Heavenly Gifts of an Uncultured Genius

Anatoly Zverev, who died in 1986 from alcohol poisoning, knew of two ways to hold onto his freedom in Soviet times - in his art and in the bottle.

It was his unconstrained, self-developed style - splashes of watercolor on the canvas and apparently random scribbles - that attracted the attentions of collector George Kostaki in the 1950s. Kostaki "discovered" Zverev for the Western world, adding the artist to his already renowned collection of work by Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Marc Chagall gathered in the '20s and '30s. By the 1960s, Zverev's canvases were hanging in the New York Metropolitan and numerous foreign museums.

However, the Tretyakov Gallery, which is now hosting a retrospective of Zverev's paintings and drawings, had to wait until the perestroika era for the right to display the artist's work since it was previously banned from all Soviet museums for its "modernism."

In the Tretyakov's case, this was particularly ironic, since Zverev, on his many visits to the gallery, had painted the portraits of many of the female employees there.

"In the 1970s, we couldn't even dream of having his paintings or drawings in our collection," says Nina Divova, head of the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition department. "We depended too much on ideology in Soviet times."

Aside from the 33 drawings taken from the Tretyakov's collection, the current exhibit displays work drawn exclusively from Russian private collections, which in Zverev's case means paintings belonging to his former friends. A generally homeless artist, Zverev used to offer portraits and paintings to his hosts as recompense for lodgings, or simply out of goodwill. He also treated Kostaki in this way at the collector's dacha near Moscow.

"Sometimes people used Zverev, but he didn't notice," says Polina Lobachevskaya of the gallery Kino, co-organizer of the exhibit. But, Lobachevskaya adds, the fact that the work on display at the Tretyakov was painted in the owners' presence gives the best guarantee of their authenticity. "There are a lot of false Zverevs in the fine art market now," she says.

Natalya Shmelkova, one of Zverev's former models and a collector of his work, knew the artist over a period of 10 years and has since written a book about him. Asked how a genuine Zverev can be recognized, she says, "It's impossible to explain. I can only feel it. It's this expressive freedom, which he always put into any of his paintings or drawings."

Zverev, who took Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, John Constable and Andrei Rublyov as his teachers, never really followed anything resembling a professional technique. Often he didn't even use a paintbrush and worked with his own fingers, adding extraneous objects - seeds or colored wadding - to the canvas. In his efforts to express what he saw and what he felt in one and the same instant, he used anything that was near at hand.

"In real life, I think he acted like a fool," says Shmelkova. "And he never cared for money - today he might have some, tomorrow not, but he never worried. And, to be honest, he drank far too much."

But, with all his talent and the reality of Soviet Russia, can you blame him?

The exhibit runs until Oct. 3 in the Engineer Wing of the Old Tretyakov Gallery, 12 Lavrushinsky Pereulok. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mon. Tel. 230-7788/951-1362. Metro: Tretyakovskaya.