The other impressionism
December 19, 2003
Jim Tylich, owner of Vail Fine Art, has been collecting Russian artwork for the past 10 years.
“A common misconception is that art produced under communism is always propaganda,” said Marc LeVarn of Vail Fine Art. “We hope to dissolve that viewpoint.”
The size and scope of the canvasses are downright startling. The work is obviously based on French impressionism, but goes its own way. According to gallery owner Jim Tylich, French artists visited Russia since the 1880s.
“All of that skill has translated over to the Russian painters,” he said. “In 1920, the French quit painting in that style. But the Russians kept it up. That’s why the world is so stunned to be seeing the French impressionistic style coming out of Russia.”
“The Russians never bought into the modernist aesthetic that the West bought into,” explained LeVarn. “Modernists valued originality above all else. The Russians never abandoned the traditions of the past, they built on them. Master the past, and evolve from there.”
Some of the artists on display are Fedor Zakharov, Nikolai Timkov, Vladimir Krantz, Losif Serebrianyi, Karp Trokhimendo, Viktor Kiselev, Konstantin Lomykin, Dmitri Maevsky, Leonid Kidriasev, Leonid Titarchuk and Anatoli Nasedkin. Both female and male artists are represented in the show.
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Several of the pieces are beyond large. “Rachmaninoff, Gorky, and Shaliapin” by Trokhimenko is 60 inches by 85 inches. The three figures – important artists all – were persona non grata during Stalin’s rein. The two musicians and poet are gathered in a drawing room, and it’s awash in subtle light. Each seems caught within themselves, lost in thought.
Zakharov’s style is exceedingly loose, as represented in “In Massandra.” A popular cafe, the painting shouldn’t make sense the way it does. A splash of blue illustrates the wall, the orange peeking through the trees is the cafe roof. The canvas is full of motion and life.
“Great painting is alchemy,” said LeVarn. “It creates gold out of the mundane.”
The government nurtured the careers of artists.
“It was the same way athletics, science and dance developed,” said LeVarn. “If you showed aptitude, you were drafted by the government. You didn’t have to sell, you just had to produce.”
It’s quite a concept, having the government fund art for art’s sake, putting it on a level with something like the space program – as though it were that important.
“When you read about these people and their lives, they cared only about what they were doing,” said LeVarn. “As a culture, they were certain of their own worth.”
The artists weren’t required to be marketable, only to work and exhibit. At the same time, there was only one available patron, one shot at a life making art. If an artist was out of favor with the regime, chances of a career were slim.
“The context under which it was created is impossible to duplicate,” said LeVarn. “Only one other time in the course of history has their been a single patron for the art world.”
And that was the Catholic church.
“Ostensibly they had the same goals – glorification of the patron and propaganda,” he added.
And so the canvasses are filled with everyday Russian life and Russian landscapes. The government wanted the work to glorify all things Soviet. But as artists are wont to do, many seemed to understand they were painting for posterity and transcended their government’s goals. That’s why they seem so valuable now.
“They were hording their treasures,” said LeVarn. “They weren’t interested in what the rest of the world thought of them.”
Tylich traveled to Russia after the fall of communism. He was interested in the Repin School, established by the Czars three centuries past who wanted the best art school in the world. For 300 years they built up a substantial art collection and tradition.
“After 1917, it was all confined to Russia with the Russian Revolution,” he said.
By painstakingly creating friendships with Russian families and museums, Pylich has slowly been collecting museum-quality art. In some cases, he’s made agreements with museums that he’ll show the piece in multiple galleries in the U.S. before selling the work. In this way, the museum’s star artists are shown, and eventually people might be led to Russia to view more of their work.
He also deals with the families of artists, both living and deceased. He travels with an interpreter to their homes, where a multitude of canvasses might be stored in the attic. As he’s built relationships with families, they have in turn introduced him to others.
“That’s why I do it myself, you can’t do this through a group of people,” said Tylich. “It’s them sitting in their offices, in their homes, deciding what to do. Everything goes with a little bit of vodka. They love to sit around, have a good time and slap each other on their backs. They’re very romantic, romance their past, their history. They talk about it with fondness and gloom. And that gives them a depth of character that only comes from pain.”
Because times are tense, Tylich has to be careful that everything is legal and sanctioned by the government. Does he feel guilty for taking these works out of Russia?
“There are people that, because of the money I’ve paid for the art, are living really well,” he explained. “Lots of them. I’m paying them thousands for the artwork that their grandfather painted, and they still have many works. Really what it’s doing, what I’m doing, is presenting major Russian art to the world at their request.”