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Art History

Viktor Ufimtsev: The Archive
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

A Cubic Portrait of Seated Girl, 1921. Pencil, watercolors (35.5x21).
From the collection of Y.M. Noskov,

he GaleevGallery is currently displaying the archive of artist Viktor Ufimtsev (1899-1964) – diaries, photos, drawings, collages and paintings, which have become accessible only recently. Ufimstev is a complicated figure in the history of art and cannot be simply labeled a Soviet artist. His archive is further evidence of that. His diaries are a rare documentary guide into the artist’s inner world.

Ufimtsev’s youth coincided with the 1917 Revolution and futurism, one of the main directions in art of those times, of which he was an ardent adherent. Futurism was more than a conception for him – it was a position, a gesture, a symbol, an element of the renewal. Ufimtsev lived in the town of Omsk where he was noticed and encouraged by the leader of futurism – famous artist David Burliuk. Viktor Ufimtsev’s first exhibitions were on fences. He painted on fences and organized exhibitions of that kind of painting.

Ufimtsev’s archive is priceless since it is a reflection of the epoch. It consists of two parts: his diaries (his spontaneous thoughts, feelings and emotions) and the artist’s reminiscences, which he prepared for a book at the end of the 1950s. The book, published posthumously, is called “Talking About Myself” while the diaries have been closed for us until now. They are all the more precious because no censorship or editing has ever been done to the original texts.

Ufimtsev was true to an old and good tradition – to describe every day and hour. Thanks to his meticulousness we can restore the chronology in detail and imagine those events. Ufimtsev was an eager traveler and a gifted literary person. He wrote about his adventures with rapture.

In 1921 he participated in a trip along the rivers of Siberia. He visited the art museum in Barnaul and was astounded and inspired by the creativity of Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Alexander Osmyorkin and Ilya Mashkov. After this trip, he organized three exhibitions within six months, which caused great shock waves in this Siberian city.

A Street in Tashkent, 1930s.
Paper, Indian ink, brush, feather (25x36).
From a private collection

The next year he decided to move to somewhere where there would be no stagnation, but only knots of nerves. He choice fell on Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has always been a popular place for artists wishing to sacrifice philistine welfare for the change and adventure of an exotic land. Ufimtsev and his friend Mamontov appeared in the East as counter Kulturträgers looking not for their daily bread, but dying to quench the lust of life. Reading his diaries one inevitably has associations with the followers of futurism – the beatniks, hippies, hitchhikers and punks, whose anarchic rhetoric opposes bourgeois values.

If one compares the texts of Ufimtsev’s reminiscences with his diaries one is inclined to think that they are written by two different persons. His reminiscences are all about being in a traveler’s club with an Asian slant – uriyk (dry apricot), aryk (a well), verblyud (a camel), ishak (a donkey)... while his dairies disclose the difficulties of adapting to local conditions and give away the author’s sincere nostalgia for Omsk. Another example is his visit to an exhibition of Alexander Volkov in Tashkent. His dairies show his active inacceptance of Volkov’s style while the memoirs sing praises to Volkov, the innovator.

By the end of the 1950s Ufimtsev, a successful representative of official art fighting against so-called “formalism” and blessed by the powers to be, began to imitate his own style of the 1920s. We find collages in his archive done in the style of constructivist photo editing. He consciously did not put a date on them, thus trying to mislead future researchers. The only hint of the time are fragments of newspapers revealing the year of 1958. In this art of slogans, Vladimir Mayakovsky was the clear genius, but Ufimtsev also tried his hand at it.

“Pieces of Life” series.
Album 13. Nov 1924-Feb 1925

By the 1950s, Ufimtsev acquired two models of expression: his official exhibitions, whose content was Soviet patriotic pathos, and his lyrical diaries as an experimenter. For example, his gouaches were inspired by his impressions of trips to India, Tunisia and Afghanistan. They are so simple and laconic that they bring associations with his series of the 1920s-1930s called “Turksib”, which is now part of two Uzbek museums – the Nukus and the Tashkent.

Another interesting part of his archive is his famous series “Pieces of Life”. Small water color sketches which date back to 1923, to the times of his first Turkestan expedition. The artist drew the events of his life and wrote short explanations right on the pictures. The text in them plays a special role becoming part of art. There are at least 13 albums in the series called “Pieces of Life”, each of which has several dozen pictures.

Before his trip to Turkestan, Ufimtsev had managed to go to Moscow where he became well acquainted with modern art, poetry and theater. That experience became a driving force for the young artist. We learn from his diary that Ufimtsev was familiar with the originals of Kandinsky, Rozanova and Malevich. The Revolution brought a variety of choices into art. Although Ufimtsev had mastered all the ‘isms’ by that time – starting with impressionism and ending up with the shift of form and the ironic paradox of David Burliuk – his art was domineered by the folk style of lubok. Unfortunately, the “Pieces of Life” series has never been displayed. It was the artist’s inner monologue, his family chronicle. Ufimtsev was afraid to show the series to anyone, because it revealed his naked lyricism bordering on lack of patriotism.

The 1940s-1950s became his inner drama, which resulted in the limitation of his practice both as a painter and a drawer and this all told on his health. He often involved assistants to paint huge patriotic canvases. In the chronicles of his life he mentions his epic canvases saying that he “destroyed them later”. In the 1920s he was part of the artistic process of his generation however by the 1940s and 1950s he could only repeat whatever had already been invented in art in the 1920s.

One cannot make out his attitude to the then-tragic pages of Soviet history. He might have taken such a strategy for the sake of self-security or maybe just because he was sick and tired of ideology in general. He was racked between the duty of a people’s Socialist artist and his awareness of the impossibility of achieving freedom of expression. He died in 1964, and with him died the era of artists-experimenters in the East.

From “The Photo Edit”.
The Falling Minaret, 1958

Ufimtsev used to experiment in photography too. He photographed his trips to Tunisia, Afghanistan and India as well as members of his family and colleagues in art. The historic value of his photos is indeed high.

Tribute must be paid to Ildar Galeev, owner of the gallery hosting this exhibition. Ufimtsev’s archive is displayed with love, care and professionalism. During the opening, lucky visitors enjoyed not only the oriental fragrance of Ufimtsev’s art, but also Uzbek plov (meat and rice). An art album, published for the opening by Ildar Galeev, carefully introduces Ufimtsev’s archive to the reader revealing not only a unique insight into the artist’s world, but into that era of Soviet life and art. The display and the album “Ufimtsev: Archive” marks the 110th anniversary of the artist’s birth and will be presented in the Omsk Art Museum in October 2009.

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