(1931 - 1986)
Anatoly Zverev's artistic biography begins in the late 1940-s or early 1950-s in Sokolniki - a region of Moscow. The first person to discover him happened to be Alexander Roumnev, a dancer at Tairov's Chamber Theater. Roumnev used to walk in Sokolniki Park. One day he saw a group of workers mending sand boxes and benches at a playground. As soon as large pieces of plywood were nailed to the playground fence a young man joined the group. He looked pale and skinny and was dressed in an oversized sheepskin coat and two different boots, one of box-calf, the other one of tarpaulin. With his face inspired, his eyes clear but intransigent, his mind flooded with problems and ideas far away from the vanity of everyday life, he looked like someone from the world beyond. He carried two buckets - one was full of whitewash, the other contained cinnabar paint. He also had a regular kitchen broom.
The young man deepened the broom first in one bucket, then the other one, and started to spread the paint over the plywood fence. He worked in an elegant yet somewhat careless manner. Few minutes later the fence was shining with blinding rich colors. Not a single spot in the playground was left unattended. The area was "occupied" by a flock of strange birds more colorful than roosters. They shocked with bold richness of palette so unusual in those strict and hungry years after World War II.
Roumnev was so amazed that he decided to find out more about the artist. He introduced himself and asked the young man to tell him about his life. Zverev invited his new acquaintance to have a look at his works. Roumnev became so enthusiastic about Zverev's art that he started to bring his friends to the park just to look at the roosters. He introduced the young artist to Moscow celebrities, helped him to buy food and paint and to sell paintings. Though the artist was grateful to his admirer for his warmth and tenderness, he still couldn't live steadily in one place. He always got attracted to some distant marvels, sometimes disappearing and living like a vagabond for quite a long time. But as soon as he returned, he would go back to work zealously, hungrily, ndefatigably, producing paintings by the dozen at a time. Soon he was drafted and became a Navy sailor.
Inspiration would sometimes roll over Anatoly Zverev unexpectedly leaving him no time to think over what, where and how to express. Why use brushes when it is easier to take tubes in his hand and squeeze all the paint out at once (let it be oil, gouache and watercolors together) on the canvas, on the paper or even on a table cloth and using a tooth brush, a knife, a spoon or whatever is handy, even a bare finger in a matter of seconds to turn the colorful mess into a harmony of bright, profound concentration of artistic expression. A simple bouquet of Moscow area flowers would spring out like fireworks. A Russian landscape - so familiar to every Russian - would suddenly come out of a chaotic mixture of paint stains. Another stain of paint could turn into a beautiful face of a friend or a lover, or a dog, a horse, a bird with kindsad eyes.
During the days of the World Youth and Students Festival in 1957 - an international event which marked the beginning of Khruschev's thaw in the Soviet Union - an art studio was built in Moscow Gorky Park. It was the place where Moscow artists could see the way their Western counterparts work. An American journalist who covered the Festival described an interesting situation in one of his reports:
-American artists decided to shock the Russians with a flaw of aggressive abstract paintings. They combined the scum of all the most avant-garde trends and produced the "electicism" to knock the Socialist Realism down. American artistic production line moved on and on without a single stop. The Russians were really taken aback. They never expected to see such a high "production rate". Their academic education left them with only one argument - the right to speak about who was right and who was wrong. The discussions were tough and energetic. They accused Americans of an attempt to escape social problems. Americans denied the charges and in their turn urged the Russians to learn to work with materials easily and freely. Those arguments continued until a strange-looking young man with two buckets of paint and splashed two buckets of paint over it and jumped in the middle of the blue- and -green pool, sweeping it wildly with his mop. Ten seconds later the work was finished. The crowd was shocked and amazed to see an enormous in size, yet beautifully done refined masterpiece of a woman's portrait. The young Russian artist winked at one of the speechless Americans, slapped him on the back leaving a stain of fresh paint and said:
- Leave alone painting, come on, I’ll teach you to draw.
His first personal show happened abroad, in Paris about 1958. Starting in late fifties, his works were displayed annually in the best galleries of the U.S.A. and Europe. But back home the situation was different. Those, who were labeled "unofficial art representatives" by the dogmatists who monopolized art criticism (naturally, Zverev was one of the labeled) found themselves between silently revolving millstones designed to "grind" talented competitors by ignoring their existence. Artists' creativity would make discoveries and give them away to the World, the discoveries would be recognized as milestones, would attract connoisseurs, experts and admirers. And at the same time it "wouldn't exist". No critical reviews, no mention in any publication. The depression put whole artistic schools and trends out of sight, out of mind.
The Great Picasso used to send his best wishes to "the best Russian graphic artist" with every visitor from Moscow. It was a real support for Zverev, a reason not to lose his self control and vanish.
Around 1980 Zverev was requested by some foreign agency to write his autobiography. These pages help to understand him better:
I was born in 1931. My birthday is November the 3-d. My father was disabled - a victim of the Civil War. My mother was a worker. I did not know my sisters well enough. I remember (of those dead) only two of them - Zina (the first one) and Verochka. Twosisters, I guess, are still alive. One of them is four years older than me, the other one is four years younger.
reading some of his writings and finding a lot of common between us (if the Genius had been translated correctly). While reading Treatises by the above-mentioned Genius - my friend since that time - I couldn't but wonder how identical we were in expression of thoughts. Though socially uncomfortable and miserable, I enjoy the greatest and happiest privilege of being able to once and again share my impressions of the artistic life, based on his Painting Treatise.
My education consists basically of the things most natural and acceptable to my personality. In other words, the things which were easy for me to understand because in my early years I used to be weak and ailing.
My marks at school ranged grossly. Some subjects were "excellent" and others a contrasting "unsatisfactory". Somehow I managed to struggle through seven years of school and get "incomplete secondary school education" certificate - a good reason to feel proud in those years, even to show off among my peers.
My childhood was wild and confused. It seems that I almost didn't have wishes or dreams. I never thought of becoming an artist, but every time my second cousin came to visit I urged him to draw me a horse, always a horse.
There was a bast print on a wall in our room - a piece of folk art I used to watch for hours and even tried to copy it, to duplicate it somehow, but my own way. I had color pencil and checker I dreamed of learning to play. I often asked father to draw something for me and he would do it eagerly although he wasn’t very good at it in spite of great lyricism in his character. Out of pure wish to please me he drew one and the same head of a mythical old man turned sideways.
I myself was pretty good at drawing and somehow got used to it. In my fifth year "in this world" I drew a portrait of Stalin. Later at a summer camp I created (I can say it straight) a real masterpiece - "A Tea-Rose, or an Eglantine". It was so good that the hobby-group master got really surprised. At the age of five I created my "Traffic". I drew it from memory at a polling station on Election day. Every polling station in those pre war years had little tables, color pencils and paper for children to draw. There weren't as many people in Moscow then as there are now. And people in those days went to the polls with their children, playing concertinas, singing and dancing in the streets. In was a sort of a holiday.
What concerns the next period in my artistic life - the Patriotic, or as people also called it, the Great war began. The evacuation started, who goes where. My father and mother, two sisters and I moved to Tambov area. Naturally, drawing was out of question.Probably, it couldn't be otherwise. Vanity of vanities, all was vanity.
My father used to give me lengthy explanations of rural life. He would show me rye, wheat, oats and tell me which is what. But soon he caught cold and got his feet badly frostbitten. He didn't survive long and died in his forty third year of a sad life, five hours into January, the first morning of a New Year. It was so very sad.
Soon I caught nyctalopia, or night-blindness. Later my eyes also suffered from lime and chalk from our country-house ceiling. That was another mischief. I liked and at the sametime disliked the countryside. Some things about it I did like, other things I didn’t.
The beauty of landscapes and the colors of my native land are amazing: those meadowsand river overflows, and spring roar of melting snow that streams through fields in roaring morning waves... And the rest of the seasons, let it be summer or winter with snowdrifts up to the tops of telegraph poles, when people could hardly dig their way out of the houses, then dig out chimneys, then doors, then windows... Or summer heat, intense heat and wild storms. Big and small rivers, and lakes, and everything else.
That is how we lived, day by day. And the war was still on.
When the war was over and we came back home to Moscow, the food was still rationed, people still lived in poverty.
I continued to draw only by chance. Remeber, once I found the photo from a sports newspaper "Sovetsky Sport". It was called "A tough moment at the Moscow Spartak goal". I used it as a model. First pen and ink drawings appeared in my sketch-book. First since before the war.
Soon I joined two art groups in Sokolniki and lzmaylovo parks. Classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, linoleum engraving, poker-work were part of the parks' educational programs for children. Later I proceeded to art studios of two Houses of Pioneers.
I spent two years at a designers' vocational school. Even before graduation I tried to join several more serious artistic studios. I even took some classes at a good art school at Sretenka Street, but before too long I was fired because of my "ugly outfit". That's how my financial difficulties determined my destiny.
I took a job as a Sokolniki Park designer, which meant painting walls most of the time. I was completely out of luck, yet I continued drawing and painting.
I respect contemporary artists for the kindness they show to one another. There is reason to think every one of them is happy, but a lot of outsiders believe that being able to call oneself "an artist" alone makes one happy. I haven’t got used to think of myself as ahappy man - especially when I confronted the roughness of my own destiny, or when I was out of luck, or when my body hurts in bad weather.
The most interesting artists are those who's works attract your attention longer, who's technique and subject aren't too fancy and are not tiresome to watch: van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rubens, my teacher Leonardo da Vinci, Velasquez, Goya, van Dyck, Raffaello,Savrasov, Vrubel, Rublev, Ghe, Kiprensky, Ivanov, Malevich, Kandinsky, Botticelli, Daubigny, Serov, Brullov, Gaughin, Constable and many others. I may not know or remember their names.
Concerning artists of my own age - all of them are the best while they are alive, because all of them have the future, the present, or at least the past.
The sun-bright lucky star of his fortune was his friendship with Ksenia Mikhailovna Aseyeva, widow of the Russian poet of the "Left" group. Both as much as they could helped each other to ward off loneliness. She was most kindhearted, slightly exalted woman, the heroine of Aseyev's piercing lines in the past, who had seen in her lifetime quite a lot of brightest celebrities and lived through lost of romances, friend of Mayakovsky. She became a devoted worshiper and a passionate promoter of his art. She was literally enchanted and bewitched, and steadfastly endured any follies and eccentricities of the reckless genius. Well, she for the second time happened to live through everything that she breathed with in the stormy twenties. The history and her youth repeated for her for the second time. His destiny was to see Ksenia Mikhailovna off in her wake. The memory of touching tenderness in their relations warmed up the rest of the artist's years.
...By the end everything was shaping up tragically and desperately. The closed space of more and more uniform drinking bouts (where partners broke down unable to keep up with more experienced master) oppressed him and broke his wings. All of a sudden a shed with five hundred paintings said to be ready to be exported by Costakis from the Soviet Union (the king of collectors was getting ready to move to Greece). He was looking for a real safe refuge, losing his magic of mastership, falling apart in paltry and fleeting handouts and compliments. The mask of a "sly guy" and a kind simpleton that saved him all his life and was more and more boring now, interfered and turned into a burden. The role provoked by the circumstances was played through. Everything that people expected and demanded of him he gave them back with interest through his work in his honest, sincere and irreproachable way.
A few days before his sudden death (in December 1986) he wrote on a slip of paper:
"Art should be free. Though it is very hard. Because human life is not free".
His heritage tragically and irreversibly missed the exhibition halls, museums, and art galleries of Russia. He worked hard all his life, but there is not a single work by the master which is exposed in the public collections of Russia.
Although the discovery of him in his native country had already happened.
And so it had to happen, sooner or later.
(1931 - 1986)