Vail International Gallery exhibits works by Russian painter Boris Chetkov
If you go …
What: Exhibition of works by Russian non-conformist Boris Chetkov (1926-2010).
When: Reception 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13, where Kenneth Pushkin, who befriended Chetkov in 2001, will share firsthand insight into the artist’s work; paintings will be on display from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Sunday, Feb. 28.
Where: Back gallery at Vail International Gallery, 100 E. Meadow Drive, No. 17, Vail Village.
Cost: Admission is free; framed and unframed paintings priced from mid-$20,000 to about $80,000.
VAIL — Since opening on Meadow Drive in Vail Village a decade ago, Vail International Gallery has been known for featuring contemporary works by living, emerging artists. But founders and brothers-in-law Marc LeVarn and Patrick Cassidy have found new inspiration in the work of a prolific Russian Modernist Boris Chetkov whose vast body of work continues to emerge on the international art scene since the artist’s death in 2010.
“We’re opening a new chapter here with this collection,” Cassidy said of the nearly 50 Chetkov paintings that arrived at the gallery in preparation for a show opening today and continuing through the end of the month. “His work is so new to us, like nothing we’ve seen before.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Soviet Union produced a wealth of art, and though much of it was executed under functional communist dictates, Russian artists still ranked at the top in almost every art form, LeVarn said, from the literature of Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn to the compositions of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky to the choreography of Nureyev and Sergeyev.
But as much as Russian artists were cranking out, very little of what was produced made its way to the United States, swept under the rug by Cold War prejudice. Visual art was particularly derided, as it was viewed as communist propaganda.
“We took a culture that created artists like Tchaikovsky and Nureyev and we marginalized it and said ‘these guys stink’ because it was convenient to do so,” LeVarn said. “But recent scholarship has come out and this work is being looked at again, and it’s not going to be 100 percent rehabilitation — there was hack art that was championed — but there was fabulous art produced in Russia from 1930 to 1990, and it’s continuing to be discovered.”
LeVarn said it’s taken the hindsight of decades for scholars to sort through Soviet art and separate the “hacks” — elevated merely due to their promotion of the communist political machine — from those with true artistic skill. Buried in all of this are non-conformists such as Chetkov, who made quiet statements behind closed doors.
Born in 1926 in the Sverdlosvk Region of the Soviet Union, Chetkov is an obscure figure, having studied art at some of the greatest Russian art schools over a career spanning decades of communist oppression.
Instead of joining many of his contemporaries in the elite Russian Federation Union of Artists — creating traditional pieces to please the government and make a good living — Chetkov chose the life of a non-conformist, working for many years as chief glass artist in a glass factory by day and painting at night.
“If you deviated from the official style, you were a Formalist — if you were more interested in art for art’s sake, beauty rather than purpose,” LeVarn said. “Modernism was a form of Formalism, depicting beauty in an inner sense, and this had no purpose in the Soviet sense.”
So Chetkov flew under the radar, so to speak, surviving the Gulag, World War II, the “Kruschchev Thaw,” the Cold War, Glasnost, Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all while painting by himself, for himself, mostly in secret, until his death in 2010.
“Chetkov was a true individual,” LeVarn said, “and his work helps to complete the picture of what was going on at the time.”
From impressionistic still life to expressionistic landscape to abstract portrait, his prodigious collection of mainly acrylic and oil paintings is just now emerging from private collections and museums to high acclaim.
“Chetkov’s work draws inspiration from the same sources as early 20th century modern Russian artists, such as Chagall, Kandinisky and Natalia Goncharova, who were all inspired, as was Chetkov, by Russian folk art and primitive art,” LeVarn said. “Similarly, his work distilled this inspiration into progressive and philosophical works rooted in native Russian culture.”
An artist’s work
While much of the traditional art to emerge from Russia and the former Soviet Union during the past few decades can be considered muted in tone and dark in subject matter, Chetkov’s work, by contrast, is brilliant and alive, with an intense, “Chetkovian” palette of primary colors and truly avant-garde techniques.
“There’s no way you could look at this painting,” LeVarn said, gesturing toward one of Chetkov’s pieces, “and derive any kind of Soviet message from it. There’s no way to color Chetkov’s work and say here’s an artist showing the beauty of the motherland. His work was wholly personal and was about beauty and individuality.”
One example of Chetkov’s abstract works on display at Vail International Gallery is “Supposed Man Against the Blue,” an oil-on-canvas from 1970 featuring broad strokes of brilliant colors with a definitive Picasso-esque feel. It’s joined by other landscapes, such as “Everything in Yellow,” “Khutor” and “Seaside,” as well as a number of vivid still lifes, including “Field Flowers” and the aptly named “Still Life.”
“It’s rare to have a body of work this cohesive of a really great artist,” LeVarn said. “A lot of times, work is dispersed, you don’t know where it is — it goes into a barn, the barn burns down, it’s gone. You have an estate of an important artist, and it’s here, and this is a great opportunity for people to see it.”
“It’s nice to see something as well-done and fresh in a different style,” Cassidy said. “There’s no better way to break into the world of Russian Modernism.”
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.