Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

November 07, 2002

Dear Friends of Art,

During the past fortnight we have published the collection of works of a Russian painter of the first half of the 20th century, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. The son of a provincial shoemaker, Petrov-Vodkin, did not have much opportunity to learn painting in his childhood and came to art exclusively due to his enthusiasm and aspiration. Being already a painter, Petrov-Vodkin wrote interesting memoirs about his life, one of the first chapters is how he, as a boy, got acquainted with painting for the first time. It was specific painting, the painting of icons, which left an imprint on his future work. Some peculiarities of Petrov-Vodkin's works, his love for bright colors, the icon-featured faces on his canvases came from his childhood. We've translated for you an extract from Petrov-Vodkin's memoirs Euclid's Space, which might help you to understand this unusual and far from standard painter, called “Scythian Matisse” by one art critic.

Euclid's Space by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, an excerpt

“I don't remember under which pretext I came to his hut in Prolomny Street. The room was extremely tidy and clean. The master was sitting by the window. The panel he was working on lay on a table. There were many panels by the wall, some of them with graphic contours, the others only with leukos (special grounding of powdered white chalk and glue laid on a panel before painting). It smelt nice with flax oil and some other chemicals unknown to me. The first thing that attracted much of my attention were paints in small porcelain pots: they shone with their own clearance, each one wanted to be the brightest and each one was restrained and subdued by the neighbors. It seemed to me if they had not that competition, which chained them, they would have taken wings like butterflies and left the hut. This impression of paints was carved into me. Even now, when I put my favorite pigments on a clean palette, I immediately re-live that childhood's feeling of my first meeting with them.

Phillip Parphenych, the master, was an old man with light brown hair with gray strands. A leather belt around his head kept his hair in place. He was in a clean shirt, and was all clean right up to rag shoes and white stockings. A homespun rug covered the waxed to whiteness floor without a speck of dust. Very soon I understood that this was not just a physical cleanliness, this was a demand of his art. The same cleanliness and order I would see later in the monastery cell of Fra Angelico, where he strictly guided the brightness of sky-blue cobalt with sparkles of vermilion.

From Phillip Parphenych I learned the long and painstaking process of working on icon – from preparing leukos, which must be smoothed to a perfect surface, till “building” the icon, layer by layer. The old master liked the joy with which I watched his art, and I was so eager to try this work myself, that he allowed me to touch with paint trees and buildings on an icon in restoration. When I did a big part of the work, Phillip Parphenych, pointing at my screaming dyes, told me that every color demands restraint and harmony with the others. It was such a shame to part with a clear shade, but the icon painter whitened out the intensity and with a complex mixture of pigments subdued the color. I did not know at the time about painting and thought that separation with brightness was obligatory and inevitable, but still I dreamed about painting an icon with vivid colors.

Once I came to Phillip Parphenych when he was putting the first layer of paint of the icon. It was an image of St. George. The glimmering white horse of the knight, his scarlet cloak over the emerald dragon and the golden-pink figure of the princess struck me with its unexpected intensity. “Phillip Parphenych, dear, leave it as it is!” pleaded I. The old man smiled thoughtfully at my delight; he might have shared it under the thick coating of habits and rules; but the icon, after the next layer of paints went out, and the last step of putting drying oil robbed it of color.’
Icon painters did not use ready paints, they made them themselves, and Petrov-Vodkin says the following about it. “I used to help Phillip Parphenych to collect stones in eroded gullies, and shingle deposits. We did a lot of work with them: crushed, steeped, steamed (or stewed), grinded and when as a powder, they were rubbed with eggs, in kvass (note: a drink containing ethanoic acid), becoming bright and ready for work. Thus we received ochre, umber and terre-verte.
The process of gilding demanded a very accurate preparation of the surface when gold leaf was used and careful boiling of glue when using gold powder.’

After being painted, icons were to be consecrated by a priest. Petrov-Vodkin's first independent work was The Virgin with the Infant Christ in Anger. ‘… my grandma brought it into the Khlynovsk Cathedral and put it, as it was custom, before the altar; the archpriest noticed it and every time his eyes fell on it, my work distracted him from the service. At last he made a sign to the psalm reader and the latter transferred it to the choir. After the service archpriest took my work and roared,
‘Whose wooden panel is this?’ When my grandma Phedosia, confused by his tone stammered, ‘My grandson made it’, the archbishop gave the panel to her and said, ‘She is too merry and engaging, I shall not bless it!’

In the Krestovozdvizhensky Church everything went in a different way. Here, true, the grandma was also different, my other grandma, Arina. After the story in the Cathedral grandma Arina went to the church with my icon as to battle, ready to attack the priest if he refused to consecrate my work. But father Nicholas was deeply moved by the youthful ardor of the icon and even told the parishioners its subject: Christ gets angry and His Mother inclines Him to mercy and teaches to forgive. When my pacified grandma told him what had happened in the Cathedral, father Nicholas was sincerely surprised, ‘Why didn't the Archpriest like the purity of spirit and art of the youth?’

‘That word, “art”, is that what made the essence of my disagreement with Phillip Parphenych, and later with all the rules and habits - secular, academic, and iconographic; already as a boy I wanted the free, full, frank and spontaneous expression, which makes art.’

Translated from Russian by Yuri Mataev

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