As a writer, I find myself as inspired by painters as I am by other writers. One of my favorite artists is Pavel Ryzhenko, who died tragically while still in his forties. His paintings are almost all about important moments in Russian history. But their visceral realism is what I love most. There isn’t much glorification of the past, not in a dreamy, romantic sort of way. He saw things as they were, and he sought answers to today’s problems in the solutions of the past.
Today, I wanted to share some of his work and philosophy with you.
The Path of the Artist: remembering the art of Pavel Ryzhenko
“As I approach an important age in my life, an age that Pushkin couldn’t cross, an age that many don’t reach, I ask myself the ultimate question: whom did I serve? Not what, but whom. And what’s art anyway? I hope that my paintings will reawaken the genetic memory of my contemporaries, their pride in their Fatherland. Maybe they will even help someone find the only right path. And then, I’ll be content that I’ve done my duty.”
Pavel Ryzhenko once wrote these somewhat pompous, but sincere, words on his website. He died unexpectedly on July 16, 2014, having barely passed Pushkin’s own age at death.
A nationally recognized artist, he was a graduate of the Russian Academy of Fine Art, Sculpture, and Architecture. He was a Master of the Grekov Studio of artists. Two months after his death, an exclusive exhibit of his work opened, which included his last and most expansive work—the 26-meter long diorama “The Stand-off on the Ugra” (a historical event that I wrote about here).
Whom did Pavel serve with his art? What was art, in his opinion? The Russian language journal Foma interviewed his colleague and friend, Ivan Glazunov (whom I profiled in this article). This is my translation of that interview.
Ivan, you studied together with Paul in a Moscow art school as children…
Yes, we were in parallel classes. Perhaps not the best of friends, but we did spend a lot of time together.
Could you tell, even at that age, that he would be a great artist?
No, of course not. Not in childhood, nor in youth, when a person reacts to everything so extremely. And boys don’t judge each other impartially. I remember that Pavel was completely without restraint. If he laughed, then it was loud. If he screamed, it was even louder. He wasn’t the life of the party. But he was, in a good sense, open-hearted. He was remarkably klutzy. The kind of kid who reached for a book on the bookshelf, and the whole shelf would fall on his head, then the door would fall as he left the room.
For his age, Pavel painted very well. His ideas were ahead of his technical abilities. If he suddenly had an idea, he could find a window frame, some canvas. Then he would stretch the canvas on the frame, badly, in a hurry, but in two hours, his idea would become reality. Others would have taken days to do what he did in an hour. It was as if he was always in a hurry.
But it wasn’t in the sense of “get this over with,” but rather, it was an explosion of creativity. He was the same way in college. His thoughts were always simmering. He could, in ten minutes, take a huge canvas and finish a painting overnight. It’s an astounding quality, not given to many. It’s what set him apart from other painters.
Historical realistic paintings, especially classical ones, sometimes don’t seem contemporary or are maybe even unwanted. Does that mean that Ryzhenko went contrary to the current of his time?
Yes, he showed that by seeking out my father, Ilya Glazunov. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he pushed against the current so much. On my travels to Krasnodar, I found a dining hall near the local church covered in Pavel’s paintings. Or in Ekaterinburg, where the church shop had reproductions of his work. Any church in Moscow, even the shop in Sretensky monastery. Everyone has his work. That sort of popularity speaks volumes.
In a painting, the artist captures the quintessence of an event. A sincere person, when faced with one of Pavel’s paintings, will say something like this. “This is how I also see that event, but I can’t paint. Ryzhenko has shown it to me as I see it, as I want it.” That’s it. Period. Catharsis. In that sense, realistic painting, right now, is very important. There’s a caste of people who like to push forward modern, abstract art. But Ryzhenko, I think, is the true modern. His work is necessary for his contemporaries. Not just a small circle of snobs, either. Many people enjoy his work. We’ve argued about history. About what’s important to show the viewer. He was honestly worried about what’s going on in our country. He truly loved Russia, and loved all those whom he painted—the Tsar’s family, and the holy men. The fate of his country, the fate of the human spirit—these themes tortured him. He always chose pivotal moments in Russian history. He needed to quickly bring them into reality, quickly, because he didn’t care what others thought. What was necessary was the idea. He knew that there would always be people who would appreciate his vision.
I think that Ryzhenko truly believed in what he did. The most important thing is that he was never indifferent.
No matter what the theme, Ryzhenko seemed to do everything expansively. Even his paintings were massive. They don’t even fit in normal museums. Painting such pictures must require massive physical strength. Why do you think he preferred to work like this?
Even as a student, Ryzhenko exhibited an trait important in a painter—tenacious observation. Pavel fixed in his mind things like how a man sat, in what state, where and how he turned his head, where he turned his gaze. Thanks to this observational talent, his paintings have the exactness of real life, not mask-like faces in made-up poses. Even in the last years of the Academy, it was clear where he was going.
His thesis project “The Battle on the Kalka” reflected his view of the modern world as well. It’s a picture with a historical message, but with an aesthetic one as well. At first, he dabbled in historical portraits. Then supporters began to appear. As soon as an artist feels that he’s caught a current, that’s he’s accessed some real human emotion, then his efforts become larger and more expansive.
And the higher you go, the higher still you want to go. You want even bigger incarnations of your philosophy. The really large paintings meant that he became successful and sought after. Many people, when thinking of historical figures such as the Royal Family or Dimitry Donskoy, immediately visualize his paintings.
In one of his interviews, he said that he avoided spending time with other artists. He thought that the life of an artist is similar to the life of a monk. Is that true? Did he really avoid other artists?
Of course not. There’s absolutely nothing similar between the life of an artist and the life of a monk. I really don’t like these kinds of comparisons. However, it’s clear that in these words he tried to express an incomplete thought about the path of the artist. Did he avoid other artists? Yes, when a person has a family, children, and big ideas, then you can’t help avoiding others. Otherwise you’ll never finish a painting. True friends aren’t the ones who take away your time. They give time to you.
Your father said that he was a talented artist who was passionate in his work. Do you think that he burned out because of his work?
No, I wouldn’t say so. He burned out because of the nervous way he saw the world. Everything that happened to Russia he carried close to his heart. Any loss in the political arena was a personal pain. Maybe this sounds maudlin and pompous, but his historical personages, like the tragedy of the Royal Family and the dark days that followed…He took all that personally.
He was really riled up in the last year of his life. His wife Anastasia talked about it. She is an amazing woman, a true artist’s wife. She gave herself to the creativity of her husband. I can’t say for sure, but I think he burned out because of his inner sufferings, because he saw and understood exactly what’s going on in the world. This reality shattered his health more than the energy needed to paint his canvases.
In general, he was a person of incredible spiritual and physical strength. I think he would have just continued to work and work. An artist receives his energy from his creation, and so he can’t overwork himself or burn out, even from a difficult life of creativity. Creation is a joy. It gives strength.
He was a faithful Christian, even from childhood. He communed often. His faith was the most important part of his life. It’s like he swam in all that.
Will he be remembered?
When Giotto painted the church in Padua, people came in crowds to watch. First, to see his process, then—the finished product. For decades after that, his paintings were talked about. Our world is different. We are over loaded with information. And hardly anyone can tell the difference between good and bad art. However, I’m sure that if his paintings will start to be published as illustrations in textbooks, then even those who don’t care a fig for art will come to know him. I hope that his memory will endure.
I think his time will come. The chaff will fly away, but the real, vivid, professional work will remain. Not only in the galleries among the artists of the past, but among modern artists. Among those who answer such historical and philosophical questions as, “Who am I? Where am I from? Where I am going?” Pavel tried to formulate answers to these questions as he saw them. He labored over them, seeking them. I’m sure that this will not be forgotten. People will remember.
Here are some of his other painting for your enjoyment. Let me know which ones you like the most. Can anyone guess which one influenced my novels the most?