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Russian art of the 1960s. Part III
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Film director Alexander Rumnev and art critic Ilya Tsirlin started to display works of the younger generation of artists— Anatoly Zverev, Mikhail Kulakov, Dmitry Plavinsky and Alexander Kharitonov— in their work spaces. This was a big step forward because no official gallery would condescend to look at their work.

These were the artists who introduced the atmosphere of Parisian attics into Moscow art scene of that period. The basements and gateways of Arbat Street were “infected”, so to speak, with the spirit of Montparnasse and Moulin Rouge. These three artists’ God-given talents, plus their passion for alcohol, challenged the ubiquitous, grave Soviet constraint on art and created a carnival atmosphere.

The three were completely different stylistically. Anatoly Zverev used a free style which utilised fetching minimalism from Chinese painting and the vital energy of French art. Dmitry Plavinsky worked in a meticulous, almost “Общая лексика” jewellery-like way on detail. He also used a special approach to structure, which was quite outrageous at the time. Then there was the romantic primitivism of Kharitonov, which fitted into the group’s bohemian existence very well.

Anatoly Zverev

Mikhail Kulakov

Dmitry Plavinsky

Zverev and Plavinsky amazed not only the Moscow elite, but Western connoisseurs of art, for example, José David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jean Paul Sartre. This duet created many Moscow legends about how they created their masterpieces, and there many love affairs. Somewhat different from the stylistically, but also wholly in the spirit of the Russian carnival tradition was the artist Vasily Sitnikov. He looked like a Holy Fool, or a pilgrim, or simply a madman wearing his bast shoes and fetters, and carrying a string bag over his shoulder. That was his way to shock post-Stalin Moscow and visiting foreigners.

That carnival clan attracted the attention of a group of artists, poets and literateurs who gravitated around Vladimir Yakovlev, a semi-blind person suffering from deep depressions, but possessing unusual insight. Being almost totally without a visual relationship with the outer world, Yakovlev created his own world, tragically expressive, charged and self-sufficient. Portraits, landscapes, abstract compositions and flowers seen only by him reflected his inner world. His works witnessed his vulnerability, childish openness and the sufferings of his soul. The unusual energy of his works, the colourist richness of his images and his non-communicative existence attracted extraordinary people. Among them were poet Gennady Aigi, film critic V. Sveshnikov who became a priest later and N. Kotlyerev, a well-known specialist in Russian symbolism today. It also attracted the artists who saw madness as a form of exposed suffering and a cure-all: I .Voroshilov, A. Babichenko and V. Pyatnitsky.

The young artist Vladimir Pyatnitsky created a grotesque world of physical deformity. However, unlike Yakovlev, his world, no matter how conditional it might be, was always concrete and socially defined. His art reflected the lives of the generation whose fathers perished during the war or in Stalin’s camps. That was a horrible world of tramps, hunch-backs and other ugly creatures. The artist was not remote from that world, but part of it.

Pyatnitsky’s images would be transcribed later in the creativity of Vyacheslav Kalinin, another strong representative of that circle of Moscow Bohemian artists.

A group of survivors from Stalin’s camps settled in the small town of Tarusa on the Oka river, 130km from Moscow. They were not allowed to live in Moscow. Among them were artists Arkady Steinberg and Boris Sveshnikov whose formative years were spent in the same camp zone. Next to Steinberg lived writer Konstantin Paustovsky with his family. Tarusa turned into a centre of cultural life. Those creative people published the Tarusskiye Stranitsy magazine (“Tarusa Pages”). Many well-known writers came to Tarusa, for example, poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, Nadezhda Mandelshtam (Osip Mandelshtam’s wife), A. Tsvetayeva-Efron (the daughter of Marina Tsvetayeva) and the nucleus of the writers of the 1960s: Yuri Kazakov, Vladimir Maksimov and Bulat Okudzhava. In 1962 Plavinsky also settled in Tarusa. He was often visited by Zverev and Kharitonov.

Steinberg’s house became a unique exotic happening, filled with books, wooden carved sculpture and his own and Sveshnoikov’s paintings. He was attracted by romantic landscape painting in the spirit of Claude Lorrain and Max Voloshin and was familiar with the painting technologies of the old masters. His general cultural background, his experiences in the camps and his non-pragmatic attitude towards art made him the spiritual leader of the young.

Alexander Kharitonov

Konstantin Paustovsky

Vladimir Maksimov

While Steinberg was an ideologist and an enlightener, Sveshnikov was a living incarnation of the myth of an artist fervently devoted to his art. Sveshnikov’s constant activity, as well as his series of drawings from the camps that had survived by pure chance added to the artistic atmosphere in Tarusa. His series of drawings, The White Epos (as A.D. Sinyavsky called them), were reminiscent of the old masters in their serene contemplations of the world, and the natural acceptance of death. The influence of Sveshnikov on young artists was enormous at that time. It is evident in the works of Kharitonov, Plavinsky and Kalinin.

The creativity of artist Eduard Steinberg, Arkady’s son, was also formed in Tarusa. Together with some other young artists he later organized the first free exhibition in the House of Culture in Tarusa. Eduard Steinberg had no knowledge of academic drawing. His attention was concentrated in the expressive manner of Van Gogh and Vlamink. Later he became interested in religious and philosophic issues. By 1970, that metaphysical thinking had taken the form of geometric compositions verging on the mysticism of Russian symbolism and the figurative manner of Kazimir Malevich.

Although Sveshnikov and Steinberg moved to Moscow at the beginning of the 1960s, the ideas they conceived in Tarusa stoked their further creativity. The “oбщая лексика” of the concrete and the eternal, of existence and culture, of nature on Earth and in outer space, which ws so characteristic of the Tarusa School, became part of Moscow art life in the 1960s and early 1970s.

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