To build the future respect the past
During the days of celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Great Victory, the Alexander Shilov Moscow State Picture Gallery opened an exhibition dedicated to the participation of our people in World War II. People’s Artist of the USSR, Academician of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts Alexander Shilov answered VIP-Premier’s queries associated with his creative work and the opening exhibition.
– Mr. Shilov, it is not for the first time that you dedicate an exhibition of your works to the victory over Nazism. Why this theme is so special for you?
– I was born during the troublesome wartime. Hardships of that period and heroic deeds of Soviet warriors are still alive in my mind. I devoted many works to the theme of war. Nevertheless, I feel these works lack something very personal. I was brought up without father in a Moscow communal flat. Mother had three of us. One of the brightest reminiscences of my childhood is our flat neighbor, an air force pilot. I remember very well our feeling of delight and admiration for him and for all the people in military uniform. With the years that feeling transformed into deep respect and I realized that there is no greater feat than to fight protecting your Motherland. Those who contributed all their lives to the victory are the saints no matter who they were, privates or generals on the frontline or just people who worked hard in the heartland... I started to paint their portraits when I was a student without any order from the Culture Ministry or anybody else, just at the call of the soul. My first work of this kind is still deep in my memory. It was a portrait of Mikhail Vodopyanov, one of the first Heroes of the Soviet Union. During the last years of his life I visited him many times at his house in the village of Kupavna and worked there. I used to keep his portraits at my place but now they are in the gallery where I can put them on general display.
– What other theme exhibitions are you planning?
– First of all, it will be an exhibition devoted to women. I’ve made many female portraits including those of participants in WW2, as well as portraits of culture and arts celebrities. On a separate display will be portraits of old people abandoned by their children and the state, war heroes among them. It is so bitter to know that people, who have worked hard during their lives, become needed by nobody and have nothing but their meager pension. I’ve never worked and don’t work painting series of works timed to a certain special date. I just do what I like to do. But the accumulated works allow me to organize theme exhibitions like this one, devoted to the Great Victory.
– Do people often reject your proposal to pose for a portrait?
– This happens not very often. Well, I can remember just two or three such cases, all for the same reason. There is an old superstition that if your portrait is made, your days are numbered. But not to my experience: relationships with some people whose portraits I painted, including veterans of WW2, lasted for decades after that.
– They say inspiration is necessary to paint a serious work. And how do you work best?
– If I were painting strictly by inspiration I might wait the whole life until it comes. When I find a person who attracts me both by appearance and inner world, I don’t think much about inspiration. I’m positive a master must be always ready to work. If I put my signature on the canvas, I’m responsible for what is drawn on it. All the rest is secondary.
– Is it, in your opinion, possible to become a true artist without special education?
– If we are speaking about the painting in the classical manner and techniques used by great masters, the answer will be absolutely negative. Looking at the canvas, everybody must see only the final result and not a bit of professional know-how. If it is a portrait, you must see a live person with whom you would like to chat. Even the richest imagination and natural talent do not obviate the need to study. Without the knowledge of anatomy, the vision of perspective and, in the least, without a persistent drill, it is impossible to create anything serious. I’m in favor of arts and artistic skills, which are timeless and fashionless.
– And what about street artists from Arbat? Some of them truly work miracles on a sheet of paper.
– I absolutely agree that many street artists, and not only from Arbat, are not untalented. But they must study and study. Unfortunately, they primarily have to think how to earn a living. People like their works. But this is not art. Only those truly engage in high art who simply cannot breathe without it. The others can, at the most, become ordinary craftsmen using their skills for the sake of material wealth.
In the past, arts criteria (no matter what you are, an artist, a musician, a sculptor, a singer, etc) were significantly higher and attitude towards real masters was different. Today all around dance, sing, paint… there are even star producing “factories.” It’s really frustrating that standards are downgraded to match public demand, and never vice versa. It looks like our people are misled and befooled on someone’s order. The social essence of literature and art is replaced by pornography and violence. All radio and TV channels play pop-music almost round the clock. Where else could this be happening? Late night television especially plays American movies non-stop. Why don’t they do the same with Russian films in the United States? As long as our Culture ministry and other regulating bodies will seat on their hands, it will be very difficult to speak about any serious prospects for artists, musicians and other people of arts in this country...
– This being so, what is your professional opinion of the artistic value of Kazimir Malevich’s painting “The Black Square?” Why is its auction price so exorbitant?
– It cannot be called a painting and has nothing to do with art. Its skyrocketing price resembles Hans Christian Andersen King's New Clothes. Meanwhile, nobody saw the man who paid those announced millions for it. What a fuss about nothing! Someone is behind this, someone who believes that nobody knows what real art is. Manipulating prices, auction organizers proceed exactly from this premise.
– It is common knowledge that you‘ve presented the majority of your works to the state and for more than 10 years have been running the Picture Gallery. Does it help or hinder your creative work?
– The Picture Gallery opened in 1997 and ever since every year I donate to it eight to ten my works not to mention pencil sketches, my best works as you understand. Altogether, I have donated more than 900 painting and graphic works. In principle, I could live the life of Narcissus. But I prefer a feeling of permanent dissatisfaction although, frankly speaking, it not so easy to match the high standards that I have set for myself. Since long time ago, I have turned into a harsh self-critic. Working on a new canvas I always want it be at least a bit better than the previous one. This has become my lifestyle. Ilya Repin used to reiterate: if you want to make something good look at something great. And I try to approach everything what I do exactly from this standpoint. Hundreds and thousands of times I look at masterpieces of great artists and try to find something new for myself and approach their level in the sense of mastery and depth of conception... I admire great masters and learn from them my whole life. As the years go by, my understanding grows of how talented our people are. They are talented in everything including warrior’s trade. But we still have not learnt how to evaluate this properly. For us there is still no prophet in his own land. Please, don’t think that I call to reject everything that comes from abroad. There they have enough wise, talented and great artists, but we must find leading lights primarily at home. As long as this is not so, as long as we have not learnt to respect our past, it will be extremely difficult to build our future. That’s why I believe it is very important to glorify the heroic deeds of our people in WW2. I hope that the opening exhibition will serve this cause.
By Viktor SIRYK