Oleg Kudryashov

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Extracts from Notes and Reminiscences

by Oleg Kudryashov

Our communal house, occupied by a variety of colourful characters, stood in the grounds of an old engineering works. The whole yard was littered with heaps of iron, racks from gas generators, cylinders, pipes and huge rusting concrete-mixers that were manufactured by the works. The ground was covered with a thick layer of iridescent steel shavings swimming in pools of machine oil. This was our playground, where we played hide-and-seek among the pipes under the noses of the welders, who got on with their work as though we were not there.

I have drawn since I was a child, for as long as I can remember. I used to love cutting and glueing paper figures, and colouring them with two or three colours. I collected an kinds of scrap iron, bolts, screws, steel and aluminium wire. I was obsessed with constructing things out of this scrap metal and wire, out of anything I could find in the yard, including discarded parts. Later on I discovered geometry and technical drawing and loved drawing geometrical forms. I was fascinated by technical drawings of car engines and chassis and of locomotive engines, and. I used to make rough sketches of engine parts, paying no attention to the purity of line. And although I was equally keen on life drawing, this was probably my most "constructivist" period.


It would be interesting now to look at one particular notebook which I filled with geometrical forms drawn in coloured pencils in 1942, during a journey of a week and a half in the goods wagon of a troop train, returning to Moscow from the Urals whence we had been evacuated at the start of the War. I remember being scolded for those drawings, and even being called a hooligan. I was told that that was not the way to draw, but I couldn't understand what I had done, or why I was being scolded.

Adults regarded my passion for drawing as something childish and frivolous, a form of idleness. It was impressed upon me that I should become an engineer or a scientist, an economist or a lawyer, a doctor or indeed anything but an artist. That was when I started hiding my drawings from my parents by placing them in the stove, burning them as .1 did them and never showing them to anyone. I was eleven years old.

I was afraid that I was mad, that I was destroying paper, precious pieces of paper— the backs of maps, the covers of exercise books. I was only able to express my inner self fully when I was drawing with a piece of wire on the ground, or sketching with a piece of chalk on walls, or on the rusty steel plates, tanks and pipes that littered the yard. Or on the school blackboard at break time.

If you are destined to be an artist, everything that you see in childhood is indelibly imprinted on you for the rest of your life. Children have a natural and spontaneous desire to express their vision in drawing, in col¬our, in play and improvisation. You cannot teach someone to be an artist. You cannot teach someone to draw. You can learn to draw, paint and sculpt in an academic way, using established academic methods. You can learn a noble craft, but you cannot learn to see, nor can you teach anyone to see. My inner self continually resisted every attempt to teach me how to draw or how to paint. Any set academic exercise destroyed the meaning of art for me, and only my own unfettered imagination lent me inspiration and a clear vision at the moment of drawing. But it was difficult at that age to believe in myself and my own abilities when I wanted to draw differently from the way I was being taught, and there was nobody around who could give me any moral support. So, as a child at art school I learned to draw and paint like everyone else, hut when by myself I drew as I wanted to draw. Later, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, I exhibited works that were made specifically for exhibition: illustrations, landscapes and portraits. But they were completely different from the work I was doing for myself.

I belong to the generation which was not exposed to the influence of the artists of the 1920s and their manifestos. And looking back today on my own artistic experiments, I can say that I was like an orphan in Soviet art the "most progressive" art in the world.

I can tell you about the cold and hunger of the war years, but not about the artists of the 1.920s. My per¬ception of the age in which I live came to me in the howl of air-raid sirens, the roar of aircraft engines, and the hooting of locomotives over industrial Moscow; in the numbing horror of the lines of Black Marias and the crowds of prisoners huddled along the embankment of the Kazan railway line, awaiting transportation to the camps.

In the 1940s, when I studied first at a children's art club and then at art school, we had never heard of Cubism, Suprematism or Constructivisin. These movements in Russian art were not only forgotten, they were totally suppressed, and Constructivist and Suprematist artists had been forced to stop working. In the years of Stalin's repressive rule, art became a deadly dangerous occupation, and the names of artists such as Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky and many others were not uttered, even in a whisper.

Soviet art history had created a distorted version of the history of Russian art, which presented a picture of smooth transition from the "Wanderers" of the nineteenth century to the Socialist Realism of the 1930s, without any reference at all to the avant-garde art of the 1920s. And the slightest experimentation with paint, colour or form was regarded as bourgeois formalism, alien to the people, because at that time the Soviet people and indeed the Soviet elite demanded neoclassicism.

Later, in the 1960s, a new generation of artists sought out the survivors of the 1920s, but usually found only their families, the artists themselves being no longer alive.

My works are not abstract — I build myself a house, a home, a shelter from the elements, from everything that weighs upon the soul. I build out of whatever comes to hand, that is, in whatever way the form came to me and how I drew it. I live in this form, and it is immense: there, to the right, is the river, and straight ahead, behind that wall, is the railway line; over there, to the left, is the next street, and to the right the public baths. But there is no need to go anywhere. When the next form comes to me, it is as though I have rearranged the previous one and built a similar home, but in a different way. And the river is still on the right, the next street on the left, and the railway ahead, behind the wall, I draw what I see in my head, or what 1 don't want to talk about, but cannot forget. I draw what I know well, what I remember, for memory is what really happened and is really happening, even if only deep inside oneself.

Suddenly, there surfaces in my memory, an hour, a day, a minute, or some image, part of a landscape, a poplar tree, some windows, the wall of a house or the earth beneath my feet, or suddenly I am engulfed by some event in which I am a participant or an onlooker. At such moments I believe every detail, and must hurry to set it down on paper while I can still see it.

Where do my "abstract" forms come from?

Factory chimneys, bridges, the structure of roofs and attics, diggings for foundations, gullies, typical modern architecture, sheds, barracks, forms created by subconscious phobias, and irrational forms which have haunted my imagination since childhood.

I feel free and at ease only in the sanctuary which I have known since childhood, my own inner world, a different reality, the one for which I have to fight and assert myself.

The language of form allows me to retreat into myself, to carry on a dialogue with my own nature, with the nature of my imagination: freed from the need for concrete statement, I can by mere suggestion re-create the forms of an unreal and irrational world which lacks nothing of the real world — from love to cruelty, from birth to death, and from the luxury of friendship to luxurious and absolute solitude.

The greatest influences on my attitude to art and on the development of my taste were the Russian icons, frescos and the lubok. They have remained for me the finest creations of Russian art. My first visit to a museum was to the Tretyakov Gallery in the middle of the 1940s. There I saw portraits and paintings by Russian artists, and was astonished to find icons in a museum — I had thought that they only belonged in churches.

My grandmother often talked about "holy images", which sounded warm, dark and crimson. She used the word "icon" much more rarely, imbuing it with greater significance, as though it were a thing alive in itself, as if it were both an image and a person. Icons in my childhood were associated with churches and candles. And we had an icon at home, the Tikhvin Madonna in a dark oak iconostasis that reached from the floor to the ceiling. The icon itself glowed with light from the pure face of the Virgin and the mature, unchildlike face of the infant Christ. I often wondered, "Can they see everything or can't they ?" I believed that they could see everything, that they knew everything, and that they even saw and knew about things that had not yet hap¬pened. I often wondered what they knew about the future. I wondered and imagined what it was they saw.

To live, and especially to sleep, across the room from an icon that never takes its eyes from you, and that sees through you and into the future, can be reassuring but it can also be a little frightening. Sometimes, Granny would say, "The Blessed Virgin is crying tears of blood. Something is going to happen. We'll all be punished for our sins !" But what was or was not a sin — I never knew, All Granny would say was, "We are all sinners !"

Once, when I was five or six — 1 don't remember exactly when, but it must have been coming up to my birthday because it was January and freezing, with the windows all patterned in frost —Granny brought me a present from the market: a little cardboard palette with round cakes of watercolour along the edge, a fine paintbrush and some little wax ducks. She poured some water into a fluted glass tumbler for the brush, and some more into a saucer and we floated the ducks on it. I can see them now, shiny and translucent, floating on the water. Granny put a jotter on the table in front of me. I took the brush, mixed up some watercolour, and began to paint. Then the door opened, and in walked my father. "Daddy", I cried, "Look what Granny gave me !" But he with a sneer said, "An artist, huh !" and without warning swept everything off the table with his hand. I think that was the moment when a voice awoke in me, saying, "Draw ! Paint !". I then began to draw everything that the icon could see in the future, what had and had not been, what was and what would be. I drew without thinking about showing my drawings to anyone, and without thinking that I was an artist. I knew that many children liked to draw, and that people talked about some of them being brilliant artists. Where are they now? Have any of them become artists? After that, both before the war and during the I 940s, I did a lot of drawing. And from about 1943 I began hiding my drawings in the stove among the logs. I stoked the fire myself, I sawed and split the logs, and I burned my drawings to hide them from strangers' eyes and from my father. Otherwise, they would sweep them to the ground with their rough hands and laugh at me.

I still find it easier to prepare to draw, and very much harder to keep what I have drawn. And sometimes it is harder still to bring myself to show my work to anyone, especially figurative drawings: they always contain so much of myself.

My favourite material for printing is industrial zinc, an unfriendly and coarse material. Drawing with an engraving needle, I can always see, feel and know what tone of line I am making beneath the precise marks on the zinc. Indeed, I relate to engraving in the same way as to painting on canvas and to drawing with charcoal.

For me a work, whether large or small, is always like a fresco or a monumental painting. And a drawing has always been a painting for me: in any drawn line I have always seen colour and form. When I make a large print, I simply want to make a large drawing through a large gesture. Although this. is somewhat unusual in printing, scale has never been limited, any more than it is for drawing or for painting.

One must manage to "leap into" or "enter" the space of the print and, just like a bow on a violin, play in tune in one breath.

I make large prints like frescos, and reliefs and constructions like icons. And in total all this is drawing. The artist sees in the same way as a composer hears, and there are no pre-set themes, there is only the realised vision.

I do not invent, I do not create and I do not look for a subject. I live in the world which has lived in me since my childhood, for as long as 1 can remember. I do not suffer from the inadequacy of the images or from the absence of nightmares.

My reliefs of the 1970s and 1980s represent a dialogue between two forms of drawing: drawing on the flat surface of the paper with its space, and three-dimensional construction.

I spent the whole year of 1973 burning my prints, drawings and watercolours, which had been stored in bundles in portfolios, between sheets of cardboard, in boxes, and tied up tightly in fat rolls. My wife and I used to burn them on the waste-land in a gully at Khimakh-Khovrino, in the studio of the sculptor Andrei Krasulin, or in the garden of the artists N. and D. Zhilinskii. Two or three times a week we used to go off with enormous sacks and rolls to make a fire from the drawings and prints. My strong need and desire to destroy the greater part of my work was accepted by my artist friends with regret and understanding. At the same time, this was my final wish, like a wish made before death, and I thank my artist friends the sculptor Andrei Krasulin, the painter Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Bogoslovskii, the sculptor Nina Zhilinskii and the painter Dmitfii Zhilinskii, and my wife for having helped to fulfil my last wish in Russia — the burning of my work.

I burnt everything that I had done during the entire forty-two years of my life, all the drawings, watercolours and prints, without ever having shown them to anyone, anywhere, at any time. It was like a madness, but I understood that I had not made them for strange hands to examine them and to turn over the pages of my life. Of the works I presented for examination, I was given permission to take with me only sixteen small prints. Perhaps several hundred of my works have been kept by my friends.

On leaving, I said: "I will start all over again from the beginning." I took into emigration a pair of metal scissors, several small pieces of zinc and thirty sheets of paper. The very first evening, at the first place where we stopped to spend the night, I began to draw.

Oleg Kudryashov, 1988

(English translation. from Russian by Liz Barnes and Christina Lodder)

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