A Russian painter and glass artist, Boris Chetkov is known for his vivid works which range across genres but can be loosely aligned with Abstract and Figurative Expressionism, though he worked largely in isolation and remained disconnected from the international art community until the end of the Soviet Era. His theories on art and use of color place him in league with the early 20th Century Russian avant-garde masters.
Chetkov was born into a well-off peasant family (referred to as ‘Kulaks’) in the village of Novaya Lyalya in the Sverdlovsk Oblast on October 27, 1926. In the 1930s his family was forced to give up their land during Stalin’s collectivization, and for several years he traveled with his parents around various collective farms and factories in the Urals as they looked for work. In 1941, his family was deported to the coal mining town of Karaganda in Kazakstan. A year later, at the age of 16, Chetkov was arrested for 'hooliganism' and placed in the Gulag system, ending up at the penal colony near Nizhny Tagil, where he almost died from freezing and starvation, if not for the attention of the older inmates in his cell block.
After two years he was conscripted from the Gulag into the Soviet army as part of a penal battalion. They were sent to the front lines in Latvia during the Courland Pocket blockade where he served in a tank regiment until the end of World War II – at which time he was released.
Chetkov was a talented and focused artist from childhood but did not receive any formal art education until 1949-1952 when he studied under art historian Vladimir Eifert, one-time Director of the Pushkin Museum. Thereafter, he studied at the Tavricheskaya Art School from 1952-1954, but did not graduate as he contracted brucellosis and nearly died, a years-long experience that strengthened his resolve to become an artist. After his recovery, he studied at the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry (1960-1965), where he was taught by the distinguished professor, Sergey Gerasimov. However, he was forced to leave the university after his frank views on western art and artistic freedom incurred the wrath of Communist party members. At that point, Chetkov transferred to, and graduated from, St. Petersburg State Art and Industry Academy in 1966.
As a young artist Chetkov experimented with Modernist themes, techniques and materials, defining his own style and visual lexicon. Having demonstrated a natural knack for working with glass, he was appointed in 1967 as the Chief Glass Artist of the First Communist Volunteer Corps 1BBW (1КДО) Glass Factory in Malaya Vishera, a position which he held until 1979. Chetkov was a highly creative and passionate glass artist who developed the factory's output and frequently experimented with different finishes and techniques, including Venetian techniques. He stated, "Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away, liberates your fantasy; the artist becomes a magician when he creates an object from a shapeless hot paste… Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it." His art glass was exhibited around the world from the 1970s onwards, but always under the umbrella of ‘Artist of the Soviet Union’ rather than under his own name.
Working with color in glass profoundly influenced his painting, resulting in a rich color palette and a glassy application style, which make his paintings 'glow' as if lit from the inside rather than from an external light source.
In 1978 Chetkov’s notoriety as a glass artist and as the successful director of the factory earned him a prestigious commission from the Ministry of Culture - to design a large space themed stained-glass window for the Baikonar Cosmodrome. While he had reached a new height in his career based solely on the merits of his talent, at the same time he was found to be highly unacceptable by the governing Communist Party administrators, and was subject to increasing scrutiny and pressure and derogatory commentary. The following year, under that cloud, Chetkov left the Malaya Vishera glass factory and his glass making career, never to return.
Although he eventually became a member of the St Petersburg Union of Artists, for most of his artistic life Chetkov painted in isolation as his work did not conform with Communist-approved Socialist Realism. However, despite difficult early experiences and an almost total lack of recognition, he never lost his "irrepressible strength of spirit", and it comes across in his paintings, which stood out from his peers as decidedly abstract, vivid in palette and vital in execution.
After leaving the factory in 1979, once again due to issues with the Communist party, Chetkov went through a period of emotional difficulty in which his artistic output was reduced. However, in the wake of glasnost in the mid-80s and further accelerated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, his creativity exploded, and he painted hundreds of works through the early 1990s, including many abstract expressionist works in a larger format.
From 1995 onwards, Chetkov's paintings gained notice outside Russia. He had solo exhibitions in Germany and Russia, and participated in group exhibitions in Australia, Japan and China.
In 1996, he traveled to Vienna where he met Ernst Fuchs, the founder of the school of fantastic realism. Fuchs, who was initially attracted to his art glass, encouraged Chetkov to promote his paintings as Fantastic Realism. That influence became noticeable in mythological themes that appeared in his works. Later that year, Russian art historian and researcher, Irina G. Mikhailova, began meeting with Chetkov on a regular basis. In her monograph on the artist, she described him as the founding member of the Saint Petersburg School of Fantastic Realism and coined an alter ego name for him, 'Cherfin', which he used in his signature on several paintings during that time.
Throughout his life, Chetkov would return again and again to certain genres – still life, landscapes, abstract expressionism, equine art, portraiture and music - always experimenting with new techniques and color palettes. A nostalgia for his early childhood memories, is also a recurring theme in Chetkov’s oeuvre as seen in his landscape paintings which harken back to an idealized, pre-Stalin version of country life.
In 2001, Chetkov was introduced to Kenneth Pushkin, an American collector and researcher of Post War Russian art and founder of the non-profit organization, Pushkin Fund. Pushkin immediately recognized Chetkov’s special genius and appreciated his compelling life story. The two became fast friends and Pushkin arranged to acquire the extant collection of Chetkov’s life body of work.
Over the decade that followed, with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture, the collection was exported to the Pushkin Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico where Chetkov’s works became a prominent feature and leading cultural attraction in Santa Fe.
Between 2005 and 2013, Pushkin enlisted the enthusiastic support of Dr. Alexander Borovsky, Head of Contemporary Art at the State Russian Museum, to author a series of hard cover, illustrated publications on Chetkov’s life and works.
In February of 2010, Chetkov was honored with the first solo exhibition at the Konstantinovsky Palace (the Presidential residence in Strelny), outside of St. Peterburg. Later that year, on September 6, while vacationing in Ukraine with his wife Lyudmila, Chetkov passed away.
In November 2013, a major posthumous exhibition was organized as the gala opening event for Russian Art Week in London with hundreds of people in attendance. Courtauld Institute art scholar, Theodora Clarke, authored the catalog for the exhibit, entitled Re-Imagining Russia – Boris Chetkov, Genre & Landscape Paintings.
Chetkov’s oeuvre crosses the boundaries of modern and contemporary art genres as evidenced by an equal mastery of distinct works of symbolism, fauvism, surrealism, and expressionism. Suppressed by years of geopolitical, artistic and social isolation, his works and life story have only recently come to the attention of the international art world. Nevertheless, his unconventional ‘nonconformist’ theories, techniques and distinct ‘Chetkovian’ style continue to inspire a growing audience of artists, art historians and enthusiasts wherever his paintings are shown.
His works can be found in private and corporate collections around the world as well as in the Tretyakov State Museum in Moscow, the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.