“Shalya”: Artist Valentin Gromov Remembers His Friend Sholom Shvarts
I don’t remember what year we met. I have no particular first impression. We were ordinary students. We were in the second class, and he was in the second class, too, only in a parallel class. That class came to our class, and we would go to their class to look at their work. Shalya did not especially stand out from the rest. He did everything the way his teachers told him to do it. One time, Arekh (Alexander Arefiev) asked us to come look at how they were drawing nudes in the other class. He pointed out Shvarts’s work. He said, “Look at his sense of line!” Later, Arekh told me he had been to Shalya’s house and seen his other drawings and paintings, and that it was day and night compared to what he was doing at school. He suggested going to visit him. Shalya and his parents lived then not far from the Finland Station, in the slums, on some side street. Shalya, his father, and his mother were sitting in the corner. Shalya tossed pieces of paper all over the place. I saw that tons of the drawings had been done on drafting paper. I asked him whether he didn’t have normal paper, and he replied that his father worked somewhere and had all these leftover finished blueprints for frame-and-panel houses that had been built and he did not need, so he brought them home, and they were great for drawing on. And we saw these stunning sketches on these blueprints. It was then we became pals.
All of us got the boot [from school], so Shalya was the only one in our band of friends who graduated from the Arts High School at the Academy of Arts. When we were expelled, we spent a long time hanging out. We couldn’t find a place for ourselves anywhere; we were in state of complete uncertainty. Shalya’s family had moved at that time to Ligovka [Ligovsky Prospect], where the three of them lived in a single room. He was still in school, and we were independent artists, but we saw a lot of each other at that time.
In terms of character, he was calm, reserved, and quite private. When we were still in school together and would go out on the landing to smoke, I noticed that Shalya was a little bit afraid of Arekh. Arekh’s say-so meant a lot. He argued in a quite strange way, but quite professionally. So Shalya was filled with respect and loyalty towards him.
We once got talking about indoor scenes. Shalya was quite taken with this topic and said a lot about how he saw it. Arekh suggested that Shalya paint an indoor scene for him. He said the topic should really be up his alley. Shalya accepted the challenge, and they agreed he would complete it in a week. We met again, and Arekh asked whether Shalya had finished the painting. He said he still had not finished it and asked for another week. Arekh saw him a week later, and Shalya again made excuses for why the painting was not done. Arekh then told him, “If you don’t have it painted within a week, I’ll smack you in the kisser!” When Shalya finally painted this indoor scene, Arekh’s jaw dropped. From then on he stopped treating him like a master treats a disciple and spoke with him as an equal.
Shalya was not a talkative person, but once in a great while he could get carried away with some topic and then you could not stop him. He turned a deaf ear on topics that did not interest him.
Shalya never drew people from life. He simply memorized the images and drew his “memories” of these people. He had no contact with women. We all had girlfriends and got married off, but Shalya was the only one of us who was virtually a monk. So his depictions of women were inspired by memories of passersby and acquaintances, by youthful fantasies.
Nowadays, the post-war avant-garde is highly prized, so it is no wonder that so many forgeries surface, including forgeries of our work. The forgers try to fake Arekh’s work and sometimes they succeed in producing something that bears a fair resemblance. Shalya’s work is absolutely impossible to forge, given his technique and the way he worked with his media.
I have four works by Shalya, and all of them are masterpieces. I donated one of them (At Home, 1954) to the Tsarskoye Selo Collection. It was hard to part with it, but it seemed less individual than the rest, a little bit like scenery.
When Shalya’s mom died, he and his father stopped living together. Shalya moved to Ordinarnaya Street, where he lived until the end of his life. He lived in a five by four meter room with a single window. He almost never left that room. I can never remember seeing him, say, in the kitchen. There was a pile of pots, jars, tin cans, dirty plates, and cigarette butts everywhere. It was a hell of a mess. There was nowhere to sit down.
Shalya was a big fan of the cinema. There was not a new movie he had not seen. He constantly watched television at home. Once, Rikhard [Vasmi] and I went to see Shalya. He said he wanted to watch a film. His TV set was quite old. To turn it on you had to twist this screw and then, finally, the screen would light up. But that was it: you could not distract him with conversation of any kind after that.
Shalya lived on the third floor on Ordinarnaya. His window overlooked a street with a movie theater nearby. He was always watching passersby from the window, memorizing them, immediately pouring out his impressions on paper, and then tossing these fantastic drawings under the table, where they would intermingle with half-eaten bowls of porridge. He produced his masterpieces amidst this muddle, amidst dirty duds, leftover food, and cigarette butts. Any of these pieces would be the pride of the most prestigious museum. It was his drawing Feast that wound up on the frontispiece of the album The Arefiev Circle (Saint Petersburg: Avangard na Neve, 2002). It is absolutely stunning.
Shalya was the only fellow in our circle who adored Lenin. We all were anti-Soviets, but he felt Lenin had done many good things. Ordinarily, this way of thinking would have been off-putting, but art always mattered the most to Shalya, and so we figured that if he liked Lenin, then so be it.
If you talk about drawings, then of course Shalya would have to be ranked in first place among us.
Excerpted from Sholom Shvarts: Paintings and Drawings (exhibition catalogue), ed. Irina Kogan, Saint Petersburg: K Gallery, 2015. Excerpt translated by the Russian Reader. K Gallery’s posthumous retrospective of work by Sholom Shvarts (1929–1995) runs from October 8 to October 31, 2015, at Fontanka River Embankment, 24, in Petersburg. Images courtesy of paldenlenka.livejournal.com, parizhskoye kafe, and K Gallery’s VKontakte page.