Painter misses brush with fame

Art: For Sergei Yushkevich, a Russian artist, dwelling on what he could have been isn't as important now as making a decent living.

January 09, 2002|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - He started out convinced that he would become Russia's Picasso. But it's unlikely you will have heard of Sergei Yushkevich.

At 43, his hair is graying and slightly wispy, and the skin around his eyes is delicately etched with the wrinkles left by a million smiles. He knows he is good at what he does.

He wields his brushes and oils with dexterity and skill. But doubts swirl in his soul like snowflakes whipped by the winter wind outside his studio window. Is he an artist?

When Yushkevich graduated from the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg in 1985, the Soviet artists' gravy train - which guaranteed a living to approved artists painting approved subjects - was chugging into decline. Artists were suddenly free. It was an exciting, inspiring, terrifying time. But those schooled in the only approved style, Socialist Realism, had a hard time figuring out who they were or could become.

Like yachts racing out on a stormy sea, Yushkevich and other young artists launched themselves into a chaotic, undeveloped art market. "I had no fear," Yushkevich recalled. "I felt optimism and enlightenment."

Today, older and wiser, he derides much of what he did then, some of which, garish and amateur, is turned facing the wall in his studio.

Sometimes Yushkevich thinks wistfully of artists who struggle - restless slaves to creativity who do not starve yet barely survive. And he envies the hungry, creative kernel that makes their lives both torment and delight.

No matter that he lives comfortably, has a decent car, supports his family: He knows that as well-executed as his canvases are, they are only copies.

Oh, he might remove a horse or some other living beast from a masterpiece he is copying for the Arab hotel market. He might get a commission to paint the faces of an Englishwoman's children into a famous Impressionist work. He can paint seascapes galore for an American hotel. He can change the shape of a masterpiece to fit a space on someone's wall. He is fast, efficient and utterly reliable.

Whenever the icy regrets blow too hard in his soul, he impatiently brushes them away. He smiles with quiet philosophy, and the lines around his eyes deepen.

Life has sweet moments. When he puts the final brush stroke on one of his reproductions and takes a few paces back to find it turned out particularly well, he gets goose bumps.

"Vanity and ambition is not something that is alien to me. Of course, I should have aimed higher and become something bigger," Yushkevich said. "I'm trying to quell those feelings of envy and wistfulness. I think it's better to concentrate on the positive things. It's better to concentrate on enjoying the process."

"Some people torture themselves with what they didn't achieve," Yushkevich said. "But if it doesn't come naturally, why torment yourself and your family because it didn't turn out that way?"

When Yushkevich was starting out, a Soviet state body called Kombinat - literally the Factory - was operating, listing thousands of art orders from all over the country. It guaranteed approved artists a living, even if they painted only a single work all year, perhaps a Lenin portrait for a factory somewhere in the Urals or a fairytale scene for a kindergarten.

Yushkevich painted a series on the life of railway construction workers destined for a barracks.

The Socialist Realist style was the only one Soviet art schools and the Kombinat required. According to Alexander Borovsky, head of the contemporary art department at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russian art has not yet recovered.

"I thought the Kombinat would be forever, Soviet government forever, Lenin forever," Borovsky said. "I was 100 percent sure I could never do what I am doing now."

But in its final years, the Soviet state could not afford to pay artists for pictures of nuclear submarines or socialist visionaries. Officially sponsored artists and underground artists alike "felt themselves absolutely naked in the new situation," Borovsky said. "Ten years ago, no one knew what contemporary art was.

"People, especially old people, had a lot of trouble adjusting. Some of them sold their paintings in the street," Borovsky said. Others sold to new rich Russians.

Abstract art had been seen as anti-Soviet. There were huge gaps in Soviet art museums and ignorance among the population.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Borovsky has striven at the Russian Museum to foster an understanding of contemporary art - which he sees as a key step to creating a normal art market in Russia. The museum is running a large exhibition of contemporary Russian art.

Yushkevich said that what most artists produced at first was far below museum quality.

"People thought that now they were free they'd be able to produce something the likes of which the world had never seen. But when they got freedom, they were lost. They didn't know what to do."

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