Case for a Gusinsky Fund

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, gallery owners poured into Moscow and St. Petersburg in search of artists to feed the Western public's sudden appetite for all things Russian. They got (by and large) exactly what they came for: installationists, Eastern imitators of Western art glimpsed in magazines and ironic meditators on Soviet history and kitsch. And the art they took back to the West was political and ephemeral: It was entirely Soviet. And now it has no value.

What the gallery owners ignored at the time -- in their rush for the fashionable -- was any kind of art with older, odder, deeper roots. They thought it merely decorative; they didn't understand it at all. And so they missed the opportunity of introducing to the West, not only true originals like the kinemat-maker Eduard Bersudsky (now living in Glasgow), but also the pulse of that sinister, old, eternal Russia which the Soviets never quite managed to destroy.

This old Russia -- which is enshrined in folk tales and myths, for example -- is not Soviet at all. It is an old and grim carnival: a terrible, god-haunted, fun-fair machine. Drunks and holy fools are its prophets; tyrants, its historians; surrealism, its poetry; and Ivan Grozny, its patron saint.

Gogol is the poet laureate of this Russia -- which remains largely unknown in the West; Tatlin, its Piranesi; Chagall, its one painter of the real. Crazed Byzantine priests and Kremlin hermits are the ghostly barkers at the carnival, the spectral whippers-on of Russia's jerry-built road-show machinery toward a New Jerusalem: one of its serially Promised Lands.

The problem with artists who work within this timeless (almost medieval) Russian tradition is that they're untranslatable into any other national idiom or taste. They're also ignored by their own countrymen. The extraordinary writer Andrei Platonov, for example -- who was said to have worked as a porter at the Writers' Union building in Moscow while writers not fit to shine his shoes hogged it inside -- was not published in his lifetime, and has never (I'm told) been satisfactorily translated into any other language.

The painter Chesnokov -- a second Chagall, discovered after his death, in a tiny village in the Kostroma area -- is virtually unknown to Russians, let alone to the West. Eduard Bersudsky, the kinemat-maker, lived in silence and abject poverty in St. Petersburg. And worse, Yuri Norstein wasn't allowed to work at all at his art for eight long years.

It's quite possible that you've never actually heard of Yuri Norstein (which only goes to show). Well, he's a film animator, probably the greatest in the world -- in 1984, his "Tale of Tales" was voted the best animated film of all time by a gathering of international film critics. And yet, just two years after that, he was thrown out of his studio at Soyuzmultfilm and was totally unable to work on what many believe to be his masterpiece -- a still unfinished, black-and-white animated version of Gogol's "The Overcoat" (out of which all Russian literature is said to have sprung).

It's difficult to summarize just what it is about Norstein's work that makes him an authentic, and authentically Russian, genius. He has drawn on Russian folk tales (The Heron and the Crane, The Fox and the Hare). He cites as major influences Russian icons, eastern art, the Bible and Chekhov. His work -- with its preoccupation with spaces and objects of memory -- has been compared to that of the film director Andrei Tarkovsky.

But perhaps it's Norstein's obstinate and painstaking preoccupation with depth, truth and craft which marks him as a supreme artist. In a 25-year period, he has made (I think) just 5 1/2 films. And yet when an offer for all his past and future work came from Hollywood shortly after he'd lost his studio -- and with it any chance of continuing "The Overcoat" -- he refused. He said he had been a serf to communism all his life, and he wasn't ever going to be a serf again, even if he had to starve. (My wife was present at this meeting.)

Yuri Norstein is now, finally, back at work on "The Overcoat," with the help of French and British money. But he doesn't have enough money to finish it.

Surely it's time for the government to step in, to protect and promote such national art treasures -- or better yet, perhaps, those new magnates, made rich in our current Time of Troubles. What we need today -- yes -- is a Russian version of the MacArthur Foundation: the Berezovsky Foundation or the Gusinsky. Given the pace of change, it may well be the only way their names -- unlike Norstein's, Platonov's, Bersudsky's and other great and truly Russian artists -- will ever be remembered by future generations.

"Russia is a country in which things that just don't happen, happen" -- Peter the Great.