1. The viewer is your friend, comrade, and brother.
2. Vary your intimate relations with the painting.
3. Before you begin to sketch on the canvas, sharpen your pencil properly.
4. Do not forget that there are also artists in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Chukotka, and other regions.
5. By placing the surname of the portrait subject beneath his portrait, you will increase the likeness approximately sevenfold.
6. Be sensible: get into your painting, but get out as soon your session ends.
7. You should not ponder the idea of your next work nor is it recommended that you think about it.
8. Make the viewer your accomplice; incline him to think that you are right.
9. Art requires sacrifices, sacrificiality, self-sacrifice, and ritual sacrifice
10. Skillfully using pattern, color, texture, color temperature, tone, varnish, and Chinese and Indian philosophy, tell the viewer everything, but do not give away any secrets.
— Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1996)
Originally published in English at The Russian Schizorevolution: An Exhibition That Might Have Been, March 1–May 31, 2009, Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht; subsequently published in Brushstroke: The New Artists and Necrorealists, 1982–1991, exhibition catalogue (Saint Petersburg: Palace Editions: 2010)
Felix Franzevich Baginski was a senior communications engineer services on the Kirov Railroad. He was shot in Leningrad on January 5, 1938, at the age of 33. He was rehabilitated in 1962.
Rudolf Petrovich Ruben was an employee of the Urania sewing cooperative. He was shot on January 8, 1938, aged 45, and was rehabilitated in 1989.
Anatoly Eleazarovich Gadzevich led a design team at the State Water Transportation Planning and Surveying Institute (Giprovodtrans). He was shot on November 27, 1937, at the age of 41, and was rehabilitated in 1964.
They had two things in common. Article 58 [of the RSFSR Criminal Code], under which they were convicted. And house number 19 on Pushkinskaya Street in Leningrad, which was their last address.
One can find more epithets in praise of this article than Turgenev once assembled to praise the Russian language, or Nekrasov to praise Mother Russia: great, powerful, abundant, highly ramified, multiform, wide sweeping 58, which summed up the world not so much through the exact terms of its sections as in their extended dialectical interpretation.
Who among us has not experienced its all-encompassing embrace? In all truth, there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (NY: Harper & Row, First Edition, 1973), p. 60
You can read more about the Last Address project here, here, and here.
Counting the Ships as They Sail Past: Rikhard Vasmi at K Gallery
March 11, 2015 Kommersant
Over the last few years, Petersburg’s K Gallery has been closely focused on late twentieth century art. The newly opened Rikhard Vasmi retrospective ranks among these exhibitions. It is the first representative, monographic show of the artist’s work since his death in 1998. Featuring around 200 paintings and drawings, mostly from private collections, the show would hardly have been possible to mount during Vasmi’s lifetime.
Vasmi was notorious for the fact that even when he was already counted among the greats of contemporary art, he was reluctant to sell his work and had an extremely negative take on all forms of public permitted activity, regarding exhibitions as a fall from grace for artists, whose job was to paint pictures and work without interruption. Neither then, during his lifetime, nor now has there been anyone else in Leningrad-Petersburg art who thus imagined the artist’s vocation and place in the world. And yet Vasmi was not a sociophobe in the modern sense of the word. He combined a certain standoffishness with a sense of humor and noble manners. It was just that the man had a firm understanding of what mattered most and what was secondary. He knew his worth and did not want to waste his time.
The universally familiar and still encountered type of the landscape painter, easel in tow, might be dubbed a “cold” artist. Rikhard Vasmi was literally such an artist. For the greater part of his life, he earned money through physical labor, was very poor, and was used to getting by with the simplest things. He was one of those who had earned his right to a consistent nonconformism pushed to the limit.
At the turn of the 1950s, Vasmi and several other very young artists —Alexander Arefiev, Vladimir Shagin, Valentin Gromov, and Sholom Shvarts—formed a group they called the Order of Unsellable Painters. The group was bound by close friendship, joint sketching trips, flânerie, and conversations about art. Another member was their mutual friend the poet Roald Mandelstam, who died in 1961. Mandelstam’s poetic images are literally reprised in Vasmi’s paintings: “The evening air is plangent and clean, / The whole city is stone and glass, / Through the blue, blue lane / The sky has flowed into the plaza.”
A decade after the Nazi Siege of 1941–1944, Leningrad was still a postwar city. The facades of buildings were chipped, the central districts still had wood sheds to complement the stove heating in the houses, and a completely rural way of life reigned in the outskirts. And even later, when urban renewal came into its own, and new large stone houses emerged, they would still be interspersed for a long while to come with barracks and allotment gardens in outlying areas like Rzhevka and Piskaryovka.
Along with the inner Petersburg district of Kolomna, these were Vasmi’s stomping grounds. It was in these places that the artist produced landscapes that beg the epithet “metaphysical.” But they bear only a superficial resemblance to Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings as they were the product of natural observations made outdoors.
You will not find a work larger than half a meter in Vasmi’s oeuvre. Small formats were a clear token of the period’s unofficial art, but while in Moscow a painting had to be made to fit into the suitcase of a departing diplomat or journalist, in Leningrad it was just hard to secure art supplies without being a member of the official Union of Artists. Vasmi painted in tempera on cardboard and plywood; later, in the 1970s, he often used oil paints.
Vasmi cannot be confused with anyone else, but the significance of his utterly simple visual language changed over the years. The naive manner of the novice painter in the 1950s, who sought maximal contact with reality, has a different meaning than the absolute artistic freedom that ensued in the mid 1970s, when Vasmi produced his pictorial formulation of Petersburg space. The dense surface of his paintings, the way the paints are applied, always leave one with a “house painterly” feeling.
One of the most famous and impressively sized canvases at the show is Canal, dated 1956. The artist has depicted the Griboyedov Canal from a viewpoint unimaginable in reality: the cityscape is seen through the eyes of someone floating in the air, apparently, near the domes of St. Nicholas Cathedral. The painting is heavily cracked, but this is not craquelure, attesting to the piece’s age and thus somehow elegant; here, large chunks of the paint layer resemble cracked sheets of ice, rendering the work even more monumental.
Like his work, Rikhard Vasmi was unhurried, taciturn, laconic, and monumental. All his life he loved watching the ships, and his art conveys the feeling of Petersburg as a maritime city, a feeling found in the work of Leningrad artists of the 1930s, who had reimagined the work of Albert Marquet in their own way. What does the juxtaposition of red-brown and dark blue colors, so frequent in Vasmi’s works, mean? For a Petersburger, it is a rusted ship’s hull in the waters of the Neva, the blank firewalls of houses in Kolomna at sunset—everything that Vasmi’s paintings so clearly and simply depict.
Editor’s Note. Confused readers might imagine that the following (excerpted) screed from the hilariously named website The Saker (for the ornithologically challenged, the saker is a falcon used in falconry) is an apology for fascism. Actually, they’d be right.
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“There are no separate Russia or Ukraine, but one Holy Rus” – Elder Iona of Odessa
The year 2014 saw an unprecedented surge of patriotism in contemporary Russia, which resulted in popularizing the notion of the Russian World. One reason for increased patriotic sentiment was Crimea’s return to the home port after the overwhelmingly positive vote by its majority-Russian residents in a referendum one year ago. The onset of the liberation war in Donbass from the West-backed Kiev regime was the other. This war truly delineated the stakes for the existence of the Russian World. The latter is not an ethnic, but a civilizational concept that encompasses shared culture, history, and language in the Eurasian space within a traditionalist framework. To a certain extent and despite the obvious ideological differences, the Russian Empire and the USSR embodied the same geopolitical entity. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the ongoing crisis in Donbass is the symbolism—religious and historic—that surpasses the commonly used, but outdated Left-Right political spectrum. In the Russian context, this also means overcoming the Red-White divide of the Communist Revolution. That this war pushed Russians to examine their country’s raison d’être is somewhat remarkable: for two decades its citizens did not have an official ideology, prohibited by the Constitution that is based on Western models. The emergence of a new way of thinking in Russia will become clearer once we refer to the meaning of religious insignia, wars—Russian Civil and Great Patriotic, as well as the question of ideology in the Postmodern world.
In fact, post-Liberal ideology is one of the factors that blinds many Westerners to the realities of the liberation war in Donbass. The current Western model of citizenship is an abstract one: it centers around a set of principles in which individuals are interchangeable—as long as they adopt “European values” or the “American way of life”—instead of the more traditional notions of rootedness in the landscape, cultural and linguistic ties, and ancestral bonds. Thus, those who subscribe to this abstraction have difficulties understanding how belonging to the same people (narod) overrides living in two different states—contemporary Russia and Ukraine—haphazardly formed at the time of the Soviet collapse, and why they seem so attached to their language, culture, religion, history, and land that they are willing to die for them. But even for those Russians that lean toward more traditionalist thought, it took this war—the war that was meant to separate—to ideologically and spiritually unite them with others like them across the border, to begin questioning who they really are, uncertain, but hopeful, forging the idea of the Russian World. Beyond Left and Right, Beyond Red and White.
A man comes to the ruins again and again.
He was here the day before yesterday and yesterday,
And will show up tomorrow.
The ruins attract him.
Gradually you learn many things, so many.
You learn how to pick out your own alarm clocks and charred album covers
From the pile of broken rubble.
You get used to
Coming here every day.
You get used to the ruins being there.
You become accustomed to the thought.
Sometimes it seems: so be it.
Sometimes it seems you have learned it all,
And now you can easily chat
With a strange child in the street
And explain everything. So be it.
The man comes to the ruins again,
Whenever he wants to love again,
To wind up the alarm clock again.
It does not occur to us normal people what it is like to come home and find ruins instead of a home. No, we do not know what it is like to lose our legs and our arms under a train or tram. We get word of all this via sad rumors. In fact, this is the required percentage of misfortunes, the rose of disasters.
The man comes to the ruins again.
For a long while he pokes at the wet wallpaper and rubble with a stick.
He bends down, picks something up, and looks.
Someone builds houses.
Someone destroys them forever. Someone builds them again.
The abundance of cities fills us all with optimism.
The man in the ruins has picked something up and looks.
These people usually do not cry.
Even when visiting friends who are (thank God) unharmed,
They look disapprovingly at stacks of photo albums.
“These days,” they say, “it’s not worth taking photos.”
A lot can be built, and just as much destroyed
And built again.
Nothing is more terrible than the heart’s ruins.
Nothing is more terrible than ruins
On which rain falls and past which
New cars speed,
In which, like ghosts, roam
People with broken hearts and children in berets.
Nothing is more terrible than ruins
Which no longer seem metaphors
And become what they once were:
Photographs by The Russian Reader of the now-demolished Rogov House (top) and Renaissance Hall (formerly, Regent Hall) shopping center (bottom), officially declared a “town planning mistake.” The buildings were once situated next to each other on Vladimir Square and Zagorodny Prospect in Petrograd.
Special thanks are also due to my parents for emigrating from Russia to Germany when I was twelve and thus helping me discover the joy of bilingual editions. Using them first just to learn a new language, I soon found incomparable pleasure in comparing, in reading simultaneously two very similar yet fascinatingly different texts.Soon I was gathering together as many versions as possible and I recall lying on the floor with maybe a dozen print-outs of a single poem’s many incarnations spread out around me, having discovered that parallel reading is most fun with poetry. If I like a text, I re-read it in another language. If I love a text, I re-read it in two languages. If there is no translation, I translate it for myself. This quirk to a large degree defines me as a reader. And “me as a reader” to a large degree defines me.