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Art History

Vladimir Nemukhin
Text Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

On December 10, 1962, Nikita Khrushchev visited an exhibition of modern art at the Manezh exhibition hall near the Kremlin. His response to the exhibition of new Soviet modern art was quite severe: “This creativity is alien to our people.” After this “official” statement, the artists who participated in the exhibition were forever after called “nonconformists.” This group of artists who chose to “not conform” led very different lives from each other. Some emigrated to the West and to return only after the fall of the Soviet Union; some continued working in the USSR. Those artists who stayed worked under the conditions of a totalitarian regime. Their works were not exhibited because they did not fit into the officially approved art of the USSR.

Vladimir Nemukhin (born 1925) is one of the living artists from the 1960s who gained recognition during his lifetime. His works have found their place in the Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the time when underground art was opposing the tradition of Socialist Realism, Nemukhin was one of the members of the “Lianozovo Group” headed by Oscar Rabin (see story in March issue) and participated in the “bulldozer exhibition” (see story in April issue). Happily, the artist has been rediscovered in contemporary Russia.

His unique artistic device is the imagery of playing cards. Even canvases that are seemingly devoid of cards flash their backs or suits here and there. These figurative elements combined with abstract expressionism and collage techniques is the complicated hallmark of Nemukhin’s style. Cards and chess pieces are universal symbols, transnational and understandable. Although some of Nemukhin’s work can be identified with the historical epoch of the 1960s — one can see barracks, slogans, and newspaper clippings that evoke this era to Russian viewers — most of his works are neutral and highly decorative.

Apart from being an artist, Vladimir Nemukhin has become a collector of art; his collection of works by artists of his generation is now valued in the millions of dollars. Despite solicitation, Nemukhin refused to sell his collection, instead donating it to the Tretyakov Gallery on its 150th anniversary in recognition of his friends. In Nemukin’s words, works of art cannot be exchanged for money, though it is money that arouses the passion for collecting. Money also played a role in creating a market for the art of the 1960s. Prior to that, the nonconformists had not known how much to charge for their works. Oleg Tselkov, Vladimir Yakovlev, and Vasily Sitnikov priced their works in seemingly “nonconformist” ways, such as by the square centimeter or by the number of snowflakes falling on a painting at outdoor exhibits. The art market has, of course, revised these prices steeply upward.

In the Park (1959)

Green Card Table #3 (1987)

The descendants of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov came to Moscow for the 150th anniversary celebration, having never been to Russia. They do not understand how their ancestor could have given his collection to the city of Moscow without any material compensation. Nemukhin says: “Moscow is a symbol of very deep conditions. It has always differed even from St. Petersburg, the imperial capital. Moscow still remains the capital of the Russian Orthodox spirit. People follow it even subconsciously. The 1,600 golden crosses on the churches above your head here do mean something. People were brought up like this — make a contribution to the city and your life is not in vain. That was their contemplation of the world. That’s why art promotion was flourishing.”

When asked what the Tretyakov Gallery means to him, Nemukhin calls it his alma mater. When he was taken there by his father at the age of 9, he fainted in front of Mikhail Nesterov’s painting “The Murder of Tsarevich Dmitri,” which depicts Ivan the Terrible with the dead body of his son in his arms. The artist also recalls having to pass through rooms and rooms of socialist realist canvases before one could get to the ”real” art. Later in his life he and his friends sneaked into a storage area to see avant-garde art such as “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich. They studied the art of the first three decades of the 20th century, which was almost never exhibited, and tried to learn from it. Naturally, they were afraid of getting caught at these surreptitious activities.

Nemukhin adds that the artists of the 1960s did not struggle against the official art. The situation was changing then, with the appearance of the so-called “severe style” in official art. These artists worked in a realistic manner looking for the truth of life, while the nonconformists were exploring the metaphysical aspects of art.

When asked how his collection began, Nemukhin said, “Anatoly Zverev came to me with a bottle of beer. We needed lobsters, but all we could find was a langostino” (a small sea creature close to a hermit crab or crayfish). When they peeled it, Zverev took some brushes and started working. That’s how Nemukhin got Zverev’s “Still Life with Langostino.” The artist also said he would have loved to have had his 80th birthday exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, but because his works are scattered all over the world, the difficulty and cost of gathering them together would have been prohibitive and logistically impossible. But he is thinking about having an exhibit of his work at Valery Dudakov’s New Hermitage gallery in Moscow.

Poker on the Beach (1965)

UFO ( 1986)

Untitled (1964)

Seven of Diamonds

At the beginning Nemukhin and his wife, artist Lidia Masterkova, did naturalistic sketches that were imbued with the esthetics of their teachers, the artists of the 1930s. By 1960 they started doing abstract work, the composition and design of which followed new principles. But the artists did not break completely with traditional painting. Vladimir Nemukhin is everevolving and has always been that way. Intense brushstrokes and colors with endless nuance and a certain vibration of the surface — everything is full of strength, excitement, and passion. Now and then one can see a hint of concrete forms, but in general Nemukhin’s paintings have no real identifiable subjects, except for the cards painted or even glued onto the surface of the canvas. While the cards — both the playing and fortunetelling variety — attract the artist with their magical essence, the most important element for the artist is color. His formerly anarchic bursts of color have evolved into strict forms. Perhaps the artist could not tolerate the long periods of strong emotions and finally made the intuitive and spontaneous world succumb to the rational.

However, this new quality only intensified his classically Cezanne- like attitude toward the purely sensual impact of the whole range of colors. If the viewer could feel the color to the fullest, he would be able to sense the condensed emotions the artist subconsciously invested in the paintings. Nemukhin tries to create and then reinforce a harmony of the color surface; for him, as it was for the old masters, this harmony is a living organism that cannot withstand breaks or cracks. A final technique Nemukhin borrowed from the old masters is contact with the viewer. The artist knows his own priorities very well but always keeps the viewer in mind. What Nemukhin seeks is understanding, saying “The artist should not be so selfish as to keep everything to himself.”







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