Collector Peter Hoffman Discovers Boris Chetkov by Tori Boggs

In 2006 Peter Hoffman, Jr. was walking up Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Strolling past the Pushkin Gallery, something vivid caught his eye. He found himself face to face with the most arresting piece of art he had ever seen: Self Portrait in a Top Hat, painted in 1987 by a Russian artist called Boris Chetkov. The passion that this work inspired in Hoffman would lead him to spend nine years amassing a large collection of Chetkov’s most arresting and beautiful works.
 Self Portrait with Hat (1987)

Self Portrait with Hat (1987)

On a fresh May morning in 2006, Peter Hoffman, Jr. and his wife Susan were meandering up Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico, quietly absorbing colors and forms pitched against each other in the row of gallery windows.

Walking past the Pushkin Gallery something vivid caught the corner of Peter’s eye. Colors so dynamic that captured his mind so fully he stopped in his tracks. He found himself face to face with the most arresting piece of art he had ever laid eyes on: Self-Portrait in a Top Hat. Painted in 1987 by the Russian artist Boris Chetkov, it threw a kaleidoscopic gauntlet down at Peter’s feet and seemed to say, “I see you – do you see me?”

What was it about Chetkov that grabbed Hoffman when so many other artists had not? He explains, “I had always been seriously attuned to fine art, and had amassed a large collection of mainly American Impressionists. These pieces were beautiful but increasingly I found myself disengaging with them. With Chetkov, for the first time in my life, I was looking at a painting that seemed to contain the entire spectrum of what a great painting could be – it was beautiful and visceral, thoughtful in composition and fluid in movement, it was skillful and intuitive and seemed to contain a unique vision of the world that was both private and connected to the deepest themes of human spirituality. It almost demanded me to engage with it. Chetkov recalibrated everything for me.”

It was love at first sight. A connection beyond language, of profound understanding, like meeting the magus who articulates all the things you know to be true but remain unspoken. In this moment, collector and artist found each other, and although they never met, began a unique relationship through art.

“Clearly I was looking at a portrait, but I was also having a dialogue with it, and that really threw me. It was so vivid and communicated his sense of self so clearly that it was like speaking without talking. Intelligence and understanding just screamed off the canvas, evidencing inner strength coupled with a wry sense of humor and independence of thought. When you look at that painting you see an artist self-validating, so poignant within the context of communism and artistic oppression, making a simple statement: “I am!” In that one painting, Chetkov established himself as a rare creative spirit governed by his own music and not the external notes played by others.” Peter Hoffman, Jr.

Sometimes it just takes one person to really understand an artist to change the way the whole world sees them, like Vollard’s comprehension of Chagall and Louisine Havemeyer’s love for Degas. Or, take Sergei Shchukin’s championing of Matisse. Starting in 1906, Shchukin bought 37 of Matisse’s works includingHarmony in Red (1908). Matisse may have revolutionized the art world by liberating color from form, but at the time it was said, “One madness painted them and another madness paid for them.” In 1918, the collector and his family fled Russia and his art collection was divided between the State Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow, two galleries Chetkov knew well.

“Just how powerful is art?” Simon Schama asks in his probing documentary series for the BBC, The Power of Art. “Can it feel like love or grief? Can it change your life, can it change the world?” In that first meeting, Peter Hoffman had the overwhelming feeling that yes, indeed it could.


THE FIRST FOUR ACQUISITIONS: PAINTING ONE, SELF PORTRAIT IN A TOP HAT, 1987

On that weekend in 2006, Kenneth Pushkin, appreciating Peter Hoffman was a serious collector, invited him into the gallery’s vaults and revealed a treasure trove of works from Boris Chetkov, who was still living in Russia. Before him was a virtual lifetime body of work, and as such it presented a rare opportunity. As Pushkin proceeded to tell the story of Chetkov and his subsequent discovery of Chetkov’s paintings, Hoffman’s eye wandered over the vivid work, trying to make sense of the find.

Several questions presented themselves to Hoffman. Firstly, how was it possible that someone living in such a difficult and challenging environment for much of his life could paint like that? The answer lay before him, represented in the large number of highly achieved and resolved paintings. They suggested not only great intellect and talent but also a phenomenal work ethic, independence and an irrepressible creative spirit. Additionally, he wanted to know how it was possible that Chetkov had remained relatively unknown.

Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, Hoffman began to consider what it was about Chetkov’s paintings that gave them such magnitude, power, depth and relevance, surpassing anything he had previously encountered. Hoffman felt that these were not only great paintings, but also seemed to suggest a philosophy for living, one that might be applied to real life. The works transcended cultural, geographical, and political boundaries, each one unique, alive and beautifully painted, inviting the viewer to engage in the endless scope of Chetkov’s creativity. They touched upon an innate, profound, even mystical understanding of the energy and interconnectedness of all things.

Self-Portrait in a Top Hat characterized all that perfectly. The red line of crimson on his brow, powerfully supported by the cobalt blue in his eyes and imposing nose; the playful balance of peach and mint green in the top hat; the blocks of yellow, both a part of his face and of its surround, demonstrate the intuition and skill of a great colorist. Black accents and suggested outlines balance the compositional color without confining the face and highlight a fluent and dynamic brush strokes that gave the painting depth. Suggestive of modern masters before him, referencing Klee’s blocks of balancing color and Picasso’s distortion of features, Chetkov’s piece is less controlled, lacking overt statements of any school, created with a unique internal coherence. For Chetkov the essence of a subject, and how one experiences it in that moment, is more important than any specific rendering or exact likeness. He was trying to authentically express the complex nature of something.

Hoffman acquired four paintings by Boris Chetkov from the Pushkin Gallery that first weekend: Self-Portrait in a Top Hat, 1987; A Walk, 1992-1993; Cathedral of Vasili of Caessaria, 1994-1995; and Lilac Day, 2000. This initial acquisition seemed to encompass the depth and breadth of Chetkov’s virtuosity, representing his major themes (portraiture, equine art, landscape, genre and still life), mastery of color and dynamic composition.

This remarkable group of paintings triggered in Peter an intensive nine-year mission to acquire specific works that would represent in their totality a comprehensive catalogue of Chetkov’s artistic trajectory and development.


THE FIRST FOUR ACQUISITIONS: PAINTING TWO, A WALK, 1992-1993

 A Walk (1993)

A Walk (1993)

A Walk, one of the first four paintings that Hoffman acquired, is a masterful interpretation of an important historical genre – Sporting Art – which touches on themes of power, authority and grace. Chetkov’s work moves beyond the notion of a single authority mounted on a horse. A group of riders, shimmering with movement, emerge from the canvas. Beyond the wonder of its composition, it illustrates that power is something to be shared and is always evolving.

“At first glance we see three mounted horses, moving in unison from right to left, representing the essence of harnessed power and directional, spirited motion. Wonderfully, however, upon closer observation each horse and rider pulses with its own energy and rhythm, like different elements in an orchestra.”
Peter Hoffman, Jr.


THE FIRST FOUR ACQUISITIONS: PAINTING THREE, THE CATHEDRAL OF VASSILI OF CAESSARIA, 1995

  Cathedral of Vasili of Caessaria (1994-95)

Cathedral of Vasili of Caessaria (1994-95)

his idea of shared energy illustrated in A Walk is also deployed in Cathedral of Vasili of Caessaria and this is what resonated with Hoffman. “Even though the title of the painting suggests religion, the painting also speaks of spirituality. It is not a cathedral but an amalgam of structures, a timeless chain of cathedrals linking together and with the landscape around them. The composition is fascinating: Chetkov balances the density of color and form on the left with light and verticality on the right. To me it illustrates getting the balance right in life between religion and spirituality, rules and spontaneity, nature and manmade.” There is an abundance of energy and dynamism and yet he does not subordinate the painting to a uniformity of brushstrokes. It is a quintessentially Russian scene, replete with onion domes, but the color is not reserved for the cathedral’s rooftops – the whole canvas shares a dynamic wash of color. Nature itself is the cathedral.

Chetkov’s powerful color sense, one that both expands in the moment and transcends it, came to fruition around the period when he painted Self-Portrait in a Top Hat. It is relevant when looking at this aspect of Chetkov’s art to draw parallels with Matisse, not only with regards to his use of color, but in the continuing evolution of his artistic process, and ability to overcome personal hardships through creation. Unlike Rothko and Rodchenko, Chetkov resolved things in his paintings, and, in the words of Alexander Borovsky, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Russian Museum, St Petersburg, “[He] sought to enrich the color composition, looking at how to fill his color with light and setting himself advanced artistic tasks.”

Think of Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence with its brightly-colored, stained-glass tree of life illuminating the chapel’s bare interior. Primary colors bounce off the white walls and fill his monochrome outline of the Stations of the Cross with glimmering blues, yellows and greens. This was the apotheosis of his positive belief system. Working with glass is where Chetkov’s career first took off, as he experimented with filling it with color, stating, “Glass is fire. The material enchants, draws you in, and from the hot mass comes a work of art. The artist is dependent only on himself, like a magician.”

One could apply the above comment to his paintings too. He does not fill forms with color but coaxes and pulls them out using the colors. This almost alchemical awareness of tones and the way they connect to emotions was achieved through fearless experimentation and integrity of purpose. It was this aspect of his creative process that liberated him, each painting standing as a true representation of Chetkov’s inner state: his memories, his moods and his mind. “I began a new work, never thinking of what I had done before, utterly forgetting my experiments and all my agonizing.”


THE FIRST FOUR ACQUISITIONS: PAINTING FOUR, LILAC DAY, 2000

 Lilac Day (2000)

Lilac Day (2000)

One could apply the previous comment to his paintings too. He does not fill forms with color but coaxes and pulls them out using the colors. They undulate like fire, the painting drawing the eye in with contractions and out with expansions. This almost alchemical awareness of tones and the way they connect to emotions, was achieved through fearless experimentation and the utmost integrity of purpose. It was this aspect of his creative process that liberated him, and whilst he has been criticized for not adhering to one particular school, each painting is a true representation of Chetkov’s inner state: his memories, his moods and his mind. “I began a new work, never thinking of what I had done before, utterly forgetting my experiments and all my agonizing.”

Which brings us to Lilac Day, the fourth painting that Peter Hoffman bought after his first encounter with Chetkov on that bright spring morning. The pastel pinks and purples, greens and blues lean into the flame of yellow at the center of the piece. Hoffman says, “The first thing that got me was his incredible capacity to portray a moment and use color to articulate that mood, whilst clearly illustrating a clear spring morning – a subject that compliments the emotion.”

Upon reading the painting, noted architectural historian Alexandra Casserly remarked, “I think this painting may speak of the frailty of community and humanity and imminent change. The constant and conflicting movement within the piece suggests changing times. ‘Lilac days’ are to be remembered and are quickly gone – but it makes the fury of the changing future more enthralling by contrast.”


CHETKOV AND THE ARTISTIC ENVIRONMENT

 Armed Man (1989)

Armed Man (1989)

In order to understand the importance of Chetkov’s work arriving in the United States in 2003, it is essential to consider the moment in which he started painting. It was the 1950s when great American artists like de Kooning, Pollock and Rothko abandoned painting ‘things’ for a new depiction of ‘feeling’. They were responding to Cold War anxiety, to a western world caught between the bomb and the supermarket, paranoia and distraction, unreal and manufactured. Artists fought back and tried to reconnect people with what was real: “Could art cut through the white noise of daily life and connect us with the basic emotions that make us human: ecstasy, anguish, desire, terror?” Mark Rothko asked.

Simultaneously, in 1950s USSR, the ‘official’ face of art was Socialist Realism – art devoid of individual expression that embodied the communist ideal. It is a great irony of art history that the Russian avant-garde that flourished at the turn of the 20th century, and was celebrated by the Bolsheviks who sought out artists to articulate their radical visions of a new future, was replaced by Socialist Realism.

The revolutionary spirit was embodied by poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the artist Alexander Rodchenko, and pulsed with the energies of their time. Profoundly anti-mystical and suspicious of organized religion, Rodchenko’s objective was to steer art away from language of representation towards mathematical precision, from reflecting the world to reflecting a specific vision of it. Writer Maxim Gorky expressed Socialist Realism’s aims perfectly: “The artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” It was a brave experiment that unfortunately meant creative energy was quickly stifled by political expedience, a revolution that gave birth to a new order arguably more restrictive than the old. When Rodchenko announced the ‘death of painting’ with Black on Black, 1918, he could not have foretold that this would actually become manifest. The politicization of art divided Russian artists into the binary camps of official and oppositional.

Chetkov began his artistic career in this environment, one that was disconnected from both its own history and the rest of the world. As neither a reactionary nor part of any underground movement, Chetkov had already suffered the consequences of expressing an independent spirit (he was sent to the Gulag at the age of 16). But regardless of trials or task, he attempted to do it to the best of his ability, always applying hard work, discipline and his own creative nature. It harked back to what he learned from his grandfather, who had so impressed the young Chetkov with his ability to prosper through hard work: seek your fortune but find it through industry and integrity.

“Creation is both thought and action, and in this sense Chetkov was irrepressible. Ultimately Chetkov’s nexus of discipline and creativity was manifest in his art. Though he felt pain and isolation, rejection and humiliation, these feelings and longings did not eclipse his art or his artistic process. Rather than hold onto them, he worked through them. Chetkov was almost Olympian in his capacity to navigate through hardship; working day after day no matter what the external world threw at him.” Peter Hoffman, Jr.

WHAT IS ART?

  Composition 656 (1990)

Composition 656 (1990)

So, we return to our primary question: what is art? And what can it mean? As we stated earlier, for Hoffman it was life-changing. “It had the effect of awakening my senses, switching on the lights, seeing things anew. Chetkov's paintings were so vital and luminous, so suggestive of all the things that seem on the periphery of our perception, and so complete that they engaged my total attention.”

In the fast-paced, hyper-global 21st century, the need to feel ‘in the moment’ has grown exponentially. Enter Chetkov, stage left, with his flamboyant color palette that speaks to our modern imagination, a lyrical and rhythmic composition in tune with our modern sensibilities, and an astonishing range of work offering a multiplicity of interpretation and understanding. “To me, this is what makes Chetkov such a potent and wonderful discovery, says Hoffman. “Imagine having a piece of art on your wall, reminding you every day to take in every moment and really see what you are looking at. To me Chetkov’s work is like my life coach, it urges me to dig deeper, look smarter, and be fully present.

“Everyday we are each faced with a choice – do we turn away from or turn towards our own truth? How do we make the choice without becoming so self-absorbed that we lose sight and respect for all things great and small? Chetkov had great mindfulness, he was self-aware not self-absorbed. By listening to his inner being which seemed to demand constant creation and experimentation he gave himself permission to realize his inner life without fear.”

It is this kind of passion, this kind of statement of intent, that makes the world open its eyes to a master artist. For Hoffman wants nothing more – and nothing less – than for Chetkov to gain the audience his art so richly deserves.

Nico Kos Earle


Art Critic on Chetkov Still Lifes by Tori Boggs

 

Stillness lies at the heart of all painting - it captures a moment suspended in time. And the genre still life is more than the sum of its parts.
 Midday  (2009)

Midday  (2009)

“Everything was simple: arrange the still life and leave the students, let them paint. I would do otherwise, if I set the still life, I would talk about the still life, I would talk about composition, color theory, mood… I am still searching… many of my artistic works are not satisfactory for me. So I keep painting, working and drawing. If I were satisfied with my art works, I would give it up.”Boris Chetkov

Stillness lies at the heart of all painting – in the sense of capturing a moment suspended in time. By extension the genre still life is a permanent fixture in the history of European art, one that addresses the profound theme of our mortality and that nothing ever stays the same. First documented on the Pharos tombs and popular in classical Greece and Rome, the genre briefly slipped out of view during the Middle Ages and was resurrected during the Renaissance where it was brought to an exquisite zenith by Caravaggio in paintings like Basket of Fruit (c. 1595). Painted amidst a landscape of religious images, the painting must have been shocking in its simplicity – an honest portrayal of life’s negotiation with time.

During the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600s, the still life took center stage. In a Protestant society liberated from religious iconography, to own a painting was to make the highest statement of personal achievement, and the still life was a touchstone for their newly acquired status. Soon the still life became like a rite of passage for artists, each addressing this genre that touched on all the deepest themes of our shared humanity: how long do I have left, what will I do with the time I have left, and what will I leave behind?

Fast-forward 400 years to the 20th century and the Cubists decided to give the still life a shake up. Modernists like Cezanne and Braque also began asking the question – through pixilated squares and the interruption of lines – ‘Is this really what I see?’ The theory of relativity and relationships was adopted by the art world, challenging the tradition of one point perspective that had dominated for centuries. Meanwhile artists such as Klimt and the Vienna Secessionists were also asking the very 20th century question ‘how does what I see make me feel?’

Chetkov began painting during an era when Soviet Russia was in the grip of Socialist Realism and all connection to Europe’s fast evolving tradition of art was severed. Somehow Chetkov not only succeeded in finding a career that could accommodate his abundant creative energy – as a Chief Glass Artist – he also worked through the major questions posed by artists in the 20th century in his paintings. In many ways, his still lifes best illustrate his unique perspective. Indeed, his interpretation of the genre itself upends the very notion of still life, for in execution and in composition their incredible dynamism means the finished paintings are deeply vital.

The first time Boris Chetkov gained proper grounding in the genre was when he moved to Karaganda in 1949 and became a student of the artist Vladimir Eifert. Chetkov’s meeting with Eifert coincided with the period in which Chetkov’s passion for art became all consuming. The vibrant new region was a catalyst for his emerging artistic talent, a deep well of creative energy that was beginning to make its way inexorably to the surface. Eifert taught the eager young man the history of art and a multitude of techniques, including the principles of still life, landscapes and portraits.

On first encounter Eifert stated plainly, “You can feel the inner state of people.” This statement would be repeated again at another crucial moment in Chetkov’s career when he was introduced to the Armenian artist Ervan Kochar, and it is integral to our understanding of his work. Chetkov’s power of observation was penetrating, and his paintings articulate both the essential qualities of the subject he perceives as well as how he feels about it, giving them a palpably dynamic flow.

“These paintings evidence an underlying belief that stillness is a construct and everything is always in motion; change is the only constant. Authenticity of feeling was primary to Chetkov, even more important than style and technique.” Peter Hoffman, Jr.


THE VESSEL SETS THE SCENE

 Still Life Flowers and Fruit (2010)

Still Life Flowers and Fruit (2010)

One of the central tenets in still life is that the objects depicted are selected and placed by the artist. By setting the scene within the frame the objects, though real and ordinary, are contrived. The scale is generally lifelike, intimate and human, as if you could reach out and touch. No consideration of Chetkov’s still lifes should be without reference to his work as a glass artist [link to piece] as this both influenced his understanding of light and color whilst providing him with props with which to set the scene. This knowledge lends a real pathos to his works, as today there are very few pieces of his art glass remaining. Many have been broken over the years both deliberately and by accident.

For all their translucency, his cups, vases and vessels have both a refractive and reflective quality. For example, in Still Life Flowers and Fruit, 2010, there is a very clear reference to a glass work that is almost certainly broken – there is a sister piece still extant called Blue Goblet with Yellow Faces that is identical in its frills and an off kilter urgency, except in color. The angles are purposefully skewed and unsettling, just as they are in his glass works. It adds a great poignancy to his still life work, that the very fragility of his glass pieces – in effect their mortality – can be immortalized in paint.


LIGHT FROM WITHIN

 Still Life Steel Collosus (1951-94)

Still Life Steel Collosus (1951-94)

Traditionally in the still life, light is cast from left to right as our eye reads in that direction. Light is the final touch, shown to be coming in from the outside. However if we look at Chetkov’s Still Life with Gladiolas, 1998, its rich swathes of color enveloping the foreground, the background and everything in between, with outlined forms like the glass pot filled entirely with what lies behind, our inclination to read from left to right is interrupted. The painting pulses out from its dynamic center, capturing our gaze and pulling us into the piece. Compositionally, it is anything but still. Planes of color create both the background and the foreground, balancing the vase and supporting its contents. Notice the lemon yellow next to the vivid yellow, vertically and horizontally placed, supported in compliment by the lavender and purple alongside – it radiates out from the center of the painting like a cross.

Still Life with Gladiolas is deeply modern, with the objects suspended in color rather than placed on a constructed ‘surface’. The use of light is no longer an additional guide that takes the eye from left to right, it is created out of color. The painting, like Still Life, Steel Colossus, seems to grow and pulse with life as you look at it, an intentional and deliberate effect on his part to show the energy he perceived. The whole piece is filled with a vital luminosity: the glass pot casts no reflection, rather it contains the colors that cut through it. It clearly references his parallel life as a glass artist, where he filled hot molten glass with hues and coaxed it into shapes that grew, almost organically, out of the flowing material.


CREATIVE FLOWERING

 Autumn Still Life (2009)

Autumn Still Life (2009)

Not all of Chetkov’s still lifes are as centered as Still Life, Steel Collosus. Consider Autumn Still Life,  2009: the fruit and flowers depicted in rusty autumnal colors are in stark contrast to their pastel surround. There is a diminished sense of energy and by extension life force: Chetkov is capturing a moment of full life and decay beneath the last expression of exuberance. The warm surround is made up of the colors of the flowers and fruits, creating a oneness and harmony. 

The composition of Still Life, Flowers & Fruits, painted in 2010 (shown above) just before he died, is deeply unstable: the vase looks like it will slide off the table and smash. Somehow the white flower reaches out of its vessel to the top left keeping it suspended and the painting balanced. This touches on another theme or trope that is apparent across his still lifes and certain portraits: creative flowering. If one considers Male Head, 1982, there is a very clear articulation of flowers being liberated from the vessel/vase/goblet that contains them, with the flowering in the top right of the male’s head taking over entirely in Epoch Renaissance. These still lifes contain a self-awareness of his own physical decline along with a powerful affirmation: Chetkov would live on in his creations just as his broken vessels did, and that there is more to life than can be contained in a vessel or body.

 Male Head (1982)

Male Head (1982)


THE FUTILITY OF IMMUTABILITY

 Autumn Still Life  (2008)

Autumn Still Life  (2008)

The genre of still life gives Chetkov the opportunity to fully explore one of his core beliefs about the world. Nothing is still, contained and sealed, the world is ever changing and constantly moving. Even solid inanimate materials like glass can melt and be transformed; his paintings burst forth with an unctuous vitality. Energy, suggested in form through color, is a continuum that moves through everything – the artist, his creation and even those who see it. Rather than asking the same question as the Modernists before him, ‘is this really what I see?’ Chetkov dives deep into his own perspective, presenting it as, ‘today, this is what I see – and this is how I feel about it!’ In Chetkov’s version of stillness, he shows us both the subject in that moment and what it is becoming. It is, by definition, a continuum of energy. We cannot ever freeze-frame or capture the moment, and Chetkov brings the ‘aliveness’ of everything, both animate and inanimate, into his work.

Chetkov not only refused to follow others, but also refused to follow a predetermined trajectory, something that infuriated his critics. “The chief artist from the Decorative Arts Magazine took me aside once and said, ‘what’s wrong with you? What are you doing? Do you see what other people do? You have to do the same stuff. You have to follow us.” Boris Chetkov

 Still Life with Lilies (1997)

Still Life with Lilies (1997)

The art critic and historian Alexander Borovsky and author of Chetkov: Portraitist and Boris Chetkov: Across all Barriers assigns Chetkov’s still lifes to two broad categories. He suggests that paintings such as Still Life with Gladiolas, 1998 and Still Life, Steel Colossus seem to be exploring the notion of demiurge or form-creation whilst Still Life with Tulips, 2006, Still Life with Lilies, 1997 and Still Life-Asters in Blue Vase, 2003 are anchored more in the mimetic tradition, stating, “Coloring the artist’s work are questions of ‘form-creation’ as ‘demiurge’… and the direct relationship between the real and the created, the ‘mimetic’ approach.”

This binary perspective is to some extent antithetical to Chetkov’s true state of mind and artistic purpose. He was addressing existential and philosophical issues through the act of creating. Still Life with Tulips, 2006, Still Life with Lilies, 1997 and Still Life, Field Flowers & Apples, 2001 are each colored with the very distinctive moods that push the paintings far beyond the realm of the 'mimetic approach’. Respectively, they illustrate the feelings of expansive joy (the powerful energy of red with blue seems to correspond to the moment in his career where he finally achieved international recognition), blissful harmony (blue and purple tones thrown into relief harmoniously with the red and pink flowers), and nostalgia for what has ebbed away (the glass vessels floating in a rare pale surround rather than supported by planes of color). Unsurprisingly if we look at his personal history, they seem to corroborate with his emotional state at the time. Chetkov’s ability to give form to how he was feeling also results in its liberation – he lets it go. He is rarely stuck in the moment, and perhaps this is why each of his still lifes is so powerful and unique – moments do not repeat themselves and neither does he.


NEVER-ENDING FLOW

 Still Life with Red Vase (1979)

Still Life with Red Vase (1979)

There is a distinctive flow of angles and brush work in each of Chetkov’s still life paintings, often reaching up towards the top left corner, a flow that never dead-ends itself. He also uses a delightful array of colors from ochre Still Life with Fruit & an Arab boy, 2000 to magenta Still Life, Flowers & Fruits, 2008 and pale purple Still Life with Lilies when under painting the canvas, which not only underpins and gives logic to his color scheme, but is allowed to shine through in the space between so that no part of the composition is without atmosphere.Still Life with Fruit & an Arab boy, 2000, is like a wonderful celebration of his ability to create endless possibilities within the frame – each time you look at it you see something else, from the suggestion of a boy to the idea of the background as an amplified reflection of the glass vase with its undulating waves of color. Chetkov seems to be further illustrating his understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. For Chetkov this flow is constantly two-way: see and show, perceive and be perceived.

 Still Life with Flowers & Fruits (2008)

Still Life with Flowers & Fruits (2008)

 Still Life with Fruit & an Arab Boy (2000)

Still Life with Fruit & an Arab Boy (2000)

Chetkov would have arranged his still life in specific mood and so he incorporates this feeling into his creation. A clue to this often lies in the painting’s title: Midday, painted in 2009, is ostensibly a still life but it also captures the central moment in a day and the associated uplifting mood that the sun at its zenith can produce. Chetkov was 82 when he painted this, and whilst he was reaching the end of his physical life he was arguably at the peak of his artistic one. He carries this idea forward in Epoch Renaissance, which, painted just before he died, features flowers bursting forth in abundance from the painting’s center, growing through the color and carrying their own light. It seems to suggest that life goes on even after the vessel/ body/ vase has ceased to support life. It also suggests, as if it were a self-portrait, the force of an irrepressible creative spirit emerging out of the darkness, into the light.

Nico Kos Earle edited by Meesha Chang


Chetkov and the Russian Soul by Tori Boggs

No matter how poor you were, art was important, beauty was important, which is why folk tales like "The Malachite Flower" are so loved.
 Yellow Meadow (2000)

Yellow Meadow (2000)

“In that village of Sultanovo there lived a well-off family. They didn’t have children and according to local lore even strangers told them: ‘Take a child – any child – and you will have kids of your own’. And one morning they woke up and there was a baby lying right on their porch: my grandfather. The baby was wrapped in a very nice silk blanket with lace trim. And there was a birth certificate saying the baby’s name: Andrei Chetkov. Nothing else was known about his origins. So the people adopted the baby and started raising him. He turned out to be a very smart and hardworking boy.” Boris Chetkov

So begins Chetkov’s mythologizing description of his grandfather’s origin, setting the scene for his family’s fortunes and his own childhood. This beginning will be familiar to many readers of folk literature, particularly stories from harsh, hierarchical societies: tales about orphans are common because then a person is not bound by their humble origins and can achieve far above their status but also because in places where life was very hard, there simply were a lot of orphans.

The greatest example in Russian folklore is Danilo in The Malachite Flower. This very famous folk story, which was inscribed by Pavel Bazhov in the 1930s, comes from the same part of the world as Chetkov himself and would have been part of his village lore. Ural folk tales are told in bright colors: the ubiquitous mines in the mid-Ural mountains did not just dig up dark smudges of coal or the mud-red of base metals. They produced the beauties of mining: gold, semi-precious stones, malachite and lapis lazuli. The mining was no less hard of course, but jewel tones soak into the regional tales, and must have met an affinity with Chetkov’s own color-saturated imagination. Consider this description of the halls of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, the goddess of miners:

“All the walls were different. Some were green, some yellow with golden specks, others again had copper flowers. There were blue walls too, of lapis lazuli. And her robe kept changing – sometimes it shone like glass or sparkled like it had diamonds all over it, then coppery red and then a silky green.” The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

There is a strong urge in the Russian psyche to make every day beautiful, to vividly decorate everything – no matter how mundane – from horse carts to crockery, and on to the gaily painted cathedrals and churches, which look straight out of fairy tales themselves to western eyes. Contemplate Chetkov’s description of the riches of his grandfather’s attic: “It was filled with decorated antique spinning wheels, a spindle, a painted sledge with a bell... It was like a folk museum of applied art.” No matter how poor you were, art was important, beauty was important, which is why The Malachite Flower is so loved. And Danilo, its resourceful, skilled hero, whose demiurge is so strong he forsakes the human world entirely in order to become a better artist, also has strong echoes in the life of Chetkov.


FAMOUS FABLE, OF DANILO NEDOKORMISH: THE PASSION OF A TRUE ARTIST

 Chernavino My House (1991)

Chernavino My House (1991)

As a boy, the orphan Danilo Nedokormish (meaning: famished) is beaten for neglecting the cows to examine the beauty of the natural world, explaining that he was distracted because, “There was a bug crawling on a leaf. It was not quite blue and not quite grey, with a just a mite of yellow under the wings.” He finds his place when he is apprenticed to Prokopich, the master craftsman who carves the exquisite greens and swirls of malachite. The half-starved boy grows up strong and handsome under Prokopich’s tutelage, but when the old man urges him to marry, he just shrugs and says, “Time enough for that, they won’t run away. First I’ll be a real craftsman then I’ll think about it.” For Chetkov too, family life always came second to the desire to be an artist, and like Danilo, Chetkov would work all the hours he could, “To bring forth all the power and the beauty [in the stone].”

The beautiful Katya waits years for their wedding but on its very eve, Danilo is warned about his obsessive search for beauty, the eldest craftsman saying, “Keep off them kind of thoughts, son. Or mebbe the Mistress’ll take ye for a mountain craftsman. They’ve seen the Flower o’ Stone, they’ve got the understanding of beauty… if you see it you’ll be sorry.” Danilo persuades the Mistress to show him the Flower of Stone despite her cautioning: “Those who have seen my Flower have left their family and come to live in my mountain.”

Sure enough Danilo cannot be easy. He ups and leaves to join the Mistress and learn how to become the ultimate artist, the definitive example of living only to create.* The path of genius isn’t easy: sacrifices have to be made, hard work is vital, and to be the very best one must always keep looking, pushing, searching for more. 

*Katya eventually lures Danilo out of the mountain, but only after she herself becomes a malachite carver.


FAMOUS FABLE, WHY GENIUS NEVER RESTS ON ITS LAURELS

 Epoch Renaissance (2009)

Epoch Renaissance (2009)

Another famous Ural story illustrates the urge to learn and create. That Spark of Life is about finding the one thing you are good at, and constantly striving for perfection. Timokha Smallhands, “a stout lad and a good worker, with good wits in his head and good fingers on his hands” decides he’s going to master all the local trades.

“In our parts there’s all sorts of trades. Some get ore out of the mountains, others smelt it. Folks wash gold, pick platinum, dig for gems and polish them. Trees are cut and floated down rivers, folks… hunt and trap and catch fish. You’d go into a hut and find one by the stove hammering patterns on knives and forks, another on the bench weaving matting. And for each job you had to have the knack, the spark of life to put in it. The spark’s not something everyone understands about properly even now, but with Timokha a funny thing happened.” That Spark of Life, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

Timokha apprentices to one master after another to learn their trade, eventually turning to Grandad Nefed to learn the craft of charcoal making. The canny Nefed takes him on, on one condition – that he will not leave until his charcoal is as good as Nefed’s. The complexity of the task catches Timokha’s attention immediately. He learns his task to the best of his considerable abilities but, to his astonishment, has no desire to leave the job. Nefed laughs, because he knows the spark – the passion for achieving, for perfecting what you do – has taken him, and why it hadn’t before.

“It was because you always looked down, looked at what ye’d done; but when you started to look up, to look for ways to do it better, then that spark caught ye. It’s in every sort of work, it runs ahead of mastery and beckons a man to keep up.” That Spark of Life, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov.


CHETKOV STORY, FIRE IN THE SOUL

 Birds In The Snow (1980)

Birds In The Snow (1980)

Chetkov, also a master of many trades, knew all about the spark of life, of passion. He had it not only for painting but for glass, describing it thus: “Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away… Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it.” And he would have agreed with the wonderful ending note of the story: Timokha’s descendants still “look for that spark, each one in his own job. They know well that learning can add so much to a man’s hands that they will reach up higher than the clouds.”

His description of his startlingly original glass pieces and how they motivated the fellow artists in the glass factory 1BBW echoes this utterly: “[My] glass roosters, Petushki-Bratushki, were inspired by Russian history, the name itself was calling back to old Russian words, it had the same ringing. Petushki-Bratushki were all about people, simple folks, alive in the world. At first sight it is funny, but there is philosophy behind that. My glass works, they were alive! Certainly, they came to life! And other artists, even against their will… they were real artists, you should understand that, and they had the feeling. They felt that those artworks were interesting. And many of them followed my steps. They started coming alive.” Boris Chetkov

For Chetkov this thought-provoking attempt to fold the old into the new, to create a continuance with a simpler time and world, was an essential element of his spiritual make up. For him simplicity was the touchstone of greatness, part of the toolkit for manifesting the self. It harks back to his grandfather’s‘museum’ of his old tools, which were part and parcel of respecting and honoring not only who he was but how he got to where he was: the twinned powers of hard work and the ability to start again. Later in his life, and in an echo of his grandfather, Chetkov would keep all his old pictures in his painting studio. When things got bleak he knew, from his own life and that of his father and grandfather – and further back via folk stories – that you could just keep going. Like many folk heroes, Chetkov grew up with hard work and knew it as a way to find redemption from the worst life could throw at you.


FAMOUS FABLES, THE ART OF NEVER GIVING UP

 Fire Horses (2009)

Fire Horses (2009)

Chetkov’s childhood would have been spent absorbing folk wisdom that reinforced the lesson of the redemptive value of hard work, and indeed his very first attempts at drawing were of fairy tales. He explains how his mother “made an album for me, she bought me watercolors and brushes. I painted, and I drew, it was the real deal. For example, I tried to illustrate the fairy tales Kolobok, Grey Wolf and Serpent Gorinich.”

Kolobok is a mischievous, boastful character that pops up in many cultures in different forms, including in the west as the Gingerbread Man (“Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!”) and comes to a similar sticky end. The Grey Wolf is from the delightful, world-famous tale of Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. It starts with a firebird who, every night, steals the king’s golden apples. The king instructs his three sons to catch the bird as it sneaks into his garden. The eldest two are lazy, and fall asleep: the youngest, Ivan sees the bird and manages to grab a feather from its golden tail. The king promises his kingdom to any son who can catch the bird, and the older brothers set out on the quest.

“They came to a stone that said whoever took one road would know hunger and cold; whoever took the second would live, though his horse would die; and whoever took the third would die, though his horse would live. They did not know which way to take, and so took up an idle life.” Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf, Russian Fairy Tales, Alexander Afanasyev

Ivan then sets out in turn. He comes to the stone and, undaunted, chooses the path where his horse dies. A huge grey wolf eats his horse, then, taking pity on Ivan, agrees to help in his quest. He variously turns himself into a marvelous horse with a gold mane – like the ones in Chetkov’s piece Fire Horses – and a beautiful princess, aiding the brave prince as he is thrown into jail, forced to do tasks and eventually killed by his brothers. Ivan’s valor in the face of trials – even death – is what keeps the magical grey wolf helping him.


FAMOUS FABLE, VALIANT HEART GAINS ITS JUST REWARD

 Rays Of Sun (2005)

Rays Of Sun (2005)

The last character Chetkov mentions, the Serpent Gorinich – Zmey Gorynych – appears in Russian folklore in two different ways. In the first, he is the terrible dragon slain by the Bogatyr (super hero) Dobrynya Nikitich in the Russian version of the St George and the dragon story. Zmey Gorynych is green, has three heads and breathes fire. He lives in caves, looks after precious metals – and is not always terrible. For example in The Great Serpent, two orphaned boys are taken under the wing of the miner Semyonich, who has a mysterious friend.

“He was a stranger, and strangely dressed too. His tunic and trousers were of gold brocade… and his wide girdle was of brocade too, only it shone greenish… His eyes were green, like a cat’s. But he had a kind look.” After much deliberation about the corrupting nature of greed, the man decides to help the boys, and with that, “the man wasn’t a man anymore. All of him down to the belt was a head, and all of him from the belt was a neck. The body of a great serpent began to rise up from under the ground until the head was higher than the trees.” The serpent melts into the ground, his body becoming a seam of gold for the boys, with only Semyonich’s warning to remain: “He doesn’t like trickery and swindling… Those that work for what they need themselves, those he helps at times.” The Great Serpent, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

The hues of the gold and green serpent could be the colors of the Urals – the green of forest and malachite, the yellow of summer sun and gold itself. Emeralds and vivid greens are much-used tints in Chetkov’s art, and indeed in several of his pictures – for example Rays of Sun and Yellow Meadow – the titles allude to yellow but both are very green. Both have a deep air of love, evoking a certain moment, both very beautiful. They are masterpieces from a master artist, one who had earned his right to greatness by chasing the spark of life.

Indeed there is one constant theme running through Russian folklore (at least the non-comedic stories), and that is that those who are honest and hard-working, who are true to themselves, fearless in experimentation and constantly striving to do their best, who are valiant in the face of sore trials – they are the heroes, the ones who succeed. There is no better description of Boris Chetkov, of his life, art and ethos.

Hermione Crawford


Chetkov and the Fall of the Wall by Tori Boggs

On 10 November 1989 the world woke up to extraordinary scenes.  Hundreds of jubilant people dancing on top of of the remains of greatest symbol of Cold War intimidation: the Berlin Wall.
 Party (1989)

Party (1989)

On 10 November 1989 the western world woke up to extraordinary scenes. Hundreds of jubilant people dancing on top of the greatest symbol of Cold War intimidation: the Berlin Wall, opened the evening before. Even through the distancing eye of TV and newsprint, everyone knew this was a moment of great power and beauty, an event when history was changed forever. And, as 'Ossis' and 'Wessis' celebrated together en masse for the first time since 1961, it looked like a great party. Eyewitness Richard Pinard said, “It is hard to explain the overwhelming feeling of relief, of joy, of unreality – that this monster was dead and the will of the people had conquered.”

For those in the eastern bloc it was even more momentous. It was a wakeup call, a siren’s call, a starting gun. The fall of the wall had great symbolic power. It showed the eastern bloc, which was rightfully suspicious of ‘good news’, that glasnost was really happening. It was also a striking metaphor. The Eastern side of the wall was a tabula rasa, a dirty cream monolith surrounded by razor wire and death traps. The western side… it was a riot of color, 20 years of graffiti. Wonderful multi-colored spraycan art and visual jokes were overlaid by slogans and jostled by slang – a glorious discordancy that was completely alive and completely human. The contrast was unmissable, just like the one between the richness of western artistic life and the suppression of the Soviet one.

The impact that the wall must have had on Chetkov is illuminated in Party, 1989. It is almost febrile in its intensity: a vivid mix of red, white and emerald green that is joyful, intense, wholly unforgettable and deeply uplifting. It is hard not to look at the thick brushstrokes and layered paint and not think of the graffiti on the wall, or indeed with the gentle direction of the title not to consider the outpouring of happiness after the wall fell. This piece perfectly illustrates the way Chetkov painted entirely in the moment, that “when it was done it was done, and that is the principle of art” and illustrates the power of that moment, of strong emotions captured as purely as possible.

Of course the fall of the Wall did not happen in isolation. It had been set in motion in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev set out his plans for perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). He also stated that Soviet military might would not help communist parties in the Eastern bloc suppress their populations: they were on their own, and they duly collapsed. A trickle of information, ideas and concepts, news and much more began to trickle then gush into the stagnant pool of Russia’s cultural life, both refreshing and shocking.

For the approved Soviet school of art, the Socialist Realists, this was the beginning of the end. For the oppositional school, the Non-Conformists, this was both a beginning and an end. Glasnost art critiqued the status quo and therefore garnered great Western attention, but it also opened the movement up to scrutiny and critique on a world stage – plus, as the political situation changed, so did its reason for existing. Art historian Ekaterina Degot describes the process: “During the Gorbachev era, art became an object of Glasnost, and for the first time, it was looked at from the outside. This meant that art had to undergo an internal perestroika.”


A TIME OF FREEDOM

 Composition With A Guitar (1990)

Composition With A Guitar (1990)

For Chetkov the end of the Cold War must have been a time of unalloyed joy. As an artist who had always followed his own vision, he would have been untroubled by the loss of subject – there was no ‘internal perestroika’. This was an end to the unnatural politicization of artistic life, and it would have spoken deeply to him. His work was not rendered null by the removal of political barriers: rather it allowed him to take a deeper breath, to become even freer. Chetkov’s art was all about taking his own ‘emotional temperature’, and in the early 1990s he threw himself into painting, producing some 200 pieces, a phenomenal outpouring by any standards.

Concert (1990)

Chetkov had a glorious ability to use all his senses when creating art, and a trope that he returned to again and again is music. Considering his delight in free expression, at this point in his career it is unsurprising there are several celebratory musical works from 1990 including Composition with a Guitar and Concert. These vivid images feature a visual attempt to capture melody on canvas: in Composition with a Guitar the excitable colors bounce and vibrate outwards from the central, just-realized guitar and player, coalescing in places to form additional musicians. Composition with a Guitar is even more abstract: a ‘psychogram’ of music if you will, capturing all the richness of combined instrumental harmony with the faintest suggestion of figures, as if you half-closed your eyes to listen to music. His intense pleasure in painting exudes from both works.


1990, A NEW BEGINNING INTO COLOR

 Composition 656 (1990)

Composition 656 (1990)

For an artist who used titles with such adroitness, it is notable that two of the pieces in Hoffman’s collection go by the simple appellation Composition. What words, after all, can possibly express feelings better than color? These two powerful pieces stand at the center of Hoffman’s collection, and the sheer joy and power within them is unmistakably Chetkovian.

Composition 656, 1990, is a deeply vibrant piece offering a kaleidoscope of color, shading from darker grays and blacks on the left towards pinks and yellows on the right. Swirled and curving brushstrokes in the middle plane of the picture are matched by almost hatch-work on the lower parts and right-hand side. The effect could be jarring but is instead exhilarating – the eye cannot rest, it must take in the colors and shapes. As with all abstract art, it is designed to awake sensation and feeling in the viewer, to make the viewer own the art.

Composition 645 (1990)

Though it shares a title with the previous piece, Composition 645, 1990, has a very different feel. Somber, almost Chagall-ian colors – blues, steel grays and lilacs overlay pinks, greens and an exhilarating pop of red. Swirling, scrawling lines frame and constrain the colors, trying to keep them back even as the viewer’s eye seeks them out. The brush strokes are squarer, more muscular, more like brick and mortar. It speaks of such inner exuberance and spirit trying to break through – through a wall, through the senses.

The theme of escape can be seen again in A Fairy Tale for My Son, 1990, the title of which also taps into another of Chetkov’s recurring themes - folklore.


MOVING FORWARD

 A Fairytale For My Son (1990)

A Fairytale For My Son (1990)

In some senses the most classically abstract of the four pieces I write about here, A Fairy Tale for My Son, 1990, is also the most Chetkovian. Strong hues sing from the canvas; jagged blocks of bright color once again give a sense of breaking through a darker framework. For all its abstractedness, there is also a suggestion of a human form to the left, an enquiring figure with a path of gold before them, as if walking through dappled sunlight.

Though the title hints at fairy tale I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that this is a modern use of fairy tale, in the sense of dream come true. Because, at last, after years of political repression Chetkov – and his sons – can be free. It is the ultimate, and best, fairy tale. And while Chetkov painted for self-actualization not for exhibition, no artist disdains an audience. He must have wondered if, like the Non-Conformists, the Western world’s bright gaze would fall upon his own beautiful work. As, of course, it would do.

Hermione Crawford


Color, Light and Artistic Freedom by Tori Boggs

 Male Portrait, Eye of the Falcon (1969)

Male Portrait, Eye of the Falcon (1969)

“If I stop and hesitate and think, I tell myself: ‘What am I afraid of?…Go ahead, put audacity in your painting! You have to impart your heart when you are painting. No restraints! Absolutely no restraints! [I am] completely unfettered and free. My works in painting and drawing and glass are different.” Boris Chetkov

Imagine the half-light of a room on the seventh floor of a tower block. Tiny windows filter the sun into a murky haze, casting a shadowy veil across the room’s interior. In the corner a man stands motionless before a bare canvas, meditating on his next move. In one sudden, seamless motion brings the paintbrush in his left hand down onto a palette, scooping a smear of cobalt blue. He lifts it to the top left of the canvas with a confident stroke and continues with passion and energy, building up the colors and feeling their relationship to one another as they teeter on and off balance, clashing then matching.

As he continues forms begin to emerge, brought to life through the dramatic but perfectly pitched combination of hues. It’s like watching an alchemist or a wizard, turning tints into form and light.

This was Boris Chetkov’s studio in St Petersburg, a tiny island of light in a landscape of Communist propaganda. It stood in stark contrast to the ethos of the day: Socialist Realism, which allowed only a graphic language borrowed from the Constructivists at the turn of the 20th century, with the aim of making ‘art for everybody not just artist and patron.’ Chetkov’s creative expression happened in private, through his own wanderings in color, and he pursued his artistic vision outside of any system or group, including those opposing the prescribed elite. Indeed, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chetkov’s independence of spirit and singular vision unnerved the new artistic elect, who were constructing a single story of Russian art – ‘before’ and ‘after’.

None of this worried Chetkov. By constructing a creative career for himself in the applied arts as a master glass artist, he had found a way to thrive in the public domain while leaving himself space for his vital need to paint. Through this outlet Chetkov revealed himself as a prodigious colorist, and developed along an artistic trajectory that would lend his paintings a majesty of light. The two media fed into each other, each lending strength to the other.

“Glass is fire,” he explained. “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… Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it.”


FINDING COLOR

 Autumn in Gatchina (2002)

Autumn in Gatchina (2002)

By the mid 1970s his glass art was widely admired, and Chetkov’s pieces began to appear in national and international exhibitions – though as usual in the Communist style of anti-individualism he was not named. At the same time he never stopped painting and drawing, fully accepting that he had no chance of being recognized as an artist. That said, his ability with color was such that when, in 1975, he showed his paintings to the Modernist artist and sculptor Ervand Kochar, he exclaimed, “Who are you? Jewish, Polish, Austrian?” Chetkov reiterated that he was Russian. “Liar!” said Kochar. “Russians don’t produce such artists!”

Just how did young Chetkov come to have such an affinity with color? A skilled draftsman from a young age, Chetkov’s first real apprenticeship in painting was under the tutelage of Vladimir Eifert. From 1949-52 Chetkov studied under Eifert, mostly outdoors in the natural light. Eifert, a still life and landscape specialist, particularly liked to paint skies – this talented artist and historian, who had been exiled from Moscow, saw the shifting ephemeral nature of clouds and sun and momentary kaleidoscopic refractions as a kind of freedom. One has only to look at Chetkov’s own work to see how he developed and perfected this urge to describe fleeting moments and impossible colors.

In 1953 Chetkov went to study at the Leningrad Art College, but a near-fatal brush with brucellosis halted his studies. Returning to the Urals to recuperate, he passed through the hands of FK Shmelev (a protégé of Ilya Mashkov) at Sverdlovsk Art College. During this period he painted a series of landscapes in which the impulse to express the vibrant energy of his subject superseded a precise representation of it. His colors were by this stage distinctly ‘Chetkovian’: burning with light, audacity and dynamism.

Just as Matisse stated that everything he made after an illness following World War II constituted his real self, one could say the same about Chetkov. As the art historian Alexander Borovsky explains in his monograph of Chetkov, Across All Barriers, ‘He had experienced much yet remained unbroken by these experiences.’ Both Matisse and Chetkov made the act of healing central to their creative process and continued their artistic output unchecked. Suffering only made them more fierce in their determination to (in Chetkov’s words): “impart their heart… unfettered and free.”

Fully recovered, Chetkov entered the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry in 1960 where his distinct style and undeniable ability gained plaudits from Department Head Vladimir Vasiliev. In his last year he fell under suspicion of the Communists – “My painting was multicolored, bright, and theirs was all about gray,” – and had to move to Leningrad. It was not until 1967, with his first job with the 1BBW glass factory that he had the opportunity to flourish – he described this time as “artistic freedom”. For the next 13 years Chetkov produced some extraordinary glasswork, even learning how to make molds, pulling together an artistic team, pushing on with pushing the envelope. His vision and fabulous manipulation of color may have been overlooked in the discipline of painting, but as a glass worker he was embraced – albeit under the general flag of ‘artist of the Soviet Union’.


CHETKOV’S AFFINITY WITH COLOR

 My Marvelous Garden (1965)

My Marvelous Garden (1965)

It was this refractive quality of glass that was to become a central quality in Chetkov’s painting. It was as if the luminosity of the canvas, saturated with glowing colors, harnessed the mystical power of light. Instead of trying to bring the translucency of glass into his paintings – just as gold had been applied to icons for instance – Chetkov made his colors scintillate through a prismatic dance on canvas.

“In Autumn Gatchina, 2002 we see a landscape embodied as energy and color moving together. The human figures, the house, earth and sky around them are one body of energy expressed in the same stroke of paint. "Chetkov paints his subject the way he sees it and the way it will remain – it is one moment in the continuum, filled with all the potential of life.”Peter Hoffman

Chetkov uses colors as form. They balance each other and create an internal flow, they function as a dynamic structure instead of representing the fixed world. His ability to play in such a high key with intensely vivid colors (neon pinks, vivid blues and intense greens) demonstrates a profound understanding of his craft and materials. This fluency gave the artist access to moments of complete freedom, moments in which he deftly translated his inner emotions, memories and sensations into visions of unique and authentic expression. Take, for example My Marvelous Garden.

By pushing the boundaries of color and form, not necessarily following in Matisse’s footsteps but certainly daring to step into his shoes, Chetkov presents the viewer with an image that triggers a profound emotional response. There is a communion with the image, a reminder that the world is beyond the limits of our perception, that everyone’s perception is unique. By freeing color from imitating what we already know, it is no longer decorative but provocative.

One of the tricks to assembling high key colors without overwhelming the senses is to include black and white in the composition, giving the eye a set of breaks where it can pause before moving on to the next sensation. His paintings read like a letter. They are the truest articulation of how he perceives and experiences the subject, without imposing a set of external principles to contain or possess it: consider the intensity of Vincent Van Gogh’s art, the wild brilliance of Fauvism, or the purity of Matisse’s use of clashing, tensive shades. It was to profoundly influence a generation of artists like Mark Rothko who famously called his floating colors ‘performers.’

In his 70s, Matisse’s search for the purest form of expression led to the seminalCut Outs, and thence to (and here we come full circle) – glass. His search for light through color was realized in the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, the interior of which he spent four years creating before he died. He considered it his greatest project. The simple building, ornamented purely by three stained glass windows, is considered by many to be one of the great religious structures of the age. One enters in darkness, and turns to the light cast by three trees of life behind the altar: one blue, one yellow, one green. The light reflects these colors onto white tiled walls opposite, painted with black outlines.

Perhaps Chetkov began where Matisse left off, inspired by glass but returning to painting with that deep appreciation for the light color contains. Chetkov’s loyalty to painting somehow mirrors his loyalty to Russia – never turning his back on his beloved land and never abandoning the medium that allowed him such complete and uncensored expression, experimentation and self-actualization.

Nico Kos Earle and Meesha Chang