Article to the album «Ilya Glazunov»

N. Getashvili

Glazunov – an ardent and zealous person, an idealist and pragmatist believing in the word and matter, is not just an artist, he is «more than an artist». This is true. To make sure the reader should take a look at the reference appendix of present album where his important public actions are mentioned as frequently as his artistic achievements. In Glazunov’s life, lavish and saturated, full of dynamism, there are no blank, «insignificant» spots. It’s not only due to particular circumstances but also thanks to his personal will, ethic position, clear purposes and bright originality, always present in his life, that the remarkable destiny pattern has been formed. His achievements really strike and prove that in the second half of 20th and at the beginning of 21st century in Russia the personality of Glazunov occupies a unique place.

However, Glazunov first of all is an artist. During his long and highly spirited creative work he, as an artist, has been a target of destructive, extremely aggressive criticism and at the same time of passionate interest.

Obviously, the so called axial time is believed to exist not only in the world history, but also in the biography of certain individuals that happen radically to transform the stream of life. The year 1957 was sharply marked in the country’s social life, its science and culture. On October 4, the first satellite was launched which caused great enthusiasm among the Soviet people; in the summer the 4th world youth and students’ festival was held in Moscow slightly raising the Iron Curtain. At the beginning of the year another extraordinary event took place: the exhibition of a Leningrad student of the I. Repin Institute of Arts, Sculpture and Architecture literally undermined the Soviet vision of art and artistic tastes as something stable and determined. All of a sudden Ilya Glazunov’s name became popular and later famous.

One particular circumstance keeps disturbing his critics who find ideological danger (both in contemporary Russia and during the Soviet period) not so much in his creative work itself, as in the reaction of the audience, demonstrating their interest with long queues to Glazunov’s exhibitions for more than half of a century. Since the inauguration in 2004 of the Ilya Glazunov State Art Gallery, with its permanent exhibition including more than 700 items, the demonstrations of his works in the Russian capital have done without sensations. The lines of admirers have become shorter in comparison with those crowds of people that encircled the enormous building of the Moscow Manezh with Glazunov’s exhibitions in the times when only few people still remembering its overcrowded halls gathered for the poetic conventions at the Polytechnic Museum. It`s quite natural since the Gallery is open for its innumerable guests both on weekdays and on holidays. As for his one-man exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 2011, the amount of visitors up to one hundred thousand is unprecedented for the displays of modern artists. Thus, the «Glazunov phenomenon» is triumphantly confirming itself even in the third millennium.

For the last few decades, the idea of «actuality» of art has been dominating over the idea of «picturesque». However, any artist has at least alternatives: either to live in apparent conflict with public opinion to be noticed or to keep on working aside from the «main stream», being neglected by contemporaries in the hope of being appreciated by enlightened descendants. There are other ways as well. One of the easiest and at the same time the most difficult ones is to remain oneself. Glazunov has chosen this one. Slogans, ideology, epochs, times, political systems underwent changes. But not Glazunov. So it happened that the history of Russian culture of the last half a century is unthinkable without Glazunov’s works. And vice versa, it is impossible to understand Ilya Glazunov’s art without profound comprehension of historical and cultural processes in Russia.

Endless queues for the sole exhibition of little known then artist could be seen in February 1957 near the Central House of Art Workers in the capital of our «immense motherland», where «man breathes freely» as it was sung in songs and proclaimed from the tribunes. The paradox is that a Soviet person remaining blindfolded in the ideocratic society, couldn’t have known «another such a country». What was shown there, however, couldn’t be compared with anything on «our» side of the Iron Curtain. Nowadays it’s obvious that the 26-yaer old painter and graphic artist managed not only to reveal complete independence of generally accepted artistic standards but also to stand out against the background of his own, new generations. It is the individuality of the artist (which remained for ever in the memory of the audience), that was able to amaze, captivate and above all to infect with intensity of emotions. The young artist’s works included paintings, graphics, landscapes, portraits, illustrations to then half-disgraced Blok and Dostoevsky, especially to such unacceptable at that time novels like Demons and The Idiot (Let me notice that only in a year after Piryev’s film came out having made Dostoevsky’s characters well-known for the millions of viewers whereas the first volume from the ten-volume collection of Dostoevsky’s works was published the same year a few decades later). The works were numerous. It was clear that the author possessed inborn talent, as well as great efficiency. But what really puzzled was where this depth came from. Beyond any doubt Glazunov’s works are full of realism since the mimetic basis could be explicitly defined. At first sight, however, his works produced an impression of «another reality». First of all, artist’s poetics turned out to be contrary to Socialist Realism. Actually, the style of Socialist Realism underwent several changes: the radically new «severe stile» was accepted both by spectators and critics. Its «brave determined characters, endowed with particular historical and socially distinct traits have no doubts as they know what they are living and fighting for» (V. Sisoev). Nothing of this did visitors see in the works of the Leningrad artist. Though he was to display one educational work on the theme of Socialist Realism, Glazunov seemed to neglect the Soviet mythologems; he continued doing that in the future. Several rare exceptions in his work reveal latent antagonistic messages, sometimes these exceptions seem to disclose something.

In the works of that first exhibition, the social sphere, so actively developed in Soviet arts, did not take much place. It would be unfair to relate Glazunov’s works of the late ’50s and early ’60s to non-Marxist philosophical concepts of the time; nevertheless, his urban cycle («Twilight», «Two», etc), like nothing else in the whole Soviet art, somehow corresponds to Jaspers’ «existence», Beckett’s «existentialism» and Sartre’s «alienation». However it’s no use to search for logical conclusions, efforts to startle, dissidence or Aesopian language. True atmosphere of Glazunov’s surroundings, as well as his own sincere feelings, revealed a genuine and intimately emotional part of reality, which was, indeed, new for the Soviet art. His paintings and graphic works were characterized by particular poignancy, mysteriousness, and enigmatic quality that eventually turned the everyday and private human life into an enchanted realm. Despite their vague imagery and almost Japanese fragmentariness of composition, his works didn’t lose their artistic unity. The lyrical context shielded neither changeable and intense psychological analysis, nor sober reflection. A poetic equivalent (if it is at all possible) to Glazunov’s compositions’ «inexplicable melancholy» can be found in the «Christmas love song» written by another Leningrad resident, Joseph Brodsky, in 1961. Emotions were different, though. A heeling composition of heaven on the quite «innocent» (for an ignorant viewer) canvas entitled «The black Raven» embodied inevitable feeling of doom and fall into precipice. Whereas «Morning», the most tender picture at the exhibition, turned out to be the topic of the day, a sensational revelation, because it appeared in the period of collective hypocrisy, in the country, where even 30 years later the sacramental phrase was said: «there’s no sex in the USSR». It’s not that soviet artists didn’t paint female nude figures, but admiration for a beloved woman was an absolute taboo. For instance, the «Spring» (1954) is often considered the best painting among Plastov’s works. But nudity there is justified by the content: the «Northern Venus» in Russian baths, while a youthful beauty in Glazunov’s picture. Even in Glazunov’s formal language there was something, that caused approval of his adherents and sharp criticism of his opponents: the apparent optical incorrectness in some of his works. Any person knowing the masterly perfection of his academic studies, as well as of his unsophisticated poetical sketches of nature, will certainly understand that such unusual distortions of angle, scale and perspective «standards» were deliberate, being a kind of professional task. Glazunov in his early years grasped the truth, revealed by physiologists, that images emerge not in the eyes but in the mind of a viewer, so they subdue to laws that are not merely optical. «Open» and expressive brush strokes, seeming swift though at the same time lengthy, contrasted with the carefully drawn figure of a naked girl and thus strengthened the emotional impact of the «Morning». Similar stylistic shifts and swiftness of master’s hand can be noticed also in some graphic portraits, especially those made with a dry black sauce. Indeed, many of them were painted and drawn too fast without any particular attention to ambient background. This swiftness of his hand, however, doesn`t seem to come from his neglect of the form, but reflects his models’psychic mobility. Peering attentively into the faces on the portraits intensified their inner life, which is especially noticeable in the expression of their eyes. So the principal idea was to create a romantic conception of personality and to distance from realistic banality. Since that time Glazunov as a portrait-painter has become a pretty important and famous figure not only in Russia. While the model’s presence in intimate portraits, both graphic and pictorial, was so active that remained unforgettable, later Glazunov’s Van-Dyck-like ability to reveal nobleness in his characters made Glazunov one of the best painters of representative portrait. Both members of the establishment and stars of artistic world were among his clients and sat for him with visible pleasure. It was the gift of portrait painting and psychologist that let Glazunov create amazingly strong images of Russian classical literary heroes, peaceful and passionate, dreamy and sinister, perfectly embodying the artist’s main idea: «I have always thought that the mystery of time means comprehension of real forces of the good and the evil». In his first one-man exhibition, such an understanding of the «mystery of time» became the ideological base of his historical canvases, which have formed the cycle «Russia», including also landscapes. The works devoted to ancient and medieval Russia, the Russian Empire, the tragedies of the Soviet period and the destructive crises of recent times are, as a rule, presented by Glazunov not through the prism of private life, but as a reflection of socially significant events, which are historic in their very essence. While today there is a tendency towards genre destruction, Glazunov revives and affirms traditions of the European historical painting, organized as a complex composition and rhythm structure with numerous lively characters in it. In many of these paintings the artistic power of the image is based on the profound attention to individuality, which in Glazunov’s view, is the measure of history. During the years when the official atheistic doctrine was prevailing, «the innermost world of the Russian icon harmony» (I. Glazunov) suggested the young artist to use unusual expressive means (like ardent colour sports, synthetic line patterns, face-images, etc), which strengthen the emotional effect of the images and give spiritual inflection to historical pictures. One of the most famous and significant canvases of the last century, «The Mystery of the Twentieth Century», is one of such works. This picture has an unusual status. It is based on the viewer’s direct contact with strong impulses, coming from the painting’s characters, all of which seem to be protagonists. On the one hand, it meets the ideas of modernism (portrait collages of Joyce; Godard’s open method, which doesn’t hide joins; revealing the technique; aestheticism of composition, etc); on the other hand, it obviously follows the traditions of Orthodox painting, for instance, the iconography «of all saints, who came out of the Russian land». (It is true, though, that the twentieth century replaced many images by masks).

(Later on countless copyists of Glazunov’s manner turned up, using his «icon-painting» innovations, but lacking for that extent of his inner tension, that spiritual vision and thus vulgarizing and devaluing his artistic discoveries. However, Glazunov himself should not be responsible for such a fashion among second-rate artists. By the way, though he has founded the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture to consolidate the European school of realism, the master is against the term «Glazunov’s school». According to him, any good art education should stimulate independent and free artistic pursuits and ideas). His first exhibition (while he was still a student) might be called a prologue to or start of his artistic biography (perhaps that is what the artist himself thought), but it is obvious that the whole exhibition, its topics and emotional components emerged from the dramatic experience of his life. In his past there was a childhood, thoroughly connected with the «gone spirit of a St Petersburg aristocratic family» (let the reader think this over, because this meant nobility and the cult of education, refinement, understanding of something that was to be forgotten, patriotism), a tragedy of blockade and orphanage, impetuous studying of art, agonizing solitude, profound doubts (right up to the wish «of renouncing the world» and going into a cloister), emotional wounds, high hopes, love and friendships. By the age of 25 he had already realized his deep roots, his mission as a Russian artist and the great love for his woman. That’s why the exhibition made such a strong impression and the prospects were easy to foresee. Without any display of showy heroism, since the very beginning of his public career Glazunov has manifested a rare resistance to regulations, as well as indifference to virtual state commissions, which could have let him earn his living. Especially as the precedent took place (whatever it could cost): the reason why a student could have a one-man exhibition (which was then absolutely unbelievable) was his socially significant canvas, dedicated to the last days of Julius Fucik. This work was appreciated at the international Exhibition of young artists in Czechoslovakia, where it was awarded with the Grand Prix. Glazunov was quite sincere in it, as the theme of the painting for the painting for him was «a poet in jail». The exhibition in the CHAW (Central House of Art workers) broke many standards. The confrontation was inevitable – adherents of the Socialist Realism saw in it sort of artistic mutiny. It seems natural that because of the great attention and feverish interest of the audience (which lasted for decades), some figures, being responsible for Soviet culture’s development, hastened to denounce Glazunov. The Academy graduate, burdened with his worldwide fame, was sent to a province as a simple teacher of drawing, where he was rejected to the mutual satisfaction of himself and the local administration. It should be noticed that after this incident Glazunov was doomed to be called a «sponger», with all the following consequences (according to the Soviet law people who had no constant work were not allowed to live either in Moscow or St Petersburg). By the way, his colleagues were for a long time against his joining the Artists’ Union, which gave rights for creative work beyond any official work discipline rules. Yet, the system of artistic views was already established and the aims were defined. Glazunov’s art was acquiring more and more admirers. He had something like inviolability because of his fame abroad and among the intellectuals, who sympathized his ideas, fellings and imaginative world. Albums with illustrations of his pictures were best-sellers, and millions of postcards were sold. There is a juridical term «irresistible circumstances» that can define many life situations in master’s biography, but, anyway, he got through them being absolutely devoted to his work. He continued to prove his universal art competence. One feature remained stable: he diversity of his art and imagery. Touching lyrics in some works gives place to agitation and direct propaganda in others. (What price was paid for such an exaggerated exorcism, born from the civil pain? Whether it is right in this case to complain of the lack of tactfulness in his art manner? For instance, trying to show the market chaos in the new Russia, the artist directly appeals to his viewers. In this case the master is quite merciless, as well as in his macabre «Decline of Europe»). Works of Glazunov, which stand in one row, demonstrate now an excessive rigidity of painting, now a very delicate interpretation of the world, astute reflection and deliberate provocation, simplicity of a lofty poetry and a kind of rally rhetoric, a combination of large and whole form with narrative ornamentation, supposed to be watched from close distance. At first sight all these random, as they may seem, combinations, style contradictions, genre contrasts do not just coexist, they are absolutely necessary as a background and make Glazunov`s art deeply philosophical. This «approach to the material» is reflected in the present album. Not everyone will accept its concept and structure. Those who like «pure lines» perhaps may be confused and tangled in some temporal, style and genre conversions. The structure of the album least of all follows any systematization or typology. But the editor should be excused for that, as the usual ‘topical distribution’ of the material is just the same artificial division, simplification and schematization of the wholeness of art. Yet to make everything clear the reader should look through the section «Ilya Glazunov’s Life and Work: a Chronology». Based on chronological principle, this appendix will help to fill in some blanks of this introductory article. Thus, though there are no separate «chapters» and «periods» in the album, it obviously has some «intrigue», coming from the key events of the artist’s life, as well as from his musings. The connection between the quotes from the master’s texts, used here, and his works is not direct (these quotes are of the kind of «live creation texts» rather than «inscriptions under the pictures»). However, such simultaneous cohesion is able to bring separate illustrations together in a single inimitable visual super-image.

All the texts in the album’s main section are quotes from the book «Crucified Russia» by I. Glazunov, except in cases when other sources are mentioned.