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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.