Sholom Shvarts

Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995
Boris Smelov, Portrait of Sholom Shvarts, 1995

“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.

Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov
Sholom Shvarts, Portrait of Roald Mandelstam, 1958. Tempera on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. Collection of Valentin Gromov

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.

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Sholom Shvarts, In a Boat, 1950s. Ink and pencil on paper, 15.5 x 21 cm. Collection of Oleg Frontinsky

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.

Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin
Sholom Shvarts, Canal, 1960s. Ink on paper, 31.5 x 19.5 cm. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

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.

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Sholom Shvarts, Sketch for an illustrated edition of Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Ballad of the Little Tugboat,” 1989-1990. Colored pencil on paper. Collection of Dmitry Shagin

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 ReaderK 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.

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Rikhard Vasmi: Counting the Ships as They Sail Past

Counting the Ships as They Sail Past: Rikhard Vasmi at K Gallery
Pavel Gerasimenko
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.

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Rikhard Vasmi. Photo courtesy of K Gallery

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.”

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Rikhard Vasmi, Tram Turning Loop, 1954. Image courtesy of art-spb.info

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.

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Rikhard Vasmi, Canal, 1956. Image courtesy of art-spb.info

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. Rikhard Vasmi: Paintings and Drawings runs until March 29 at K Gallery in Petersburg.

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Vasmi006Rikhard Vasmi, We Work in the Port (Mitkilibris, 1994)

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On May 16 (27), 1703, on Hare Island, known to the Swedes as Lust Land (Pleasure Land), a “fortress was founded and called Sankt Pieterburch.” (From the Encyclopedia)

Vasmi001The little tug does a big job. In the shallow water, crowded with all sorts of ships, it is indispensable.

Vasmi002 The excellent crew of skillful sailors has no time for chitchat. Meeting and seeing off giant ocean liners is all in a day’s work.

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Without help from the tug, the huge ship would run aground on a sand bar or crash into a dock. The tug is like a guide dog for a blind man.

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In the heat and in rough weather, from morning till night, the little tug crisscrosses the waves.

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We Work in the Port, written and illustrated by Rikhard Vasmi, was printed in an edition of one hundred copies by Mitkilibris in Saint Petersburg in 1994. Translated by the Russian Reader.