Vail International Gallery
Theoretically, Nikolai Timkov wasn’t born at the right time or place to become an internationally renowned artist. Born to a peasant family in the former Soviet Union in 1912, he served on the front lines during World War II. Yet, the same tenacity that galvanized him and his comrades to defend Leningrad — and even narrowly escape execution — compelled him to become one of the most celebrated Russian painters of the 20th century.
He earned a place in art school through the Soviet system of aptitude testing and began formal art training. From there, he committed to developing his art, no matter what it took. He and a friend moved to St. Petersburg to pursue artistic training. Their determination led them to do nearly anything — including camping out in the basement of the Repin Institute, where faculty discovered they were painting — with great talent. As a result, Issak Brodsky, who painted some of the most famous images of Lenin, mentored Timkov.
Timkov spent the majority of his career at the Academicheskaya Dacha, between St. Petersburg and Moscow. In this serene setting, Timkov escaped pressures of cities and focused on painting countryside landscapes.
“He’s a product of the context in which he was living,” says Marc LeVarn, co-founder of Vail International Gallery. “There’s a particular light, air, atmosphere, and lakes. He was in love with that region, and you see the beauty when you look at it.”
Timkov had more than a few obstacles to overcome. The war took a toll on every Russian, and though he depicted buildings, streets and other war locales, his Gouache paintings “don’t have the melodrama of combat scenes,” LeVarn says. Likewise, he didn’t succumb to rendering political propaganda through his art, as was the demand of the time period. Instead, he channeled all of his feelings into landscapes.
“He expressed (art) within the confines and limits of Soviet political ideology, and he did so naturally,” LeVarn says, adding that Timkov found an innovative way to advance his individual voice as an artist, which was difficult to achieve in Soviet Russia.
“The most important thing is how you feel when you look at his art,” LeVarn says. “I think his art has a universal appeal. It’s beautiful in a classical sense, and they are also soulful, deep, naturalistic.”
In the late 1950s, political pressures eased, allowing for more experimental artistic styles. Timkov studied European modernism, with its bright colors and decorative elements, and he ultimately fused his rigorous, classical training with modernism.
“It’s rare to find someone who adds something new to landscape,” LeVarn says.
In 1987, Timkov garnered the coveted title of Honorable Artist of the Russian Federation, solidifying his place among the great artists in Russian history. Critics still classify him as one of the great landscape painters of the 20-century, and American collectors continue to clamor for his work.
Timkov was one of the first mid-20 century Russian painters LeVarn brought into his gallery.
“I think he represents the best work produced in the former Soviet Union,” he says. “He connects with people for a number of reasons. Primary, the paintings have a real soul. There’s a grit and a real intensity to the paintings. He feels the connection to what he’s looking at and he’s able to show the beauty.
“Part of it is due to the context (of his country). If you had an original thought, you kept it to yourself. He just put everything into his landscapes (and) it just takes your breath away.”
Timkov died of a heart attach in 1993, but his spirit endures. Vail International Gallery will feature an exhibit spanning five decades of Timkov’s career — including rare, museum-quality works — this summer through Sept. 15.
“Created in a political context unique to his lifetime, Timkov’s paintings are emotionally charged and intensely personal depictions of the Russian landscape,” LeVarn says. “The originality and power of his work are evident in each painting, and when viewed together, make a compelling case for the continued re-evaluation of both Timkov’s oeuvre and mid-20th century Russian painting in general.”
— by kimberly nicoletti