An Exchange with the Titans

The Portraiture of Boris Chetkov

Dr. Alexander Borovsky
Head of Contemporary Art
State Russian Museum

Everything, it seemed, was against him: Born deep in rural Russia, part of a social group doomed to destruction, sent to the Gulag as a teenager, then off to war — which he survived. He managed to get himself an artistic education only with considerable difficulty and to find a niche in the provinces, making art glass. Boris Chetkov was far removed from the heart of the art world. Yet, while little known to a Western audience, he overcame these barriers to create works that hold their own in the kaleidoscopic panorama of twentieth century art.

In some paradoxical fashion, Chetkov found himself asking the same questions as the masters of Modernism. Moreover, he was a kindred spirit: a rebel, a nonconformist, a scoffer. As is true of his more renowned fellows, the gallery of portraits created by Chetkov is made up not so much of images of specific people as it is reactions by a unique individual to the creative and intellectual challenges of the age in which he lives. And this is what determines the nature of this book. It has two internal subjects: Chetkov’s roots as a portraitist in the Russian tradition and in Russian life, and his dramatic parallel examination of the fundamental questions of European Modernism from the outlands of the Soviet Union. 

Boris Chetkov emerged only recently, in his seventies, to occupy his place in the international art scene.1 His was the fate of a twentieth century Russian artist who lived the greater part of his life in a totalitarian state but never belonged to the servile artistic elite, and who thus shared with his people all the trials that were their lot. He was an artist unbroken by his fate, who found it possible — in conditions of isolation and repression — to explore the same complex creative questions as the great modern masters, who had been formed under other conditions and in very different circumstances. Chetkov’s artistic struggle recalls the words of Russia’s great poet Boris Pasternak, describing the creative spirit: “With whom did he battle throughout? With he himself, with he himself. . . .”

Chetkov certainly had both people and things with whom to do battle. He was subject to unceasing ideological pressure — isolated from the artistic trends of the times — and he lived most of his life in the provinces, outside the two Russian cultural capitals, Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). But his primary battles were not external, with his environment or the state ideology, though conflict with them undoubtedly helped forge his character. These battles raged within him — in his soul, his passions, and his own personality. These dramas link the then un-known painter from the Russian wilds with his European compatriots. Particularly in his portraits, that personal spiritual battle directly colors the development of form and style. It is here that the mighty rivalry of personalities allows us to draw parallels and see links to what Nietzsche called “human, all too human,” and with opposition to the suppression of the individual within any society.

A brief overview of Chetkov’s social, institutional, and professional status within Soviet society may help us to better understand the man and his art. During the last twenty years, Russian art history has revealed the tragic price paid as a result of the separation of Soviet artistic culture into two camps: the ideologically “correct” (supported by the state in all its manifestations) versus the dubious, persecuted, and politically harmful. The result was a great chasm between Soviet and international art practices, an unnatural politicization of artistic life, and a pointless waste of creative energy on nonartistic questions — not to mention the broken lives of many artists from both the official sphere and the underground. Efforts to create a new history of artistic culture for the last century are already bearing fruit and in recent years the representation of Russian art has become more objective, gaining depth and breadth. Western viewers were able to see the results in the 2005 exhibition, Russia! Nine Hundred Years of Masterpieces and Master Collections at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.2

It might seem that the phenomenon of nonofficial art has been fully studied: as a complex of ideas, and as an aggregate of creative and behavioral strategies through a cross section of Soviet society. But this approach takes no account of major artists who developed outside the sphere of official/unofficial opposition. They might not have been active participants in the underground, they may never have taken part in those historic “protest” exhibitions, and they never enjoyed the attention of those few collectors, critics, and Western journalists who then knew and admired nonofficial art. They never belonged to the “underground party” since they found themselves totally outside all systems and group activities. These artists simply got on with art and life as they understood it. And officialdom simply ignored them, denying them attention or reward, depriving them of full access to an audience. Nor did they find support on the other side, among those opposed to the world of officialdom. There were no well-wishers among Western journalists and diplomats, no forward-looking sympathizers in the cultural sphere, no collectors who believed in them, either foreign or Russian. Paradoxically, this was the natural outcome of the conditions mentioned above: it was even more difficult to live outside the system than within it, even if “within” meant being part of the opposition subject to absolute repression by the state.

In terms of personal artistic realization these masters were very different in nature, revealing no stylistic similarities in their development. They were one-offs, individuals, remaining such even after the underground movement prevailed and new hierarchies were created by art historians of the incoming wave. Once more they found no place within these new hierarchies. Now the time has come to chronicle the full achievements of what we might call “twice forgotten” artists and to trace their winding creative paths.3

Though Chetkov was one of these loners, he is not a total unknown. He has had several one-man shows in Russia and abroad, and he established a reputation in Germany where he allied himself with Ernest Fuchs, leader of the Vienna school of fantastical realism. The recent Pushkin Group monograph on his art and life has also brought greater recognition and exposure. On publication, however, he was already over seventy years old. Fame came late to Chetkov, in many ways by chance, and thanks largely to the continuing efforts of one American publisher and collector.

We should not forget that these opportunities arose out of the collapse of the Soviet system and that such publications would have been impossible to conceive of throughout Chetkov’s career. So it was that almost the whole of the artist’s creative life passed under the Communist regime. He might best be described with the words of Alexey Konstantinovich Tolstoy as “a fighter in neither camp” — alien to officialdom and of no interest to the underground. He lived and worked, therefore, on his own terms, outside the established frameworks. This might appear to be an enviable fate for any artist. Within the Soviet historical and cultural situation, however, it meant living one’s creative life in the shade, with no links to one’s true audience. While not subject to any pressure or coercion, he was simply, and insultingly, indifferently ignored. 

Yet Chetkov was truly an artist of the people. Not in the official sense, though the Soviet Union had a Byzantine system of honorific titles awarded to those artists most valued by the state, among them “people’s artist.” He was an artist of the people in the truest and most direct sense. He was born, raised, and formed as an individual in direct contact with the life and culture of ordinary people.


Boris Chetkov was born on 27 October 1926 in the small town of Novaya Lyalya in the Sverdlovsk Region of the Northern Urals at the very heart of Russian folk life  — the crossroads of the peasant and industrialized worlds. Chetkov has given us striking reminiscences of his childhood. His grandfather was a familiar type from classical Russian literature: the prosperous hard-working peasant, confidently running a small but efficient smallholding that depended on the communal hard labor of a large extended family. During the Soviet period, this type of peasant householder and that type of smallholding were doomed, pitilessly expunged in the collectivization decreed by Stalin. Nonetheless, the budding artist was raised in the village environment and traditional way of life, which remained in his memory and informed his later work:

I found it interesting in the izba.4 On the walls were photographs of opera singers and a large colored reproduction of what I later learned was a painting by Rembrandt, and [there were] books in leather bindings with clasps, particularly 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. But once I discovered a door in a dark corridor that led to a storeroom. I crept up there quietly and saw a huge light space. It was a totally different world. There were objects that had been unused and unwanted for many years but that were in perfect condition. Each had its place: the saddles and yokes, harnesses 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. There was a sleigh, all gaily painted. . . . The harness was adorned with little bells of many 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 there 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 go up in the attic and spend hours looking at all this equipment.5

These childhood recollections amaze us with their precision and artistic clarity. They recall the memoirs of another Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, also recording his contact with village life:

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 a distance 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 and 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.6

I have cited these texts that echo each other so closely because they indicate how important folk art was to the initial development of Russian abstraction. It is clear that these childhood recollections played an important and decisive role in shaping Chetkov’s artistic vision; they were imprinted on his memory.


Chetkov’s teenage years were difficult ones: living in small factory towns, in cold “barrack universities,” finally running away from the trade college he attended. He was unjustly arrested for petty hooliganism and spent a year in a correctional facility. Together with hardened youths he was taken to the Nizhniy Tagil area to work as a logger. Thus Chetkov became an inhabitant of the infamous Gulag Archipelago, later exposed to Western readers by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Straight from camp, he was called up by the military, and after finishing tank school he fought in the last years of the Second World War. 

Such were the harsh beginnings of his life, seemingly far removed from any contact with art. From his earliest years however, he was drawing, with an indomitable inner drive to create, and later the young artist began to work with oil paints. 

Two meetings might be described as pivotal for the young Chetkov. During his teenage years there was a first, mystical meeting with the artist Nikolay Evgrafov, who came to Novaya Lyalya on holiday. Friends presented “the boy with a passion for drawing” to the visiting artist, who approved of Chetkov’s early drawings, gave him critical advice, and would become an early influence on his work.

Evgrafov is a mysterious and almost unstudied figure in the history of Soviet art. He was a member of the group, Masters of Analytical Art, estab-lished and led by the great Russian avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov. By the time he visited the Urals, Evgrafov had long departed from Filonov’s principles of “madeness” through “atomized” touches on the canvas and “units of action.” By the mid-1930s he had developed his own independent manner, utterly fresh in its understanding of nature. “Swimming” masses of color that seem to elude objective form, free brushstrokes, and a sense of improvisation, all combined in zones of extreme concentration and focus. Then, over the course of five years, he moved on to broad “gesture” painting and finally to abstraction, foreshadowing the action painting of Jack-son Pollock. Evgrafov died at the beginning of the war, largely unknown to the wider public.7

In Chetkov’s early paintings we trace the influence of Egrafov’s pre-abstract works of the mid-1930s. Could that brief, chance meeting with the master, so soon to depart this life, leave such a profound mark? Did Chetkov remember it and consider it a fateful encounter?

The second pivotal meeting took place after the war. With great difficulty the young artist settled back into ordinary life, wandering across the half-starved land. From the Urals he traveled to the opposite end of the country, to Kazakhstan then to Karaganda where he eventually found himself a job as a set painter in a club at a coalmine. Here he drew perpetually, at noisy bazaars, in narrow oriental streets and alleys, despite the obvious disapproval of his subjects. 

That second fateful meeting occurred in a local club run by an artist from Moscow, Vladimir Eifert, a somewhat legendary painter and art historian who had studied in Paris. He was a member of the Firebird group, a friend of the art historian and critic Igor Grabar, and from 1936 to 1939, the director of Moscow’s celebrated Tretakov Gallery. A portrait of him from the 1920s by Sergey Lobanov, of the Blue Rose group, shows him in his fur hat and round spectacles, a cigar clamped in his teeth. Despite the asceticism of the 1920s, this was a man of style, a truly complex individual. He had loyally served the state in the early 1930s when he was a specialist in art and antiques at the European embassies, and he was almost certainly mixed up in Stalin’s murky sales of objects from Russian museums. That service could not save him during the war: his Ger-man origins doomed him to arrest and exile in Kazakhstan. He would never return to Moscow and died in Karaganda in 1960. 

As with Evgrafov, Chetkov encountered in Eifert another rejected artist, a marginal figure cast aside by Soviet culture. Fate brought him together with just such men — by chance or providence. Chetkov studied with Eifert for three years, working in the open air and reading art history. Eventually his teacher told him “you are an artist, but you need to get yourself a diploma.” In 1953 Chetkov entered Leningrad Art College, which he attended for many years, with a long period when his studies were suspended due to ill health (the years of deprivation seemed to have taken their toll). He then entered Sverdlovsk Art College and Moscow Higher Art and Industrial College, the former Stroganov College, first in the textile department, then in glass and ceramics, finally receiving his diploma as a porcelain artist from the Vera Mukhina Higher Artistic Industrial College in Leningrad. Everywhere he experienced the same problem: despite his intense concentration on his own work, it was to no one’s taste but his own. 

These early works already revealed his independence and spirit of revolt. Teachers, quite understandably, had a burning fear of any manifestation of freedom of thought, for these were not easy years in Russia, even though Stalinism and all it entailed would seem to be in the past and, in the words of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, “more vegetarian times” had come. Shoots of independence were breaking through the hardened soil of the arts, particularly at exhibitions, but artistic education stayed firmly in the hands of orthodox proponents of Socialist Realism, whose position remained unshaken. 

The idea that “one must cultivate one’s own ideological heirs” was not mere rhetoric, but a serious task, strictly in keeping with the political mood of the day. After the infamous visit by Nikita Khruschev (then General Secre-tary 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 youthful generation of artists, the reactionaries were pleased to see the launch of new ideological campaigns, the aggression of which re-called those of the harsh later years of Stalin’s reign. 

However, these were very different times and it was as a reaction to these attacks from the state that the underground emerged. Naturally, younger artists were particularly mistrusted, since youth by definition has a greater tendency to freedom of thought. Chetkov no doubt gave good cause for distrust because his artistic credo was already fully formed. Though he was no longer young and had seen and experienced so much, he remained unbroken by what life had thrown at him. He was careless in conversation, feeling himself to be, in his own words, “free and independent.”


What need had Chetkov then for those teachers, timid, unknown staffers, when Evgrafov and Eifert had been his mentors? Evgrafov laid the basis for his understanding of art, in particular his abstract vision. Eifert, with his knowledge of the French school, and of those Russian artists who had been influenced by it, was a more refined painter who would effect Chetkov’s early Post-Impressionist/Fauvist fusion of color. A professional education had little to add.

Far more important for Chetkov in this Leningrad phase of his life was his informal association with Andrey Ender, a member of a celebrated family of artists who were pupils and followers of Mikhail Matyushin,  who had emerged in the 1920s during the mature period of the Soviet avant-garde. In the Leningrad culture of the 1950s and 1960s Ender was considered the keeper of the flame. He himself painted “cultured” still lifes and landscapes that seemed to synthesize several different trends of the avant-garde. He was able to do what Bertolt Brecht called “showing the show,” presenting the intrinsic potential of each trend. He was something of an aesthete — what- ever contradictions arise in applying such a term to an adherent of avant-garde poetics — with multiple styles: he easily assimilated the fundamentals of different creative approaches, revealing their potential from within. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of this discipline: essentially an encyclopedic experience for a young artist who was advancing largely on the basis of his own intuition.

Chetkov would seem to have taken his own multiplicity of styles from Ender. Works produced over the course of just a few days might seem to be the products of entirely different eras: “I began a new work, never thinking of what I had done before, utterly forgetting my experiments and all my agonizing.” Frequently, more or less contemporary works were executed in different keys, depending on the artist’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:

A school is simply 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.

One other circumstance relates to Chetkov’s formation as a painter. He worked for many years at a provincial glass factory in the small town of Staraya Vishera in Novgorod Region, a factory with a good old Communist name dating from the civil war years, which sounded old-fashioned by the 1960s: Glass Factory of the First Communist Volunteer Detachment. There he achieved recognition as a glassmaker in narrow professional circles, exhibiting at numerous shows. His works were also acquired for museum collections. But we are not concerned here with his career as a craftsman and applied artist. It is far more important to understand how his glass experience affected his creative development and his poetics.

Writing of his painting method, he said: “I wallow in Nature’s color relationships. . . .” The same could be said of his glass. Form is not so much suffused with color as molded from it. Color determines volume, which is literally burdened with it, and color acquires not only a tactile quality but also weight. No less important to Chetkov was the optical spatial element of glass. As a painter, his coloring and sense of form have strong affinities with his work in glass. He has described some devices, such as the “flowing of glass,” the introduction of milk glass, and ways of organizing form using an “optical” subtext technique, which was later adapted to his painting.

Such is the formal genesis of Chetkov’s painterly vision. The essence of this vision is a well-tempered multiplicity of style. There are different kinds of multiplicity. Unprincipled multiplicity is borrowed, deriving from a lack of one’s own style and an inability to make choices, whereas purely aesthetic multiplicity places the principle of play above all, articulating the impossibility of choice.

Chetkov’s multiplicity of style is well-tempered because it is profoundly individual, a personal vision developed within the greater context of an evolving European Modernism — though this context was not directly accessible because it was denied by both professional education and art practice in the Soviet Union. Like most non-favored artists of his time, Chetkov could not live in Europe or even visit as a tourist. 


Chetkov worked in many genres, and his vision could more correctly be described as being beyond any specific classification. In portraiture, the artist set himself the same formal tasks as in other genres. We often find in his portraits that within a single period of time he employed various versions of Expressionism alongside reminiscences of Matyushin’s organic style and decorativeness, as well as abstraction. Coloring the artist’s work are questions of “form-creation” as “demiurge” (i.e., the competition between the urge to create and the act of creating the world) and the direct relationship between the real and the created, the “mimetic” approach. These dialectics are most strikingly manifest in his portraiture. In different periods and in different works the dialectics differ in nature, from balancing the two fundamental aspects, establishing harmony between them, to outright antagonism and opposition. In the final analysis, the acuteness of his world view is of greater significance than any questions of genre. 

Nicolas de Stael once admitted that he was “forced to think in painting.” Chetkov was forced to “live painting.” In his consciousness, the expressive, impulsive essence reigns over the speculative, and like all other barriers, rules of genre are easily overcome. Chetkov answered the questions of Modernism on his own, in isolation from the professional artistic culture. For the born Modernist, the demiurge — the passion to create — has always been more important than the mimetic. Sometimes this is made blindingly clear. In Artist en plein air (1993), the image of the artist working in the outdoors is extremely hard to see, woven as it is into the very flesh of the painting, depicted with a temperamental whirlwind of brushstrokes. The artist is set into Nature, he is one with Nature, yet he is also making his own Nature. His figure seems to dissolve in the mass of paint, but the thumb-hole in the palette is markedly featured, serving as a signal to the viewer. This signal is a reminder of the interrelationship between given reality and created reality. The natural source is always present in Chetkov’s art, but the way in which it is presented is a different matter altogether. 

In the many different styles of Chetkov’s portraiture the “natural” manifests itself as a desire for characterization. The degree to which things are “made strange”8 differs, as does the degree of mediation of these portrait images, but the characterological aspect is always present. And what is this characterological aspect? Clearly not the depth and relief of psychological characteristics — that would indeed be strange in works that are to a considerable degree not “representational” as such, and do not “depict” or “reflect” the sitter. Rather we are dealing with infectious psychological states, states of consciousness, which are revealed and turned out toward the viewer. This characterological desire colors the dialectic of the mimetic/demiurgic relationship in his portraiture, and is often what lends a particular drama to these relationships, driven by Chetkov’s search for contact and communication. 


In the mid-1950s Chetkov, while only embarking on his career, produced two works that prophetically marked the poles of his further development as a portraitist: Folk Singer Dzhambud Dzhambaev and the Portrait of Shostakovich.

The portrait of Dzhambaev, based on the artist’s Central Asian impressions, is quite traditional, and even, in formal terms, imperfect. It is primitivist in nature but the author was not yet able to think through this aspect of his vision and skill. Yet there is in this work something that points to Chetkov’s future as a painter of portraits. The artist did not allow himself to be carried away by ethnographic concerns. The Central Asian akyn — a folk singer and story-teller — was a popular character in Stalinist mythology, and upholders of Soviet “civilization” used, for propaganda purposes, these wholly traditional performers whose fate should have been forever to sing at weddings. Their energies were redirected and they performed patriotic narrative songs about Soviet power to Party leaders in Moscow, during numerous official celebrations of Central Asian culture. It’s possible that Chetkov had a complete grasp of the situation, but whatever the truth of the matter, his akyn is a cunning, far from simple man. In this work there is a clear desire to capture character, to articulate the mimetic aspect, but no such development or narrative characterization is found in Chetkov’s later portraits. This mimetic impulse is one pole of Chetkov’s portraiture. 

His portrait of Shostakovich was painted around the same time, yet it reveals a radically different balancof elements: masterful painterly expression and a reflection of reality, with the subject of music added as an independent quantity or value, demanding to be visualized. In this portrait, which is a good and recognizable physical likeness, there is an attempt to construct visual characterization by analogy with a musical theme. The music of the composer is perceived by the artist as a psychiatric drama of extreme emotional tensions. Hence the broken rhythm and dissonance, the shocking grotesque. Even in such an early work Chetkov was setting himself a complex task: the visualization of musical impressions. This work reveals a far greater radicalism than those of many other artists who painted portraits of this great composer.9 Here the demiurgic aspect of form-creation is manifested in its mature state. This is the other pole of Chetkov’s explorations. 

It is between these two poles that the drama of Chetkov’s portraits would unfold. That drama would be of much greater consequence than is seen in these two early works, yet from these two poles unbroken threads would stretch forth. Chetkov, working in his multiplicity of styles, mastered more and more territory of world art, even as some aspects of his outlook remained fixed, unchanging, essentially permanent. Folk Singer Dzhambul Dzhambaev stressed mimetic art, “capturing” character as expressed in the sitter’s pose, gesture, and way of holding himself. Chetkov follows this line clearly over the decades to come. In Female Portrait of 1960 (Plate xxx), a watercolor painted a la prima (in one sitting) the level of realization is of great importance, for here we see an unbroken tempo in the painting, seemingly the result of an emotional jumpiness, or the sitter’s own elusiveness. Nonetheless, Chetkov’s artistic energies are directed towards that mimetic aim: a clear desire to penetrate the human essence and to create a simple likeness. Another Female Portrait dating from ten years later (Plate xxx) sets different expressive tasks and the emotional content is also different: in place of nervousness we have calm, with the sitter obviously posing. Yet the line is the same, purely mimetic: there is nothing here of the demiurge, simply observation, penetration, comprehension, a respect for Nature and for the model. Similar works are Female Head of 1976 (Plate xxx) and Portrait of an Unknown Person of 1982 (Plate xxx), but in Male Portrait of 1970 (Plate xxx) serious stylistic changes are obvious. The artist has arrived at a Fauvist style, at an emotional and impulsive painting, with unexpected color and light in the shading and angular modeling of form, all directed toward bringing out the sitter’s human essence. Self-Portrait of 1973 (Plate xxx), is also in this style, employing a deliberately archaizing manner, as is the openly grotesque, humorous portrait of 1989 (Plate xxx), in which Fauvism is openly parodied. We also see a formal echo of Paul Klee in the Portrait of 1970 (Plate xxx) which is filled with character, revealing the keenness of Chetkov’s eye. And so it goes, right up to the most recent works, the female portraits of the years 2000 — apologetically complimentary considering the artist’s age. 

Not all the portraits tending toward the mimetic pole of Chetkov’s work exhibit what one critic called “the internal insert between the portrait and the sitter.”10 Yet even in works in which this “penetration” into Nature is literally pregnant with competitiveness, the mimetic, representative impulse remains dear to the artist. Chetkov is just as drawn to the opposite pole, that of the demiurge. A characteristic work in this context is Portrait of a Man of 1968 (Plate xxx), painted with all the informal expressiveness and overflow onto the canvas of psychic and physical energy that are inherent in this group of works: contrasting “false” reality with the reality of inner life, bubbling over in spontaneous improvisation. Most amazingly, behind this simultaneous and apparently random painting lies a portrait likeness: in the modeling of the lips, the drawing of the eyes, the overall character of the face, we sense the work of a physiognomist. Surely this man would be recognized by those who knew him, for he is so very like himself. This was not, however, sufficient for the artist. What lies behind the broad brushstrokes, the traced, almost a la prima modeling, in which color is applied not according to form or anatomy? Chetkov was capturing a very specific character — an impulsive, hot-tempered extrovert. In Male Portrait of 1969 (Plate xxx) the features are hazy, smudged, the strident green and orange masses giving only the most general impression of the face. Nonetheless, it is still a portrait, since Chetkov directly visualizes that worn metaphor of the explosive character, the turbulent nature.

Portrait of a Gypsy of 1968 (Plate xxx) shows an over-tense character, one not subordinate to external influences, while Female Head of 1976 (Plate xxx) seems to capture an elusive being, a fleeting vision, to use a rather timeworn Russian poetic image. Grief of 1980 (P-t; BAC138) and Sorcerer of 1981 (P-t; _A_304) are also what one might call psychograms, visualizations of states of consciousness — sometimes quite painful states.

In this context it is interesting to recall the thoughts of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who developed a theory of visual perception within the bounds of existential phenomenology. He paid particular attention to the preconscious level in which intentionality is set by the human body and its psychomotor promptings.11 Of course, Chetkov could not fully intellectualize his own motivations but there is undoubtedly an echo of such ideas. Characteristic in this sense is Male Portrait of 1987 (Plate xxx), which has a long cultural ancestry, possibly unadmitted or simply unrecognized by the artist. This work recalls aspects of Paul Klee’s Man Crossed Out of 1935. It also echoes the “behind bars” self-portraits of Vladimir Yakovlev, a tragic artist who spent decades in a psychiatric hospital. In the Male Portrait this theme is taken to its logical conclusion and the movement of planes angled towards each other is not a device for the deconstruction of form but an indicator, to use a term from psychoanalysis, of the “disintegration of the psychic structure.” These works, along with Portrait (Plate xxx), Male Portrait (Plate xxx), and Portrait of a Forester (Plate xxx) are all portraits we might define as “temperature” characterizations, since they deal above all with personality psycho-types, with the psyche as dynamic process. The painting literally sparks forth from this process, and the viewer too receives this energy of contact, provoking a reaction, a spark of understanding. Such an approach predetermines and explains the nature of the portrait painting, what one might call its reactivity. One senses the need for just such simultaneous painting, action, and tempo. And most importantly, the reduced distance between the penetration into the sitter’s character and the painted response, the reaction to this call on the part of an individual, creates a new field of vitality. 

Chetkov produced his first portraits of this kind in the late 1960s. We should note the curious synchronicity of his experiments with those of the German Neo-Expressionists and the painting of the New Fauves such as Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, and Peter Chevalier. Isolation from the wider world forced Chetkov to develop his own approaches, yet from the historical perspective, he nonetheless fits into it quite neatly. 

Another aspect of this trend are those works in which the portrait serves as an excuse for “having it out with tradition” in the way that every artist is driven to do. In Portrait of an Old Prostitute (Plate xxx) Chetkov is having it out with the School of Paris as a whole, and specifically with the women of Klees van Dongen. Self Portrait in a Top Hat (Plate xxx), and a series of similar works, create a sense of internal order. A tendency towards discipline lives within the paint itself, within the painting’s inner structure. In such works Chetkov employs characteristic well-ordered plaques of color, in correct, sometimes complex, curving forms. These plaques have a sense of consistent movement into the depths, a movement that seems in some natural way to be set by the regularity of the spatial planes, but the overall architectonic impression — and the quite specific spatial effect — is created through the way these plaques attach to one to another, interconnecting like a jigsaw puzzle. These works are separated both geographically and chronologically from the experiments of another artist of Russian origin, somewhat better known in Europe, Nicolas de Stael. Though separated, from an art historical perspective, they are profoundly and closely related. 

In the self-portrait, I am a Clown (Plate xxx), and in several other variations, Chetkov conducts a dialogue with Georges Rouault. Albert Kostenevich, author of a brilliant monograph on the work of Rouault, has suggested that in his series of clowns and circus artistes, continued over many years, the artist was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s old actor, who “does not laugh, nor cry, nor dance, nor gesticulate, who is not happy, does not complain, does not address us at all. He is still. Overturned, overcast. His lot is hopeless. But what a profound and unforgettable gaze he casts round upon the crowd and upon the light, waves of which halt just a few steps from his repulsive poverty.”12 Chetkov also captures this gaze and turns it on the world.


There is another series of Chetkov’s portraits which could be called “dialogues.” In these works the characterological impulse is preserved; they are not nonobjective in the precise sense of the word, for somewhere in their depths is an “object” — Nature, a concrete personality, or a sitter. The demiurgic essence is stronger than the mimetic and it is manifested in absolute competition, in ongoing dialogue. With whom? Indubitably with Nature, that most important of all creative forces. Here we recall the words of Merleau-Ponty: 

. . . the dilemma of figurative and non-figurative has been incorrectly set out: in reality and simultaneously, without any contradiction, it is true that there is never in reality any such bunch of grapes as is depicted in even the most figurative of paintings, and no painting, even abstract, can avoid Existence.13

But in parallel, the artist “competes” or engages in dialogue with another established creator or demiurge, with a master of Modernism. In works such as Female Head of 1972 (Plate xxx) or Yellow Girl with a Blue Man of 1991 (Plate xxx) the object of this dialogue is probably Hans Arp, in his works of the mid-1920s (Dancer) where absurdism appears in the context of natural associations, giving the visual image an insistently psychedelic character.

Chetkov also competes with the later, post-war work of Picasso, which is better known in Russia. In such works as Portrait (Plate xxx), Portrait of a General (Plate xxx), and Female Portrait (Plate xxx), the Picassovian broken silhouettes and the spiraling up of form are enlivened by typically Chetkovian sparks of color. Surely Chetkov is not analyzing Picasso’s devices or creating an homage to his fellow painter. Rather, he is taking up available instruments and trying them out: Are they what he needs in his own personal competition with reality?


A group of portraits in which music is the context for development of the image quite clearly continues the line laid down in that early Portrait of Shostakovich representing a complex fusion of painting, music, and “portrait” reflections of reality, with the balance of these elements varying in individual works. 

In some of these works, the musical component effects mainly the subject and the choice of objects. For instance, in Music Lesson (Plate xxx) — a somewhat decorative composition in which Chetkov 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 architectonics of the musical instruments allows for suitable compositional construction, giving plastic values to rounded silhouetted movements and smoothly flowing masses. 

Something similar occurs in Concert (Plate xxx), where the important thing for Chetkov is to capture the gestures of music-making while the dense, almost Fauvist, painting is secondary. If there are any direct musical associations here, they are only distant echoes. As in Composition with Guitar (Plate xxx) the “role” of the guitar, marked by rounded white strokes, is mainly to enrich the rhythmic structure, creating caesurae and pauses in the powerful diagonal movement of forms. In Musicians (Plate xxx) the musical theme can be seen in the gesticulative circular movements that build up from, and that seem to give visual body to, certain musical compositional devices. Concert (Plate xxx) represents an effort to approach music through complex associative devices: an attempt to create a semiotic picture of musical performance along with the paradoxical and alogical associative qualities of Surrealism. Both musicians and instruments function as symbols, something like musical notation, while the treatment of form is biomorphic, with a Surrealist symbolic subtext. 

Lastly, we come to Chetkov’s newer approaches, most clearly evident in the works Concert (Plate xxx) and Quartet (Plate xxx). Everything seems more or less as before: attention is concentrated on visualization of performance itself, showing the grotesque individual movements of the musicians, capturing their characteristic gestures. But there is also a purely musical theme set, above all, by the color-rhythmic, traced indication of form, and by repeated flashes of color, prompting associations with the dissonant sounds of jazz. 

In Portrait of a Singer (Plate xxx) Chetkov goes even further. Depiction is reduced to almost nothing, or perhaps only a general impression of something exotic or ethnographic. But the musical theme is openly taken to abstraction, the musical associations conveyed, in addition to those distant, residual hints of depiction, by the very resonances of the paint — resonances that fade and grow, enriched by overtones and vibrato, with drums setting the regular background beat. Unfinished Symphony No. 1 (Plate xxx) is almost completely abstract. But within the non-objective fabric, the smooth rhythm of which might be associated with the broad swelling of traditional Russian symphonic music, a metaphysical, mirage-like portrait quality emerges.


A group of portraits of particular importance to our understanding of Chetkov’s work and personality is comprised of what we might term “Self-portraits as…” We might also call them costumed works, for, indeed, the titles give us cause: Retired Member of the Guards (Plate xxx), Portrait of a General (Plate xxx), I am a General (Plate xxx), and so on. However, their essence lies not in either costume or stylization: Chetkov was totally unmoved by retrospective interests. For him, the meaning of these paintings is found elsewhere. In this series he appears to have been thinking about the ontology of the portrait as such. In the 1920s the Russian art historian B. Vipper posited an original view of the genesis of the portrait. He felt that the origins of “the sense of portraiture” were to be found not in the fine arts, but rather in the theatre, in play-acting and dissembling, and that it was from there that the impulse for re-incarnation in another form derived: 

Man must have learned to play at being another person, to take on the image of someone else, in order to dare to capture that image forever. Theatre and portraiture are the results of one and the same need for imitation, for self-willed repetition.14 

It seems that Chetkov arrived at the theatrical essence of reincarnation in another form on the basis of his own empirical experience. This whole series is to some degree portraiture of the self. And it is highly theatrical. Retrospective interests presuppose the artist’s profound penetration into an alien era: that he settles into it and attempts to convey its atmosphere. But Chetkov was little concerned with learning about an alien era, the “historical” element of his portraits being purely carnivalesque and fantastic in nature. He finds it far more interesting to sample this era for himself, to imagine himself in different circumstances, in another life, against a different historical backdrop. And not only historical, but quotidian, or existential. I am a Clown (Plate xxx), for all its internal artistic appellations, is an interesting example of an attempt to play out, even to live out, 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. In Cardinal (Plate xxx), Chetkov is clearly playing on the images in Picasso’s late lithographs, which in turn draw on Velasquez. However, Chetkov retains an almost childish pleasure in being all dressed up.

Stepan Razin of 1971 (___ 248) is a many-layered work, illustrating Chetkov’s perpetual interest in one of the more radical artistic phenomena of the 1920s: the school of Matyushin. Mikhail Matyushin was a leading figure in the Russian avant-garde, who “introduced nonobjectivity into the sphere of natural qualities and values,” in the words of his contemporary, the art historian Evgeny Kovtun. Matyushin synthesized the horizons of nonobjectivity, opened up by the avant-garde, with a living, vivid sense of Nature. He developed ideas of “expanded looking,” and produced his own color theory — the essence of which was that a “color-coupling” takes place between the color environment and the main color.

Chetkov may have known of Matyushin’s ideas and practice via the intervening generation and his association with Andrey Ender, who had studied under Matyushin. Indeed, in this work there is a sense of the movement of two color masses, in accordance with Matyushin’s theory of “additional color,” facilitating the appearance of a third, linking one. This dense, viscous color environment creates an almost psychedelic sensation of an engulfing haze that seems to swallow space. There is no depiction here at all, merely a sense of color, accumulating living, natural impressions in all their dynamism, to create a feeling of the organic — what Matyushin called a “sign of a return to Nature.” But in this case this organic essence also has a biographical connotation. Stepan Razin is one of the most popular of all Russian folk heroes, a man of Nature. He is the embodiment of elemental, natural protest. Soviet historiography sought to fit him into the scheme of Russia’s revolutionary, anti-exploitation movement but failed because the people have always prized their hero for his spontaneity and unpredictable qualities. It seems that Chetkov too turns to the image of Razin with very specific aims in mind, aims related to his sense of autobiography and self-portraiture. Disguised in the image of the elemental, natural, down-to-earth nonconformist, he seems to echo his life as an artist born of the people, who suffered continual pressure from above. 

In numerous portraits or self-portraits in the guises of a faun or other mythological figures, Head of a Roman Man 1977 (Plate xxx) to the present Portrait 2000 (Plate xxx), we see another direction followed by Chetkov. This is not, however, a mere look back at the titans of Modernism, whose own late work was enriched by mythological associations. It was tempting for Chetkov to embark on an archaizing behavior, demonstrated in the twentieth century by Picasso and Matisse as they fought old age: the artist as faun or satyr. In plastic structure these works of Chetkov address the archetypes of classical Modernism, but there is another behavioral layer. Chetkov was clearly struck by the archaizing of “life in art” introduced by these great old men with their arsenal of male passions and their mighty temperaments. So well does he settle himself into the image that it seems his attitude is not simply one of role playing. For Chetkov, this is reality. 

In other works he appears as a fighting general of the nineteenth century (Plate xxx), or simply as an Armed Man (Plate xxx), or even as an African (Plate xxx). But he uses the uniform with its epaulettes, the saber, even the black skin, not for theatrical effect or to create historical allusions but rather they are necessary in order to prove something of radical importance to himself and the viewer. What is it? Above all, it is the search for identity, a search that goes far beyond the dismal conditions of Soviet existence. All his life Chetkov lived within borders and barriers. A rebel by nature, he desperately sought to move beyond these limits, limits that were creative and behavioral, related to status and even age. His “Self-portraits as…” were a means of liberation, a chance to understand himself within other historical or existential circumstances.

This series, painted during a period of many years, does much to illuminate the essence of Chetkov. It also helps to reveal his own character — artistic, with a baroque abundance, even an overabundance, of temperament, an inability to be satisfied with what is already achieved, a tendency to perpetually search for himself, for new facets of self-identification. These mythical self portraits vividly illustrate his well-tempered multiplicity of styles in all its varied facets. 

Amazingly, although Chetkov did mellow somewhat with the years, he never arrived at harmony. All the qualities described above, of character and creativity, were never reduced, never leveled out; rather they continued to develop. 


In 1993 an exhibition was held in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg of the work of Ernest Fuchs, leader of the Viennese school of Fantastical Realism. His reception by the Russian public was ambivalent: Many saw Fuchs as purely marginal . . . with his literary content, his Symbolism and psychedelic immersion in the self. But not Chetkov, for whom Fuchs’s personality and poetics seemed extremely relevant. The Viennese artist had achieved a unity between “the style of life” and his own art in a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. Fuchs, in his velvet suits and his fez being willingly photographed in the exaggerated luxury of his villa, (recalling the Secession and Franz von Stuck’s villa in Munich) seemed to be the very reincarnation of the Symbolist artist of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chetkov could not but be taken by this openly demonstrated, and exploited, sense of character and personality. This was unusual — in Soviet times impossible — and shockingly striking behavior. He was attracted by the baroque extremes of visualization achieved by Fuchs. Behind the precious Viennese’s mannered phantasms and playful stylization, Chetkov could see in the work what Riva Castelman identified: “While his subjects are nearly always without contemporary motifs, they have a symbolic relevance to contemporary conditions.”15

In Fuchs, Chetkov found a fellow soul. In that personal battle for the magical status of art, for untrammeled flights of fantasy, in the conflict that had engaged him between lackluster realism and intellectual, mediated conceptualism, he had identified a fellow fighter and fellow thinker, a comrade. And what a comrade! The following year, at an exhibition in the Haus der Künstler in Vienna, Chetkov made the acquaintance of Fuchs and since then has seen himself as the leader of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Vienna school of fantastical realism. 

And why not? The artist has every right to choose his allies. In his choice we see a continuation of the eternal search for self-identification. And as we have surely seen, contentedness with the self is an impossible concept for Chetkov. Just as a Japanese artist entering old age changes his name, Chetkov recently began signing his works with the name Cherfin, yet another incarnation in the artist’s vast gallery of personae. Most importantly, he is at the peak of his creativity and there is a powerful, passionate, and inspired outpouring of work. His thematic interests know no bounds. Biblical stories, classical myths and mysteries, metamorphoses of the totalitarian and individualist consciousness, and the primal archetypes of civilization all occupy his mind and eye. Nor has his stylistic appetite been sated: he easily and naturally appropriates the most varied styles and manners. He has a passion for life and a great will to live it. Just as Pan in Antiquity or Picasso as an aging faun peered from behind the bushes at nymphs, ready to join in their dance, so does Boris Chetkov look upon life, with a vivid, piercing, sensual gaze. He will show the world, this unbending Modernist from the wilds of Russia!

Alexander Borovsky, St Petersburg, 2008


1 Boris Chetkov, Russian Modernist: Across All Barriers (Santa Fe: The Pushkin Group, 2006). 

2 Alexander Borovsky, “Between Past and Future,” Russia! Nine Hundred Years of Masterpieces and Master Collections (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2005).

3 Historical and cultural interest in this aspect of Russian artistic culture has consistently been shown in The Pushkin Group’s publishing activities: e.g., The Seasons of Nikolai Efimovich Timkov  (Albuquerque: The Pushkin Collection, 1998); Vasily Golubev, Master Russian Expressionist, Albuquerque: The Pushkin Group, 2005).

4 Izba: the Russian name for a wooden cottage.

5 Boris Chetkov, “Vospominaniya” [Reminiscences], MS, Archive of Kenneth Pushkin, Albuquerque, New Mexico. All subsequent Chetkov quotes are from this same source.

6 Wassily Kandinsky, Izbrannye trudy po teorii iskusstva [Selected Works on Artistic Theory] (Moscow: Gileya, 2001), Vol. 1, 279. Note: lubok (pl. lubki): Russian “penny” prints, inexpensive printed reproductions. [[Also define gornitsa here????]]

7 Alexander Borovsky, “Shkola filonova” [The School of Filonov], Filonovtsy: ot MAI do postavangarda [The filonovites: From MAI to the Post-avant-garde] (Moscow: Art-Divazh Gallery, 2006).

8 In the history of Russian formalism of the 1910s and 1920s the word “strange” indicated the inhibition of automatic perception through an acute and nontraditional use of means of expression.

9 Shostakovich’s portrait was painted or sculpted by many artists, from the great Boris Kustodiev, who depicted him in his youth, to the artists of officialdom, such as the academicians I. Serebryany and T. Salakhov, and artists of a Modernist turn, such as G. Nemenova, G. Glikman, S. Gershov, and Y. Zlotnikov. [[Need full names.]]

10 “I think that a work of art is created at the moment of expression, of exteriorization; expression is liberation.” Cited in Herbert Bayer, Entretiens sur l’ Art abstrait (Geneva: [[publisher???]], 1964), 242. YOUR NOTE SAYS: see reference # on page 11? help!

11 Russian edition of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, (Moscow: [[publisher???]], 1992), 51. 

12 Albert Kostenevich, Georges Rouault (St. Petersburg: Hermitage, 2004), 110.

13 Yuri B. Vipper, Stati ob iskusstve [Essays on Art] (Moscow: [[publisher???]], 1970), 347. 

14 Riva B. Castleman, Prints of the XX Century