20.02.2015. Repatriation

Igor Maltsev

 The history of art has known a number of miraculous returns. Usually these are the returns of collections lost during wars and believed destroyed. On occasion, collections return from special repositories in totalitarian countries. And sometimes a collection simply comes back to its native land from a long exile abroad.
We have received the repatriated collection of Igor Vulokh’s paintings, which is a significant event for Russian culture.

The long story of this repatriation has everything: the endless war that the state waged against creators, the concealment of the repository from the public eye and exile of paintings to a foreign land.
When I read the lines of Gennadiy Aygi from “Twelve Parallels to Igor Vulokh”:
«…and steel blows
(from time to time)
are building an empty field – then delineate
her, who is striking blows:
an unseen bird with a steel beak», –
I understand exactly what he means: the entire life and art of Igor Vulokh is the history of a boundless talent under the steel blows of history, society, the state and circumstances.
History shows that the most outstanding creators are born in the most difficult times. Vulokh passed through it all: a pre-war childhood, a war childhood, a postwar childhood. Each date in his life is usually a date of yet another turning point in the history of his country. He entered the art school the year of Stalin’s death when it seemed that everything would finally be different. Perhaps at that time the giant, perpetually repressing machine of the Soviet state simply didn’t bother to pay attention to tiny individuals, including artists and their art. Not surprisingly, Vulokh’s first success at the all-Soviet exhibition of 1957 coincided with the beginning of the Thaw. Positive reviews from such pillars of Soviet art as the sculptor Konenkov and the artist Yuon meant a lot. At that time, the Institute of Cinematography was the brightest and most progressive institution of higher learning, and Vulokh entered it.
That period saw an unprecedented rise of Soviet art that was just beginning to free itself from the pressure of the deadening ideology.
Back was the feeling that the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s was not simply a period of Soviet history but that it had affected the entire world culture. Try as the party ideologists might to impress upon everyone that formal, abstract, non-representational – or whatever it was called – painting was the destructive faddish influence of the West, the educated new that the explosion of the Russian avant-garde had in fact influenced American and European artists in their post-war quests.
Igor Vulokh was one of the young artists whose intuition and artistic search led them to the home of Georgiy Dionisovitch Costakis. There the first great USSR collector had assembled an outstanding collection of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. The type of works that he possessed could not at that time be seen anywhere else. And that had a lasting influence on many artists.
Vulokh’s generation lived with the idea that everything achieved in the beginning of the 20th century had to trigger the development of new Russian art. It simply had to. It couldn’t but make it boom again.
The atmosphere of the 1960s was helping that idea along, although, it is one thing to experience privately the feeling of a mission, and quite another – sooner or later to come up against the practice of a totalitarian system.

«A different bird,
o, mother soul,
this field, which is not, is for you
for I wouldn't be without you,
since for whom but you,
is this field that is not ».

That very difference between the feeling of inner freedom and one’s mission on the one hand and that which comes crashing down a person every day on the other hand is that “field which is not.” Young geniuses had thought it up for themselves: it existed only in their infinitely talented heads.
Vulokh also found his form. That form turned out far beyond the prescribed official boundaries. He was already poised to accept the crown of thorns of a Soviet artist named “abstractionism.”
The Danish scholar of art and director of Kunstmuseum Troels Anderson writes about Vulokh’s early works:
“Whatever expressionist elements are present in the early works of Vuloch, they don’t take form of distorted, but recognizable objects, but rather prove to be a composition, expressed in dark lines, distributed on the whole canvas and forming a “manuscript”. The line structure is delivered on the surface with 3D characteristics, on the background it appears as a layer in moving colors, arousing associations with nature”
He is right: nature is the primary source of abstract images and the world of an artistic genius. Any discrete part of nature is a deep abstraction – starting with the constantly running away, unattainable line of the horizon and up to the spots reflected by water or the verticals of tree trunks or rocky cliffs. I’m not even talking about Vulokh’s «Landscape» (1975) or his work «Interior» (1970), but rather about the methods, to which he remained faithful till the end of his life.
Surprisingly, in his works there is nature, but there is no urbanism. Only experiencing nature as such leads to spiritual growth and quest. It is not accidental that he made his way into the Theological Academy of the Troitsa-Sergiev Lavra and continued working as an artist.
When a creator refuses to make a moral compromise, his life usually becomes more difficult. Vulokh lived in a very uneasy time in a permanently hectic country. That is why the world audience did not have the chance to get to know and appreciate him. All that would come much later – the beginning of a new path toward the European art lover. And again one is struck by the amazing ability of talented people to match the turning points of their work with the turning points of history. Vulokh’s close friend and like-minded thinker Gennadiy Aygi introduced him to the work of the superb Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. The fact that the artist later made a series of graphic works for Tranströmer’s poems –seventeen years before the poet would get the Nobel prize for literature –testifies to Vulokh’s uncanny ability to sense another’s talent as well.
Beginning from the 1990s, Vulokh was enjoying an almost universal recognition: the nomination for the State Prize, the European exhibitions, the international support. But before everything stabilized in the 1990s, many paintings of Russian artists had experienced quite a turmoil. Thus, Vulokh’s paintings were taken abroad in the early 1990s when the post-Soviet authors had not yet created a system of relations with the Western market.
The collection that has finally found its way back to Russia had experienced a complicated series of adventures. When it was taken from the USSR to an exhibition in Italy it was leaving one country; when it was time to return back home, that country was no more. Sergey Popov, who created the first Sotheby’s auction in the Soviet Union, entered the story at that time. He managed to take the paintings from Italy to his gallery in Berlin where they remained for many years.
Later the family turned to Vulokh’s stepson Egor Altman to help find and return the works to Russia. They had not succeed in returning anything until Sergey Popov passed away. Only recently did Egor Altman succeed in procuring the paintings from Popov’s widow.
The first decision by the holders of the rights to Igor Vulokh’s artistic heritage was, pursuant to his will, to show his paintings to the Russian public.
The very precedent of bringing back a Russian painter’s collection from abroad is unique in its own way. That goes in particular for the works of modern masters that do not count themselves among the darlings of those who hold power. And in a sense, this case (or, as it is pertinent here, the legal case) may become the starting point for many conflict situations with similar collections that for various reasons have ended up in extraneous but tenacious hands. The person in charge of the case was Andrey Vasilyev, who managed to assemble a team of excellent lawyers. Usually, gallery owners unwilling to part with unjustly held works, who happen to live in countries ruled by laws, can vividly imagine the consequences of a court trial. Artists, being who they are, are often underpaid and deceived in minor or major ways and tend to give up in such cases, preferring not to get involved and assuming that resistance is futile. But that doesn't have to be so, and Egor Altman and Andrey Vasilyev (the head of The Vasilyev Legal Group – editor’s note) have proved that. That was an equally important part of the story of the collection’s return. Now artists have both the instrument and the knowledge necessary to tackle such cases, and we are bound to hear more reverberations of today’s event.
Now 43 works have not only returned to their native land, but are being exhibited.
History goes in circles: Vulokh once had an exhibition entitled “The return” – early in 2012, where his works begun in 2008 and finished much later were exhibited.
That which is happening to the 43 new /old works that for the reasons mentioned above have been outside the purview of Russian art lovers and specialists, can without any reservations be called a historic Return.
The works, beginning with the “Landscape” (1964) and ending with the “Fragment” (1989), are from that very Vulokh who brings back to abstract paintings the feeling of natural concreteness and gives back to nature its innate abstraction. Once Igor Aleksandrovitch said: “I wasn’t inventing anything, I was simply placing the necessary accents.” Or, of course, removing the unnecessary ones, for sometimes it seems, that in such works as “Composition” (1970) or “Detail” (1979) Vulokh simply gets the rough casts of nature herself and carefully removes the superfluous. If one scrutinizes the sketches of the great Russian painters Savrasov and Polenov, authors of quite classical realistic works, it becomes clear why the roots of Vulokh’s art lie not only in the avant-garde of the 1920s but also in the traditional 19th - century Russian painting. 43 works constitute enough material to make one wonder again whether Vulokh had a time machine in which he bypassed the entirety of the modern history of art, collecting his trophies and packing them up into a deceptively light baggage. In fact, there is nothing light in this baggage – there is synthesis, there are boundaries, there is a “melting pot.” The works that have come back to us, are simply electrifying. And it is that electricity which has for quite some time now been the main criterion of skill and mastery in a world, where there are many artists but only a few can bring forth similar energy.