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Art History

Anatoly Zverev: the Black Tulip of the Moscow Underground
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Nasyas Portrait 1971

Today the leading art critics call Anatoly Zverev (1931-1997) the most original Russian artist of the 20th century. Zverev was able to unite and blend all the previous epochs trends in painting. One can debate this point, but one thing is absolutely clear: Anatoly Zverev belonged to the group of artists who were creating according to the laws of their own inner consciousness regardless of political and social constraints, the fashion of the times or even expectation of commercial success for their works.

He was born of an invalid mother and a proletariat worker on November 3, 1931. In 1954 he was enrolled at the 1905 Art School (named after the 1905 Revolution), but was expelled for his unruly, anarchistic behavior. One can say he was actually a self-taught artist. He was greatly influenced by the Exhibition at the International Festival of Youth staged in Moscow in 1957 which displayed abstract art for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union. An art competition was announced. A man wearing old shoes, a wrinkled jacket and a funny hat took part. After he painted not more than several brush strokes the chairman of the jury, Mexican artist Sikeiros, awarded him the Gold Medal. The man was Anatoly Zverev. Thus an outcast, who was not fit for the socialist realism tradition, a person who had been expelled from art school and made a meagre living painting fences in the Moscow amusement parks, was declared the winner of this prestigious competition. The Soviet authorities did their best to suppress this fact, but the news

Don Quixote 1971

became wellknown and the popularity of Zverev began.

Even before the Festival when he had been painting in Sokolniki Park, Zverev attracted the attention of an actor from the Tairov Theater, Alexander Rumnev, who introduced him to the Moscow art galleries and whose home became Zverevs home. Later through the composer Andrey Volkonsky, Zverevs works became known to Georgy Kostaki the 1950s collector of the Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s.

Zverev did many sketches and drawings in Kostakis home. For example, he did over 100 drawings in Indian ink illustrating The Golden Ass by Apuleius in just one night. The natural expressiveness of his manner was also due to lots of vodka, to which the young artist was very much addicted. As for portraits he did them by the thousands and was happy to sell them for one to three rubles each. In Kostakis home Zverev attracted the attention of the world famous conductor Igor Markevich who was stunned by the spontaneous artistry of the Russian Matisse. In 1965 Markevich organized Zverevs solo exhibition in Paris without obtaining any agreements from the Soviet authorities. Another important figure in his life was the widow of the poet Nikolai Assev, who saw a spontaneous gift of creative energy in the artist.

When he was once asked how he lived, the artist said, I never lived. I existed. I only lived among those for whom I was painting and who were creating myths about me.

Zverev was homeless most of this time and he migrated around Moscow from one flat to another. In the artistic circles of the non-conformists and even among some of the official Moscow elite, diplomats and foreign correspondents, everybody wanted to have a portrait by Zverev. A little money or an offer of a couple of vodka bottles and the dream could come true.

A dog 1945

Quite often the news of Zverevs death flew around Moscow, but he re-appeared again and again perhaps not as energetic and fiery as he used to be and perhaps like someone going down for the third time. His was a self-destructive genius and he died on Dec. 9, 1986, in a small apartment in the Sviblovo district of Moscow.

As for his original style it was a naturally evolved artistic approach that was born from his watercolor landscapes dating back to the time of the Youth Festival, streams of light and color done by a very soft touch of the brush against the paper. The image was not aggressive. The drawings of birds and animals testify to the perfect clarity of the spontaneous gesture of the artist. They were done in the style of the masters of Ancient China.

The amazing number of works dating back to the 1960s reveals the hyper-energy of the artist, the unique activity of his image associations. The intense musicality of his semi-abstract canvases plus their texture and rhythm was unprecedented.

A Portrait 1967

In his works during the period when Aseeva took care of the artist one can see the color expansion calming down. His works are all about the light, but a light that is not decorative, rather a sign of unexpected lyrical serenity. The tender attitude towards nature and towards animals possibly originated from the artists childhood. It was there in his painting until the end of his life.

Most typical of his art were female portraits. Whether he worked in oil, watercolor or pencil, his portraits were impulsive and spontaneous. The act of painting was imbued with virtuosity, but as he wasted himself with drink and an unstable life, the energy of his artistic gesture began to evaporate. What was left was virtuosity by itself the volcano was extinct.

The difficult and yet beloved child of the Moscow artistic underground of the 1960s-1980s was beginning to waste away. Several months before his death Zverev finished an autobiography. It is not only a record of his life, but also a literary document and an exercise in calligraphy.

When he was once asked how he lived, the artist said, I never lived. I existed. I only lived among those for whom I was painting and who were creating myths about me.

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