RUSSIAN NAIVE ART
”Russian naive art” forms an important part of 20th century Russian culture. The term itself has become widely known during the past decade. Earlier naive artists, like the representatives of archaic art, were called primitivists and later, during the Soviet years, amateur artists.
At the beginning of the century, Russia brought forth outstanding artists who were founders of the avant-garde, including Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. They were all, to one degree or another, affected by the implications of primitivism in their art.
A particularly importance is that throughout the past century interest in naive art has become one of the most influential sources of inspiration in the development of Russian modern art. After the socialist revolution, a totalitarian cultural model was established which forbade free creative activity and, consequently, art as a hobby developed under a system of amateurism. From 1960-1979 there was a clear connection between naive art and the forbidden underground, and it was at that time that many of the artists presented in our exhibition began painting. From 1980-1999, naive art has gone through a period of true expansion. In the vast territory of Russia, naive artists live and work far away from one another. They have not established a united school, as, for example, in Croatia. The preservation of the traditional country way of life and peasant mentality inherent in the Russian naive artists, who moved to the cities, distinguishes them from their European counterparts.
To better understand the originality of modern naive art, one needs to take a deeper look into Russian history. Primitivism was introduced within the framework of traditional folk culture when in the 18th century, after Peter the Great`s reforms, Russia took Europe as model in its move toward becoming a more civilized country. The ”lubok”, a popular type of printed picture for the people, reflected the acceptance in Russia of European themes and images of social conduct.
At that time, portraits of merchants began to appear reflecting the creative ideals of this new class involved in trade. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the romantic period, homemade drawings and poetic albums became popular. They reflected the movement toward a new type of personage in Russian noble culture. This personage developed as a result of European influence. Let us recall Alexander Pushkin’s description of a young romantic poet: ”He brought the fruits of erudition from nebulous Germany and freedom-loving daydreams in his passionate soul, with his rather strange continually enthusiastic manner of speech and black curly hair hanging down to his shoulders”.
Yet another sphere where primitivism was to be found was in the public festive culture associated with fairs. Actors arriving from Europe introduced Russia to this type of visual art. Theatre pieces and the use of dazzling paints were active ways of making an impact on the spectators; entertainment, the adoption of advertising which was widely used at the beginning of the 20th century in picturesque signs – all of this was present in 19th century Russian festive culture. The festival existed on the border between traditional folk culture and civilized norms of behavior.
Primitivism became a focus of attention among a new generation of Russian artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Its influence can be seen in the renowned works of the French artist Henri Rousseau, as well as in those of the Georgian artist, Niko Pirosmanashvili, whose early works were found by young artists in Tbilisi. One can also see signs of primitivism in Russian lubok prints as well as in modern amateur art.
The ”Jack of Diamonds”, ”The Donkey’s Tail” and ”Target” were all names of art projects created by the Russian avant-garde artists from 1910-1920, which represented different stages in the development of their work. They rebelled against the elegant aesthetics of the previous generation and united in the World of Art artist circle, taking the path of refined symbolism and joining the group which introduced itself at the exhibition under the name of the ”Blue Rose”. The ”World Artists” were enlightened in spirit. Their ideologist, Alexander Benya, strove to achieve widespread authority in society. These rebel futurists wanted to open a ”New World” – to cross over the limits of the conventional language of traditional painting toward a new poetical one based on resounding archaic elementary vocabulary. They were inspired by the colourful and expressive language of the city streets, which until that time had gone almost unnoticed by people in the arts.
A sharp collision between the West and the East, the heady growth of urban civilization and the preserved patriarchal culture all created in Russia a tense atmosphere for artists, allowing for creative experiments.
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, husband and wife, were among the most active players in the fight for the affirmation of this new art form. Another group actively involved in this movement included artists such as Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky and Aristarkh Lentulov. Many artists and poets were attracted to this movement, which differed from the others in its relationship to the language of primitivism as a means of self-identification. Another parallel genre was the art of painters such as Boris Kustodiev who, without breaking with the tradition of picture paintings (Stankovy), included images of the provincial way of life, sled rides and signboards, which became an indispensable part of their work.
The following quote appeared in a catalogue preface printed for one of Mikhail Larionov’s exhibitions: ”We protest against the enslaving subservience to the West, which is giving us back our own eastern art forms, vulgarized and without individuality. We do not demand the attention of society but request that society does not demand ours. One should deny for the sake of denial… We think that the whole world can be expressed fully in art forms: life, poetry, music, philosophy…”
Painted signboards, written inscriptions and even graffiti on fences became the source of new artistic solutions and a new spiritual meaning which filled the art of many young artists who participated in the 1910 ”Jack of Diamonds” exhibition.
In 1913, a painting by Henri Rousseau was shown at an exhibition put on by the ”Jack of Diamonds” artists society. It was entitled, ”The Muse Who Inspired The Poet”, and came from the collection of the famous Russian art collector, S.E. Shchukin, who specialized in the latest French paintings of that time. Works of Pirosmanashvili were displayed at the ”Target” exhibition, and in neighbouring rooms, there was a collection of authentic icons and lubok prints organized by Larionov.
Artists searched for ancient lubok prints in cellars and bookstores specializing in old books and prints and collected them for their exhibitions. All this was unusual, aroused the viewers and occasionally even shocked them. In memoirs and books by historians one can find mention of hot debates, verbal fights with the public – an incandescent atmosphere surrounding the appearance of this new Russian art: ”Complete chaos lasted two hours…, for two hours opponents and supporters of the ”Jack of Diamond” artists whistled, yelled and stomped their feet. Not a single orator was given a chance to finish his speech, no matter what he was saying,” reported a newspaper concerning one of these debates. Natalia Goncharova noted in her diary: ”The audience threw heavy glasses at the ensuing orator, and I remember the ingenious words of the attending police commissioner, who evidently mastered, not only the art of not loosing his head, but was also highly cultured: All of this should be understood symbolically.” Artists presented themselves as buffoons, clowns; they deliberately questioned the image of the artist-creator as teacher and aesthete.
The audacity and zeal contributed by the avant-garde artists to cultural life can nowadays be seen in their paintings, which continue to impress the viewer with their energetic layers of paint, dynamic compositions and sumptuous colours. However, these works of art tell not so much about what is painted, but about the painters themselves, about the epoch when Russian art started to clearly demonstrate its method of painting. The poet Benedict Lifshitz described how his artist friends prepared for work: ”The enormous easels with canvas stretched across their frames and covered with ground colour appeared overnight in all corners of the studio, as if by magic… In front of the easels, which resembled ”Pythian” tripods, stood stools… On the floor… as in the ”Boshof Kitchen”, stood small irons with diluted paints; jars of ceruse, ochre and smut; metal containers with varnish and tincture; ”Scythian” pitchers; paint brushes and palette knives going every which way; copperware from Turkistan of an unknown purpose. All of this wild gypsy band waits only for a signal in order to scream and shout and to throw itself on the severely white canvas like a horde of robbers.”
This apparently relaxed manner and freedom of artistic self-expression typical of the naive artists had a deeper meaning. The artists worked toward becoming one with their art. They painted comical paintings, portraits of themselves and others. They did not want the reverent silence of museums, but open street spaces. They were fascinated new cinematography, enjoyed driving the first cars to come on the market; they painted and decorated halls for balls and evening parties and made drawings for tapestry. Their paintings declare a new understanding of art, not detaching it from life. Nearing the borders that separate painting from the space of social life, they adopted methods already developed by handicraft painters who carried out orders from hairdressers and grocers.
In ancient and contemporary times, the avant-garde discovered primitivism to be a sacrilegious text of national culture. Its language was used as a national artistic ”argot”. Returning to the original art in the form of the lubok prints, signboards and children’s paintings, the artists tried to reinforce the unity of this unshakable, powerful original language.
Russian avant-garde art was born in a country, that had not yet outlived the extremities resulting from Peter the Great’s reforms: the Europeanized upper class living together with the deeply patriarchal masses. Gauguin, in the search for a virgin, untouched civilization, moved to Haiti. It was enough for our artists to travel to the periphery of any Russian city, for example, to Vologda, as Vasily Kandinsky did, in order to be amazed by the exotic, archaic peasant life. The ancient but still existing culture inspired the artists in the same way as the beckoning liberty of the approaching new century.
Samples of signboards and lubok prints, as well as studies of leading French paintings – impressionism according to Cézanne, Cubism – were the foundation of the upheaval which occurred in art at that time. French painters began to develop the art of the ”collage”, in which objects were analytically taken apart on a surface, attaining the limits of fine artistic vision and painting mastery. Russian reformers started from the other side. They personified in their pictures not scenes of nature, but a system of building an image with the help of object-signs and letters.
From 1930, the start of a rigid ideological dictatorship, the only allowed art form was socialist realism. Naive art turned out to be useless and indeed hostile to the Soviet authorities. Some, like Kandinsky, Chagall, Larionov and Goncharova, lived abroad and never returned to Russia. Others were not allowed to exhibit their works and were forced to change their artistic methods. Primitivism and its followers were repressed. In it was seen an antithesis to Soviet culture, a certain spontaneity and freedom of expression inconsistent with the Communist party policy concerning art.
In the socialist cultural model, amateur art could only exist in the form of ”Samodeyatelnost” (layman’s art). The word amateur in Russian implies not only a creative occupation, but also, in general, a person for whom it is not necessary to follow certain rules placed on him by a higher authority. Amateur art, however, developed under strict control and leadership during the Stalin years. Amateurism, as a whole, can be seen as the personification of the Soviet myth of the ”ideal society” – the ”golden age”, moved on the time scale from the past to the future.
Amateur art was a way of substituting true ”reality” (wretched and beggarly) for the festive revolutionary ”reality”. Festive processions beginning in the 1920s were in many ways based on the still familiar experiences of all participants (fairs, theatres, and booths).
Another manifestation of the new ”reality” in Soviet society was the club ”reality”. Under the direction of Alexander Rotchenko, samples of club furniture were developed in his studio. Starting in 1924, ”Lenin corners” were built in clubs all over the country. They were to replace the religious ”red corners” in private houses, traditionally designated for icons and prayer.
Lenin, ”the new God”, had to be present not only in every club, but also in every home. In the following decade, the desire to indoctrinate the masses led to a wide distribution of radios and loudspeakers (resembling black plates), which became a symbol for obedience to a higher authority. Amateur artists traditionally painted ”a family at dinner listening to Comrade Stalin’s speeches”. In the process of creating a new ”people”, special importance was given to the communes of the ”OGPU” (department responsible for prisons). For example, in the ”Bolshevskaya” Commune, which existed from 1924-1939, the homeless and young criminals were raised to become talented musicians, artists, athletes and dancers. The power of Communist education and miracle of the creation of a new ”people” meant a lot more, one can say, the worse the source of the human material from which the talent developed.
A brochure of the commune founder, M. Pogrebinsky, published in 1929, was called ”The People Factory” – amateurism was not a kind of creativity of the masses, but a way of producing from imperfect human material a new ”people”.
Through artistic creativity these new ”people” achieved a feeling of full self-realization. Creativity became the foundation for the belief in the strength and necessity of the Soviet regime, which it encouraged and supported.
The Bolshevik Commune can be seen as a metaphor for the whole amateur movement in which upbringing, education and creativity were not separated. The whole of Soviet society was intended to be a huge ”People Factory”. Amateur works of art were the traces of the transformation of people of traditional culture (which the majority of Russian inhabitants of the 1930s were) into a totalitarian new ”people”.
One can take a broader look at this concept of a new ”people” in the context of the whole world. The 20th century, with its interest in unspecialized artistic creativity, has uncovered a new type of personality – living outside the cultural borders of society but in reality created on the highest peak of the dominating culture.
Two extreme points in this new ideal of a person-creator can be defined as the new ”people” – from the communes of 20 – 30 years of Soviet Russia, and the ”outsiders” inhabitants of psychiatric clinics in Switzerland and other countries, whose works were collected during the same time.
Characteristically, both groups come from marginal subgroups in society. The
new ”people” included former young prisoners and the homeless, and the ”outsiders” were those healed by the methods of psychotherapy through art. Before the 1930s the influence of Freudian psychotherapy was widespread throughout Russia and Europe, so one can assume that the source of both methods of cultural renewal through the marginal societal groups was the same.
The goal of Soviet politics was the creation of a new society and a new ”people”. It was exactly these ”people” – the amateur painters, dancers and singers who could be presented as an attained ideal. The final product of this widely developed system of amateurism, which captivated the whole country, were not the works of art themselves, but, namely, the people creating and performing them. If you consider the ”Gesamtkunstwerk” of the totalitarian epoch as the ideologists wanted to present it, that is the sum of the created artistic works of art, then of course the works of amateur artists occupy a secondary place and lack charm. But if we attempt to disclose the functioning mechanism of culture created at that time, looking at it with a historical perspective, we can find the explanation for those peculiarities of public consciousness which became the basis for the existence of the whole social political system . From 1930-1950 the newly arranged amateur system produced a steady flow of exhibitions, reviews and festivals.
A new period in the life of Soviet society began in the 1960s when with Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power, critics from the upper echelon of society spoke out against Stalin’s regime for the first time. This period was called ”the thaw” because of the weakening of the former rigid structures of suppression of the personality.
At that time, amateur art had a new beginning in which the older generation of Soviet people could express their unrealized and realized dreams of happiness and fulfillment in life. Exactly during this period one could find among the amateur artists those who, based on their manner of self-expression, can be considered primitivists.
The gradual shake up of the totalitarian social structure and cultural life went on parallel to the expansion of amateur art, which was undergoing many changes. It was an instrument used to destabilize the still existing Soviet regime, which put constraints on the personality. The desire to express one’s individuality and personality along with the longing for free self-expression characterize this non-professional art movement. ”Kapustniks” (a type of variety show), amateur studio theatres, musical groups, applied art courses and art studios – these were all sign of the ”thaw” taking place in amateur art, which manifested itself at different levels and in a variety of forms. Once again, the experience of Russian avant-garde and, to some extent, the significance given to primitivism at the beginning of the century, became important to professional art.
Artists appearing on the scene in the 1970s, desiring to cleanse themselves of all the strange doctrine the Soviet system had forced upon them, sought inspiration from the freedom from all rules inherent in primitivism. Having discovered the works of Henri Rousseau and Pirosmanashvili, they came into direct contact with naive art. In Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, a creative atmosphere developed in which the fascination for primitivism did not exactly duplicate the situation in 1910-1920, but corresponded to it, as if achieving a certain rhythmical harmony between the two periods in history.
Exhibitions of Niko Pirosmanashvili successfully took place at that time, as well as those of modern naive artists. Many exhibitions were held in clubs and in houses of the cultural intelligentsia. Writers, journalists and artists emerged as the first admirers and collectors of Soviet naive art. Exhibitions of amateur artists presented paintings which could historically correctly be called naive.
Although until the 1980s, artists were required to paint contemporary themes by the organizers of exhibitions commemorating anniversaries or those held in conjunction with communist party congressional sessions, naive art remained partly forbidden and was connected in many ways to the underground. This connection was directly established while the self-taught artists were studying at the National University of Art, by correspondence (ZNUI), where officially unrecognized artists found teaching positions. Their students, self-taught, are called naive artists today. Among the teachers of ZNUI were Ivan Chuikov and Mikhail Roginsky, whose student was Pavel Leonov.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the failing ideology of Soviet amateur art paralyzed the whole system of the Institute of National Folk Culture, art studios and exhibitions of artists from all over the USSR. In its place came a wide spread expansion of art salons, new galleries in Moscow and open-air markets. The enthusiasm of Soviet ideology, asserting the uniqueness of Soviet society, which on its own and partly in its art should have reached the highest point of its proceeding development, was replaced by a pluralistic society with equal rights given to people of many cultures and subcultures, which could be likened to one another.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of some art collectors, museum employees and art critics, naive art in modern Russia has been institutionalized. This means that it is included in the collections of many leading art museums – ”Tsaritsino” in Moscow, the Pskov Art Museum, museums in Cheboksary, the Vladimir Museum and others. The State Institute For Art Studies prepared and published a large multi-volume scientific work, which was dedicated to the history of amateur art, and a large part given to the naive artists. In 1994 and 1997, a section of Russian art was presented at the international naive art triennial, ”INSITA”, in Bratislava (until that time, it had been forbidden to send paintings of Russian naive artists there). Nowadays, exhibitions of naive art are held in Moscow and other cities throughout Russia. However, due to the general lack of money spent on culture in Russia, the possibility of holding exhibitions and publishing art catalogues and books on naive art is limited.
During the past decade, the inclusion of Russia into the international artistic arena has occurred exclusively as a result of the art work coming from the underground, for example, from painters such as Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov.
Naive art remains a subject of interest to a narrow circle of people. Many naive artists, before working exclusively for themselves, started to familiarize themselves with the market. At first they exhibited their works in open-air markets, which appeared in the mid-1980s. Nowadays, their paintings can be found in galleries and salons. However, the influence of the market and its demand does not always have a positive effect on the creative works of naive artists. Russian naive artists differ from one another considerably and so do the stories about them.
Pavel Petrovich Leonov was born in 1920 in the vicinity of the city of Orel. In this city, located not far from the border, one can find a mixture of both Russian and Ukrainian cultural traditions. Ukrainian motives found in traditional costumes and typical houses are reflected in Leonov’s paintings. Leonov calls his system of painting ”constructional” or ”architectural”, placing it in opposition to ”naturalism”, which, as he puts it, had until then dominated the work of other artists and was apparently taught at the ”ZNYI” school, where instruction was given through correspondence to the amateur artists on the basics of painting.
The essence of Leonov’s painting can be best described as follows: a grid with vertical and horizontal lines, analogous to the supporting columns (”nesushy”) and the supported beams (”nesomy”) system in architecture. The sizes of the grid segments vary and each of them serves as a ”television set”, as Leonov describes it, for separate scenes of, for example, a bird or a group of animals, and from these ”television sets”, as from bricks, a narrative field of images is composed. An important theme for Leonov is that of a picture within a picture. Since each of his pictures has a frame, the pictures within a picture especially stand out, surrounded by smaller frames. Depth in Leonov’s painting is created through planes, each of which is parallel to the surface of the image and is the next picture within a picture. Such a structure can be justified most of all when used in paintings of artist’s ateliers and theatres. Another characteristic trait found in Leonov’s paintings are the friezes, which are often united by the movement of various kinds of processions: wedding trains, horse-driven carriages, buses, flying birds and boats on the water. These friezes, like carpet threads, cross the entire surface of the picture. Well-balanced friezes of vertical form are created using standing figures, the Kremlin towers, tall trees and bell towers.
A specific trait of Leonov’s paintings are his picturesque frames, which replace the wooden frames (unfit for his paintings) and are used to separate the illusory space of projected reality from the real plane of surrounding existence. Most often, underbrush emerges as friezes and can be called fir trees. Ochre, spread on black soot, has the surprising effect of looking like gold. This ability to convert cheap paints into valuables transforms Leonov, the dreamer into Leonov, the painter. Another variant is the frieze with flowers and butterflies on a white background, which is even further from reality and comes close to being his most poetic and ingenious work.
Leonov goes for an extremely radical combination of large masses of local colours. For example, the contrast between yellow and black could give his paintings a tragic tone. However, they are realized in a way that increases the festive mood.
Typical for Leonov is his attention to the national theme of the guard, which is personified in flying ravens or figures standing on the edges of his paintings. These guards are ”familiar” and therefore do not seem frightening.
Leonov’s strength lies in his feeling for rhythm. The purely visual effect of his paintings is based on the strict order in which he places his coloured spots – images of birds, figures, tools or animals are repeated on a horizontal or flat plane. This feeling for rhythm is directly connected with the constructive style of Leonov’s paintings. Its structure is not the rigid grid of a framed house, but allows for variations, such as certain fine irregularities in rhythmic sequences or in the size of the individual ”television sets”, which give his paintings liveliness and charm.
In essence Leonov’s works of art are not only projected, but also conceptualized. This conceptual style makes some defects on the canvas or accidental spots of colour invisible to the painter, which, however, in a surprising way does not disturb the visual unity of his pictures and serves to guarantee their authenticity. The coarse brushwork and distorted figures presented together with his more refined painting style attests to the basic rooted essence of these colourful surfaces.
The primordial creative origin of lively, dynamic colours is revealed in the spontaneity of abstract expressionists and is presented here in its original form. It has not grown turbid as a result of analysis and gives these pictures that authentic value which is particularly significant in our fully artificial world and compels us again and again to return primitivism.
Amazingly enough, the structure of breaches and omissions turns out to be a new aesthetic system. This distortion does not have a whole character, but a fragmentary one and can be connected with the immense painting mastery that is personified by Leonov in his plastic figures of people, animals and faces. Leonov impresses us with his original discovery of joining different animal figures together, both in authentic and impossible poses: one animal standing on another, etc., as in the circus, or a person riding on a zebra, holding someone else by the hand who is flying above in an airplane.
Leonov’s plastic people figures at times do not lack a classical elegance, uniting with the characteristic deformations typical of primitivism. A significant classical motif is that of a female swimmer. Being a person of virgin culture, cannot paint a nude body without sufficient reason, and any open eroticism is for him out of the question. Therefore he chooses such themes as ”Sports at the river”; ”Swimming”; ”Mothers teaching their children to swim”, etc. to present naked female and children’s bodies.
As a master of colours, Leonov sometimes creates very complex ones, e.g. on the surface of a sky or in his portrayal of human bodies. His unnatural green or violet colours, do not form dead tones, but ones similar to pearls.
In his paintings of faces, Leonov is very exact, but the facial expressions of his personages at times are cosmically far away from how we would normally perceive them to be and form one of the most impressive aspects of his art, however, difficult to describe.
Leonov lives in a remote Russian village called Mekhovitsy with his wife, Zina, who is an alcoholic. His life style, characterized by a consciously cultivated desolation, a constant carrying of grudges and a senile absent-mindedness, reminds us of a typical outsider, moreover, his paintings, which proceed from other areas of his consciousness, belong to authentic primitivism.
In the art of Mikhail Rzhannikov one can find traces of the official portraits of Soviet times. Mikhail Alexandrovich Rzhannikov was born in 1930 in the village of Bilimbai, in the Ural Mountains. When he was thirteen years old, he began to work to support his mother and two sisters. After graduation from technical college, he was sent to work in the city of Lipetsk. He began painting in the 1970s, on a bet.
All of his paintings are devoted to memories of nature found in his birth place, and they are distinctive in their use of intense, rich colours and rather rough drawings. Furthermore, Rzhannikov is an accomplished graphic painter, whose sometimes grotesque faces and figures are not easily forgotten.
Rzhannikov is also a master of portraits, which invariably follow the typologies of the official Soviet genre. He painted portraits of Lenin and Stalin for himself, not on order. He became disappointed with Stalin later on, but his love for Lenin has continued until the present day.
The colourful formation of Rzhannikov’s work is in many ways related to the first Russian picturesque signboards, which he most likely never saw. His striving toward exaggeration is a leading force in his work as well as the desire to show the abundance and fullness of life, which was typical of the old Russian primitive masters. Rzhannikov’s still life paintings distinguish themselves from others in their splendour order, and often dominant strict symmetry. His landscapes with their chalky banks of the Chusovaya River, where he spent his childhood, are very decorative. Often in the landscapes one can find different scenes such as ”the hunt”, ”resting on the beach” or ”working on the farm”.
The faces of people portrayed in Rzhannikov’s art are usually ugly. Declining or reclining backwards under the force of gravity of his purely primitive schemes of constructed spaces, they are not attractive. But they are all of one tribe, and in their own way personify the image of the Russian people, similar to the way they are presented in the prose of the Russian writer, Andrei Platonov. Among Rzhannikov’s paintings, the theme of the ”triumphant veteran” stands out and is personified in two ways: a veteran who participated in the war (a group to which the artist did not belong), and his interpretation of a veteran who is the senior in his group. His honouring of veterans is his way of approaching the foundation of life. In one of his paintings one can find a huge table set for a festive gathering, which stands in contrast to the veteran himself. But except for a young girl, who presents the veteran with a bouquet of flowers, nobody else appears on the painting. The triumph of the festive, almost sacrificial table, over people gives the painting a tense and expressive nature. It is perceived not as a work of art which reflects ”ordinary life”, but as a scene of ritual.
Rzhannikov’s painting, with all its elegance and fullness of colour, occasionally scares viewers away with its tension. In them there is neither a drop of sweetness, nor a striving toward beauty, which is occasionally found in amateur art.
Elena Andreevna Volkova was born in 1915. Her city of birth is Chuguev, located not far from Kharkov, the old cultural centre of the Ukraine. In Chuguev lived the last remaining living representative of the Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1920s, Vasily Ermolaev. He was the first to whom Elena Andreevna’s son showed a childlike still life painted by his mother, and he was one who could appreciate the power of primitivism, to which the avant-garde continually gravitated. He became the first admirer of Elena Andreevna’s paintings and, thanks to this, she was encouraged to take a more serious approach to her art work.
Elena Andreevna Volkova recreates in her paintings the happy view of the world she had in her childhood. Neither events nor facts, but bright images and sensations forever present in her soul are reflected in her art work. Chuguev, the city of the Cossacks, was the birth place of the famous Russian artist, Ilya Repin. Paintings from his early adolescent years were to be found in the Malinovsky and Kamensky churches, but were destroyed in the 1950s. Before starting to talk about Elena Andreevna, it is worth taking a look at the past of her city of birth as described in Repin’s memoirs, ”Far – Near”. The following is a description of the well-remembered room in a house in the vicinity of Chuguev, which belonged to a church warden: ”In the bright parlor hung many painted lithographs covered with glass, and sheets of lubok prints with amusing subjects were glued to the white walls simply using moist pieces of bread. On the chalky surface that covered the enormous stoves there were bold and beautiful drawings done by female and ”virgin” hands. … Behind large icons stood already dried large bouquets of flowers. All the ceilings and walls were adroitly decorated half way with fragrant dry herbs.” This description helps us understand the deep source of Elena Andreevna’s creativity. She herself says: ”All that I paint at this time on my canvas was born in me since my childhood. This was my dream. I have observed everything and recorded my impressions from my childhood until today. I never overlook a thing of beauty, and I like all that I see around me. Everything is beautiful in its own way.”
Elena Andreevna’s perception of life from her childhood and youth was formed by a unique but fully organic combination of a traditional worldview connected with the little changing way of life of the 1920s. On the one hand, faith, church festivals, fairs, and on the other hand, the new aspects of Soviet life – club visits, participation in amateur art and work with her husband in the showing of movies.
But her most vivid memories concern her early childhood, life in a family with many members. Her mother had 18 children, of which Elena Andreevna was the seventh. The family lived on an island located on the ”Northern Donetz” river, not far from the river bank. Her grandfather was the most well-known scuba diver in the city and worked as a lifeguard as well. His chest was covered with gold medals he had received for saving the lives of drowning swimmers. He took care of the boats and swimming areas and at the same time was responsible for everything involving his household. This manly profession was passed on to Elena Andreevna’s father, who was of especially good health.
They called him Andrei Stepanovich Pastukhov. On the island where his house stood, a footbridge was built connecting it to another small island and further on, a planked walkway to the riverbank. One could lift up several boards on the bridge and remain, like a fortress, inaccessible surrounded by water. The land around the house was often flooded and very fertile. There was a vegetable garden and horse for ploughing as well as cows, goats and chickens. In the spring, melting ice flowed in the river right next to the barn. The river water almost reached the windows. All of this topography of her house of birth, its surroundings, small animals and birds become alive in Elena Andreevna’s art, the riverbank, water, river, animals, fish and vegetables from the garden become her favorite motifs for painting.
The combination of her childhood love for animals, soft humour and unusual portrait-like individuality of each animal, if one can call it that, makes her works particularly unique. But if one takes a closer look, these animals are not so simple. The beasts of Elena Andreevna can be interpreted in different ways, but one thing is certain – these animal portraits attract the viewers the most and have greatly increased the number of naive art admirers.
In Elena Andreevna’s art the wolf, of course, plays the role of the totemic animal. It is not likely that he is a part of the memories from life in northern Donetz. But since he emerged as if on his own, it is appropriate to remember his cultural ancestors. In the Middle Ages Russian culture, animals, plants and birds appeared either in their traditional and poetic form, or in their religious and didactic aspects. This allowed them to be used in all genres of art: cult, palace and the handicraft art work for the masses. The wolf and dog often merge into one mythology. This subject is associated with the metamorphosis and the likening of human beings to animals. Typical of Russian writers of the 19th century was the likening of dogs to a person from the common people. Animals, like the common people, are those who express the true power of nature in contrast to the person whose behavior is based on social instincts. In this way that Russian tradition distinguishes itself from western European tradition. Dogs were heroes of stories written by the well-known Russian writers, Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekov. Characteristic of western and partly of German tradition (most clearly expressed in Herman Hesse’s book, ”Steppenwolf”), was the opposition of humanity as a personification of common sense, to the wolf, who trampled on all moral laws. If the dog, in Russian literature, represented a common person, the wolf, in Herman Hesse’s book, symbolized a lonely, intelligent outsider.
The world view of Herman Hesse’s heroes, whose initials coincide with the author’s own name, can be compared with the perception of reality of the German expressionist painters. One of them, Franz Marc, said that he would like to see the landscape through the eyes of an animal. The unrefined and rough nature of Steppenwolf interested German artists, and an attraction to primitivism, to the painting of wild animals and irrationality, awoke in them.
Elena Andreevna’s ”wolf” is a symbol of Russian national strength, similar to what was created in Russian literature. He exists in two forms. The first, and the earlier version, shows a bluish, enigmatic beast, who is continually staring at and observing the viewer, as if he is ready to jump out of the painting and protect his master like a faithful dog. The second, and later version, is that of a sweet little domesticated wolf, lying at the edge of a fairy-tale forest surrounded by berries and mushrooms. The animals created by the artist can be repeatedly seen in many of her paintings. And the further they are from their originally shown appearance, the softer and more toy-like their image becomes. The energy of dark spaces unconsciously penetrates the most powerful art works of the 1970s. It is reincarnated in the engaging genre of Elena Adreevna’s later works, similar to the way an ancient myth is transformed into a child’s fairy tale.
Alexander Alexandrovich Belikh (born in 1941) is a native of Siberia. The taiga and events surrounding it is one of the main themes of his art work. If one considers Elena Andreevna and Leonov to be established painters from whom one knows what to expect, then Belikh’s talent is still in a stage of development. One observes how with every painting he gains more and more maturity, new themes appear and old themes take on new details. Belikh started to paint at the beginning of the 1980s, but his work was interrupted several times by his travels to the Zabaikal region. There, in the capital of Buryatia Ulan–Ude, he studied at the theatrical institute. Belikh considers himself not only to be an artist, but also a creative personality of universal character. He is also a stage manager, writer of plays and poetry and is confident in his talents as an actor. However, it is his works of art which attract the most attention. His themes are based on a mixture of sex and stories of violence, as well as on the nature of his colouring and the plasticity of his figures – it is close to ”art brut”. Belikh is far from being an outsider in his sense of consciousness, despite his unusual view of life. In his work several groups of paintings stand out. The first one includes his small still life paintings or portraits, made from photos. Among them his portraits are especially attractive, which are made from black and white photos and are noteworthy for their particularly pearl colouring. Their heroes are given both grotesque as well as characteristic traits, and Belikh perceives them to be as exact as in a photo.
Another of his genres reflects a variety of scenarios: ”In the taiga”, ”There is no return”, ”The bear attack”, ”The regret”, are paintings created from fantasy based only on stories heard by the author. They are united by drama, images of naked, distorted human bodies, with exaggerated hands and fee and unusual dark colouring with bright flashes of yellow and green tones.
Belikh’s rarest genre includes his larger paintings, which unite various subjects into one symbolic narrative. If Leonov’s paintings are always seen as a whole decorative composition, the works of Belikh can be perceived as splinters of an imaginary world with fights between wild beasts, fatal women and exotic flowers. Belikh, in his spirit, is a rare type of artistic visionary in Russian art, who can be remotely compared to such masters as Goya and Füssli.
Vasily Tikhonovich Romanenkov was born in 1953 in the vicinity of Smolensk. He began painting in 1975, starting with oils, and then later dedicated himself strictly to drawings. Romanenkov distinguishes himself from other painters in his unique, scrupulous drawing technique, in which he uses pencils and ballpoint pens. He is an artist-philosopher. His favorite themes are the reflections on the life cycle of human generations: birth – death, baptisms – funerals, childhood – old age. His ornamental drawings often fit into a circle, which is, at the same time, an important symbol and formal element in the construction of his compositions. ”When I work”, says the artist”, it is as if someone is prompting me, as if someone from the cosmos is directing me.”
The fine technique of Romanenkov’s graphic compositions reminds many of the weaving of lace. But this weaving of lines and ornaments, in contrast to the soft lace material, is always rough in structure. He draws on paper that is glued to a sheet of carton to achieve the sensation of drawing on a hard base with pencil. His compositions themselves, which he often unites in a series of three, seven and more, are perceived by the artist to be similar to the icons, which are united to form triptychs and polyptychs. Short narratives were still the subject of Romanenkov’s early drawings, but, with time, his personages become like the ones appearing in icons. The subjects themselves become iconographic and cross over from painting to painting. Among examples of these works, the clearest connection to archaic art is found in his paintings of the sun; trees – the tree of life; and the mother – the ancient Earth Mother, a symbol of fertility.
It is interesting to note that the style of Romanenkov’s geometric drawings is completely original. His large-headed figures, drawn to be seen only from the front or in profile, and his trees and constructions have no analogy in Russian icon or folk art. His finely drawn symbols resembling hieroglyphics, cover people’s clothing, and in the words of the artist, fixate their thoughts and conversations among themselves. The artist uses ornamental elements as his own individual code, which only he can decipher.
Vasily Vasilievich Grigoriev (1914-1994) started to paint and sell his paintings at markets in Moscow at a very young age (1930s). His bright, very decorative compositions, consisting mainly of landscape and still life paintings, are closer to Russian folk art than the work of other painters, and to primitivism in its early 20th century form. Scenes of the hunt, swans swimming on a pond, a mermaid, and a landscape with birch trees – these are the classical themes of traditional folk art which Grigoriev revived and continued to use from 1980-1990. He painted with oil on canvas and produced many beautiful oil paintings on paper as well as plywood. Plywood and paper, in contrast to canvas, were more typically used in ancient primitivism. Grigoriev painted quickly using wide brush strokes, and included the same elements in different paintings in a variety of forms. Among his most loved subjects, based on memories from his youth, is the ”Market in Kirzhach” – a winter panoramic landscape full of movement and figures. His still life paintings are beautiful, painted on a bright blue or warm ochre background with the image of a white vase, a pike on a plate, a bottle of wine and fruit.
Vaagn Sakiyan (born in 1932), an Armenian of nationality, was born in the village of Zangezur in the Caucasus region. The view of the Caucasus Mountains, with a donkey walking along a pathway, became one of his favorite subjects, and when he retired he started to sell his paintings at Moscow’s open-air Ismailovo market. Sakiyan repeated his subjects using variations. Among the most popular is the ”Banya” theme with its images of naked women and the Biblical story, ”Escape into Egypt”. His works portraying ”Noah’s Ark” are of notable interest, in the background of which one can see the symbol of Armenia – the Ararat Mountain.
Aleksei Vladimirovich Kondratenko (born in 1938 in the Orenbourg region) remembers from his childhood the Orthodox Church, which was transformed into a club where, from above, the dancing komsomols were watched by the ”gods”, as the artist describes it. His religious and historical themes distinguish Kondratenko from other artists. He steps forth as an eyewitness of history and sometimes even tries to ”correct” it. Religious subjects are far from being canonic; certain vague ”gods” often appear in Kondratenko’s paintings along with visitors from the cosmos, tsars and a variety of historical personages. Kondratenko paints using a dark and warm range of colours, presenting his subjects with much expression and fantasy. He often does not paint his compositions to the end, and the figures appear as colourful spots as if from a mirage, dissolving in it. This uncertainty is similar to fragments of a dream, and the artist retells his subjects like dreams, losing the details, uncertain, remembering, first of all, his own feelings and emotions, which reawaken in the process of the creation of his works. One can regard his historical portraits of Russian tsars, being among his most successful works, having been inspired through the reading of popular novels.
Vladimir Ivanovich Makarov (born in 1930) had always dreamed of becoming an artist. All his life he worked in science and approached art as an amateur at an older age. He is a master of city life compositions. Lyrical and amusing scenes, as well as episodes that can be observed in the street, bring across the main aspects of his character: love for life and a sense of humor. He loves to paint interiors as well – from cities and villages – allowing the viewers to take part in the family ”way of life” typical of that area. Most of his paintings can be seen as short novels, told with a unique, inimitable intonation. The temperamental character of the artist is revealed in the tense, colourful formation of his paintings, and a touch of grotesque occasionally appears along with primitive angular faces and figures. While praising the beauty and joy of life, the artist carefully listens to those ”notes” which resound in his soul instead of imitating somebody else.
Katya (Ekaterina Ivanovna) Medvedyeva (born in 1937) is the most well-known painter of naive art in Russia and abroad. Her fame can be partly attributed to the fact that foreign art collectors discovered her in Moscow, and one of them took hundreds of her art works to Germany. The artist grew up in an orphanage, finished textile school and worked at a textile factory. In her youth she sang, wrote poetry and at the age of 40 began to paint. Medvyedeva paints very quickly, a picture a night. She paints with fluid paints directly on the canvas, often adding a title or her signature with brisk brush strokes. Her drawings are wonderful. Much of her work is done on specially purchased expensive material: velvet, brocaded material and textured silk. She occasionally glues lace to the surface of her paintings.
The artist has several favourite themes: ”she, herself”, ”artists in general”, ”the poet, Pushkin”, ”ballet and famous ballerinas” as well as what concerns her at the time, e.g. what she has read or seen on television. Medvedyeva spreads throughout her work the deep longings of a woman’s soul: her dreams, desires and impressions of happiness and beauty. Therefore, her paintings are very much liked by women, attracting them with their relaxed style and poetry. Sometimes her works, especially the signatures in them, appear too didactic and her self-expression seems to be somewhat pretentious, but this style reflects the manners in those classes of society she was raised in – from a provincial orphanage and female dormitories to a bohemian life in Moscow.
Other examples of modern city art for women can be found in the works of Alevtina Dmitrievna Pizhova (born 1936 in Moscow). She began to paint in 1991 and became well-known as a result of her participation in a competition on television. Before she started painting, her creativity was limited to the interior decoration of houses, for example, in the painting of trays and the carving of small statues. Despite her outspoken hatred of men, one of her main themes is eroticism, with many naked woman’s bodies and moral themes. Her striking works of an anti-communist nature portray Lenin and Stalin as perpetrators of evil. The majority of her paintings are executed with rich expression and a pressing, psychic energy, but some are full of quiet and transparent feelings and psychological understanding, as shown in her portrait of ”Nikolai II With His Sons” or city landscapes. Among her themes are illustrations of Russian proverbs. Her expressive work with stiff-faced dolls is close to kitsch, but her quiet compositions belong to primitivism. Since Pizhova is allergic to oil paints (she has been an invalid since childhood and has difficulty walking), she mixes her pigments herself, and works mainly on argillite and plywood. These factors explain the unique colouring of her painting. Exotic herbs and wood in her backgrounds belong to the many merits of her work, although she herself does not understand their value.
We have presented here a series of short accounts on the most well-known and original Russian naive artists. The number of talented artists in Russia is much greater. In the large mass of naive, amateur and partly professional art work, it is necessary to identify the authentic original paintings. It is exactly this type of work which has been collected for the exhibition in the Charlotte Zander Museum.
The artists mentioned above incorporate in their work various degrees of modern naive art and some of them, according to western terminology, are considered to be outsiders. Despite their stylistic differences, we should note the particular criteria on which our selection of artists for this exhibition was based.
None of the artists were professionally educated, and they did not incorporate any methods of structure or subject development typical of academic art in their paintings. They all possess a strong individuality, differentiating themselves from others in their unique worldview, which is at times strange and eccentric. Their mode of life and habits associated with their social class did not change when they acquired fame as artists.
In the paintings of many, one can see the connection between the motives of traditional folk art and the deeper archetypes of traditional folk culture. As in the preserved work of traditional art, all of their work has been carried out in a profoundly serious manner, carrying, at times, coded or symbolic meanings.
The art work of Russian naive artists distinguishes itself from many other recognized European naive artists in its absence of uniformity, entertainment and amusement. In them one can sense the still preserved archaic power of untamed primitivism.
Xenia Bogemskaya, Aleksei Turchin