Thursday, March 13, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 9

"Starving artist" is a figurative term in this country. Artists struggle to make a living here, but they don't actually starve. In Russia 10 years ago, that description would have been more literal.

At a time when Russia's economy was in chaos, the crew at the morgue in the city of Novokuznetsk - about the same size as Pittsburgh - picked up, on average, 12 bodies a night, most of them victims of starvation or malnutrition. To be a painter or sculptor in Russia at the time meant pure dedication to art, because selling anything was out of the question. Few people had money enough to even visit the local art museum, let alone purchase paintings.

Alexander Popov (pictured) remembers when the mayor of Novokuznetsk pleaded with the arts community to paint large murals celebrating the city's 380th anniversary. The mayor grew angry when the artists, who agreed to work for free, asked for paint. "How were we supposed to buy all this paint? With what money?" Popov recounted as he filled cups with steaming tea in his 8th-floor studio in a high-rise on the outskirts of town. The building was occupied almost entirely by artists, "so that they can keep an eye on us," Popov joked. I think.

Complaints of artists in this city are so familiar. They feel unappreciated and marginalized in a society with vulgar tastes. But Popov, jovial and mischievous, has no time for whining. His canvases, thickly layered with slashes of primary colors, are youthful, exuberant and expressive. A hundred of them cover the walls to the tall ceiling in his studio.

I visited him again there two years later, when eight of us crammed in around a kitchen table meant for two for a whole night of feasting and drinking and joke-telling. On a hallway wall, we all signed our names in marker, adding them to the scores of other guests who had done the same.

I bought a couple of his paintings and gave them to my son and daughter, who are both painters themselves. I wish only that they could know the man who made them, know how difficult it has been for him to work in a place where artists have been pushed to the fringe.

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