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.”


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’.


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