Gely Korzhev: I Have the Right
by Anna Dyakonitsyna
Republished from the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
Magazine issue: #3 2016 (52)
The retrospective of Gely Korzhev (1925-2012) at the Tretyakov Gallery is one of the most eagerly awaited shows in recent years. In today’s Russia, Korzhev’s art sounds a poignant and vital note. In a class of its own, his work was never fully understood by his contemporaries, just as it has yet to be fully appreciated by subsequent generations. His paintings, however, can provide an invaluable key to understanding the history of post-war Russian art, locating it within the broader context of world art of the second half of the 20th century.
There has never been a Korzhev exhibition on this scale before in Russia, and it pays worthy tribute to the exceptional diversity, complexity and depth of the artist's work, offering visitors the opportunity to discover their own "personal" Korzhev. The exhibition gathers together the main groups of the artist's works from museum and private collections in Russia and the USA. The timeframe covered is just as impressive, with every stage of Korzhev's artistic journey reflected in the works exhibited, from the paintings of the 1940s which he created as a student in evacuation to works he produced in the seclusion of his studio in the final years of his life. The sequence of works does not follow Korzhev's biography in any strict chronological sense but rather offers a dynamic, emotionally focused and lively journey through the main themes and images with which the painter's oeuvre was concerned.
As Korzhev himself noted, the key role in the development of his generation's worldview was played by the Second World War. "I was accepted into Art School in August 1939, and on September 1 war broke out in Europe. We are the war generation. Some of us fought at the front, others did not. But all of us came of age in its shadow," the artist once explained in an interview. The subject of war was one of the key themes in Korzhev's art, bringing with it notes of powerful drama and, at times, of conflict.
The exhibition opens with the painting Traces of War (1963-1964, Russian Museum). Among the most poignant works in the "Burnt by the Fire of War" cycle, this work, so dear to Korzhev's own heart, nonetheless made him the target of much criticism. "Traces of War" can hardly be called a portrait in the normal sense: it is rather, the artist suggests, a collective image - the "face of war". The disfigured face of a wounded soldier is shown en face against a light, neutral background: a monumental version of a passport photograph. The painter's view is akin to that of the camera lens, recording visible reality with impartial precision. Yet Korzhev here is far from an indifferent observer, who simply relates what he has observed. The artist's choice of hero, the way the face is enlarged, the grief and sober gravity of the situation define Korzhev's true feelings towards his subject. The soldier's disfigured eye that so repelled some critics, prompting accusations of the inappropriate portrayal of a monumental hero, is rendered clearly and convincingly, without excessive physiological detail. Later, Korzhev expressed thoughts on what is and is not permissible in art: "I think we should not overwhelm people with despair, fear, terror and ugliness. Such themes aren't for the arts. Affirmation of courage, beauty and kindness, even through the depiction of terrible scenes, is the main principle of the arts."
Mother (1964-1967, Tretyakov Gallery) shows something of the same approach. The artist's pity and compassion in the face of unbearable loss are clear. This sense, indeed, is often present in Korzhev's best works, from his war paintings to the more modern canvases, landscapes, nudes and biblical scenes.
Korzhev's essentially humanist approach is one of the key features of his work, setting him aside from other masters of figurative art of the second half of the 20th century such as the British artists Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud. The fact that Korzhev's creative legacy is on a par with that of such widely acclaimed Western realists becomes especially evident when one appreciates the spectrum of the works shown at the retrospective: never before has Korzhev's art been so comprehensively displayed.
The Burnt by the Fire of War cycle is followed by several works that came to be seen as real signs of their time. They are key paintings in Korzhev's development as an artist, too: Lovers (1959, Russian Museum) and the triptych Communists (1957-1960, Russian Museum). In these canvases Korzhev's innovative, pioneering spirit shone clearly forth for the first time.
These works put Korzhev at the head of his contemporaries, the generation of artists who were seeking new approaches in the late 1950s and 1960s, during the "Thaw". Having defeated Nazi Germany, at that time the Soviet Union was enjoying more positive times. The hardships and privations of war had led to greater appreciation of the intrinsic value of life, the "here and now", a peaceful sky over one's head, and of simple human pleasures and concerns. In literature, cinema and art alike, something of a "rehabilitation" of reality was taking place. This search for a new truth became the new standard raised by a whole generation of artists.
Korzhev's Lovers and Communists were among the key works which engendered the so-called "severe" style, one of the main trends in Soviet art of that time. Unlike his genre paintings and lyrical approach of the 1950s, these works strike a particular balance between theme and execution, most appropriate to the spirit and complexity of large-scale works. The journey to this point was not an easy one, however. Korzhev later recalled this: "In Lovers, there is an echo of war. It was painful to work on it. First I imaged a scene: the seashore, two figures, and a motorcycle. This came to me instantly. But who these people were, what their life stories were like - I didn't know. The composition wouldn't come together. Quite by accident, I met an older man who worked as a laboratory assistant in a research institute. He told me about himself and his life. When he was very young, still a boy, he participated in the Civil War and organized collective farms. At the outbreak of World War Two, he joined the volunteer infantry. He was wounded at the front. The man's life, so closely intertwined with the life of Russia, appeared very interesting and significant to me. I realized that such a person was dear and close to me, and he became the hero of my painting. My initial idea became filled with meaning, the content materialized and the painting came alive."
In his triptych Communists, Korzhev opts for an unexpected approach, far from a conventional historical or everyday treatment of the subject. The topics chosen hark back to the Russian Civil War, with workers and Red Army soldiers featured as the heroes of these mighty paintings. Korzhev's comprehensive vision and profound interpretation of historical material allow him not only to connect his subject with a specific period in the life of his homeland, but at the same time, also to situate it within a broader historical context. The heroism of the Russian Civil War recalls the more recent events of World War Two, a conflict which Korzhev himself had witnessed in his youth. Furthermore, the theme of heroism, the portrayal of an act of courage and determination, takes the work a step further, into the realm of the timeless.
The best parts of the triptych, according to Korzhev himself, were the central and left paintings. Raising the Banner (1960) is one of Korzhev's key works and could be said to carry his main ideological message. Form and content in this canvas are truly one, a vital feature in a painting of this size. The dynamic composition shows an act of will, a fateful decision that will change the course of events. The size of the painting and of the main figure, the close-up format, the composition resembling a still from a film, and the texture of the image enable Korzhev to create a form that transports the artistic action out of the immediate narrative and into the existential. This rare quality is precisely what distinguishes the best works of outstanding masters of historical painting. The late Valery Turchin, one of a now-departed circle of generalist art historians, saw certain parallels between Korzhev's art and that of Vasily Surikov. Of his generation, Gely Korzhev had perhaps the keenest and fullest appreciation and understanding of Russia's artistic tradition, Turchin suggested.
Korzhev's art from different decades offers a prime example of a philosophical view of history. Like no other post-war painter, Korzhev showed the crucial turning-points of 20th century Russian life. The war appears here in all its tragic complexity, as do its traces and legacy, still present in the everyday lives of Russians and in the fate of the entire country.
Clouds of 1945 (1980-1985, Tretyakov Gallery) is one such philosophical painting. It shows a man who has lost a leg in the war, with an elderly woman dressed in dark mourning clothes. Both are pensive, caught up in memories from the past. Behind the figures lies a panoramic landscape - a large meadow beneath a vast, tranquil sky. This backdrop brings the narrative back to the present day. "The war is over, he is missing a leg but he is still happy. He looks at the clouds, smells the grass: life has won," Korzhev explained. Time, in this painting, is historically specific: inevitably, it flows onwards. Yet the past rises up again, in the memory of future generations. The artistic metaphor for time that Korzhev creates in this work, allowing past, present and future to intermingle in their complex ways, shows just how deeply the artist felt the very spirit of history.
Conversation (1975-1985, Russian Museum) is another of Korzhev's works that cannot be simply summed up in terms of chronological events. The composition came into being due to a subsequently abandoned official commission. The Awards Ceremony Hall in the House of the Government of the Russian Federation (RSFSR) was to be decorated with a group of five large-scale paintings. Korzhev's initial proposal so startled officials, however, that the commission was awarded instead to Andrei Mylnikov, under whose direction a series of tapestries was created. The form and subjects of Korzhev's works proved simply too unconventional. Following the incident, Korzhev continued working on Conversation, no longer constrained by official guidelines. The resulting work portrays the people with their leaders in an unexpected manner, going against accepted views on how this should be depicted. In this, "Conversation" is highly unusual, created as it was in the later years of the USSR.
The 1980s proved an important turning-point in Soviet history. The drive to reinvigorate Soviet power under the banner of perestroika ultimately led to its demise. For some, these new and different times proved full of opportunity; to others, they brought confusion and paralysis. For Korzhev, it was a trying time: his beliefs and ideals were in acute contradiction to the new reality. This, for the mature artist Korzhev, was indeed one of the key problems in the post-Soviet period. In 1976, the painter stepped down as head of Russia's Artists' Union, and in 1986 he stopped teaching. After this, his public role in society was reduced to a minimum, and he saw few people outside his family and a circle of close friends. His efforts, in this period, were directed mostly towards his art, the main focus of his life.
Thus, Korzhev found himself in silent opposition to the new Russian leadership. Unwavering in his views, in the late 1990s the artist refused a state award bestowed upon him by the government of the new Russian Federation. In a note explaining his decision, Korzhev wrote of his motives: "I was born in the Soviet Union and sincerely believed in the ideas and ideals of the time. Today, they are considered a historical mistake. Now Russia has a social system directly opposite to the one under which I, as an artist, was brought up. The acceptance of a state award would be equal to a confession of my hypocrisy throughout my artistic career. I request that you consider my refusal with due understanding."
As a mature artist, Korzhev did not seek to openly criticize the political or social system of contemporary Russia. This is not, indeed, part of the artist's role. His experience and views were, however, inevitably reflected in his later works. Korzhev's thoughts and feelings came alive in his canvases, and also on paper: throughout most of his life, the painter kept a diary. He also left behind copious notes with reflections on art, contemporary culture and social issues. Not intended for publication, these manuscripts and diaries are virtually unknown to the public: the rich archive is in the keeping of Korzhev's family.
Leaving his public duties behind and retreating to the seclusion of his studio, in the latter decades of his life Gely Korzhev was able fully to realize virtually all his creative ambitions. What joy this is for an artist!
The geographical location of Korzhev's artistic legacy has naturally been affected by the way in which circumstances split the artist's working life into two parts. Thus, most of his large-scale canvases from the Soviet period became key pieces in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Russian Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery, as well as various regional museums.
The second part of Korzhev's artistic legacy, equally important for understanding his oeuvre, is to be found in private institutions and collections worldwide. The large-scale canvases of the last three decades of his life, as well as his early works, sketches and composition studies remain virtually unknown to the wider Russian public. Many of his important paintings were taken out of Russia without having once been exhibited in the artist's homeland.
This retrospective thus offers a wonderful opportunity to consider the different parts of Korzhev's creative legacy together, and to gain a deeper appreciation of his artistic range and complexity as a painter. Talking of his style and methods in art, Korzhev used the term "social realism", placing great importance on both the first, and the second word in that description. Looking back at the past, he mused: "I believe it [Socialist Realism] should have been named 'social realism'. Socialism is associated with politics, but instead it should be aimed at social issues. Then it would have been powerful." This was the type of realism to which Korzhev aspired.
Despite all the suffering he felt with his inner rejection of life in post-Soviet Russia, the artist never ceased to be concerned with, and about the Russian people: the plight that many had experienced with the collapse of the USSR, and the potential that still remained. In an interview given in 2001, Korzhev described his social standpoint as an artist: "For those who are running the country I have, as Saint-Exupery put it, a deep dislike. Those circles that are currently flourishing and are now at the forefront hold no interest for me. As an artist, I see absolutely no point in studying that part of society. The people who do not fit into this pattern, however - now they are of interest. The 'superfluous' men, the outsiders - today, they are many. Rejected, ejected from normal life, unwanted in the current climate... I am interested in their fate, in their inner struggle. As far as I am concerned, they are the real, worthy heroes for the artist." These new heroes indeed began to populate Korzhev's works, as the artist took on the social issues facing contemporary Russia in works such as Rise, Ivan! (1995, Institute of Russian Realist Art), Adam Andreevich and Eva Petrovna (1996-1998, private collection, Moscow) and Parental Rights Revoked (2006, Institute of Russian Realist Art).
The contemporary Russian reality which Korzhev observed in the final decades of his life did not inspire the master to create works of heroism, or to laud the triumph of the human spirit. In Korzhev's eyes, people had become smaller, pettier. Preoccupied with trivial everyday concerns, they sought solely to satisfy their bourgeois pride and basic human needs. It is perhaps no coincidence that during this period Korzhev came to dream up for his grandson a fantastical beast that subsequently gave rise to the large Tyurlikis series (that name being, as Korzhev himself put it, somewhat "abstract and difficult to explain"). The heroes of this cycle are mutants of different shapes and sizes: half-animals, halfbirds, possessing all the failings and weaknesses of human beings. The poignancy and unexpected resonance of the series were such that for a time Korzhev's work came to be seen as resembling that of the contemporary artist camp, a group with which the master would certainly not have associated himself. Certain works from this series, along with Korzhev's Don Quixote paintings were shown at Moscow's Regina Gallery in 1993. This exhibition, in a space usually linked with a very different type of art, was, however, as far as this trend went: naturally, Korzhev was simply too major a figure to be absorbed by such groupings.
All this only adds poignancy to the self-reflective works of the mature Korzhev, among which is his series of nudes, in which the painter set himself the striking task of portraying the female form in particular historical and social settings of the Soviet period. The most impressive work of the series is undoubtedly his Marusya (1983-1989, private collection, USA).
No less striking is the painter's Still-life with Hammer and Sickle (2004, private collection, USA), a work that contrives to return the now somewhat abstract symbols of the Soviet era back to reality. Indeed, still-lifes have a special place in Korzhev's legacy. The artist painted them frequently and with great passion, using the genre as a means of setting and resolving artistic tasks around meaning and composition. Korzhev himself described the process: "Think of the psychological still-life. It is necessary to find a new approach to the execution itself, too. Striking chiaroscuro, definitely some artificial light, maybe a naked flame (a candle or kerosene lamp).
"A person's things, a book, a teapot, a basket, some rags etc. The main thing, though, is to portray the state of the person who owns those things. Their occupation, thoughts, lifestyle, even the events that could have taken place just before the scene shown to the viewer." The objects in Korzhev's still-lifes - an axe, a hand drill, some worn shoes, a Russian hat and jacket, clay pitchers, simple enamel pots and pans, a glass with a rag soaked in milk - are clearly present, convincingly material: they recall not merely the everyday life of Soviet times, but in a far broader sense the traditional lifestyle of generations of Russians.
"I am more of a still-life painter than anything," Korzhev would say of himself. Indeed, his still-life composition technique of placing large objects in the foreground with a little shallow, barely defined space behind is clearly visible in the majority of his large-scale narrative paintings, from the iconic works of the 1960s to the cycles created in his final decades.
Korzhev's works from those secluded years in his studio contain many themes and images from classic books, interpreted in a new light. Literature had always been among Korzhev's main interests: he is often seen as a thinker, something of a dramatist, an artist who strives to portray not merely the immediately visible physical plane, but also the internal logic of events. Korzhev's profound respect for literature and the links between his art and well-known classics further show just how deeply, and in what a unique way the artist felt and interpreted the Russian artistic tradition.
Dedicated to Don Quixote and other heroes of the much-loved novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Korzhev's Don Quixote series consists of 15 or so works created over two decades. "As a student I was already fascinated with the image of this fearless champion of justice," the artist reminisced. "One should not 'blame' Cervantes for that - it also had to do with our family. My father's attitude to life, his pursuits and failures reminded me of this indefatigable truth-seeker. As for my mother, well, she was exactly like Sancho Panza. Even the way they both looked - my father, tall and lean, and my mother, all round and rather small - was quite in line with those literary characters. But that was not all. Naturally, it never crossed my mind that I should use this to create my family's portrait. It was more complicated than that. It was important for me to understand and then communicate through my art the nobility and generosity of human spirit, and the willingness of human beings to perform feats of valour for a noble purpose."
As Korzhev pointed out, "Russians have always viewed Don Quixote seriously, even as a symbolic hero." Further developing the train of thought expressed by Ivan Turgenev in his essay "Hamlet and Don Quixote", Korzhev elaborates on Cervantes' concept: "What would happen if a person with beliefs and moral development akin to those of Christ were to appear in real life?"
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that at the retrospective Korzhev's Don Quixote series leads into his biblical cycle. The artist turned to subjects from the Old and New Testaments following the death of his parents in 1986. For Korzhev the thinker, with his wealth of life experience, the main focus of this significant new development in his creative endeavour was to capture the internal logic of the story, based on the moral and ethical views that determine human actions. Most works of the biblical series are highly charged with the dramatic significance of events that have taken place, or are being anticipated - such as Judas (1987-1993, private collection, USA) or Carrying the Cross (1999, collection of the artist's family, Moscow). Amid the pain and suffering, however, Korzhev suggests that there is a place for love. For instance, "Deprived of Paradise" (1998, private collection, USA) is filled with intensely intimate emotion: Adam bears Eve in his arms as if she were the most precious thing on Earth.
The other paintings in the cycle are similarly uncanonical, filled instead with the artist's personal feelings. In Autumn of the Ancestors (Adam and Eve) (1997-2000, private collection, USA), Adam's facial features recall those of the artist Alexei Gritsai, a close friend of Korzhev's. In Korzhev's work, the wisdom and humility of biblical characters are acquired not merely by God's will, but as the result of a life lived with integrity.
A major solo exhibition always offers new ways of interpreting the work of an artist. In the Soviet and postSoviet cultural context, the creative phenomenon of Gely Korzhev has remained a key landmark, sometimes clearly evident, sometimes receding a little in the face of the tumultuous political events of Russia's history. Creating his own dynamic language, Korzhev breathed new life into the realist tradition, proving convincingly that the expressive potential of painting as an art form had certainly not yet been exhausted. Despite dedicating many years to teaching and helping a number of talented painters to develop, Korzhev did not create his own school. Not one of his pupils has been able to outstrip their master, to go further in interpreting the tradition of large-scale paintings and the modern potential of realist art. In studying Korzhev's creative legacy, we gain new clarity about problems facing contemporary culture such as the social role and mission of the artist, the current state and prospects of the realist school, and the future of painting itself as an art form.
A visit to this first large-scale Russian retrospective of Gely Korzhev's art, one which has brought together the main body of the painter's work, will allow art-lovers to ponder and to evaluate his legacy, offering a space for assessment and lively debate that will once again prove beyond doubt the relevance of Korzhev's art today.
- "Stoykost' Otverzhennykh" (Resistance of the Outcasts). Interview with G.M. Korzhev // "Zavtra'' (Tomorrow) newspaper, July 31 2001. #31 (400). P 8. Hereinafter, Zavtra.
- From Gely Korzhev's interview, excerpt published in "Raising the Banner: The Art of Geli Korzhev". September 10 2007-January 5, 2008: [exhibition catalogue]. Minneapolis, 2007. P. 74. Hereinafter, Raising the Banner .
- Raising the Banner. P 71.
- This painting provided the title for the solo exhibition of Korzhev's work at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, 2007-2008.
- Turchin, V 'The Art of Gely Korzhev' // Raising the Banner. P 42-52.
- Raising the Banner. P 79.
- Korzhev was to be awarded the Russian Order of Friendship and the Order for Services to the Fatherland. According to the painter's daughterIrina Korzheva, both subsequently remained with the Russian Academy of Arts.
- Raising the Banner. P 90.
- In the catalogue of this retrospective, and in "Gely Korzhev: Iconothek. Gely Korzhev Foundation of Cultural and Historical Heritage". Moscow, 2016, selected excerpts from Korzhev's manuscripts are published for the first time.
- Raising the Banner. P 29.
- Zavtra. P 8.
- Translated from Zaitsev, Ye. "A Zhizn Prodolzhayetsia (But Life Continues)" [electronic source] // Slovo, 2003, no. 4. Accessed at http://www.hrono.info/slovo/2003_04/zai04_03.html on 15 March 2016. Hereinafter, Zaitsev.
- Gely Korzhev archive. First published in the catalogue to the Moscow retrospective, "Gely Korzhev". Moscow, 2016. P 165.
- Raising the Banner. P. 108.
- Raising the Banner. P. 28.
- Ibid, p. 29.