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Dr. Irina Arnoldova

Painter Sergey Zagraevsky: the view of an art critic


Sergey Zagraevsky Moscow, Kremlin


Sergey Zagraevsky. MOSCOW, KREMLIN


It is not easy for an art critic to evaluate the works of Sergey Zagraevsky, because in his art school there is even no settled terminology. For example, paintings by Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmani, Grandma Moses, Mary Primachenko, Pavel Leonov are called "naive art", or "primitive art", or "primitivism", or "primitive", or "naive". Mikhail Larionov called his experiences in this field "neo-primitivism". Sergey Zagraevsky himself calls his style "naivizm", and after him this term was taken up by many young artists, who often have nothing in common with "naive". In short, there are many variants.

Let's start with the "painters of the Sacred Heart": so in the beginning of XX century art critic and art collector Wilhelm Uhde named Henri Rousseau, Serafine, Camille Bombua and Andre Beauchamp. If we add to this list Pirosmani, Grandma Moses, Primachenko, Leonov and Katya Medvedeva, we shall get up a well-defined collective image: that are people who created nothing within a large part of their life or wrote at best "for themselves" or took occasional painting lessons, and then they "found" themselves in art and were noticed by art critics, collectors and art dealers in a fairly old, often retirement age.

We call the work of such artists actually "primitive" or "naive" art. Not to go into the linguistic subtleties, we assume that in this context the words "primitive" and "naive" are functionally interchangeable. If we add the word "classic", we should get "classic primitive", this would be quite true too.

This is the first significant trend in the art considered here. There is a second one, no less significant and well-known: the "primitive" paintings of many artists who had an academic apprenticeship and extensive experience in other styles. Those are Paul Gauguin, and Mikhail Larionov, and Pablo Picasso, and Natalia Goncharova, and Paul Klee, and Clement Redko, and Oskar Kokoschka, and Yuri Vasnetsov, and many others. Probably we can not say that such their works were the "stylization of primitive" – they were too large wizard to engage in any stylization. Each of them developed his own unique style, which has in its basis the traditional plastic of "primitive art".

We call the second track "primitivism" (suffix "ism" is seen very appropriate here) and ask: to which of these two directions does Sergey Zagraevsky’s art belong?

Of course, not to the classic primitive. Zagraevsky paints pictures since childhood, he is known as an artist not for the first decade, and by the age he is still far from the retirement (he was born in 1964). Neither formal nor the actual parameters of primitive art are met.

It is difficult to say without a number of reservations that Zagraevsky’s works belong to primitivism. He has never represented to the public and art critics any work, written in a different (and even more in an academic) manner. We see almost the same characteristic style of his painting from the very beginning of his professional artistic career.

Of course, if the painting of a painter does not fit one or another basic trend in art, whether it is primitive, primitivism, abstraction or expressionism, this says nothing because all the infinite variety of creativity is impossible to put into the “Procrustean bed” of relatively few main flows. In these cases it is necessary to seek the origins of creativity not in the general directions of visual arts, but in particular artists.

The patriarch of national art critics Anatoly M. Cantor in his article about Sergey Zagraevsky named as his probable predecessor an outstanding Hungarian painter Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry (1853-1919). Indeed, Zagraevsky’s landscapes are something reminiscent of bright, colorful landscapes of Kosztka. But only reminiscent, nothing more. And the formation of Kosztka as an artist, his career in art and his personality are so radically different from the career and personality of Zagraevsky that we understand that any parallels are impossible, and there are only occasional and partial matches (Zagraevsky’s paint is much brighter, Kosztka’s drawing details are made absolutely otherwise, the chiaroscuro in Zagraevsky’s art is completely absent, and at Kosztka it occurs occasionally). Overall, colors and plastic of Kosztka a’s art are much closer, for example, to the Central Asian works of Pavel Kuznetsov, and Zagraevsky, of course, has nothing in common with the latest. Moreover, the path of creative development of Tivadar Kosztka is typical for classical artists of primitive art, and that is impossible to say about Zagraevsky.

The facts about painting learning in the childhood and about relatively early recognition of Sergey Zagraevsky as an artist evoke the biography of the famous Croat Ivan Generalić (1914-1992). But the plastic of Generalić’s works is well within the traditional composition and colors of the classical primitive art and has even less in common with the plastic of works of Zagraevsky than Kosztka’s plastic. Generalić can equally well be applied to the first and second direction (to primitive and to primitivism). Zagraevsky, as we have said, can not be attributed neither to the first nor to the second.

Recall that Sergey Zagraevsky’s teacher was Tatyana Mavrina (1902-1996), a classic of the twentieth century art, in 1930s – a member of the “Group of thirteen". Mavrina’s later works can be rightfully attributed to primitivism, but those her paintings are full of Russian folk motives, are painted in a light, "air" handwriting, mostly in gouache and tempera, are done in a planar manner of writing, have a duration of warm humor, have large (sometimes on the whole picture) text labels. In the paintings by Zagraevsky there is nothing of the sort. Only his earliest, even child’s, works – bright, colorful fairy animalistic figurines on run-sea stones – have parallels with the works of Tatiana Mavrina. In his youth Zagraevsky already used the fabulous pictures of animals only as incidental figures on his landscapes, then animalistic motives completely disappeared from his pictures.

At that the landscape painting by Zagraevsky remained very close to the "childish". Not to the "art for children" (this is quite another direction, referring to the book illustrations or posters), but namely to the painting by children. Only reverse perspective, the absence of chiaroscuro and aerial haze, relatively accurate portrayal of parts (in any case, the apparent lack of propensity to generalize) twin the paintings of Sergey Zagraevsky with the classic plastic of primitive. Zagraevsky also has predominantly open colors (the artist told on one of his master classes that he prefers not to use the palette and usually mixes colors directly on canvas). His works are of exceptional brightness, comparable only with child painting. And, of course, they are absolutely serious and positive. There is no humor, no "Unbearable Lightness of Being”, no gory things (all that is particularly true for the creativity of children, unless the latter try to draw on plots, given by adults).

About ten years ago I was at the exhibition of Sergey Zagraevsky, and among the paintings on the wall hung a sheet with the poem of our well-known art-critic William Mayland. It stated the following about the artist (I even wrote into my notebook): "Zealous in color, talkative in the newspaper, draws like children". And even then I was fascinated how neatly Mayland conveyed the basic features of Zagraevsky’s creativity.

I continue to fascinate also a decade later. I can not say that Zagraevsky absolutely does change his style: his works became a little more generalized, paintings – more and more mixed (though not to the detriment of brightness), details are drawn less carefully. But we still see the same "childish" painting, where the hand of an experienced artist is visible only in the details: the stability of the stroke, the virtuoso technique of painting and drawing (that is especially noticeable in watercolor, which "forgives" mistakes much worse than oil), the compositional and color balance, a number of recurring "proprietary" features ("flattened" sun, squat trees with huge roots, multi-colored water, "album-styled" flowers, windows, illuminated with colored lights at any time of day).

And with such a great artistic experience of Sergey Zagraevsky nobody, as I know, saw his "adult" painting. He wrote that or not – that’s his secret. Well, everyone has the right to privacy, and we can safely leave the matter outside the brackets, because if Zagraevsky ever wrote something "adult" (impressionist, abstract etc.), it would have been quite a different painting, actually another artist.

So what do we see? That a mature, fully formed, experienced painter consciously "froze" his art on the "childish" level? Or, perhaps, did that "freezing" occur independently of his will – so to speak, he can not work in a different way? Or maybe his own development “froze” at the "child" level? Recall the amazing paintings of oligophrens...

But that impressive man, the chairman of Artists Trade Union, academician, professor and the holder of a considerable number of other regalia does not look like an oligophren. And the "freezing" of his work regardless of his will could not possibly go without being noticed – we would have seen some attempts to make correct proportions, straight perspective, focused search for similarity with nature, or the desire to irrelevance, the departure not only from realistic painting, but also from figurativity... Nothing like this can be located on Zagraevsky’s canvases.

Painting by Sergey Zagraevsky is not only stable, but absolutely professional in every sense of the word. And in terms of art criticism: the ability to use the means of visual arts to achieve artistic goals (I have already mentioned his virtuoso technique of painting in the style of his choice), and in the sense of participation in many group and solo exhibitions, and in the sense of earning his living by art. I do not think that Zagraevsky earns the living only by art, and have no right to look into somebody's pocket, but I have heard from many art managers that his paintings are sold. And how many paintings exactly were sold, whether the artist has to earn money somewhere else or not... What is the difference, in essence? At least once at least one picture was sold out, – it means that someone took out his hard-earned money and gave them not for a car, a television or a kettle, but for the painting of the particular artist.

It turns out that Zagraevsky, being a professional artist, works in the selected style absolutely consciously, as it befits a professional.

But if consciously – so maybe far-fetched, if not for selfish purposes? Perhaps his brush is driven by a desire of glory, fame, money?

It is unlikely that Sergey Zagraevsky in his childhood was capable to think something out so seriously that his style became stable for many decades ahead, perhaps even for life. And what to gain from that? For the sake of self-interest (earning by painting fame, money or any good things of life) primitivism is not the best choice. There are so many alternative opportunities! If not realism – then abstractionism, conceptualism, video art, installations etc., – and no accusations of "naivety", "inability to draw", and even in "incompetence"! No, this is too impractical. And it is difficult to suspect Zagraevsky in impracticality.

Thus, we see a truly professional childish painting. This combination – authenticity, professionalism and "childlikeness" – is as hard to imagine as the definition "professional child". In other words, the child grew up, knew the world, learned to use paints and brushes masterly, became a professional artist with regalia and exhibitions, but his art kept all basic features which it had in his childhood.

We used to think that this is impossible. Sergey Zagraevsky proved to us that this is possible.

Is this good or bad? This is primarily a fact. If you want, a specific event in Russian and world art. And if this is an event, let us try to estimate its magnitude, not applying categories "like – do not like", because somebody likes primitive, somebody – primitivism, somebody – abstractionism, somebody – realism.

Recall Mayakovsky’s words, addressed to Pushkin: "After the death we shall stand almost side by side: you at the “P”, I at the “M”. Is the scale of the event titled "Sergey Zagraevsky’s creativity" sufficient to put the artist in art history next to those at the "Z" (for example, with Anatoly Zverev or Stanislav Zhukovsky)? Or even close to Velazquez, Van Gogh or Warhol?

Theoretically, in our time any unique phenomenon in art is worth the entry on the tablet of history, because art is enriched by it and it opens up new, hitherto unexplored faces. Besides that, the twentieth century finally debunked academic ideals, having brought the freedom of creativity instead, which involves any form of expression, even like “Coca-Cola” and “Campbell Soup" by Andy Warhol, or even Marcel Duchamp’s toilets. Of course, the latter have a certain flavor of vulgarity, perhaps even passing the verge of art. But what certainly does not exist in Zagraevsky’s works, that’s vulgarity.

However, to win the entry to the tablet of history in theory does not yet mean the adding to this tablet in practice. It is not uncommon that authentic, unique artists and innovators of the twentieth century are forgotten, and if not quite forgotten, then remain "widely known in narrow circles". For example, who, except professionals, now remember Petr Fateev (1891-1971)? But, no matter how we treat the art group "Amaravella", he was its inventor! And Vladislav Ratner (1926-2002) – a unique "postkubist"? And Abram Monoszon (1914-after 2002)? We do not even know the exact date of his death, but what a wonderful, unique plastic his works have!

How Bulat Okudzhava wrote, "sweet cakes are never enough for all". Indeed, there are few places on the tablet of history, and there are many good and unique (if you like, brilliant) artists, and besides the tablet there is always a queue of active mediocrities whose name is legion. Some geniuses are forgotten because of their inability to "show themselves" to critics and the public (fortunately, Zagraevsky is able to, and his works’ advertising sometimes looks even too intrusive). And some are overlooked just because their work was absolutely inconsonant to the era. As Ecclesiastes wrote, "everything has its time, and it is a time for every matter under heaven". It is possible to be ahead of the time, but it also possible to completely fall out of it, with no chance to return. And here, perhaps, lies the main problem of the historical fate of Sergey Zagraevsky’s paintings.

Our era can be more than hardly called an era of creative research. Everything, from the Western conceptualism and abstraction to the “traditions of Russian realism”, is a déjà vu. And there is little hope that critics and the public will appreciate the painting of Zagraevsky only by virtue of its uniqueness. Not those priorities there are in arts. Every style is "served" by its own art critics, each direction has its own circle of admirers and spectators. The stability is built into the cult, everything new is at best torn away (yes, at best, because the rejection is at least some reaction!). But most often the new is simply ignored.

The "foreign" (for art) world as was polarized during the Cold War, as, by and large, remained. And in this harsh reality there is absolutely no place for clean, uncomplicated child's worldview. On the contrary – children, watching news on TV, sitting online and playing in bloody computer games, are dreaming to grow up and start playing these games in reality as soon as possible... And Sergey Zagraevsky’s art looks absolutely irrelevant here.

As a result, Zagraevsky’s pictures leave nobody indifferent (the public intuitively feels the scale and depth of this phenomenon in art), but annoy more than attract. Perhaps the most frequent response of non-professionals – “The man fell to his childhood”, and of professionals – "The artist speculates on the best feelings". We have seen above that these comments are absolutely unjust, but who does have enough time for serious reasoning at this theme? Everyone has too many other things to do. Look at the pictures, do the withdrawal lying on the surface, and race through the life further...

But let's not throw too large stones at our era. Where and when in history did the mankind listen to the voice of goodness and light? Let us recall the crucifixion of Christ. Do we need more examples? The Gospel’s "Kingdom of God" is still infinitely far away.

So, does the painter Sergey Zagraevsky have no historical chance?

Has, and not a small chance.

Ages of "cultural stagnation" sooner or later give way to epochs of creative research. The beginning of the twentieth century, a great time in art and art history, glorified Henri Rousseau and Niko Pirosmani. 1970s, the years of stagnation in politics, but stormy in art, opened Pavel Leonov and Katya Medvedeva. Who knows where the destiny will bring us, and how will the new era look at the painting of Sergey Zagraevsky?

And if the creative search of new eras pass by this unique artist? Well, then we just have to hope that the dominion of evil, cruelty, money, intrigue and villainy on the Earth is not forever. In all troubles that afflict our heads in ruthless modern life, we are supported by the belief that someday the "Kingdom of God" comes to the Earth.

In the 1990s Bulat Okudzhava wrote about Sergey Zagraevsky:

When he moves on a picture his fist,

God is at his assist.

God is with him all his way.

That is the painter Sergey.

Didn’t the poet mean, that the paintings of this artist are harbingers of the “Kingdom of God”, and that Zagraevsky did not fall out of his time, but is very much ahead of it?

The day will come, and we shall see. Or our posterity will see. Ways of the Lord, as we know, are inscrutable.