PORTRAIT OF THE COLLECTOR IN HIS TIME
For a successful young Moscow lawyer like Aleksandr Kronik in the 1970s and 1980s, socializing with the artists of the Moscow underground was hardly an innocuous pastime. Collecting art, especially unsanctioned, «unofficial» art, was, by definition, suspect. But thanks to collectors like Kronik this art, which the state’s museums rejected out of hand, has been preserved. The Kronik collection reflects the collector’s scholarship and his tireless efforts as systematizer and exhibitor.
The unofficial art of the Soviet Union has been little studied. No standard academic treatment exists. In their own eyes, the artists of the underground totally rejected official Soviet tradition yet were nourished by its illusions. Life as an underground artist was a matter of choice, an expression of a world-view, not merely an accident of political or social circumstances.
Underground art takes in a wide variety of approaches and esthetic ideas, and this multiplicity is sometimes visible in the work of one and the same artist. Soviet unofficial art is usually divided into two stages: 1950s—1960s and 1970s—1980s. The distinction is not all that clear.
In the first period, artists of the Lionozovsky school and the circle of Ilya Kabakov sought to reconnect with the aborted traditions of pre-Soviet art, with modernist traditions, sought to reassert the value of personal experience and the «values of identity». It is a period of extraordinarily individualistic artists who fit none of the usual categories.
Unofficial 1960s art moved in two different directions. There was the realism of Mikhail Turetskii, Boris Roginskii, Ilya Kabakov, and the metaphysics-saturated work of Vladimir Yankilevskii, Dmitrii Plavinskii, Eduard Shteinberg. This is the period of Oskar Rabin’s version of Pop-Art and the beginnings of analytic art with its use of Soviet symbols and myths (Vagrich Bakhchanian, Mikhail Grobman).
The two tendencies, metaphysical and realist, take definite shape in the 1970s and 1980s: Moscow Conceptualism and Sots-Art. Both explore the symbolic language of Soviet society cooly and ironically.
Unofficial Soviet art felt its sense of alienation from modernist traditions and Western experience as tragic, and the anxiety experienced by the artists — individuals who deliberately chose to live at a remove from society — gives their art a particular tension and drama. These artists were little interested in politics. Most of them retreated to a private, interior world. Separation became a specific form of resistance to the Soviet ideological system. Life in a narrow circle of the likeminded, for artists deprived of any chance of communicating with the public, became a kind of spectacle, the creative process emerging as more important than its result.
Most of those who collected unofficial art in the 1970s and 1980s socialized with the artists. The Kronik collection is one such «living» collection. Almost all the artists whose work he collected were his friends.
The artists — Vladimir Yakovlev, Anatolii Zverev, Dmitrii Krasnopevtsev, Vladimir Nemukhin, Mikhail Kulakov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Vladimir Piatnitskii, Vasilii Sitnikov, Oskar Rabin and Nikita Gashunin — are quite unlike each other, are not part of a single artistic tendency. For each of them, however, art was not so much profession as a way of living, and each sought to convey the inner shape of the world that is accessible only to feeling and intuition. They are the «expressionist» line of «other art».
Vladimir Yakovlev is the central figure in the Kronik collection both in the number and quality of the work. No scholar interested in Yakovlev can afford to neglect the Kronik collection and its related archive. Next in importance in the collection is Anatolii Zverev, one of the Soviet underground’s most vivid and creative personalities and about whom legends abound. The Kronik collection contains a number of remarkable examples of Zverev’s spontaneous creations.
The Kronik collection also includes such rarities as a series of drawings and linocuts by Oskar Rabin and a cycle of early drawings by Vasilii Sitnikov. Dmitrii Krasnovpevtsev is represented in the collection by characteristically Krasnovpevtsev paintings as well as early graphics.
A special aspect of the Aleksandr Kronik collection is its inclusion, besides art of museum quality, of other materials that are indispensable to the art historian, though of little if any commercial value.
Twenty-five years ago, while reading up on the Impressionists, Aleksandr Kronik came to think there might be true creators and unrecognized geniuses closer to hand.
The first considerable artist whom Kronik came to know well was the brilliant Anatolii Zverev, walking legend and bohemian sage who sold his drawings and portraits for three rubles or a bottle of vodka. The Kronik collection started with the purchase of a picture by Zverev in the fall of 1984. The acquaintance quickly became a friendship, and the artist, unhappy at home, lived occasionally with his young friend, and that, in turn, led to a widening of the latter’s acquaintance with the circle of the Moscow underground. Kronik personally witnessed the fantastic speed and precision of Zverev at work. On one occasion, he watched as Zverev produced a marvellous drawing of a horse in 18 seconds.
Another artist who lived with Kronik for a time was Dmitrii Plavinskii, then trying to avoid arrest for «tuneiadstvo», or loafing (a criminal offense). Kronik met Vladimir Yakovlev in the winter of 1987. This extraordinarily gifted, nearly blind artist was largely confined to a psychiatric hospital. After his return from emigration in 1998, Kronik regularly visited Yakovlev at the hospital and began to buy his work.
Venedikt Yerofeev, author of the cult classic Moskva-Petushki, lived in a frame house that Kronik rented during the summer and part of the fall of 1987.
Every serious collector has his lucky finds. For Kronik this includes a friend’s discovery of a satchel containing 10 color etchings by Vladimir Yankilevskii. As he does of Yankilevski, Kronik also speaks with great warmth of his classmate, the sculptor Nikita Gashunin, whose remarkable persistence is embodied in his unique sculpture-objects made from children’s put-together constructions, nuts and bolts and old clock mechanisms. Kronik also assigns great importance to his friendship with the Moscow collector Igor Sanovich, whom he describes as a rare individual and the creator of a fantastic collection.
Collections have their material and spiritual sides, Kronik has written. The spiritual side takes in one’s experience of the life of the artistic community, personal relations with artists and collectors as well as the development of eye, taste and intuition. These may be the collector’s chief acquisitions.
On the Creative Work of Vladimir Yakovlev
The very special, almost unclassifiable creations of the Russian artist Vladimir Yakovlev are very much in keeping with the stylistic explorations of 20th-century art. But Yakovlev’s expressionism is neither a program nor a style but rather a powerful, direct eruption of feelings and emotions. The rhythms and lines of his brush express the inner and essential. Such unmediated expressionism, while characteristic of many artists of the Soviet underground of the 1960s, is particularly powerful in Yakovlev and Anatolii Zverev, who have to be linked. Both worked in utter sincerity and impulsively, without a glance at the history of art, which they nonetheless knew. Yakovlev’s creative work is both childishly direct and connected with the art culture of the world. His materials — oil, gouache, watercolors — are traditional, but one always senses the unstated, the concealed idea in the heightened expressivity of his work. Despite Yakovlev’s mental illness, nowhere is there a trace of the nervous or overwrought in his work. While Zverev’s portraits are distinctly ironic, both in relation to his subject and to the very act of making a picture, Yakovlev was always serious. His portraits, for all their seeming arbitrariness, are both physically recognizable and at the same time constitute a generalized image, the sign of the man.
There is a temptation to describe Yakovlev’s paintings as primitive, but they are not in the least «naive». Yakovlev consciously distorted and simplified his subjects, chose to make the rendering flat, shaped the color splotches all in order to reveal the essence of his subject, to clear from the image the inessential clutter of impression. His is the special simplicity characteristic of archaic art.
Isolated in his illness and living in a psychiatric facility, Yakovlev had an absolute need to come close to the real and natural, whether the subject was a man or a flower and even if the painting was done from memory or imagination. Yakovlev triumphs over his unstable psychological condition in the process of rendering. In his portraits of people and flowers (his flowers are more portraits than still-lifes) he comes to a supreme serenity, to the absolute generalization. All his portraits of people are, in essence, one Face. All his flowers are a single revelation of Flowering; his birds, cats and fish symbols of the animate world. The uniqueness of the creative act is its delivery of the artist into the realm of the eternal, of Being.
For his landscapes, Yakovlev’s chosen method is to proceed by frames. Most of his pictures are essentially composed of fragments, «cuts». It is as if a portion of the rendered space has accidentally caught the eye, but this is a «non-accidental accident», a means chosen to achieve a special expressivity. The «incorrect», not quite visible, line of the horizon, frequently encountered in Yakovlev’s work, contributes to the dynamism of those pictures.
Yakovlev also frequently shifts his perspective. A portion of a picture may obey the laws of classical perspective, yet another may reject correctness and bring the most significant feature to the foreground. What we see is not seen from a single vantage but simultaneously from several.
The formal aspects of Yakovlev’s work are not the result of conscious calculation or a program. His is not the experimentation of the 20th century’s modernists. The characteristics of his work arise from the remarkable condition of this artist during the act of creation, his way of looking at the world, his greatly heightened artistic intuition.
This volume also includes the apparatus needed by scholars, including a catalogue raisonne compiled and annotated by the collector, archival materials, biographies of the artists and a full bibliography on the non-conformist artists and unofficial art of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century.