“It was in spring. Narrow streets, camels, every kind of people come to trade, colorful and vibrant colors around, noisy markets with plenty of bric-a-brac on sale. I was enchanted by this world, overwhelmed with this multitude, this diversion of peoples and lifestyles. And I hurried to the market every day to make sketches, to draw from dusk till dawn drawing everything I saw around - despite the obvious public disapproval.” Boris Chetkov
Boris Chetkov stopped drawing only four times in his life. Once as a youngster, when he fell in with a ‘bad crowd’. Again in the Gulag, as a soldier and for the last time while was mortally ill. It was an essential part of who he was: even in the army he was identified as an artist. Everything had led him to this situation: his mother’s encouragement, that of Efgrafov, the men in his village, his uncle, all allied with his own burning desire to draw. While his time at an art school in Irbit may have whetted his appetite for painting and oils in particular, the next stage of his life was to prove the springboard for Chetkov’s burgeoning talent.
In 1949, when he upped sticks to join his family in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, he was to meet one of his most important mentors, Vladimir Eifert. Already 22 years old, his springtime arrival in the bustling southern trade city was mirrored by an explosion in Chetkov’s artistic interest. He found a job at the local mine as a set painter for the men’s club and in addition spent every spare moment drawing in the markets. One day he was told that a famous artist from Moscow was in town, looking to take on an apprentice.
Vladimir Eifert had been the director of Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Artsand was one of the most competent art experts in Stalin's Soviet Union. However as an ethnic German, he was exiled to Karaganda in 1941. He and his wife were resettled in a desolate village, where they worked on a collective farm. Eifert formed a circle of pupils and taught them to paint, eventually creating a golden era of art in Karaganda. Chetkov was to become one of those students. In the hall where the artist was picking his pupils, he described the scene: “There I saw a balding, serious and very cultured man. He was walking around and the guys laid out their works, a lot of them.” He hung back, but Vladimir Eifert approached him. “He looked at the drawings and said, ‘Well, draw you cannot. Where did you study?’ I said nowhere. And he said, ‘You can’t draw but you feel the emotional state of a person. I’ll take you as my student.’”
Along with his meeting with the Armenian artist Ervan Kochar years later, Chetkov credits his time with Eifert as seminal: “I saw my own work for what it was… I began to really understand drawing and art.” His training was rigorous and thorough. Chetkov and his fellow student, Nikolai Zhirnov, had to arrive at their lessons properly dressed in suits. They studied art history, theory of art, composition and were set assignments – mostly still life and portraits – to develop them as artists. Chetkov woke at 4am and worked til midnight. He was, “So enthralled, nothing else existed for me.” Eifert encouraged his pupils to paint outside even in freezing conditions, and loved painting en plein air himself: art was his consolation after banishment. Galina Lavrentyeva, a confidant of Eifert's wife, revealed years later: "He liked to paint the sky. It symbolized freedom and infinity.”
For three years Eifert taught Chetkov everything he knew. Then, in 1952, he told his students, “You are real artists now guys, but you still need an official diploma.” Chetkov left for Leningrad.
Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford