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Art History

Nikolai Vechtomov
Text Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

rtist Nikolai Vechtomov died on July 2, 2008, at the age of 84 after a lifetime of ordeals. A veteran of World War II, Vechtomov was a member of the non-conformist Lianozovo Group, the circle of artists who opposed the mandated socialist realism tradition in Soviet art. (Vechtomov, however, did not participate in the famous “bulldozer exhibition” of underground art in 1974, considering that works of art should be exhibited in museums and galleries and not in the open air.)

As an artist, he earned condemnation from Communist Party functionaries, who accused him of creating works that “did not inspire but instead discouraged the Soviet people in their heroic labor.” The founder of the Russian branch of surrealism, Vechtomov created cosmic landscapes, transferring the universe of his mind onto the canvas.

Born in Moscow in 1923, Vechtomov finished secondary school on June 22, 1941, the day the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union, drawing the USSR into World War II. During the war, he fought in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and spent time in a German POW camp. (In fact, Vechtomov was held in the same POW camp near Dresden as American pilot Kurt Vonnegut, who would go on to write such classics as Slaughterhouse-Five.) Vechtomov managed to escape from the camp, heading to Prague, where his uncle, a well-known cellist, lived.

What he saw while walking through the Czech countryside at night would reappear in his artwork — the road, the stars, the sky, the moon. For half a year he hid in his uncle’s apartment, but eventually grew restless and joined the Resistance. After another arrest and stint in a Nazi prison, he again managed to escape and make his way back to Moscow.

In 1951, Vechtomov graduated from art school, where his fellow students included young talents such as Vladimir Nemukhin, Lidia Masterkova (see May and June issues of Passport, respectively), and Mikhail Rohinsky. At this time, Vechtomov’s landscapes were in the best tradition of the Moscow School: thick layers of paint, powerful brushstrokes, and clear colors. But in his search for selfexpression, Vechtomov soon rejected the large format of the Moscow School, opting instead for small pieces of cardboard on which he experimented with lines and texture.

Construction: The Sun 1989

In 1958, he painted his famous Requiem, dedicated to the victims of the Great Patriotic War. This work lends itself to multiple interpretations: joy and the brightness of an open space dissolving into a threatening alien form, which upsets the harmony. The artist himself explained Requiem as “…a breakthrough, the piercing blow of a fire force tearing the thickness of the dark...mass — and victory, because the death of the dark is inevitable.” Today the work is part of the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection.

The main colors of Vechtomov’s works are black and red or black and blue. The complicated red of Requiem’s background contrasts with the complicated black and pure orange. The double contrast introduces into this abstract composition enormous passions, the spiritual breakthrough of a seemingly calm human soul. Vechtomov’s form is laconic, the color emotionally saturated, and the texture of his painting smooth (one critics has described it as “lacquer”).

In 1961 he organized his first solo show in his mother’s flat, which was followed by a series of displays abroad — in Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Austria, France, Britain, Japan, the USA, Denmark and … Moscow. During the recent years the artist has shown his works at the Tretyakov Gallery, at the State Literary Museum in Moscow, at the Fine Art gallery and many other galleries and exhibition halls.

Vechtemov, who traveled extensively, found mysticism wherever he went: from the “black waves” of the Pacific Ocean to the “ancient wall” of the Rostov Kremlin. The mystical cosmos, moons, suns, and waves pulsate in his phantasmal red spaces. For Vechtemov, the setting sun and moonare not concrete cultural associations but symbols. In his early sketches, done after a trip to the Crimea, the contours of cypress trees are crowned by the circles of the moon as if surrounded by halos.

Artist Lev Kropivnitsky (profiled in Passport’s August issue) wrote that Vechtomov’s canvases are “windows open to an unknown world — not a transcendental world or even a world of dreams or the subconscious, but a world of the cosmos, yet not the cosmos of science fiction writers.”

Today the paintings of Vechtomov are scattered around the world. Five years ago, the Tretyakov Gallery sought to mount an exhibition to mark Vechtomov’s 80th birthday, but unfortunately pieces representing the entire range of his work could not be gathered together for the retrospective exhibit. Only 60 graphical works from the late 1950s and early 1960s were exhibited.

The artist once told his friend Vladimir Nemukhin, “We live in the dark and have already got used to it; we can even see things in it. But we get the light from up there...It gives us energy...That’s why what is important for me is not the objects themselves, but their reflections. When I die I’d like to be buried not in the Earth, but on an asteroid.”

Today Nikolai Vechtomov is considered a classic of post-war Russian art. His strange cosmic landscapes of endless flickering spaces and thick, black organic spots are perceived as alarming prophecies not unlike those of Nosrtadamus. They leave behind the petty rows and disagreements of the Earth.

The opinions of the Soviet authorities notwithstanding, the timelessness of Vechtomov’s images has ensured his work a place in the history of 20thcentury Russian art. In years to come, the young are unlikely to have the names Khrushchev or Brezhnev on the tips of their tongues, but the paintings of Vechtomov will be there in the best museums for people to appreciate the eternal mind of a genius.

Full Moon 1990

The Sky No. 1 1989

The road 1983

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