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.
“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
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
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.
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.
THE FUTILITY OF IMMUTABILITY
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
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.
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.
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