(Complete text from book publication)
The Pushkin Group began its ambitious project to promote outstanding Russian artists of the second half of the 20th century on the American art scene several years ago. Artists of note who have not achieved recognition in their own land but all of whom merit an honored place in the history of art. The Pushkin Group adopted two conditions to serve as the criteria in selecting a few artists from amongst a large number of worthy candidates: the first is the artist’s scope, his or her historical and cultural significance. The second is a lack of objectivity, even injustice, in the artist’s having been forgotten, the absence of a true picture of his or her work either in art criticism, or through inclusion in museum collections or gallery shows. Many names are unjustly omitted or pushed aside and forgotten in any national artistic culture, but their number is shamefully large in Russian culture. Most important of all the many reasons for this, both objective and subjective, is the specific nature of Russian (Soviet) culture under conditions of totalitarian rule. These oppressive conditions determined artistic life for the greater part of the 20th century and the impact continues to this day. The cost to the arts has been wide-ranging and varied. Most importantly there exists the need to create an almost entirely new history of art for this vast period, a history free of politicization.
Russian art critics have already been working on this with some energy over the nearly two decades that have passed since the collapse of totalitarianism. They have identified and studied the reasons for that fatal division of Soviet artistic culture into the ideologically correct, supported by the state in all its different forms, and the dubious, persecuted, and politically threatening.
Research has revealed the heartbreaking price of this division: a breaking of ties with the international artistic process, an unnatural politicization of artistic life, a pointless waste of creative energy on non-artistic questions, and the tragically broken lives of artists both from the world of officialdom and from the underground. Scholarly work on this new history has already borne fruit. The presentation of Russian art over these years has gained a sense of objectivity and certainly now offers multiple points of view. The phenomenon of unofficial art has been studied in all contexts, as a whole network of ideas and as an aggregate of creative and behavioral strategies and again as social history. A number of important names have been introduced to the world of art history, a body of their key works established.
In brief, historical and cultural justice has been largely established with regard to major artists who suffered from pressure from above, who were persecuted for aesthetic reasons (aesthetics being, in a totalitarian state, a very political matter).
There have been other consequences. During that time of official art in the official regime, there were artists who were pushed out to the periphery not only for ideological reasons. Not all were active participants in the underground. Many never took part in the ‘protest’ exhibitions that have gone down in the annals of history. They never enjoyed the attention of those few western journalists, critics and collectors who looked kindly upon unofficial art. This group of artists existed outside the realm of the Soviet opposition, outside the world of dissidents. They did not belong to the ‘party of the underground,’ they pursued their work outside of any system, any group activities. They simply got on with art as they understood it. Officialdom ignored them, neither banning them nor according them privileges. Those artists were deprived of full access to viewers through that very lack of engagement, that absence of involvement. Because they were wrapped up in themselves and their own world, dedicated to their own path in life and in art they became invisible. Meanwhile, those standing in opposition to the world of officialdom were also provided no support: there were no well-wishers amongst the western journalists and diplomats, no forward-looking sympathetic enthusiasts in the cultural sphere, no collectors, foreign or Russian who had faith in their art. However paradoxical, it was even more difficult to live OUTSIDE the system than within, albeit occupying a position of opposition within the system, subject to absolute repression on the part of the state.
In terms of their personal artistic triumph these masters were very different in nature. There are no common stylistic vectors to their development. They were one-offs, individuals and they remained such even after the underground movement gained the upper hand and the hierarchies came to be composed of art historians from the new wave. The hierarchies of phenomena, groups and names. Once more, the one-offs, those who had never been part of any demonstrative public activity were omitted from these new hierarchies.
Now is the time to demonstrate the true breadth of these twice forgotten artists, to trace the winding paths of their creative fates. Immediately it must declared that the task is both pleasant and sad. Pleasant to be part of a worthy cause to take pride in: the enrichment of our conceptions of Russian art of the middle and second half of the 20th century, the establishment of a certain historical and cultural justice. Sad because the full length of this queue of unjustly forgotten artists stretches out into the distance and the terrible inertia of our own lack of haste, even laziness has finally been fully comprehended.
The Pushkin Group exhibits no such inertia. They are active and consistent, engaged in establishing that very justice which has been heretofore been so lacking.
Nikolay Timkov was the first artist to be ‘returned’ to the historical and artistic world, and then to the world of galleries. Nikolay’s art has made regular advances on the North American art scene in recent years, with the result that he at last attracted attention in Russia, his native land. Then came Vasily Golubev turn. He earned himself this flattering assessment from Albert Kostenevich, Keeper at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and one of the world’s leadest scholars of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: ‘At various stages in his development, Golubev recalled Marquet, then Dufy, and in the last years of his life he created his own version of Neo-Expressionism. Yet he worked absolutely independently, in the absence of true artistic connections and often in the absence of any information about contemporary events taking place on the Western art scene.’
Now, in his turn, the Pushkin Group directs attention to a third artist, Boris Chetkov.
First it must be admitted that Boris has not suffered from that almost total oblivion that was the lot of his predecessors in the Pushkin Group’s program. He is a practicing artist still, and as if to compensate for many years of enforced absence from the public art scene he has begun in recent years to exhibit regularly in Germany and in Russia. While those exhibitions have perhaps been of a somewhat parochial nature, without any influence on the balance of power in the art world, nonetheless they indicate a start. They demonstrate an interest that has begun to be shown in the work of this master of the older generation.
There is another difference: both Timkov and Golubev were painters.
Chetkov too is a skilled painter, for he has been most fully able to realize himself within the world of easel painting. However, he has another string to his bow. He has worked for many years in the applied arts, producing artistic glass. That experience has undoubtedly influenced the path taken by his painting, as will be discussed further on. Here it’s noted only that the artist’s career in the applied arts has been moderately successful. His works have been shown at specialized exhibitions and are today to be found in museum collections, even while he remained almost unknown to the broader public or even to specialists as a painter. His overall presence on the Russian art scene remains little noticed, although not totally marginal thanks to the humble advances of recent years. So there is good reason to describe him as one undeservedly left in the shade. The task of the Pushkin Group is to draw wider attention to one who is worthy of it.
Born into a peasant family on October 27, 1926, Boris Chetkov’s birth was not a matter of great note in the small town of Novaya Lyalya in the Sverdlovsk Region of the Northern Urals. At the very heart of Russian folk life, at the crossing of the worlds of the peasant and industrialization, here the peasant world dominated. Even though his father worked at Krasnouralsk metallurgical factory, Boris’s memories of his childhood are colored by the peasant way of life. Chetkov’s memories of his childhood are warm and clear. Judging by those memories, his grandfather was one of a type well known from classical works of Russian literature; the prosperous hard-working peasant, confidently running his small but efficient smallholding which depended on the communal hard labor of all members of the large, extended peasant family. Spring and summer saw the whole family working in the field. In the winter, when their neighbors were all taking a rest, or as Chetkov put it, had ‘collapsed on the stove,’ his enterprising grandfather took a couple of horses and went into town to earn money as a carrier. Chetkov further tells us, “In spring he returned with goods: velvet, silk and sugar-loaves”. The ‘texture’ of Chetkov’s recollections of these objects recalls simple folk songs of a happy and carefree life.
Beneath the dark cloud of Soviet totalitarianism a peasant householder such as Boris’ grandfather, even that very type of smallholding, was doomed, expunged without pity in the collectivization imposed by Stalin. The tragedy of enforced dispossession of the kulaks ( the term kulak, used before the Revolution to describe rich peasants who employed and at times oppressed other peasants, was applied aggressively in the Stalin years to all peasants who worked hard and earned a living for themselves) led to mass starvation. History books and works of literature are littered with the stories of millions of victims. There is a veritable tradition of study of it. An outstanding example of one such scholar is Mikhail Sholokhov, that classic author of official Soviet literature who nonetheless created in his novel Quite Flows the Don. Sholokhov paints a true picture of collectivization, although ‘correctly’ interpreted in the spirit of Stalinist ideology. Among the alumni of the ‘village prose’ school of correct ideology of the 1960’s were VasilyBelov, Valentine Rasputin and Fyodor Abramov.
To Chetkov it was life, not literature. It was a personal, individual family story, lodged in the heart and examined in the mind. According to his recollections, his grandfather left his native village of Soltanovo just in time to avoid certain dispossession.
Before the iron fist of the Stalinist era, Novaya Lyalya, small town of Chetkov’s birth, lived in the rhythms of the peasant, although Chetkov’s recollections reveal once more that his grandfather was not without cultural interests. ”I found it interesting in the izba. On the walls were photographs of opera singers and a large colored reproduction of what I later learned was a painting by Rembrandt, and books in leather bindings with clasps. In particular there were books that had reproductions of different breeds of horses, and books about the animal world and those with fairy tales. There was not a single corner in the house or the courtyard that I did not poke into. Once I discovered a door in a dark corridor that led to a store-room. I crept there quietly and emerged into a huge light space discovering a whole new world. There were objects unused and unwanted for many years but in perfect condition. Each had its place: the saddles and yokes, harness and shaft-bows. They hung on hooks with woven lashes and shepherds’ switches beside them. On benches were pushchairs. There were painted spinning wheels even with the threads still on them and beside them lay a spindle. I remember a sleigh, all gaily painted. The harness was adorned with jingling little bells of all sizes. The broad painted shaft-bows were all different sizes, with a bell at the top. It all recalled some museum of applied art, with the kind of things I saw later in museums, only in the museums they were less carefully selected, as if the people who had assembled them had never known the way of life of ordinary Russians. I was simply enchanted and when I came to stay with my grandfather I would creep up into the attic and spend hours enthralled by all this equipment, the smell of old leather and the tinkle of the many small bells.”
These recollections by Chetkov of his childhood are amazing in their precision and their clear artistic trend. And he was not alone. If one digs into history one quickly discovers another artist recording his contact with the ordinary Russian way of life. That artist is Vasily Kandinsky who wrote, “In these unusual izbas I first came into contact with the miracle that later became one element in my works. Here I learned not to look at the picture from apart but to move around inside it, to live in it. I clearly remember that I stopped on the doorstep before this unexpected spectacle. The table, benches, an important-looking, vast stove, the cupboards and dressers, everything was painted with colorful, sweeping ornament. On the walls were lubki: symbolic representations of mighty heroes, battles, songs set out in paint. The icon corner was all hung with painted and printed images and in front of them hung a warm red icon lamp that seemed to know something, to live wrapped up in itself, to be some mysteriously whispering, modest yet proud star. When at last I entered the gornitsa, the painting closed around me and I entered into it.”
These texts that echo each other so closely are cited here because they are highly indicative of just how important folk art was to the initial development of Russian abstraction. Returning to Chetkov’s artistic biography, these childhood recollections clearly played an important and decisive role in shaping his artistic vision. They were indelibly imprinted on his memory.
Chetkov’s recollections are not so much artistic impressions. They are an interesting, uncolored yet dramatic document of Soviet life comprised of many interwoven elements. Chetkov’s father’s search for work, traveling through the towns around the Urals, around small factory towns, living in barracks (Chetkov describes this as his ‘barrack universities’) created the backdrop for his turbulent youth. Boris ran away from school, attended a trades college to learn metalwork and carpentry, and studied cabinet-making. He was unjustly arrested for petty hooliganism when hanging out with other teenagers and sentenced to one year in a correctional facility.
Together with hardened youths Boris was taken by goods van to the area around Nizhniy Tagil, to work out his year sentence as a logger. Thus he became an inhabitant of the infamous Gulag Archipelago, brought to the western reader in its time by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Frosts, skillies, a piece of bread, and some kindness from the old lags helped him through.
In the camp he was sent to after his time logging Chetkov was reunited with his father, who had also been arrested. But the reunion is brief. Only a few months pass before war breaks out and Boris is sent to a penal battalion. For those who were serving prison sentences the penal battalions were three parts horrendous nightmare and one part salvation. Those soldiers were thrust forward to the most hopeless and dangerous parts of the front, where most of them perished in battle. The ones who were wounded were allowed to join ordinary battalions on recovery. Chetkov the memoirist and depicter of everyday life described this grinding, miserable life with an almost epic intonation, picking out telling details. Most importantly, he did so without theatrical effects or denunciatory tirades. He avoided the historical generalizations that frequently characterize the work of Solzhenitsyn. Chetkov portrays everything is ordinary and everyday; real, deep-laid Soviet life, seen through the eyes of an ordinary Soviet boy from the provinces. When he reached call-up age and finished tank school Chetkov was sent to fight in the very last years of the war.
The harsh start to his life seems far removed from any contact with art. Yet, even from the very beginning he was drawing, that inner drive towards creativity insurmountable. He managed to pick up some skill with oil paints in an art school at Irbit, one of the many towns where his father took his family in search of work. Then the family moved to the other end of the vast Soviet land, to Karaganda in Kazakhstan. He was always drawing at noisy markets and down narrow oriental streets despite the clear disapproval of the locals. He got a job as set painter in a club at one of the coal mines. The club was run by Vladimir Eifert, a by no means insignificant artist from Moscow, himself exiled during the war because his German origins, and sent to Kazakhstan. A cultured man who had studied in his time in Paris and worked in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Vladimir had been friends with the outstanding Russian artist and art historian Igor Grabar. It was a happy meeting for young Boris. Chetkov studied under Eifert for three years, working in the open air and studying art history. At last his teacher said to him. “you are an artist, but you need to get yourself a diploma.”
To that end, in 1953 Chetkov entered Leningrad Art College, which at the time bore the burdensome Soviet title Artistic College of the Administration of Artistic Affairs of the Leningrad Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. He earned his bread, since his family had no means of supporting him, working as a porter. But the years of deprivation took their toll and he fell seriously ill. Intensive medical treatment did little to help and he existed as nearly an invalid. Sent home to his parents in the Urals, to that same Novaya Lyalya of his birth, several years went by. Still doctors were unable to do anything. Determined to get well, he tried homeopathic folk cures and at last was able to control his nameless illness. But much time had been lost. He left home again, moving to Sverdlovsk and worked in a school teaching draftsmanship. Then he entered Sverdlovsk Art College. It was a somewhat ordinary institution that seems to have left no clear memories in Chetkov except of the lessons of A. F. Shmelev, who had studied under the celebrated Ilya Mashkov, one of the founders of the Knave of Diamonds movement.
When he graduated in 1960, Chetkov returned to Leningrad. He sought to enter the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (the former Academy of Arts) and then the Vera Mukhina Higher Artistic Industrial College (the former Stieglitz School), but he was not to their taste. It mattered not that he had been through a striking school, studying under very different artists as well as doing his own intensive work. Chetkov’s early works already revealed his independence and spirit of revolt. In those days teachers had a great fear of any manifestation of freedom of thought, and their attitude should be understood. Those were not easy years for Russia.
Stalinism and all it entailed seemed to be in the past, and in the words of the great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, “more vegetarian times”’ had come with shoots of independence breaking the soil of the artistic process, particularly at exhibitions. However, artistic education remained firmly in the hands of orthodox proponents of Socialist Realism, whose position remained unshaken. Those who had carried out the ‘purifications,’ the ‘cleansing’ of the late 1940s ( when all outstanding masters who departed in even the tiniest detail from the framework of officially accepted and promoted art had been removed from any position of responsibility) were still very much in command. To cultivate one’s own ideological heirs was not mere rhetoric, but a serious task, particularly in keeping with the political mood of the day. After the infamous visit by Nikita Kruschev (then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) to the exhibition at Moscow’s Manege in 1962 (when he crudely put an end to the hopes of a generation of young artists) the reactionaries were pleased to see the launch of new ideological campaigns, the aggression of which recalled those seen in the cruel later years of Stalin’s ‘reign.’ Naturally, younger artists were particularly mistrusted, since youth by definition always has a greater tendency to freedom of thought. It was particularly so in Leningrad, where the atmosphere in the higher art schools was cool to the point of freezing. With no chance to flourish or even continue in that environment Chetkov’s well-wishers advised him to set off for Moscow.
Chetkov passed his entrance exams with flying colors and enthusiastically embarked on studies in the textiles department of the Moscow Higher Artistic and Industrial School (the former Stroganov School), then moved to the glass and ceramics department. He recalls his years spent at the ‘Stroganovka’, as students called the historic institution, as filled with excitement and interest. He eagerly pursued lessons with outstanding professors who had by some miracle survived, reveled in trips to draw out in the open air and worked in the library and the outstanding museums.
Yet the reigning ideology hung like a dark cloud. Chetkov, who had never jumped through the right ideological hoops and who talked freely of art, found himself under observation by fellow students, members of the Komosol (the Communist Youth League) and the Communist Party. Most of them had arrived directly from school, zombified by Soviet propaganda, and they saw nothing extraordinary about keeping any eye on someone and reporting on them to the powers that be. Certainly, he gave them cause. Already formed as an artist, past his first youth, he had experienced much, yet remained unbroken by those experiences. Careless in conversation he felt himself to be, in his own words, ‘free and independent.’ Chetkov risked exclusion from the college for purely ideological reasons.
But once again supporters came to his aid and he transferred to the Mukhina College in Leningrad, known familiarly as ‘Mukhinka.’ Chetkov’s works aroused no enthusiasm there and he got barely the minimum marks required, but he was allowed to graduate. Then, in 1966 he designed the form and decoration of a children’s crockery set for Leningrad’s celebrated Lomonosov (formerly Imperial) Porcelain Factory. Though he was not offered a permanent post at the porcelain factory, after several attempts and mistakes the young artist was invited, quite by chance, to work at a glass factory.
Boris recalls this fortunate entry into the world of glass-making saying, “When I found myself on the production line I was enchanted. Everything sparkled. Glittered. With the ringing of glass, the marvelous movement of people.” And he then added, “glass is the fire that cut deep into my heart.”
At last he had a full time job. Small and old, the factory had been founded in 1888 in Staraya Vishera in the Novgorod Region by the brothers Kruzhenkov. With changing circumstance it now bore a name in early-Soviet mood that sounded old-fashioned even in the 1960s: Glass Factory of the First Communist Volunteer Detachment (1KDO). It mass-produced everyday objects. The production of artistic glass had to be begun again from scratch and experimentation was not welcomed. To start up production of artistic free-blown glass, even the basic wooden supports for wooden forms had to be made. Chetkov, experienced in hard work, was skilled in the use of axe, saw and crowbar to the amazement of the two women artists who had arrived at the same time. He convinced both the administration and the factory workers of the need for radical reform. In short order 1KDO’s products came to be shown at exhibitions. Chetkov was appointed Chief Artist. At this juncture it is important to understand that Chetkov’s work with glass was not an enforced career simply necessary to earn money. It represented a creative commitment so profound that it influenced his work on form even in his paintings. Therefore there is reason to explore this part of his career in more detail.
Chetkov began his professional glass-working activities at a fortunate time. Despite its long history, Soviet glass was really still in its creative infancy. New Soviet glass had been born as an artistic phenomenon, or at least as an artistic impulse of inordinate force recently, around 1940. Its birth involved outstanding artists such as Vera Mukhina and Nikolay Tyrsa. In 1960 sulphide glass was invented, opening up vast opportunities to create different colored glasses. Experimentation was at its height when Chetkov arrived on the scene in the world of glass. It was a time when artists were overcoming utilitarian, functional purpose to create independent three-dimensional objects. Leningrad artist Boris Smirnov was leader of this movement in the USSR, a movement that was, seemingly, synchronous with the transnational Glass Studio Movement, comparable with the USA and the experiments of Harvey Littleton, who casted glass art objects from the early 1960s.
A rebel by nature, Chetkov radicalized a tendency towards self-expression and anti-utilitarianism that was already widespread in Soviet glass-making. His works manifest an extreme approach to color and volume, reflected perhaps in the title he gave a whole series: Baroque, which no doubt referred to their dynamism, richness of color and accentuated physicality. The power of his works demonstrates he clearly was not drawn by purely purposeful design. Utilitarian qualities were overtaken by the metaphysical. In Chetkov’s words, “Glass is fire. The material enchants, draws you in, and from the hot mass comes a work of art, and the artist is dependent only on himself, like a magician.” Critics commented on Chetkov’s original view of color saying, “the color resonated not openly but seemed to come alive in some inner light, with shadows and reflections.”
Chetkov revealed himself as a magnificent colorist in his works in glass. Writing of his painting method, he wrote at one point, “I wallow in Nature’s color relationships.” The same could be said of his glass. Form is not so much suffused with color as it is molded from color. Just such an impression is created by the goblet in the composition Color-music, made of free blown sulphide and colored glass (1975) Color here determines volume, and is literally burdened with color. Color acquires not only a tactile quality but also weight. Contrarily, in the vase Snail (Russian Museum) the application of a thin layer of colored glass to the inner surface gives the form the transparency and weightlessness of watercolor. Of no less importance to Chetkov was the optical spatial element. Anti-utilitarianism is clear in his teapot and cup Movement (Russian Museum), no longer surprising us. One is never really going to drink tea from these escaping, elusive forms, which seem to be dusting themselves down, shaking off any element of functional purpose. But if the function of drinking has been cast aside, the function of splitting light, resulting in the creation of a new sense of space, remains. This sense of space is mysterious and secret. One can read within the object the ancient form of some alchemist’s retort. Plainly, Chetkov the painter’s coloring and sense of form are bound with strong ties to his work in glass. With regard to a stained glass he began in 1980 (after the end of his career at the glass factory), he wrote of the ‘flowing of glass,’ of the introduction of milk glass, devices for organizing form using an ‘optical’ subtext that are to be found later in his painting.
It’s time to turn to that painting which Chetkov had never ceased to create even during the most tense and difficult moments of his career as an applied artist.
His sources must be examined. But first one thing must be made very clear: Chetkov’s creative heritage is difficult to arrange according to any chronology. He has stated clearly that he returns to sketches made some thirty years before to create new paintings from them. Such, for instance, are his numerous pictures of Central Asian Bazaars, produced dozens of years after those sketches from his youth were made from life. Moreover, canvases produced within more or less the same period of time often seem to have been painted in very different eras. Chetkov remarked, “I began a new work, never thinking of what I had done before, utterly forgetting my experiments and all my agonizing.’ Frequently, indeed, these more or less contemporary works were executed in different keys that depend on the author’s inner state. Chetkov recalled that this led to criticism even at student shows. He was accused of having ‘skill, but no identifying “face”, no school.’ He defended himself energetically, replying, “A school is a the following of a well-beaten track. I know nothing of that. Whether your aim is to make boots or chop wood, it’s all the same to me – downright boring. Creativity is a state of experimentation.”
He has his right to a multiplicity of styles, but it makes no easier the task of constructing a certain logical and consistent path to the development to his art. There is also a certain tendency by Chetkov to give titles to works, even whole cycles, long after they were produced. As a reading man, one of passionate interests, swayed at any particular moment by the influence of philosophical or historiosophical writings and ideas (and the people who pass them on), he looks at his earlier works from a different angle, in new contexts, and gives them new names. Such ‘chronological voluntarism’ has been a characteristic of many artists (Kazimir Malevich re-dated his works in his later years to create what he saw as some kind of ideally logical representation of his own art). Hence the element of ‘reverse self-identification’ should be kept in mind.
Chetkov’s first works deserving of close attention date from the second half of the 1940s and early 1950s. These are still-lifes and landscapes that amaze with a developed understanding of color, an independent understanding, clearly not linked with the teachings of any particular school. It would seem that nature gave Chetkov an ‘educated’ sense of color much as some singers whose natural voice requires little training. His first interesting still-lifes appeared even ‘before Eifert,’ i.e., before he had taken any regular classes with a skilled teacher. Of course, there was always that mystical meeting during his teenage years with the artist Nikolay Evgrafov, who came to Novaya Lyalya on holiday (several months before the war, where Efgrafov was to die on the front in 1941). Friends presented the young boy with a passion for drawing to the artist who, according to Chetkov’s memoirs, approved his early drawings and gave him advice. That meeting is ‘mystical’ because Evgrafov (a member of the group Masters of Analytical Art, established and led by the great Russian avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov) does indeed seem somehow to have influenced Chetkov’s development. Evgrafov himself is one of the mysterious, unstudied figures in the history of Soviet art. By the time he came to the Urals the artist had long departed from Filonov’s principles of ‘madeness’ through ‘atomized’ touches on the canvas, ‘units of action.’ He passed on to broad ‘gesture’ painting, and at last to abstraction, in some paradoxical degree foreshadowing the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock. In Chetkov’s early painting the influence of Evgrafov’s pre-abstract works, ‘swimming’ masses of color that seem to elude objective form, free brushstrokes and a sense of improvisation can be seen. Could that brief, chance meeting with the master, so soon to depart this life, leave such a profound mark? Did the artist think of it and come to see it as dealing a fateful creative blow? Who can say?
Chetkov’s earliest works which survive, his landscapes and still-lifes, adopt simple viewpoints, not setting any specifically expressed compositional tasks. They are positive in mood (with fitting titles – Victory Day, The Morning of Victory and so on). What is striking is the accelerated sense of color, clearly tangible in the very nature of the painting, the tempo, the readiness to sacrifice what is depicted for the sake of conveying this purely coloristic dynamism (what is depicted being largely uncomplicated objective realities – vases, fruit and so on, barely, at times even clumsily indicated). For an artist just developing, these are rare, untraditional qualities. At the same time there is a clear focus on painterly qualities, particularly in the numerous landscapes of the region around the River Syasva (where the artist spent his childhood, the village of Soltanovka and the town of Novaya Lyalya both standing on its banks). The color is somewhat forced, composed in complex manner, with a sort of pre-Fauve tension (Sultriness, 1946). In Bend in the Syasva (1947) there is an unexpected simplicity.
During his time in Karaganda, in the early 1950s, the tasks the artist sets himself become more complex. Apparently influenced by his teacher, Eifert, he takes more intricate viewpoints and the works can almost be grouped according to their use of specific devices. Clearly seen are the ‘static’ scene, the ‘dynamic’ scene, ‘simplicity of means’ (Watermelons and Melons, Cherries and Sunflowers, Illusory Happiness). The task of creating ‘spatial’ works does not seem to have been fully worked out by the artist here, and there is a certain timidity of spatial resolution, but the use of color is already clearly ‘Chetkovian’; accelerated, hot, in some Post-Impressionist/Fauvist combination. Eifert was of course well informed, acquainted with the French school (and with Russian artists who were influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, at least through his friend Igor Grabar) and he possibly set borders to and gave some refinement to this combination, this ‘alloy.’ Yet most of this was natural, the artist’s own innate Nature-given voice. Can he be described as self-taught? It certainly seems so, yet there is no naiveté as a way of thought. Chetkov sought to enrich the color composition, looking at how to fill his coloring with light and setting himself advanced professional tasks.
Amazingly, he very soon passed on to abstraction. If there was one thing his brief study at the Leningrad Art College had not prepared him for it was for it was a transition such as this. At the Art College activization of formal qualities was persecuted, ‘formalism’ being, in the lexicon of ideological battle, wholly negative. None of the tutors there would ever consider the question of abstract art. And if the artist’s own chronology is to be believed then these first non-objective works appeared in the early 1950s. Was it a spontaneous outpouring? Certainly an element of spontaneity lies within any artist’s transition towards abstract thought as a medium for expanding the consciousness and making contact with new energies. For very many Soviet artists of the 1950s and 1960s, this transition took place in stages.
One of today’s most celebrated artists of Russian origin, Ilya Kabakov, is as a person nothing like that stereotypical abstract artistic thinker. He never thought to even touch on abstraction in later life, yet he remembers and appreciates that moment of the expansion of consciousness, that initial translation, that he experienced in his youth during the creation of his first ‘abstract’ drawings. He speaks with power of that time saying, “There was… some charge of powerful energy, which seemed come from somewhere deep within me. It was impossible to foresee the result of these movements, this ‘brandishing’ of the pen; the result came of itself, but in the configuration or pattern that gradually emerged there seemed to be some surviving memory and experience of that energy from deep within.”
Chetkov also embraced spontaneity as a feature of his ‘departure into abstraction’, but soon he was to give that departure deep thought.
In the early 1950s, according to the chronology set out by Irina Mikhaylova, Chetkov created the cycle Anthology of Black Humor. It is not clear, as mentioned above, that the author did not sometimes give titles to series and individual works post factum. They are frequently too conceptualized within the spirit of classical works on totalitarianism of the kind that appeared considerably later. Or possibly the actual creation of the cycle has been somewhat moved forward in the artist’s mind, that it indeed dates from a later period. Even if that is the case the gap is only of a few years, no more. Certainly, the artist’s own personal contact with the regime was quite enough to prompt independent expression (consider the works and not their titles, which would seem to have been given later, so very illustrative are they, so suggestive with regard to their own visual content). Whatever the case, a series appeared which directly dealt with the anti-totalitarian theme. Works include Deported and ‘Life Got Better, Life Got More Cheerful.’ The last painting, an ironic application of Stalin’s famous statement made at the very height of the Stalinist terror, is a clearly carnivalized procession of festively attired people. The drawing is a little untaught, but the artist absolutely captures the sense of carnival. The image is built up of areas of color, and it can perhaps be said that the rather fuzzy drawing and lack of clarity to the masses work in favor of the subject: a theatre of colored, fleshless shades, a carnival of ghosts. His non-objective works seem, however strangely, to be more deliberately dramatic (The Cleaner, Eyes Behind the Barbed Wire).
In summary, even in this early series, for all its obvious professional defects, Chetkov revealed his spirit as a fighter. His viewpoint is rarely original as regards either formal qualities (depiction, albeit with some generalization of image, and abstract-symbolic form) or content (taking protest against Stalinist despotism as his subject), both tasks being set totally independently. Because communication was difficult and information hard to come by, Chetkov was outside the sphere of any artistic action that might justifiably be related to the tasks he was setting himself. In terms of subject, it might refer to social protest of the kind already taking shape in both capitals: the work of Alexander Arefev and his group in Leningrad, the Lianozovo group and a whole series of dissident artists in Moscow. In terms of creation of form it might refer to Abstract Expressionism (which in the 1960s won itself a position in the Moscow underground) or such a local phenomenon as Vladimir Sterligov’s group that appeared in Leningrad even earlier. The underground as a philosophy of art and behavior had still not taken shape. Chetkov stood apart from those creative groups then contributing to formation of an underground. He arrived independently both at his own language and at the social tendency revealed in the series. He may later have somewhat reinforced and conceptualized this anti-totalitarian trend (those too literary and accusatory titles clearly derive from the lexicon of a later time) but he was certainly one of the first to attempt to give visual expression to Soviet totalitarianism.
Perhaps these attempts were initially not totally conscious, not thought out in the polemics of later political terminology, but they were no mere ‘keeping up with the times.’ Just a few years later, in his works on paper (the series Endowed with Violence etc), Chetkov already quite consciously created images of totalitarian repression. Here the visionary dominates and Chetkov independently works up a graphic quality, a certain way of looking that operates on an equal level with the real and observed, and with what one might call literary, historical and cultural experience (the visual source in this case might be the sixteenth-century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose work Chetkov has retained a fondness for throughout his life). Chetkov’s manner of drawing overall tends to have an emblematical quality and optical discipline. Then suddenly the logic of form seems to collapse, to deconstruct, taking on an unforeseen volume, seeming to swell up to a baroque physical mass. This happens because of a change in his manner of applying lines. They become almost physical and three-dimensional in the quality of their relief, possessing a tension of mastery of the material that seems more characteristic of the woodcut. This effect of deconstruction appears to be me used consciously, for it creates an inner sense of conflict of the kind necessary to bring out the theme of totalitarian violence (Cult, Totalitarian Brain).
So it is that a stormy start allows us to place Chetkov’s early works within the dissident context of Soviet art of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s. For a number of reasons, but specifically due to the lack of critical and museum representation, the artist remained for many years beyond the art world’s field of vision. Boris, through circumstances and his own character, felt himself to be a loner with no concept of belonging to any particular trend. Nonetheless, this does not liberate the viewer from historical and cultural contextualization of his experiments.
When speaking of the dissident trend it should be understood that in the Soviet Union any art that contradicted or did not fit official criteria could be declared anti-Soviet, regardless of its creator’s true aims. Most of the artists who ‘went underground’ in the 1960s (a number of expressions are used to describe the phenomenon – ‘another art,’ ‘the second Russian avant-garde’) were originally not at all anti-Soviet and had no desire whatsoever to give expression to any political views. Officialdom forced them to it, violently politicizing and ideologizing artistic life. Today it is obvious that within the underground (and even as one approached it in chronological terms) there was also a dissident trend that bore an open political message, relatively confined and consisting of only a few artists, but multiple layered and contradictory in style. From the critical and fearless capturing of everyday Soviet life in the works of Alexander Arefev, the factological sketches of Boris Sveshnikov and Yulo Sooster (both of whom had spent time in the camps) and the works of several members of the Lianozovo group at one end of the spectrum, to various versions of Symbolism such as the mutant-monsters of Oleg Tselkov, forcibly bringing to mind the words of the religious philosopher Zoya Krakhmalnikova regarding ‘anthropological revolution,’ (a result of the October Revolution of 1917) at the other.
Chetkov created the images of his own political vision purely for himself, not counting on any public reaction. His revelations of the realities of Soviet social history were personal revelations, individual, sincere. There’s no need to mythologize the artist’s inner dissidence. The subject has been overexploited by too many people. To be just, however, it must be pointed out that few others went so far at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s.
Returning to the tale of the artist’s creative life, back in the Urals, during his illness, Chetkov produced a number of landscapes. He seemed to be going back to a direct reaction to the motif of Nature. In parallel he was building up those skills he still lacked, expanding his knowledge of culture in the wider sense. The works produced then have their professional deficiencies and would never suit specialists in smooth, enamel-like painting. Nonetheless they contain something else it is impossible to overestimate: the raw, spontaneous, ‘undigested’ school of Impressionism, which emerges and manifests those qualities totally consciously. The artist intentionally articulates ‘sloppiness’ and haste, demonstrating that he is hurrying in the wake of the emotional impulse and cannot always keep up, that the most important thing to him is to reveal the power of that impulse, the force of his inner experience. Street, Soltanovo, Indian Summer, Autumn Landscape, these are clearly not ‘mood landscapes’ in the typical Russian tradition, for the mood is too stormy, nervous and impulsive. This is Impressionism on the verge of Expressionism.
In the 1960s Chetkov carved out a path of his own, laying down several lines throughout the decade that at times came together, while at others remained isolated one from another. To some degree these lines were to raise their voices throughout the artist’s whole career.
Sources for the first were the powerful works of the late 1950s, with their hard to control expressiveness. In this new stage, Chetkov learned ‘control,’ perhaps influenced by his acquaintance with Boris Ender. Member of the celebrated Ender family of artists, pupil and follower of Mikhail Matyushin, Boris had made his presence felt back in the 1920s during the mature period of the Soviet avant-garde. He was something like ‘the keeper of the flame’ in Leningrad culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Ender painted very ‘cultured’ still-lifes and landscapes possessing a clear and analytical tone that seemed to bring together and summarize several different trends in the classical avant-garde. He was able to do what Bertolt Brecht called ‘showing the show,’ presenting the potential of each trend. Naturally, he was something of an aesthete (whatever the contra-indications of such a term with regard to an adherent of avant-garde poetics) with multiple styles. He easily grew accustomed to the bases of different creative approaches, revealing their potential from within, as it were. It would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this disciplining, essentially encyclopedic experience for a young artist such as Chetkov whose advances were in many ways intuitive, and who was feeling his way ahead.
One of the first works in which this emotional basis is controlled and apparently channeled in the right direction is Chetkov’s landscape Sunset in Samarkand (1960) (Land. BC 912). The classical, easily recognized silhouette of the minarets is rendered in a dense, heavily melded dark blue mass that conceals the familiar outlines, with inset flashes of bright yellow – lights. The tense, yellow ground introduces an additional note of alarm. Though a tourist destination, there is nothing of the tourist image here, nothing superficial. Rather it is an image that is profound and dramatic.
Winter in Kizhi (1963) (Land. BC 252) is in a totally different mood. Like Samarkand, Kizhi was and is a traditional tourist destination, albeit in the north of Russia rather than at the heart of Central Asia. It is an architectural reserve, a concentration of northern Russian wooden architecture, with churches, izbas and barns built of roughly hewn logs. Again Chetkov selected a viewpoint that utterly sweeps aside everything superficial and ‘touristy’. Snow conceals the silhouettes and the subject now is the color relationships between the wooden logs and the snow; the relationship between warm and cold. These relationships are not only of color and tone, they have also a physical, tactile basis. The viewer can almost feel the contrast between the snow and the warm logs of the izba with its fireplace inside. In an emotional sense, there is no alarm here, no tension. On the contrary, it provides a sense of calm and balance. This is a picture of the world that is steady and stable. It is, after all, a preservation site, an accumulation of miraculously surviving evidence of the existence of a once apparently indestructible peasant world.
As for the contemporary Soviet village, Chetkov was only too well aware of the real state of things. He could not describe its everyday life either in critical documentary style, which would not have been at all in keeping with his understanding of the tasks of painting, or in lyrical style. (There were many such lyrical painters in the 1960s. Their depictions of life in the village were not agitational political works demonstrating the delights of collectivization and life on the collective farm; they would have had to be totally without any conscience for that. However, the state had need of, even commissioned, works showing life in the collective farm that both satisfied the need for patriotic works and reflected the then popular ‘back-to-the-soil’ movement. Many artists found a way out in capturing village life in poetic mode. Numerous village lads and lasses were depicted walking and embracing on the fringes of the village. Pensive cowherds tended the collective farm’s herds while teenagers were shown out at night pasture. These artists painted scenes of happy, mischievous childhood and so on, subjects that were timeless in their lyricism, ‘eternal,’ but in fact very far removed from the terrible, joyless life on the collective farm. It was a manifestation of salutary ambivalence. These glorifiers of village life thus managed to meet the ideological requirements imposed by the state while avoiding outright lies, for in the end childhood is indeed carefree. Whatever the political regime and the needs of the state, teenagers have always been sent out to night pasture, even during the days of Turgenev to judge by classical works of Russian literature. One Russian saying encapsulates the strategy chosen by these artists, “to keep your virginity but still turn a buck.”)
Such behavioral ambivalence was unacceptable to Chetkov. He was always a maximalist. Thus if he allowed observations of reality into his pictures of the village he immediately tore them free of the everyday context. In some works such as On Ladoga,1995 (Land. BC 330); and Meeting,1997 (Land. BC 398)) there is greater plastic transubstantiation of the material, but Chetkov never arrived at mere description and narration. Immediately, through their plastic values and their color, his works make clear that they are laboring under a different creative regime, and that it would be unproductive to seek social subtexts and allusions to the subject of the village.
As for back-to-the-soil, Chetkov likes to paint the earth, real, geographically specific earth. The expressive line that began, as noted, with Samarkand, includes many works that include the earth, soil. In April (1968) (Land. BC 257) and Landscape (1971) (Land. BC 103) the foregrounds are painted amazingly concretely. The brushstrokes literally mold the body of earth, the impasto lines of color are in high relief and seem to cut through the main painterly layers like furrows leading into the distance. For all their differences in subjects and what is depicted, these works are united by a common emotional mood; aggressive expression. In his painted creation of form Chetkov seems to feel equal to Nature’s own creation of form, above all in terms of sculptural values, in the molding and formation of the paint surface. It is dynamic and suffused with energy. Using the term of Yury Tynyanov, leading Soviet writer and culturologist of the 1920s and 1930s, it preserves ‘gestural force.’
A landscape of such type is dominated not by imitation but by the instinct of the demiurge, the creative spirit who made the world. This deeply felt creative urge is to be traced throughout Chetkov’s landscape work (and other works as well) right into the 21st century. (Pastoral, 2002 (Land. BC 260)).
The potent drive, that of form creation as the instinct of the demiurge, i.e. the competition between the creative act and the act of creating the world; the rivalry of the real and created landscape, overflows well beyond the limits of the landscape genre, going on to be activated in the artist’s Classical and biblical cycles.
For as noted previously, many trends run simultaneously through all of the artist’s work of later years from the 1960s.
Along with his Expressionism, consequently, we find another consistent trend in his landscapes, linked not so much with the need to compete with Nature as with the aim of penetrating, of entering into it. Here he seeks to approach Nature’s own state, to capture its atmosphere and ‘temperature,’ its sense of itself. This leaning, this approach, can be described as delicate, even humble. It appears in full-blown form in Landscape of 1972 (Land. BC 208). A flowering lilac bush in the foreground, the little holiday houses comprise a very gentle atmosphere, its sense of the world of Nature, a fine, delicate work. Never before had Chetkov been so attentive to nuances of mood in landscape, never before so sensitively lyrical as in Roshchino (1986) (Land. BC 084) and Chernavino Village (1994) (Land. BC 468), or several other landscapes painted around Chernavino, such as Christmas (1996) (Land. BC 390). All of them are works of atmosphere, gentle, painted at one go. There is a sense of emotional unity that derives from the specific nature of the landscape vision, one described by Russian art critic Abram Efros as ‘the landscape regulator’: the damp atmospheric environment embraces the visible world, animating it and giving it integrity.
There are also a number of still-lifes that belong to this landscape trend, a development which might be called ‘heartfelt’ because of its delicacy and nuance of feeling for the world of Nature.
Already in Still-life of 1960 (St. life. BC 129) it can be seen how free the artist now feels in terms of his professional skills. He has no difficulties with drawing, building up spatial planes, with nuances of color, having already overcome such problems through his own vigor, his temperament. Of particular importance in this work is a task that Chetkov continually set himself, to convey a sense of tempo, of ‘growing into Nature,’ reflected above all in the texture of the painting, which is nervous, energetic, sometimes spontaneous. The term ‘the noise of the surface’ was used to describe painterly texture in Russia in the 1930s and indeed, in this work we can hear the ebb and flow of that ‘noise.’
In another work, this time from 1978, this tempo is expressed by different means and appears to be a direct embodiment of Chetkov’s experience working with glass. Earlier cited were Chetkov’s words about using ‘the flowing of glass’ as an optical device. In Still-life (1978) (St. life. BC 216) runs and trickles are combined with an energetic brushstroke to give the subject temporality. The artist is chasing the state of Nature as a motif, hurrying to capture the essence, even while understanding how impossible it is to preserve all the multiplicity of the viewer’s impressions. This sense of ‘growing into’ this almost tactile contact with Nature is more fully expressed in Chetkov’s still-lifes than in other genres. In his still-lifes he demonstrates a certain desire for conquest, for mastery. Pierre Deks, citing Ingres’ words that the best way to ‘know’ a woman is to paint her, describes painting as ‘the desire for mastery.’ He demonstrates in Still-life with White Vase and Apple (1975) (St. life. BC 906) and Asters in a Blue Vase (St. life. BC 905) his desire to ‘master’ (to know, to comprehend) the state of bodily ephemerality. He balances on the borderline between summary generalization and the specific, concrete depiction of objects. The purely objective, botanical element of his still-lifes is not developed, not obviously dominant. The ‘anatomy’ of the flower is too summary, melted in the flow of emotions. Yet these works could not be called non-objective, abstract. Their plastic masses are too full of life, too rich and ‘juicy,’ too much ‘of the earth.’ Thus there is an interweaving of mimesis and metaphorics, the urge for mastery with all its sexual connotations, very much linked with Classical metaphor (‘the flower of desire,’ ‘to pick the flower of pleasure’ and so on). In Sunflowers (2004) (St. life. BC 621), Flowers and Fruits (2003) (St. life. BC 353) and The White Lilac (2003) (St. life. BC 355) the context of bodily presence (versions of that same ‘knowing,’ mastery and conquest) grows on a tactile level, on the level of Nature.
Curiously Chetkov also demonstrates this same context, Nature and naturalness (and thus the rejection of speculation), in works in which the representational, objective plane is reduced to a minimum. This results in a vector in his still-lifes, even his landscapes, where the approach might be defined as ‘organics.’ The term ‘organics’ harks back to the so-called ‘school of Matyushin.’ To be sure, in works such as his Still-lifes of 1973 (St. life. BC 917), and 1986 (St. life. BC 362), in Composition (1987) (St. life. BC 037), Still-life with Blue Vase (2002) (St. life. BC 206), Field Flowers (1997) (St. life. BC 530) and Joy of Flowers (1997) (St. life. BC 528), his landscapes of 1994 (Land. BC 380) and Lunatics (1990) (Land. BC 343), there emerges a Matyushin-like movement of two masses of color that facilitates the appearance of a third, linking color. This dense, viscous color environment creates an almost psychedelic sense of being engulfed in a color haze and swallowed up. There is no depiction here at all, just a sense of color, accumulating living, natural sensations in all their dynamism to create that sense of the organic; that ‘sign of a return to Nature’ (Mikhail Matyushin).
Nor is there any unequivocal depiction as such in Chetkov’s Still-lifes of 961 (St. life. BC 128) and 1974 (St. life. BC 095) where the objects composing the image are unrecognizable, being simply a play of textures and areas of color. It is not, however, abstraction; nor is it Matyushin-like synthesis. Rather it is macro-magnification, in which objective form is disregarded because one is so close to it. Yet the observer has an almost tactile sense of the flesh and epidermis of the flowers. He or she is lost in texture, following the folds and twists of form. There is a dominant sense of Nature, close to the trend we called above ‘heartfelt.’
An echo of this resounds in works essentially based on a graphic device for building up form, i.e. works that are by definition dominated by convention, conditionality and mediation. These are calligraphic, arabesque works: Still-lifes of 1973 (St. life. BC 073) and 1976 (St. life. BC 166), and Still Life with Blue Vase (2002) (St. life. BC 206). The viewer, drawn in, feels the rhythm of the hand that sets out the route, the lines, the pure, rhythmic fixation. Calligraphic qualities usually imply a certain symbolism, but here there is no semiotic or semantic reference. For all its self-sufficiency and self-obsessions, the rhythmic fixation seems to be corrected, held in check, by Nature’s impulse. These works too, then, are ‘heartfelt,’ aiming to convey the message of Nature, a message tied up in the living world.
Yet the Expressionist line remained the most powerful and the most promising in terms of the artist’s further development. Despite all else, it provided everything necessary for Chetkov’s emergence into abstraction, so important to his creative evolution.
Perpetually pulsing within this expressionist line are all kinds of energies, aimed in different directions. Through a whole series of works, beginning with Chetkov’s Landscapes of 1973 (Land. BC 002) and 1977 (Land. BC 173), through Staraya Ladoga (1990) (Land. BC 672) and right up to Оn the Bank of the Volkhov River (1996) (Land. BC 366), this energy is aimed at giving structure. Texture continues to play a main role, the ‘dough’ of paint is not smoothed out. On the contrary it is accentuated even more, and form is molded with thick, dense strokes and planes though the spatial planes are made somewhat geometrical. Objective substructure can be picked out; things that look like geometrical figures, rectangles, triangles and spheres. Such are definitely the visual ‘remains’ of roofs, walls, domes, or, if thinking of the still-lifes, of vases and plates. Fruits on a Blue Plate, 1999 (St. life. BC 466); Still-life with Iris, 1969 (St. life. BC 280)), these have undergone transformation. Even hints at geometry, however, continue to reveal a pull towards discipline, the need to give direction to the emotions.
Chetkov’s structuring tendency is manifested on a different level in such works as Landscape (1998) (Land. BC 385), and also in non-landscape works like Minstrels (1979) (Genre. BC 455). In these paintings a powerful sense of structure is realized not through geometricizing the objective plane, not through impressions of Nature and associations wrought by physical objects that form the basis of the painting (such as buildings or, in the still-lifes, arranged objects that have a similar sense of ‘construction’ as architecture), but rather is manifested on a level that lies far beyond mimicry and mimesis. Even though impressions of Nature lie behind each work, the tendency to discipline lives within the paint itself, within the painting’s inner structure. In such works Chetkov paints with characteristic well-ordered plaques of color, of correct, sometimes complex, curving form. These plaques have a sense of consistent movement into the depths, a movement that seems in some natural way to be set by a certain regularity to the spatial planes, but the overall architectonic impression (and a very specific spatial effect) is created through the way these plaques are attached one to another, overlapping and interconnecting like a jigsaw puzzle.
In another branch of the Expressionist trend, emotion seems to have been let off the leash. Why? Again it is perhaps because of that competitive spirit of the demiurge. Sometimes this approach is almost literally set out. In The Artist Working in the Open Air (1993) (Land. BC 650) an extremely summary and barely readable image of the artist is set within the flesh of the whole, rendered by a temperamental whirlwind of brushstrokes. The artist is set within Nature, is at one with Nature, but at the same time he is making his own Nature. His figure has been dissolved in the painterly mass yet the eye of the palette can be clearly picked out, like a sign or signal being sent to the viewer, a reminder of the mutual relationship between given and created reality. It seems unlikely that any reflections on the dialectics of natural and artistic creation of form lie behind the main strata of works on an openly expressive plane. Bulat Okudzhava, a celebrated poet and bard whose songs crackled forth from hundreds of thousands of reel-to-reel tapes in ordinary people’s homes during the Soviet years said, “each one writes what he breathes.” Chetkov simply painted what he breathed, that which formed the very substance of his being. He painted that which emerged from his own inner sense of self, his emotional ‘temperature.’ Nicolas de Stael once admitted that he was “forced to think in painting.” Chetkov was forced to ‘live painting.’ The painterly ‘dough’ of his works preserves the physical trace of that living, that experience: broken breaths, the rise and fall of different moods, the beating of the heart, excitement, sub-conscious alarm, the overcoming of depression. Moreover in such works as Landscape with a Bridge (1982) (Genre. BC 247), Black and No Breakthrough (1990) (Land. BC 636), the introduction of black was clearly determined by the artist’s own psychological state.
Even in his openly Expressive works, Chetkov usually balances on the very edge between an image of the outer world and his own purely internal vision. Such a vision requires a specific level of communication with the outside world, at least minimal ability of the objective level to be recognized. And, however paradoxical it may seem, it also requires a permanent tension to that communication, perpetual attempts to at least test its stability, its viability, its effectiveness, if not to break them down. There are works in which the departure from reality is prompted by the very incandescence of the emotion which seems to burst forth into the light of day. Such are Southern Shore of the Crimea (1973) (Abstract. BAC 258) and Volga Landscape (1991) (Land. BC 629). Color masses appear to have been thrown onto the canvas with some force. Yet this is not a spontaneous gesture. Thus do skilled builders toss mortar from a trowel onto a layer of bricks. Color settles, apparently carelessly, with splashes and runs, but the overall application, the structure, is strong. Objective qualities, the realities of Nature, these are less important here. They seem to peek out through the energetic application of color, self-evident in its energy and temporality (or perhaps hiding behind it, disappearing beyond the limits of perception). In Landscape of 1990 (Land. BC 169) this departure, or rather break with reality, is made into the painting’s subject. A few details of the objective world – roofs, trees – can be picked out with difficulty. They’re seemingly abandoned for reasons of their superfluity, and then totally reworked. Trees are transformed into three whirlwinds of color, their funnel-shaped movement forming the canvas space.
Chetkov finds other means of transforming Nature’s impulse. They too are connected with his inner vision, with the state and working of the consciousness. Not with an outpouring of inner energy this time, but by directing the consciousness towards the mytho-poetical, towards the expansion of its horizons. Symbolism had already turned the profound depths and altered states of conscious (dreams, meditations, and hypnotic states, known since Antiquity but for centuries left out in the cold beyond the borders of artistic culture) into the material of creativity. In 1965 Chetkov created his amazing Pink Landscаpe (Land. BC 239). Nicolas de Stael once described Henri Matisse’s canvas The Red Room as ‘space hypnotized by color.’ In the same way this landscape enchants and hypnotizes with close tonalities and a sense of topography (very rare for the artist) that recall the landscapes of Paul Klee. The houses are indicated by lines, but is this an image of the real world? Perhaps a design for some unknown structures? Or the projection of dreams dreamed long ago?
Chetkov also produced an extensive series of landscapes in which he directs himself towards the openly fantastical: White Cloud (1978) (Land. BC 018), Landscape (1995) (Land. BC 342), Riders in the Night (1999) (Horses. BAC 904), Suburb (1999) (St. life. BC 460), Road to Church (2003) (Land. BC 662), Blue Wind (2003) (Land. BC 619). They are mirage-like works in which the picture of the world, even while preserving all its main physical constants, is dematerialized. Whether that dematerialization tends toward the light mirages of dreams or toward dramatic and often painful visions depends on the author’s mood and spiritual state.
Chetkov puts forth one last form of communication between the outer and inner worlds in two cycles united around the subjects running through them: Riders (Horses) and Musicians. Both cycles are essentially plastic with color actions played out in the consciousness, as if seen with the inner eye, the physical eyes closed. Yet Chetkov does not dissolve into ‘pure’ speculation. There is always an anchor in his works that allows him to extend the whole chain of associations towards the original impulse of Nature.
Produced over many years, the series Horses presents all the multiplicity of this visual experience. Over several decades an image of a man on a horse recurs in his works, not a rider as such – a motif which also recurs in Chetkov’s work in the most varied culturological aspects, from Don Quixote and Rosinante to the Riders of the Apocalypse – but a totally separate theme. Simply a village man mounted upon a horse. Some works (Riders, 1967 (Land. BC 241)) reflect a more obvious sense of observation and narrative. At one end of the spectrum the Nature motif is almost realistic, and if transformed then transformed with great care. In such works as Horse Riding (1992) (Horses. BAC 601) and At the Horse Races (1996-97) (Horses. BAC 254) the horses and their riders have a sense of characterization, their poses, gestures and movements carefully noted and recorded. At the other end of the spectrum the rider/race motif is a quasi-mediated rhythmic structure of dynamic color, still not speculative, but almost entirely breaking any link with visible reality. As examples: (Golden Rider, 1999 (Horses. BAC 361), A Walk, 1992-93 (Horses. BAC 368), and chiefly, At a Horse Race, 1992 (Horses. BAC 388)). Between the two extremes are grotesque works represented by The Death of Rosinante and, Don Quixote’s Horse, 2003 (Horses. BAC 628). His symbolic and allegorical compositions such as Composition, 1971 (Horses. BAC 246) and Woman on a Blue Horse, 2003-4 (Horses. BAC 494) also occupy space between the extremes as do abstracted decorative structures Corrida, 1990 (Horses. BAC 685) and Horse Races, 1983 (Horses. BAC 908).
Something similar occurs in his series devoted to music, once more a subject that recurs throughout Chetkov’s career. A brief definition of the series is it represents an alloy, a melding of painting, music and reflected reality in which the relationship between the ingredients varies with each individual work. In the very early, and very similar, Portrait of Shostakovich (1955) (Genre. BC 910) there is already an attempt to construct visual characterization through analogy with music. The artist perceives the sitter’s music as a psychiatric drama of extreme emotional tensions, hence the broken rhythm and dissonances, the shocking grotesque. This early work is the sole example of Chetkov consciously visualizing musical impressions. In other works the first two components of the triad, painting and the reflection of reality, take turns at solo performance. The musical component affects mainly the subject and the objects within the painting. Such, for instance, is Music Lesson (1970-71) (Genre. BC 272), a somewhat decorative composition in which the artist needs the ‘musical’ element on decorative and compositional levels. The exotically theatrical attire is ‘motivated’ by the subject (this is not a ‘lesson’ but rather some musical/theatrical performance), the musical instruments’ architectonics allowing suitable compositional construction, giving plastic values to rounded silhouetted movements and smoothly flowing masses.
Something like it is also seen in Concert (1988) (Abstract. BAC 334), where the most important thing for Chetkov is to capture the gestures of making music; the dense, almost Fauvist painting is seconary. If there are any direct musical associations then they are only very distant echoes. As in Composition with Guitar (1990) (Genre. BC 533) the ‘role’ of the guitar, marked by rounded white strokes, lies mainly in enriching the rhythmic structure, creating caesurae and pauses in the powerful diagonal movement of forms. Concert (1989) (Abstract. BC 185) represents an effort to come closer to music through complex associative devices, with both an attempt to create a semiotic picture of musical performance and the paradoxical and alogical associative quality of Surrealism. Both musicians and instruments are likened to symbols, to something like musical notation, while the treatment of form is biomorphic, with a symbolic subtext referring directly to Surrealist imagery.
Finally new approaches deserve examination. These approaches are most clearly manifested in the works Concert (1988) (Abstract. BAC 334) and Quartet (1996) (Genre. BC 626). Everything seems more or less as before. Attention is concentrated on the visualization of performance itself, showing the musicians’ grotesque characteristic movements, capturing their professional gestures. But there is also a purely musical theme set primarily by the color-rhythmic, traced indication of form, and by repeated flashes of color which give rise to associations with the characteristic emotional sounds of jazz.
In Singing (1987) (Abstract. BAC 317) Chetkov goes even further. Depiction is reduced to nothing, or perhaps there is a ghost of something exotic, perhaps some version of the ethno-music so popular today. However, the musical theme is openly taken to abstraction, the musical associations conveyed (in addition to those distant, residual hints of depiction) by the very resonance of the paints. Resonances that fade and grow, enriched by overtones and vibrato, with drums setting the regular background beat.
So comes the turn of ‘musical’ abstractions. Why musical? Simply put, Chetkov moved toward abstraction via several different paths. Each of them was equally important to him. In particular is that early example of abstraction of what might be called ‘the dissident context.’ (It must pointed out once more the difficult nature of the artist’s chronology, since he sought, found, turned back, then returned to what he had already done – often with a certain chronological consistency. Abstraction existed in parallel to his works of Nature. Symbolist paintings appeared side by side with Expressionist paintings, and so on. His development was stereoscopic and by very definition there cannot be any single chronological point marking his ‘emergence into abstraction.’) So why musical? Because above all in such works as Abstraction No. 1 (1962) (Abstract. BAC 242) there are hints at images of musical instruments within the complex color-rhythmic fabric of the canvas. Extremely summary, utterly lacking in detail and, moreover, metamorphosed: that central rounded form might be part of a fruit of yet the body of a violin. The same appears in Composition (1989) (Abstract. BAC 913), wherein a form arousing associations with a musical figure breaks forth from the thick painterly environment. Next step was the execution of totally non-objective compositions, without any recognizable objective associations that might indicate performance as such or expected visual elements like figures of musicians, the bodies of musical instruments and so on. The very form of these works refers us to the forms of musical composition, as is manifested in the early Composition (1963) (Abstract. BAC 161), a vibrant, breathing lava of impasto touches of paint. The painting might recall the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock, but the basic premise is totally different. Action painting, founded on bodily gesticulation, is simultaneous and extrovert, while here the effect of unbroken movement, of contrasts, flashes, sparkles and color repetitions, is subordinated to arrangement and order. It is this dialectics of unbrokenness and arrangement that becomes the main subject of the painting. In the words of Igor Stravinsky recalled, “The phenomenon of music is given to us solely in order to bring order to all things, including, above all, the relationship between man and time. The sole, obligatory condition for realization of this phenomenon is thus a certain structure, construction, order.”
In Chetkov’s Compositions of 1970 (Abstract. BAC 091) and 1978 (Abstract. BC 186) the principle of arrangement is different, being a real or mentally laid out network of color that signifies a prototype for a canon, for working to a model, and that takes on the appearance of one of the discoveries (heuristics) of avant-garde music of the 20th century. This device is further reinforced in Composition (1979) (Abstract. BAC 60), whipped and swirled by white lines of clamps or staples and having no ‘top’ or ‘bottom.’ The analogy of the canon is true here not only in terms of regularity as a principle behind construction of the musical fabric, but also in the overcoming of that regularity: in the principle of action and counter-action that lies behind musical drama.
The highest manifestation of this musical-abstract trend appears in Apocalypse (1980 (Abstract. BAC 644), 1992 (Abstract. BAC 465)) and Composition (1990) (Abstract. BAC 583). All are works of great rhythmic force in which painted flesh literally pulses, rendered in close tonalities, pale ochre and gray-blue. The general movement is centripetal, like waters swirling with a powerful grace down a funnel, drawing the viewer’s attention along. Classical harmonies should not be sought here but there are obvious analogies with contemporary music, with its means of working with time. One modern scholar defines the following means of ‘musical working of time’: repetition, addition, variation, unfolding and development. The color-rhythmic articulation of these works derives from those very principles.
Alongside what might be called Chetkov’s musical-associative path to abstraction is another which can be called the political-associative path. It too is rooted back in those early spontaneous abstract works in which the artist sought to attach his own ideological insights to certain non-objective visions and associations. Those works were born of the impossibility of finding visual form for that obvious contradiction with the system of ideological values proclaimed by Soviet propaganda that emerged in the artist’s own personal experience. There was no avoiding a new kind of programmatic, literary approach, although the ideological ‘burden’ was borne largely by the titles (The Inhuman Scale of Sabotage, The Spirit of Optimistic Art and so on). Without this reverse link the political message would have faded and these non-objective structures would have continued to exist apparently totally independently. Chetkov must have understood all the complexity of a visualization of the politological categorical and thus he reinforced the depictive elements. In the triptychs Totalitarian Man (1962) and Unity of Sacrificed and Sacrificer (1964) the visual, representative elements grow through the fabric of the work. The same sometimes happened in the works of Paul Klee and Juan Miró, in those rare moments when they felt the need to break through mediation reach out to the political realities of their age.
Whatever its significance for Chetkov, however, the political-associative vector was not the most important. He accomplished significant achievements in abstraction by another route. In earlier writing of mirage-like, dreamlike landscapes, it was mentioned that they were determined by the workings of the consciousness. Those workings are recalled when looking at works like Agony of Color (2002) (Abstract. BAC 499), Woman’s Silhouette (1980) (Abstract. BAC 651) Sounds of the Day (2002) and Yellow Moon (1999) (Abstract. BAC 404). In their vibrancy and vibrations, those paintings have a sense of mirage, of color’s independent life, of richness of content, yet even despite the total non-depiction of objects there remains a hint at a certain painted representation. A hint that behind all this ceremonial drifting, vibrating and breaking of color lies some kind of content. Reflection? Probably, but reflection not of the objective world, not of visible reality. Rather the representation of certain processes within the consciousness and the subconscious. Mirage then, dream? Probably. Outstanding psychologist Rudolf Arnheim wrote that dreams are ‘sensory extinction.’ Indeed, the viewer seems to be looking at a painted analogy for those psychic processes. One key to this is the word ‘drifting:’ Rudolf Steiner asserted that, “drifting blue or violet are the expression of spiritual-soulful reality, just as red or pink represent material reality.” Leaving aside the specific tie between color and the nature of reality, it should be noted only that Steiner speaks of the drifting of color, an ancient tradition of color interpretation continued by a thinker totally alien to him. That thinker was Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, with regard to Jackson Pollock, of the profound sight that feeds pre-form.
It is not necessary to go deeper into the direct treatment of images created by Chetkov. The interpretation of dreams is an ancient profession, with traditions that pass through shamanism and that have been taken up and made relevant by all versions of psychoanalysis. These images transmit a message that is open to interpretation. By very definition there cannot be any absolute truths. Therefore only a few general features that seem to be of particular importance will be noted here.
The dream state is transitional, borderline, uniting ‘both shores of life,’ as Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky so elegantly put it. Images representing this state by very definition thus have multiple layers. First, pure abstraction, the formation of ‘pure appearances.’ (In Chetkov’s work these are ‘pure appearances’ almost in the literal sense, the painting seeming to be washed clean, transparent, no major role played by effects of light breaking through color to contribute to dematerialization of the painting. No doubt it is a reflection of Chetkov’s experience with stained glass.) Second, abstractions that retain some sense of depiction of objects – form-visions that elude, that are immaterial (Two Samurai, 2000 (Genre. BC 490)) – although sometimes those visions preserve a trace not of mimesis but of psychology. In such works as Anticipation (1972) (Abstract. BAC 354), Fortune Telling (1989) (Abstract. BAC 557) and We are Russians (1990) (Genre. BC 356) ‘clots’ and accumulations of inner tensions and emotional experiences can be felt.
Curiously, Chetkov seems to have tried to think through independently that trend in his abstract work which is linked with the workings of the consciousness. In a cycle from the early 1980s, The Unconscious and Consciousness, some kind of explanation for his experiments in this direction is found.
A whole separate section of Chetkov’s oeuvre is made up of portraiture. Of other genres the stereoscopic view has been taken, so why pick out portraiture as a separate subject? In portraiture the artist set himself the same formal tasks as in other genres. Often within the limits of a single period of time, his portraits reveal different versions of Expressionism, reminiscences of Matyushin’s organic style, decorativism and many variations of abstraction. Yet in each case, in all these different versions, Chetkov’s portraits were dominated by a desire for characterization. The level to which things are ‘made strange’(a concept that emerged in the history of Russian formalism of the 1910s and 1920s, indicating the inhibition of automatic perceptions through non-traditional means of expression that are then sharpened and refined) might be different in each, just like the level of mediation. Nonetheless, the ‘characterological’ vector is always present. Clearly depth and relief of psychological characteristics is not the meaning when this term is used. That would be strange in works that are very largely not formally ‘representational,’ i.e. they do not ‘depict’ the sitter. Rather dealt with here are infectious psychological states, states of consciousness, that are revealed, turned out towards the viewer, and so reference to the ‘characterological’ means Chetkov’s process of search for contact and communicativeness.
The first surviving portrait, Folk Singer Dzhambud Dzhambaev (1956) (Port. BC 308), based on the artist’s Central Asian impressions, is still quite traditional and even imperfect in formal terms. It is primitivist in nature since the author was not yet able to think through this aspect of his vision (and skill). Yet it contains something that explains Chetkov’s future portrait experiments, for despite all temptation the young artist did not allow himself to be carried away by ethnographic concerns. The folk singer and story-teller, the Central Asian akyn, was a popular character in Stalinist mythology. Upholders of Soviet ‘civilization’ used these wholly traditional performers (whose fate should have been forever to sing at weddings) for propaganda purposes. Their energies were redirected and they performed patriotic narrative songs about Soviet power to Party leaders during numerous official celebrations of Central Asian culture in Moscow. Chetkov probably fully understood the situation but whatever the truth of the matter his akyn is no hero of his people, but rather a somewhat cunning, far from a simple man. No such developed, even narrative, characterization is to be found again in Chetkov’s works.
The second portrait image, Portrait of a Man (1968) (Port. BC 072), dates from more than ten years later. Most amazing in this painting is the presence – behind the simultaneous, almost chance, nature of the painting – of a true portrait likeness. In the modeling of the lips, the drawing of the eyes, in the overall character of the face, the work of a physiognomist is sensed. Chetkov plainly is judging character, weighing mental qualities of his subject by judging facial features. This man would probably be recognized by all those who know him, he is very like himself. But this was not sufficient for the artist. What lies behind the broad brushstrokes, the traced, almost a la prima modeling, with color applied not along the form, the anatomy? It appears Chetkov was capturing a specific character; impulsive, heated, extrovert. Alternatively in Male Portrait (1969) (Port. BC 077) the features are hazy, smudged, the strident color masses – green, orange – giving only the most general impression of the face. It nevertheless is still a portrait, for in some paradoxical way Chetkov directly visualizes the explosive character, the turbulent nature of worn metaphor.
Portrait of a Gipsy (1968) (Port. BC 093) depicts a tense, even over-tense character, not subject to external influences. Female Head (1976) (Port. BC 050) captures an elusive character, a fleeting vision (to use the rather over-common widespread poetic image). Grief (1980) (Port. BC 138) and Sorcerer (1981) (Port. BC 304) are also what could be called ‘psychograms’, the visualizations of states of consciousness. Sometimes quite painful states. A typical work might be Male Portrait (1987) (Port. BC 076), which echoes the celebrated self-portraits ‘behind bars’ of Vladimir Yakovlev, a tragic artist who spent decades in a psychiatric hospital. Chetkov takes the subject to its logical conclusion. The movement of surfaces set at an angle to each other is not a mere device for the deconstruction of form but, to use the psychoanalytical term, an indicator of the ‘disintegration of the psychic structure.’ The portraits can be grouped according to what might be defined as ‘temperature.’ They deal above all with psycho-types, with the psyche as dynamic process. The painting literally sparks forth from its contact with this process. The viewer too receives this energy of contact, provoking a reaction, contact, the spark of understanding. Such an approach predetermines and explains the nature of the portrait painting, what might be called its reactivity. The need for just such simultaneous painting, just such action, just such tempo is sensed by the viewer. And most importantly, the reduction in distance between the impulse of penetration into the sitter’s character and the painted response (the reaction to this call from a human individual) creates a new field of vitality.
Chetkov produced his first portraits of this kind in the late 1960s. It should be noted once more the amazing synchronicity of his experiments and those of one of the most up-to-the-minute movements of the day, German Neo-Expressionism reflected in the painting of the New Fauves: Rainer Fetting, Salome, Helmut Middendorf, Martin Kippenberger. In his isolation, Chetkov developed outside this context, yet in the historical perspective he fits, in some incredible way, into it.
Chetkov’s portraiture is not, of course, exhausted by the trend described above. There are more traditional portraits, combining indubitable likeness to the specific sitter and the capturing of a specific human type (Female Head, 1976 (Port. BC 051); Portrait, 1970 (Port. BC 042); Portrait of an Unknown Person, 1982 (Port. BC 307)). There are successful works as well as more superficial works built up on virtuosity, to some extent recalling the manner of Anatoly Zverev, then the golden boy of bohemian and diplomatic Moscow (with whose works Chetkov was almost certainly NOT familiar). There are works in which the portrait purpose is not fully declared and the portrait is rather an excuse for ‘having it out with tradition’ in a way that every artist is driven to do. In Portrait of an Old Prostitute (1970) (Port. BC 320) and Self Portrait in a Top Hat (1987) (Port. BC 090) he is having it out with the School of Paris as a whole. Inn other works the ‘discussion’ is more personal, aimed at a specific artist, as in the self-portrait I am a Clown (1988) (Port. BC 168), where he directly addresses Georges Rouault. One group of portraits seems to be of particular importance for the characterization of Chetkov’s work and personality, made of what could be called ‘self-portraits as…’ In those paintings he seems to appear in costume, as is reflected in the titles: Retired Member of the Guards (1968) (Port. BC 276), Portrait of a General (1975) (Port. BC 915), I am a General (1974) (Port. BC 902) to name a few. But the essence lies not in either costume or stylization.
It must be understood that all kinds of historicism, attempts to find oneself a place within an alien era, were extremely widespread in Soviet art of the 1970s. Chetkov was far removed from such tendencies. He was not concerned with retrospectivism in itself. For him, the meaning of these paintings lay elsewhere, the whole series being concentrated on genuine portraiture of the self. Retrospectivism presupposes the artist’s profound penetration into an alien era and that he settled into it and attempted to convey its atmosphere. Chetkov was little concerned with learning anything about an alien era and the ‘historical’ element of his portraits is purely carnival and fantastical in nature. He finds it far more interesting to try out this era on himself; to imagine himself in different circumstances, in another life, against a different historical backdrop. And not only historical, but current everyday, existential. I am a Clown (1988) (Port. BC 168), for all its internal artistic appellations, is an interesting example of an attempt to play out, even to live, another role function. I am a clown, and why not? You see me as a clown so I look out at the world with the eyes of a clown (Heinrich Böll’s Clown – extremely popular in the Soviet Union during those years – was translated into Russian under the title Eyes of a Clown). There is another layer in Self Portrait in a Top Hat (1987) (Port. BC 090), where again the motif of inter-relationship with the painted and plastic tradition is key. It lies in a desire to enter into an archaic behavioral type and world view demonstrated within the 20th century context by Pablo Picasso – the artist as faun, the artist as satyr. The plastic structure addresses the question of classical Modernism, but there is yet another, behavioral layer. Chetkov was clearly struck by the archaicizing ‘life in art’ introduced by the great Spaniard with his arsenal of male passions and his mighty temperament. Settled into the image so well that his attitude is not one of role playing he might present himself as a fighting general of the 19th century, but he needs the uniform with its epaulettes, not for theatrical effect or to create historical allusions, rather in order to prove something of radical importance to himself and the viewer. What is it? Above all the search for identity, a search that goes beyond the borders laid out by the conditions of Soviet life.
Chetkov overcame many things born in the depths of the provinces at a time when social and spiritual links and traditions were being torn apart and destroyed. When it seemed he was fated to share the anonymous fate of his fellow students at the trades college, he was sent to the camps as a boy and he survived. He survived the war. And even in this early period of his life fate brought him meetings with marvelous creative people; with Nikolay Evgrafov, Vladimir Eifert and others. He got out and about, becoming a true artist. Yet he was an artist at a small glass factory, stuck more or less in the middle of nowhere. He lacked contacts not only with masters of the western trans-avant-garde but also with the underground in his native land, with people united by common creative interests and behavioral strategies. Chetkov was not, of course, living in total isolation, and his works were shown at many exhibitions of applied art. He met people working in his own professional sphere. He would seem, moreover, to have sought out creative contacts with those not repressed by the existing hierarchy. Fate thus brought him into contact with Ervan Kochar, an outstanding Armenian artist who returned to Yerevan from France. (“I started to show him slides of my works in glass,” wrote Chetkov in his colorful memoirs, “And he kept saying “yes, yes,” and “that’s good.” But when I began to show him drawings from my album Kochar jumped up and started to look at my works and shout convulsively, “Who are you? A Jew? A Pole? An Austrian?” So I answered, “I’m Russian.” – “You can’t be! There are no such artists among the Russians!”) In Yerevan, in Armenia, he met another patriarch of Soviet art who had begun his career at the start of the 20th century, Martiros Saryan. But these were the happy exceptions. Chetkov’s own perception of himself as a loner, a man and an artist without the support of likeminded people, remained in force.
The status of the applied artist was determined and limited by the Soviet system. The highest ranks in the hierarchy were occupied by masters who created paintings and sculptures on important ideological subjects, approved by the Communist Party and worked strictly within the borders of official aesthetics. Artists of the applied arts stood right on the bottom rung of the ladder, perceived as extremely useful in functional terms but with little to be expected of them on the political and propaganda front. Yes, it was admitted that they were creative people, but they were seen as second rate. Even in his professional sphere, therefore, Chetkov came up against limits that hemmed him in, with rules of a game set by those on high. A rebel by nature, he panted to cross the barriers – barriers in creativity, status and behavior.
The ‘self-portraits as…’ were just such a means of liberation, allowing him to understand himself within different historical, everyday and existential circumstances.
So this series, produced over many years, has much to tell about Chetkov, about his nature. He is artistic, filled with baroque abundance, even extremely temperamental in his inability to be satisfied with his achievements, tending towards a perpetual search for himself, for new facets of self-identification. And of course it displays much about his work. It certainly makes more comprehensible his tendency towards a multiplicity of styles.
Strikingly, Chetkov never settled down, never arrived at any kind of harmony. The qualities described above, both of character and of his art, not only do not level out, they never develop further.
In 1993, an exhibition of the work of Ernest Fuchs, leader of the Vienna school of fantastical realism (Fantastischer Realismus) was held in St Petersburg’s Russian Museum. Perhaps the exhibition was not a revelation to the Russian art world, for it was only later that Russians were to develop an interest in different versions of Surrealism and Post-Surrealism and Symbolist trends, following a series of exhibitions in the West in the early 2000s. By the early 1990s the professional Russian art world had mastered conceptual art and had caught up with the radical phenomena of the mainstream. Fuchs, with his literary content, his Symbolism and psychedelic immersion in the self, seemed purely marginal to many, but not to Chetkov, for whom Fuchs’ personality and poetics seemed extremely relevant. The Viennese artist had achieved a unity between ‘the style of life’ and his own art along the lines of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed Fuchs (in his velvet suits and his fez, willingly photographed in the exaggerated luxury of his villa, with references to the Sezession and Franz von Stuck’s villa in Munich) seemed to be the very reincarnation of the Symbolist artist of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Chetkov (remember those ‘self-portraits as…’!) could not but be taken by this openly demonstrated (and exploited) sense of character and personality, this unusual – and in the Soviet times impossible – shockingly striking behavior! He was attracted by the baroque extreme of visualization achieved by Fuchs. He could see behind the precious Viennese’s mannered phantasms and playful stylization something identified in his work by Riva Castelman (Prints of the XX Century). With clarity she said, “While his subjects are nearly always without contemporary motifs, they have a symbolic relevance to contemporary conditions.”
Stunningly, Chetkov had found a fellow soul. In that personal battle for the magical status of art, for untrammeled flights of fantasy, in the conflict that he had been engaged in between lackluster realism and intellectual, mediated conceptualism, he had a fellow fighter and fellow thinker, a comrade! And what a comrade!
The following year, taking advantage of an exhibition in the Haus der Künstler in Vienna, Chetkov made Fuchs’ acquaintance. At the latter’s invitation he spent a month working at the Wagner Villa in Vienna and since then has seen himself as the head of the Petersburg trend in the Vienna school of fantastical realism.
And why not? The artist has every right to choose his allies! In his choice there is a continuation of the eternal search for self-identification. After all, contentedness with the self and Chetkov are two incompatible poles! Just as an old Japanese artist entering on the patriarchal age changes his name, so now Chetkov signs his works with the name Cherfin. But most importantly, he is at the very peak of his creativity. His works out in a powerful, passionate and inspired stream! Biblical stories, Classical myths and mysteries, metamorphoses of the totalitarian and individualist consciousness and the basic archetypes of civilization all find color, form and emotion upon his canvas. The artist’s thematic interests know no bounds. Nor has his ‘stylistic appetite’ been sated. He easily and naturally appropriates the most varied styles and manners.
Chetkov’s magnificent multiplicity of styles, the multiplicity of an untiring, ageless Modernist from the Urals, cannot but forge a rich and varied path ahead!