Theodora Clarke
Courtauld Institute of Art

During the post-war period, at a time when the Russian avant-garde was demonised in the Soviet Union as formalist and bourgeois, Chetkov resurrected many of their techniques. His works share the deliberate ‘unsophistication’ of Primitivist or folk art, the abstraction and spirituality of Kandinsky and the romantic whimsical view of peasant life as pioneered by Chagall.

This is a striking achievement when you consider the context of his artistic production in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Chetkov’s paintings were in in stark opposition to the official style of Socialist Realism and although Chetkov saw himself as a lone figure who was separate from any individual or movement, his painting is firmly rooted in the history and traditions of Russian art. 

To understand Chetkov’s place amongst his contemporaries it is necessary to  look at the contours of official and unofficial art from the 1950s until Chetkov’s passing in 2010When considering how his career developed in the context of his artistic generation and the natural evolution of his style one must consider the Moscow Conceptualists and other Nonconformists. Their works provide an interesting juxtaposition to Chetkov’s creative output. 

Perhaps the key reason why Chetkov is only now receiving the notoriety of many of his Russian contemporaries is his apparent self-imposed artistic isolation. Underground and unofficial artists tended to work in groups or networks, particularly in Leningrad and Moscow. Those artists who were based in these major cities received significant press attention, especially in the West, when their exhibitions were inevitably supressed under the Soviet regime. For example, the famous 1974 exhibition by Soviet artists in Moscow, that was bulldozed by the authorities, sparked a huge outcry and inspired an exhibition of Soviet underground art at the ICA in London in 1977.  As Bown and Taylor explain in their book (Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One Party State 1917 – 1992), “the Soviet art given most attention in the West was that which promoted a ‘dissident’ political stance”.

These Russian artists were conceptual and provocative. They created works that were satirical and which appropriated techniques of official art but used them to subvert official messages. Chetkov took a very different approach to artists such as Komar and Melamid, Oleg Tselkov, Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vassilev and others. He separated himself from the work of his contemporaries like Ilya Kabakov, Vladimir Yanilevsky and Oskar Rabin.  

For the duration of his career Chetkov followed his own vision, apart from any trend or political movement. His path to abstraction and his belief in spiritual content set him apart from the other ‘Nonconformists’ - displaying a quiet, personal and very different type of rebellion against the imposed norm. He never sought out the acceptance of these other underground artists and was never recognized by them or accepted by the establishment of ‘Soviet’ artists. In a sense, he had no peers. Yet he never held any grudges or harboured any bitterness; he remained content in his own world. His work perhaps is most comparable to Rabin who also tackled landscapes. However, Rabin is best known for his urban Moscow landscapes thick with muddy impasto in sombre shades of browns, reds and blues and lack the riotous colour of Chetkov or his obsession with the natural world.  

Working as an artist during the Soviet era had its difficulties. Artists had their works suppressed or rejected if they did not conform to Socialist Realism and official standards of art. For many years this style represented the official line in culture up to the late 1980s and for decades was the cornerstone of art practice and debate in the Soviet Union. ‘Official’, approved art was supposed to glorify the state and present Soviet life in a heroic fashion. The goal of Socialist Realism was to depict Russia in a recognisable and accessible way. This was achieved through realistic painting that emphasized the common life of the proletariat, the peasantry, the Red Army and the political leadership. Popular works were forms of monumental propaganda which depicted heavy industry and construction projects or portrayed idealised Soviet men and women working on a collective farm. The Socialist Realist style, post 1932, was meant to be “national in form, socialist in context and devoid of ‘class connections’”. Chetkov, like the Nonconformists, suffered for his art: “I was not allowed to exhibit my works anywhere, and sometimes it happened that my works were destroyed”. 

His memoirs are particularly interesting for their insight into life at a Soviet art school. When he graduated from his local art school in the Urals, Chetkov returned to Leningrad in 1960. He had previously studied there, eight years earlier, but left following a serious illness. This time, he applied to the Repin Institute (the former Academy of Arts) but was rejected. His style of painting did not meet the school’s expectations. His early works demonstrated an independent spirit which did not conform to the official style of Communist ideology. 

Chetkov’s training coincided with a time in Soviet history when his teachers were paranoid about any manifestation of freedom of thought. “Life was not so comfortable for painters who wished to work outside the confines of Socialist Realism”.  He decided to move to Moscow and was accepted to the textiles department of the Moscow Higher Artistic and Industrial School, the former Stroganov School. It is worth quoting in full his experiences there:

“I loved studying there. Extra-curriculum painting classes, the great library, the en suite museum. The famous artist Vasiliev was head of department and the artist Vitachin taught sculpture…It was the place where I felt completely free and independent. I would organise exhibitions, talks and discussions about art; engaging academics and the general public. 

However, trouble came where I didn’t expect it. The head of department, Vasiliev, was replaced by the zealous Communist, Seleznev. However, a couple of times after Seleznev’s appointment I noticed a girl, also a student, who was standing behind a column and scribbling something in her notepad while I was discussing art and, in unflattering terms, social realism. It turned out that I was a black sheep among the Communists, most of whom were in the Communist Young League in school. 

On one occasion, I was discussing exhibitions of Soviet and Western art with Seleznev; a seemingly innocent conversation. He suddenly started talking of my works (at that point, we all had submitted them for a final diploma) and giving me recommendations, how I should change them. Later it turned out, they were not suitable due to ideological reasons. 

Two weeks later, the head of the institute told me that the department insisted I was expelled; so he helped me to transfer to the State Art and Industry Academy in Leningrad. At the autumn exhibition, my works were painted over; my paintings and drawings were marked with a mere 3 [C]. However, I was allowed to uphold my diploma, even though my fellow Communist students were clearly not happy about it”. 

Chetkov’s refusal to conform to the official ideology meant that he soon found himself under observation by the Communist Party. Unlike his fellow students he was not indoctrinated by Soviet propaganda. This independent spirit meant he risked exclusion for purely ideological reasons. He was accused of having skill but not being identifiable as part of a traditional ‘school’ of painting and for his failure to depict subjects in a realistic manner. The end result was that Chetkov was only just allowed to pass his exams and graduate.

Chetkov’s artistic studies coincided with a period of Soviet history in which freedom of thought and creativity were crushed. His stay in Moscow coincided with the famous visit by Nikita Krushchev, then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to the exhibition at Manège in 1962. At the ‘Thirty Years of the Moscow Union of Artists Exhibition’, Socialist Realist works were displayed alongside important artists of the thirties, including Drevin, Falk, Kuznetsov and Shterenberg, who were being shown after years of neglect. The dictatorship of Stalin had not tolerated open deviation from the established code of Socialist Realism. Since his death in March 1953 there had been a degree of relaxation in the arts. Many young artists had come to believe that a ‘thaw’ was occurring as Soviet culture entered a more liberal era. However, Krushchev on seeing the abstract and expressionistic works of Falk and others exploded in anger. He stormed out of the exhibition shouting, “Forbid it! Forbid the whole thing! Put an end to this outrage! I’m ordering you! I’m telling you!”.  Kruschev attacked modern art as being dissident and radical. The result was that the Party unleashed a campaign against any tolerance towards formalist, abstract or expressionistic artistic experimentation and the press railed against cultural ‘deviationists’.

During the years of the Soviet Union, artistic production had been controlled and realism became the dominant form of artistic expressionism from the 1930s onwards. The average Soviet citizen was denied the possibility of seeing any ‘modern art’ such as Picasso or Kandinsky.  Expressionist painting with its bold colours and simplified forms was mocked by conservatives.  Art became a form of highly charged propaganda and ‘formalist’ painting, particularly abstraction, was persecuted.  Despite this, Chetkov still began to produce non-objective works.  It was in this hostile environment towards experimentation that Chetkov honed his painterly skill and developed as an artist.  One example of the prevailing mood towards modernist painting is the attack made in 1962 by the highest-ranking administrative figure in Soviet art, A.K. Lebedev, who said of Vincent Van Gogh: 

“An intentional deformation of objects, a deliberate imprecision of outline, harsh and quite unnatural combinations of colour, the over-sophisticated manner of painting with its painfully nervous worm-like smears made his art inaccessible to the broad masses of viewers”. 

If we imagine how Chetkov’s paintings must have looked to his teachers, who were working within the official State guidelines of Socialist Realism, and the Communist censors, we could just as easily apply this description to Chetkov’s work.  Despite these difficulties of working as an artist within the confines of Communism in the Soviet Union, Chetkov continued to reject Socialist Realism.  He defended criticism of his abstract and expressionist style of painting arguing, “A school is 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”.  It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russian artists begin to operate in an atmosphere of freedom.

Chetkov’s experiences at art school pushed him away from established groups.  Instead, he studied the art of glass making.  He simultaneously worked with a range of mediums alongside painting including wood, stone, ceramics, and metal. In the late 1960s Chetkov did some designs for the Lomonsov (formerly Imperial Academy) and then was offered a job at a glass factory where he ultimately became the director. It was here that he found his niche and spent a significant part of his professional life working with the medium.  The factory in Staraya Vishera in the Novgorod region had first been founded in 1888.  It was appropriated by the Soviets to mass produce everyday objects following the Russian Revolution.  The site was renamed the Glass Factory of the First Communist Volunteer Detachment (1KDO) and Chetkov was appointed the Chief Artist.  He found the material of glass to be an inspiration.  The vivid colours he was able to achieve while working with glass and the fluidity of the material, undoubtedly impacted on his painterly output.  “Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away, liberates your fantasy.  The artist becomes a magician when he creates an object from a shapeless hot paste”.

Chetkov’s work as a professional glass worker coincided with a fortunate time when experimentation was ascending. By keeping away from the eyes of the censors who were focused on the traditional decorative arts of painting and sculpture, Chetkov granted himself a certain degree of freedom to exhibit in other mediums. A rebel by nature, he rejected utilitarian functionality and instead began to produce three-dimensional objects which reflected his interests in colour and volume.  In 1960 sulphide glass had been created which opened up new opportunities to create different forms of coloured glass which Chetkov used to his full advantage. As with his paintings, Chetkov suffused his glass with rich colours and played with the tactile quality of the medium.  

In 1978, Chetkov’s notoriety as a glass artist and as the successful director of the factory earned him a prestigious commission from the Ministry of Culture – to design a large space themed stained-glass window for the Baikonar Cosmodrome.  While he had reached a new height in his career based solely on the merits of his talent, he was also found to be highly unacceptable by the governing Communist Party administrators and was subjected to increasing scrutiny, pressure and derogatory commentary.  The following year under that cloud, Chetkov left the Malaya Vishera glass factory and his glass making career, never to return. 

In conclusion, it is difficult to trace a clear chronology of development throughout Chetkov’s career.  His tendency to revisit ideas and simultaneously embody various styles makes a linear history difficult.  He produced numerous pictures later in life which were inspired by sketches made in his youth.  However, by exploring how Chetkov continuously returned to his various themes, it is possible to get a sense of the varied subjects and strands of thought that evolved throughout his career.  Chetkov took elements from many different artists and movements and used them to develop his own direction.  He was primarily interested in experimenting with colour and form.  His version of painterly abstraction is characterised by impasto application, energetic and emotive forms and exceptionally vivid colour. 

Chetkov both inherits and reinvents the traditions of Russian art.  He was a bold experimenter who took artistic risks which resulted in the creation of original and stunning images, developing his own unique unofficial artistic style.  Chetkov through the course of his life, and the depth and breadth of his expression, ultimately could be said to have created his own school which we can call ‘Experimentalism’.  Rather than overtly political or conceptual, his school of painting depicts a spiritual and folkloric impression of Russian artistic traditions.  He repeatedly returned to the places and influences of his childhood, with religion, everyday life and the raw forms and colours of nature extensively explored - often taking the form of gestural compositions in varying degrees of abstraction. 

His Experimentalist style mixes elements of folk art and primitivism, spirituality and the Russian avant-garde and anticipates elements found in the contemporary work of painters today.  Chetkov’s oeuvre is visually and thematically reminiscent of the early works of Kandinsky, Goncharova and Lentulov.  However, his choice of subjects and attraction to nature also recall the strong and varied traditions of painting in Russia.  Chetkov stated that “creativity is a state of experimentation”. While he claimed he never consciously followed the influence of these earlier masters, we can easily see comparisons with their work.  In carving his own path, Chetkov established himself as an important contributor and spiritual heir to the Russian legacy of avant-garde artists.  

The conventional view that Socialist Realism dominated Soviet art and culture up to 1985 and the beginnings of perestroika has only recently been challenged, as Nonconformist art is now being broadly recognized by the international community.  As a lone figure, separate from any group or movement, Chetkov is an enigma, a true outsider, and the essential Nonconformist.  His recognition as an artistic genius of Russia is long overdue.