Nadezda Musyankova, Ph.D
State Tretyakov Gallery
Moscow, Russia, February 2010
A private collection is always a personal statement of an owner, a reflection of his or her private tastes, aesthetic preferences and financial welfare. Not everyone can afford to sustain and own an art collection; it is necessary to have credible financing, possess just the right flair, focus, and risk-taking attitude, as the collected works of art find their value in due course of time.
Each collector has a unique opportunity to discover new painters and find unknown masterpieces and in some cases serve as the master of an artist’s destiny. Many now famous artists obtained the recognition they deserved thanks to the active participation of benefactors whose collections always remain disparate in their taste. For example, the profound collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov formed a foundation of the collection of impressionists at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, while the merchant Pavel Tretyakov had a goal of creating a museum of Russian art for the Russian people in what is now known as the State Tretyakov Gallery.
But not all collectors acquire works of art with the intent of leaving a legacy in the annals of art history. Most assemble works with a common focus that tell a story while simultaneously creating an investment. Two painters make up the bulk of the private collection of Luba Matusovsky: Moses Feigin (1904-2008) and Irina Vilkovir (1913-1985).
Matusovsky’s works by Feigin could well be the best of the artist’s career, but together the artists show us what it meant to live lives that mirrored their artistic visions under the pressure of significant social and cultural oppression. The purpose of this writing is to illuminate the intent of Matusovsky’s selections, and to shed further light on the decision-making behind the process of collecting.
From the point of view of the former Soviet government, both painters lacked significance. They never received large government awards and their lives were spent working during the difficult Soviet period, when “nationality” was of particular importance. However, they were able to enter the membership of the Moscow League of Artists having mastered a representational method of painting–realism. Thus they proved their professional competence, and the Soviet state eventually commissioned political portraits and genre paintings. Nevertheless, they diligently pursued their own art underground, without the expectation of showcasing their true creative forces publicly.
Both Moses Feigin and Irina Vilkovir, in doing official work, followed the firm canons of socialist realism, express themselves only in their color choices. In their private studios they were much bolder, and would infuse their secret passions into the expression of forms and brightness of unexpected color combinations. Both painters in their own way were revealing their personalities and communicating with the spectator using the graphic language of the 20th century and mixing different viewpoints of avant garde.
In spite of extraordinary difficulties, numerous obstacles and tragic circumstances which surrounded these painters, who worked in solitude during the Soviet period, their work obtained some recognition in professional circles both within Russia and abroad. Their paintings appeared in different exhibitions, were acquired by museums, and were included in private collections of contemporary art.
In 1964 at a public discussion following the scandalous Khrushchev visit to the exhibition “30 Years of the Moscow League of Artists,” Vladimir Serov, the president of the Academy of Arts, prepared a controversial and provocative proposal directed against the young artists who developed the “Severe Style.” Irina Vilkovir outspokenly pointed out the conflict of interest between the authority and members of the Moscow League of Artists, where the latter seemed to have lost its criticism of the government. In the period that followed, Irina Vilkovir risked losing everything for such a bold stand–not only her income, but her freedom.
How did the works of these painters become the basis for the small, private collection of Luba Matusovsky? Irina Vilkovir, a family friend of her parents, invited her to the studio of one of the oldest painters in Moscow, and the last living member of the “Jack of Diamonds” group–Moses Feigin. This meeting became the beginning of Matusovsky’s long-term friendship with the master, allowing her to discover the artist’s private inner world, which was had been secluded for so long.
Feigin’s life is expansive and extraordinary on many levels. It is unheard of for an artist to live for over hundred years, let alone maintain technical abilities along with the passion and desire to create. Throughout his long life, the master remained his stature as a prolific artist. His youth had been spent creating political portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other party and governmental statesmen. He followed the rules endorsed by officials and tried not to be stand out too much from the crowd of Soviet artists. It was only at the age of 60 when he acquired his own studio that he began working with new direction. With more than half of his life behind him, he began anew to devote himself entirely to his own artistic vision, and realize his dreams and fantasy.
Moses Feigin began to experiment with techniques and materials as if he had found a second breath in his work. He applied used pieces of cloth, string and metallic foil to his works. He boldly created powerful, abstract paintings which would have been regarded as abominations in the Soviet years. Nevertheless, the master did not change his outlook on life. He continued to separate himself from the heated discussions that erupted in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He stopped visiting public debates, and did not exhibit his work, or extend invitations to individuals with means and influence to visit his studio. Feigin removed himself completely from showrooms and galleries.
Because he was the oldest painter in the Moscow art underground (he viewed attempts by younger artists to promote themselves onto the world stage as he might a childish prank), and he had begun to prefer working in solitary, he was able to get through the terrible period of Stalinist repression. He understood all too well how lives could be destroyed by slanderers and fictitious reports, and thus stayed away from the limelight. In addition, he simply did not like to waste time on pointless dialogue about socialist art, and preferred to study independently. In this sense, Matusovsky’s collected works are unique, because as Feigin grew fond of her, he began to pass his paintings into hands that he trusted would not let them fall into ambiguity.
As a highly secluded figure, Moses Feigin still created passionate works involving world events.
In his painting “Catastrophy” (1975, 57 x 83 cm, oil, pb.) Feigin prophetically foreshadows future cataclysms at the end of 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, such as the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster (1986), the fall of the World Trade Towers in New York (2001), the New Orleans flood (2005), and the earthquake in Haiti (2010).
Red uneven lines cut through the black rectangle of the canvas. They shine on the dark background like tracks of tracer bullets, or sparks shooting from fire. The center of the painting has a rough surface that looks as if the paint cracked under high heat. Two white rings of different sizes stand out in this area, where a circle serves as a symbol of immortality, infinity and eternity having neither beginning nor end. Splashes of red and yellow recall tongues of flame (and as Matusovsky observes, panic-stricken people with arms lifted heavenwards) in the lower part of the painting.
Moses Feigin’s few artworks during 1970-1971, in which he used gold- and silver-colored foil, became the focus of Matusovsky’s collection. Foil is a unique material with its inherent memory of form, and the ability to change when subjected by high temperatures. In fact, Feigin altered images on his painting by applying heat to different parts of the foil. At first, a viewer will see one image on one plane, and later that image in another area of the painting will be altered.
For example, in the painting “Jupiter” (1971, 51 x 38 cm, oil, foil, pb.), bright sunlight is not only reflected on the surface of the foil, distinguishing an important detail of the composition, but also under the influence of the temperature, the form is transformed.This makes the image come alive with energy.
In the “Beauty” (1970, 65×64 sm, oil, can, foil), at first we notice only the scattered bright circles and ellipses in the chaotic state on the dark blue background, reminiscent of the color of the night sky in August. But gradually, they form a female figure – one arm is on her waist, while the other one is raised upwards, as if she fixes her hair.
Sparkling foil, when used in works depicting religious subjects, provides a sacramental sense to Feigin’s paintings as golden assists illumine the icons symbolic of divine light and Holy presence.
“Temptation of St. Anthony” (1971, 76 x 83 cm, oil, foil, pb.) is a profound work on this subject. The artist himself considered it to be one of his best works, a real masterpiece, and was not eager to part with it.
The subject of the painting is the temptation of the old man by a naked woman. Saint Anthony began his career by practicing the ascetical life, and is recognized as the father not only of monasticism, but also of strict adherence to religious life in every measure. He was one of the first Christians who lived seduction might bring damnation from God.
St. Anthony was often painted as being tormented by demons by the great masters of the 15-16th centuin full solitude in Egypt. He left people, and fought the temptations of the world and flesh with the help of prayer.
As legend goes, his solitary life attracted special attention from Satan. In the beginning, ordinary demons tried to alter his spiritual life through violence. When that didn’t work, Satan himself appeared in the image of a beautiful woman, trying to seduce the old man with lust. The hermit understood who was before him, and was able to overcome the temptation. Saint Anthony had been considered an instructive example for centuries on resisting earthly temptations, staying alert continuously and maintaining the ability to interpret the divine within everyday events.
St. Anthony was mindful that ries: Jacopo Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Durer, Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, Lucas Cranach, and Pieter Bruegel. These painters were attracted to St. Anthony because he allowed them to demonstrate the richness of their fantasy and display horrible monsters inhabiting the underworld. The seduction of the pious old man by a beautiful woman is not a rare theme, and the altar triptych by Hieronymus Bosch (1505-1506) is a well-known example. Kept in Lisbon, it portrays on the right leaf of the altar, a saint and the she-devil staring eerily to the side. The naked woman, appearing behind a curtain which has been pulled back by a toad, turns out to be a demon disguised as a princess. A dry tree trunk, behind which she hides, is an alchemistic symbol of death. St. Anthony looks to the side, but the feast demons caught in his vision beckon him. In the background is the wonderful city of the she-devil, ready to invite the hermit, if he can only turn his head towards her.
St. Anthony’s image remained central to the exploration of temptation, and Surrealists Max Ernst and Salvador Dali and many other painters continued to incorporate him into their works in the 20th century. “…Demons are not visible bodies, but we are bodies for them,” wrote St. Anthony. In Paul Cezanne’s painting (1873-1877), the demon is represented by the image of a beautiful bather. The horned figure of Satan hangs over the saint who is resisting temptation. In 1946, Salvador Dali sets the subject of his painting in the desert with a fantastic cavalcade of long, thin-legged, elephant-like creatures lead by a white horse. The first creature transports a naked princess on its back and the entire scene looks like an approaching mirage to the saint who hides behind the cross he holds in front of his face.
In his painting of the same subject, Feigin gives the main focus to a female body in an open scarlet dress with her head thrown back and her breasts bare. There are two depictions of St. Anthony; his body is rendered with bent head and a big pink foot, and a pious soul shines blue above him reflecting the highly spiritual nature of the figure. The woman’s nude body is painted with gold foil to emphasize how the subject of seduction blinds the old man.
In Christian teaching, seduction is a sin. However, sin is also used by God to test man’s faith through suffering or examination, in which God reviews the man to know his heart.
The subject of seduction was very important not only for painters but also for many writers such as Gustav Flaubert who created a philosophical drama which narrates the trying experiences of Saint Anthony. The saint appears in the drama as the symbolic image of the creator as he is plunged into the creative process. Feigin probably knew Flaubert’s story and expressed the same thoughts in his own work. The painter likely considered giving up his artistic work and creating works for the collective public good. Ultimately Feigin chose a life of solitude without participating in his own community. He did not attempt to relate his aesthetic with his contemporaries. In this sense one can link Moses Feigin to the main protagonist of Flaubert’s novel.
Despite plenty of religious subjects in his work, Feigin was an atheist. In interviews late in life he stated that the older he grew (he was 104 when he died) the more certain he became of the idea that “there is nothing more beyond this life.” With the help of Christian subjects, Feigin tried to answer eternal questions about the origin of the universe with his work, such as “Where are we from? Who are we? Why did we come here? What is the sense of being?”Within his works there are several variations of “Calgary,”
“Conversation with God,” “Inquiring” and others.
On the painting “In the Torture Chamber” from the series “Damnation of the War” and “You Will be Hung” (1975, 100 x 80 cm, oil, foil, pb.), there are three bodies in the background of masonry. Each is a distinct color. The figures of carmine-red judge and yellow counselor condemn the convict, the man sentenced to die, who is holding his head painted in rich blue. The painter metaphorically reminds us of the history of Christ. The nimbus around his head is made with foil. It is as shiny as the Byzantine mosaic in Cecilia. Not knowing the name of the work one might suppose that it was inspired by the Bible, but the painter refers to World War II. There is another interpretation of the painting: The yellow figure is an executioner with the hood, the red is the hung man with folded arms on his chest and a noose around his neck, and the blue one is the Christ covering his head with his hands in horror, unable to watch the manslaughter.
The painting ” Confession” (1970, 65×64,5 sm, pb.) is devoted to one of the most secret religious rites, the confession of sins. The two bright blue spots designate the bodies of people mingle on the white background. The white color is the divine, a symbol of light, purity and truth, and the color of purification from sins. Blue in the Christian tradition is the color of chastity and justice. The drawn black line coincides with the contour of the human figures. They form an ornate pattern, where black is the symbol of repentance and sin. The figures oppose each other: the left figure is straight like a pole, the right one is sitting in the blue armchair like an angel with the folded wings behind its back. There is a red orange framing between them.
The background is of different colors by perimeter. In the upper part it is yellow, the color of treachery, jealousy, and lie. In some countries of Europe the doors of traitors were smeared with the yellow color. Judas and Cain are usually painted with yellow beards. From below there is an orange color, which sometimes considered like a symbol of faithlessness and voluptuousness. However it can be valued like a hint of creative activity. In some legends, the Muses were represented like the daughters of the sky and the earth, dressed in the costumes of orange color. To the right, there is a red color, associated with blood, fire and anger. Also this color is the color of life, strength and courage. To the left, there is a green color – the color of spring, new growth, joy and hope. This color often symbolizes continuity and immortality. It also points to the natural and super-natural connections.There are many enigmas in this work. The abstract decision of multiple layers does not provide concrete answers to questions, and only the symbolism of the fresh colors allows decipher the message of the painter. In “Light Signal of Life” (1971, 70 x 49 cm, wood, foil), a vertical strip of foil divides the painting into two parts, and reminds viewers of a road sign. In the manner of a Russian fairy tale, if one travels to the right, he will lose his horse. If he goes to the left, his sword will be lost and so on. In real life, everyone has to make his or her choice continually. At the same time, this road sign reminds of the cross, a symbol of the logical completion of Christianity. To the right and to the left of the signal are the bodies of people that are hardly visible. One of them looks straight, as if he holds a bugle, and the other, with a bending head, submits to heaven. This work seems to allude to the painting “A Knight at the Crossroads” by Viktor Vasnetsov.
Philosophical subjects penetrate deep in other works of Moses Feigin. For example in “Silence” (1972, 51×52 sm,pb.), multi-colored ball occupies the central part of the composition. It recalls view of our planet from the space. In the lower part of the painting there are three long white washed dabs, which can be interpreted like comets with tails or even people’s souls, flying away.
Feigin was not the follower of anybody, specifically of Kazimir Malevich, whom he considered to be pure genius. His characterized his creative work as the pictorial and geometrical abstraction.
In the second half of his working career, Feigin did not follow anyone, even Kazimir Malevich, whom he considered a pure genius. He characterized his creative work as pictorial and geometrical abstraction. In the second half of the 80’s, the painter worked on several series’ of paintings. He painted clowns and bohemian artists. Among them is an image of the beloved Charlie Chaplin. Feigin created unforgettable portrayals of this small man in the black bowler hat in both funny and sad situations just as Chaplin appeared in his movies.
In the painting “Trio” (1987, 64 x 45 cm, oil, org.), on the background of the blazing crimson sunset, we see a tall harlequin and Charlie standing next to him. The actors look directly ahead, as if in a hurry to get to their next performance.
In another work also named “Trio” (1988, 49 x 45 cm, pb.), these characters move in the background of a red brick wall suggesting the beginning of the 20th century when huge industrial blocks were erected in cities. We do not know where they are going, though the fate of street jesters is usually the same. They themselves do not know where they will be the next morning and if they will have enough money for food. Such peculiarity distinguishes many creative people, including painters. Their work often depends on successful sales. A sad look that Charlie Chaplin is directing straight at the spectator confirms this thought. What is ahead for this strange trio in the future? Obscurity perhaps, but the important thing is for them to keep moving ahead.
In this series, Feigin painted a couple of “Scomorochs”(“Clowns”) (1986, 65 x 50, cm, pb), Russian buffoons and jesters that are arrayed in bright costumes holding the Russian folk instruments, balalaika and zhaleyka, in their hands. The faces of the musicians are sad and their song is not merry. A little white dog hides between their legs. Looking at this work, one remembers a painting from the Russian Museum of a self-portrait of two painters who were friends; classicists of the first half of the 20th century, Vasiliy Shukhaev and Alexander Yakovlev, are depicted as a harlequin and Pierrot.
The musician theme continues with the work “Concert” (1987, 48 x 31 cm, org). This little work on pastel board carries monumental features reminiscent of the Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The figure of the violinist is in the center of the architectural bay. The emerald kerchief on her heard and big pleats of the red dress create unusual and beautiful combinations of colors on the painting. It almost literally makes a “sound.” A complicated turn of the trunk and the arrangement of the figure recall the image of Michelangelo’s ancient prophet who foretold disaster.
The picturesque world of clowns and actors glorified by Feigin recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like It,” all the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players. A modern society is a masquerade where people prefer to hide themselves under different masks. Sincerity is not expected much less esteemed. The painter caught hold of this suggestion and realized it in his works. In the words of Italian contemporary art critic, Akile Bonito Oliva, “Moses Feigin had the strength to come away from all the anchors, leaving his thoughts about priority direction of movement, and propel without helm and sails, not correlating with the center and even as far as the periphery and roadside.”
Feigin’s artworks contain ample amounts of search and exploration. Shortly before his death in 2008 he was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest professional working artist in the world. Independent experts have also finally recognized his talent.
There are also works of Irina Vilkovir in Matusovsky’s collection. They all characterize the painter as an excellent colorist, and a master of innovative forms.
Vilkovir and Matusovsky began their friendship after the artist painted the portrait “Lubasha” (1979, 89 x 60 cm, can). The dark-haired girl in the white embroidered shirt looks at the spectator with her eyes half-closed. The secrets of the girl’s dreams are concealed. This work recalls “The Sunlit Girl” by Valentine Serov. Massive features and patterns on the garment are brought together with a Matisse-like contrast.
Her other portrait, titled “Luba” (1982, 66 x 45 cm, can.) transmits quite a different condition of the model. A bright red woman’s jacket and the outline of her hair, almost lost in the dark background, are in keeping with the works of mysterious Frenchman of George Rouault. In her painting,
“Banya (Russian Sauna)” (1978, 118 x 88 cm can.), naked bodies of a woman and a girl are brightly lit in a warm orange light coming from the stove. The use of few colors and the angularity of the forms echo the rigid style of Soviet painters Andrei Vacnetsov, Viktor Ivanov, and Igor Obrosov.
The work “The Linen” (1971, 63 x 50 cm, org.) is painted with big expressive brush strokes. It looks as if it is made not with a brush but with fingers. The white sheets give the sensation of coolness of frosty morning and the crackle of cloth is covered with ice against the background of snow-covered trees.
In “Autumn” (1978, 98 x 88 cm, can), we see grazing horses through the big green leaves. The painting is very decorative with color combinations such as lilac, bright blue and marsh. It is perceived almost like an illustration for a book.
Vilkovir is undeservedly forgotten, but her artworks are remarkable for her rare gift of incarnating nature while simultaneously picturing the mood of a model and her own momentary impression. Such lightness of vision was characteristic of impressionists.
The painter’s love for wide and bold brush strokes, contrasting colors and the convention of forms reveal her devotion to expressionism. Boldness and inner freedom were not typical in Soviet art. She developed these talents in Vkhutemas and MAU, known for their informal traditions.
Both Moses Feigin and Irina Vilkovir are bold reformers through their creative work. It was important to them not to imitate or represent reality. They did not set themselves to the task of reflecting it. On the contrary, both artists tried to change it according to their inner comprehension.
A modern artist is attentive to the details and gains pleasure from an integral vision of all things lost. Eclecticism helps to neutralize differences, closing the gap between different styles and erasing the distance between past and present.
The process of nurturing an art collection is a delicate work, and is often done subconsciously. The works in the Matusovsky collection are a reflection of her personal world and character. It is something transcendental, beyond logic, where beauty is left undefined, but not undeniable.