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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Standing Up for Ilya Glazunov's 'National' Art

Not so long ago, Ilya Glazunov was considered a dissident. His talent was first recognized in the West. When a group of Italian filmmakers invited the young painter to visit Italy, then Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva was reluctant to allow the scandalous Glazunov abroad. His first one-man show in Moscow had provoked considerable controversy among the authorities and among other artists. Why? Because of the same uncompromising art and the same confidence in the correctness of his subject and style that continue to provoke controversy today.

Glazunov is a deeply national artist. He interprets and depicts the great and dramatic role of Russia in world civilization in his own unique way. But I am not an art critic; I am writing these lines simply as an admirer of his powerful talent and as an old friend of his, one with whom he has entrusted his most treasured ideas about life and creativity, about the significance of art and about our contradictory times. I do not agree with Glazunov in everything, but that is between us. As far as his paintings are concerned and his romantic realism, I am decidedly on his side.

Glazunov's recent exhibition at the Manezh ended up being quite an event. As always, his new works sparked arguments, delighting some and inflaming others. This is normal. For a great artist such as Glazunov, it would be a bad thing indeed if everything he did was merely met with quiet approval. I recently stopped by his house and found on his desk two enormous books of comments from people who had visited his show. Some remarks were sentimental praise and acknowledgments of his great service to art. Others accused him of nationalism. One person even wrote that he "liked the frames best of all." Another young man wrote a lengthy confession about how he had discovered a whole new world in Glazunov's works.

The works of Glazunov have always aroused the most contradictory opinions. This is because in his pictures lives and breathes, laments and protests and suffers a Russia that every one of us understands differently. Maybe our vision of Russia is different from Glazunov's, but his images remain interesting. It seems to me that if Glazunov wandered off into the realm of "pure art" and began painting serene Russian landscapes, he would not be as successful as he is.

But Glazunov throws himself into the heart of politics, into the seething abyss of social cataclysms. He draws the images of figures that we all know well; he creates the portraits of our nameless folk heroes. And through all this he draws us into social life, into the arguments and conflicts and dramas of our times, all the while leaving us the right to choose which side of the barricades we want to be on. There can be no other way: True art always boils down to choice, to choosing one's place within the struggle of ideas.

I saw the crowds of people gathered around Glazunov's new painting, "Russia, Awake!" The young hero of this canvas wears a belt with the inscription, "God Is with Us." Someone in the crowd remembered aloud that the German knights who fought against Alexander Nevsky wrote the same words on their shields as they set out to conquer ancient Russia. "Isn't the artist calling us to violence?" I read in several anxious notes in the visitors book. In general, the question boiled down to this: Who is Glazunov? Is he good or evil? What is his main idea -- goodness toward humanity or aggression and irreconcilability?

There is no point in asking Glazunov. I know that he would just answer, "Look at my paintings. All the answers are there."

For my own part, I walked again and again through the halls of the Manezh. I became increasingly convinced that Glazunov is a very good person. I felt the tears in many of his canvases, tears that remain unexpressed because it is impossible to express the elements of happiness and hope in tears. It is only possible to evoke these feelings in a kindred spirit. The emotional pressure that we feel in Glazunov's works is his appeal to each of us to help one another, to help Russia preserve its dignity at a time when spirituality is yielding under the weight of cynicism and easy money. This is life in its loftiest manifestations, the images of a confused soul reaching out to other people and to eternity.

It will take a long time before Glazunov's work will be evaluated objectively. Today, there is too much that is fleeting, too much political rubbish and too many personal ambitions clouding our judgement. I see Glazunov as a tragic figure, outwardly successful and acknowledged but essentially alone. It is hard to reconcile oneself to the injustice of seeing long lines form at your exhibitions while your colleagues refuse to acknowledge you and the press is full of personal attacks.

Unfortunately, Glazunov has brought much of this on himself. It is not necessary, for example, to turn every figure of authority into a work of art. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning the artist's studio into a portrait gallery of the Soviet of Ministers or the Soviet of Mayors, Presidents and Vice Presidents.

Several years ago I printed an article about Glazunov's historical canvas "Eternal Russia." I was immediately attacked by my democratic friends for glorifying kitsch and told that my judgment had betrayed me. In my conversations with them, I could feel the influence of politics. Glazunov's extreme statements in the press had cast a gloomy shadow over his art.

In his direct statements, Glazunov is often confused and contradictory. But this is not why our intelligentsia considers him an extreme nationalist and, even, an anti-Semite. Yes, he loves and glorifies ancient times. Yes, he suffers for Russia and is tormented by its fears. This is natural for someone who was born here and raised in the good traditions of our northern provincialism.

But what about anti-Semitism? I asked him directly, even though I felt the question was tactless and impolite. But Glazunov reacted calmly, and we talked for a long time that evening. I was amazed by his deep knowledge of Jewish history, art and culture. Every word he spoke was full of profound respect.

"I am a monarchist," Glazunov told me that night. "All my life I have hated the Bolsheviks, since they destroyed Russia. I consider the Romanov period to be the flowering of Russia."

"But have you forgotten that even in Tsarist times, we had the 'Black Hundred'?" I asked.

"I haven't forgotten. But there are still many such scoundrels in Russia. We are living and working and suffering in order to rid ourselves of them."

While we talked, lines of people stood in front of the Manezh: fellow countrymen and admirers of a great master who is fully aware of the honor they do him, but is even more concerned with finding the path to Truth.

Andrei Dementyev is a poet and editor of the literary journal Yunost. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.