kolkhoz girl, a whole series of kolkhoz girls. What’s more, they’d be painted badly, ineptly. What sort of art is this? But it was official criticism that gave rise to these mediocre paintings.

— You mentioned that you love beautiful paintings…
— And not just paintings. Well-written literature too. Though these days when one reads a new book, or journal or newspaper article, one often arrives at the uncomforting conclusion that good writers and journalists are just as rare as good artists.

— Your paintings, the ones I’ve seen at exhibitions and here in your studio, are bright, festive and joyful…
— Yes, I want them to help people live in our difficult times, to make their lives better, kinder, more balanced, or secure, if you will. I want to support people morally, spiritually and ethically. Art should bring people joy, kindness and moral and spiritual support.

— But are your paintings in demand on the art market?
— I’m often invited to exhibitions, mainly abroad. I participate in prestigious auctions. My paintings sell; they can be found in museums, galleries and private collections. But I don’t seek to sell my paintings at any cost. On the contrary, I’m always sorry to part with them. I prefer them to be in my studio. I love to look at them and compare them to what I’ve just painted; they help me in my creative explorations. And I’ve cooled to the idea of participation in exhibitions in recent years…

— Why? Exhibitions are a kind of gauge of public acceptance for artists…
— Today exhibitions have turned into one-day presentations. Friends, relatives and acquaintances gather on opening day, give speeches and praise and congratulate the artist. And after this the halls become empty. Few people attend exhibitions. Even the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val are empty, though there are works by splendid, remarkable artists on display there…

— What can we do about this unfortunate emptiness?
— We need to master modern exhibition forms. Putting on exhibitions to musical accompaniment, for example. I love music very much, and many of my pictures have been inspired by melodies; they sing and are full of imagery and movement. We don’t have to go far to find examples of the splendid combining of painting and music. The Pushkin Museum’s popular December Evenings are accompanied by interesting exhibitions. Something similar could be done at other openings.