1926-1934: IDYLLIC BEGINNINGS / by Tori Boggs

Chetkov’s memories of the first eight years of his life were tinged with the velvety glow of nostalgia and happiness. He described escaping from his parents’ dull flat to his grandparents’ house, across the railway line. He talked about the farmyard, ‘colossal’ to a young boy’s eyes; the animals, working with his grandfather and the practical jokes his grandparents played on him. He also remembered the bright pictures on the walls – for example a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son in the Tavern – big books “bound in leather with copper clasps. I was fascinated by those books, the ones with pictures of horses. I constantly leafed through them.” It must be noted that horses – that symbol of beauty, wealth and power, come up time and time again in Boris’s work. Most important of all, there were the riches of the attic. For such a hard-working, unsentimental man, Andrei clearly had an eye for beauty and a profound respect for the tools which helped him create his life and his self image. His attic was filled with farming and cultural implements that he had kept as a “as a memory, for himself, of the household he used to have.”

“My grandfather bought everything and displayed like it was a museum. There were harnesses, huge wooden duga troika harnesses with traditional ornaments, all kinds of troika bells… whips from thick to thin… decorated antique spinning wheels, Spinning wheels, a spindle, a painted sledge with a bell... It all was like a folk museum of applied art… the grand sleds with ornaments used only on great holidays like New Year or Maslenitsa. The troika was so beautiful.” Boris Chetkov

His words echo those of Wassily Kandinsky, some years before: “I clearly remember I stopped on the doorstep before this unexpected spectacle. The table, the benches, and important-looking stove, the cupboards and dressers, everything was painted with colorful sweeping ornament… when at last I entered the painting closed around me and I entered it.”

All this beauty sunk in and met with a rising passion: “I little by little absorbed those things and educated myself.” On the surface Boris was a classic urchin in the Mark Twain mold: nearly getting run over by a train, running, fighting with other local boys, chasing geese, falling into the River Lyalya while trying to climb on logging rafts, romping with his dog, shooting stones at his school’s windows and much more. But from the age of four he spent every other spare moment drawing. His mother made an album from paper offcuts from the local factory and bought him watercolors and brushes, and young Boris drew and painted what he saw around him, illustrated the fairy tales [link to folklore piece] that his family told to him and sucked the world around him into his heart. In many of his later works he painted villages and farms with an intensity that only comes from a deep love and understanding.

It was during this early childhood period that he met Nikolai Evgrafov. The artist was a member of Pavel Filonov’s school of analytical realism, also described as ‘anti-Cubism’, which represented objects not by their surface geometry but by elements of their inner soul. Evgrafov was noted for his “unswerving professional honesty… and social audacity”. In the era Boris would have met him, he was painting pictures of poverty and squalor – at the height of Socialist Realism, bravely refusing to plough the Soviet furrow. This profoundly anti-establishment painter admired Boris’s work and told him to keep painting. To a young boy already pushing boundaries and mistrustful of authority, it must have felt like a kind of blessing.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford