April 22,  2013
XE4J6901 Alexander Maximov. Portrait of an Artist against Self portraits

Self-Portrait. 1978

It took my colleagues at the Kovcheg Gallery and me some time to develop a passion for Maximov. He had contributed to some of Kovcheg’s exhibitions and attended our shows, but it would be a lie to claim that we were especially close. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after he had died and his widow, Vera Dzhigir, invited us to have a look at his legacy and archive, that we came to appreciate him and to admire his work. Only when we saw thousands upon thousands of his sheets differing in the date of execution and the extent of elaboration, done in different styles and on different occasions and sorted out in home-made cardboard folders, did we appreciate the stature of the artist. One has to see a lot of Maximov’s works dating from different periods, large-size drawings and lithographs, realistic and abstract expressionist drawings, in order to get if only a glimpse of his world and to realize to what degree he was an artist of genius.

It is widely believed that any artist doing somebody’s portrait imparts a dash of his own characteristics and in part portrays himself. Hence perhaps the theory that Leonardo portrayed himself when painting the famous Mona Lisa. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but the fact is that one can often trace similarity with the artist himself in his portraits of other people. I am convinced that this happens against the artist’s will. As a rule, artists try to distance themselves to avoid such similarity. The opposite is at times true, when artists deliberately seek to make their presence felt in the picture.

Maximov did so throughout his work. It was neither vanity nor exhibitionism: often only a part of him (his arm, leg or just his shadow) is present. It wasn’t merely his desire to make his presence felt – rather Maximov showed himself as being party to and at times the main protagonist of an event. Take, for instance, his famous album The Abstract Art Debate of 1961, now in different private collections. Maximov is now doing the washing, now cleaning up the floor, now speaking over the phone, now eating in the dining-room, now drawing his wife, lying in bed next to him still asleep. He has no compunctions about showing himself leaving the shower or sitting on a toilet bowl. His surprising ability to show a very complicated perspective and the refraction of space and himself in space is really stunning.

 

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On a Stool. 1961. Private collection

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Eating an Apple and Drawing.1961. Private collection

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Pinning up a Drawing.1961. Private collection

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Phone Talk. 1961. Private collection

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Washing the Floor. 1961. Private collection

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Lunch. 1961. Private collection

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Sleeping Vera. 1961. Private collection

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Wiping my Back with a Towel. 1961. Private collection

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On a Toilet Bowl. 1961. Private collection

 

Despite certain similarity, these sheets are absolutely different in the plastic and style of representation; they look up-to-date and relevant, although done more than forty years ago. Note, it is a talented and daring work. This quality delights professionals abroad – artists, gallery owners and art dealers – because just one album is brimming with so many stylistic finds that a Western artist could bask in the sun till the end of his life.

Alas, Maximov was an artist for here and now or, as they used to say in the past, a simple “Soviet man”, who lived by the same laws and rules as the rest of them, stood in lines to buy food, patiently waited at bus stops, talked to fellow travelers on commuter trains, attended all sorts of obligatory meetings and listened to lectures. The only difference was that Maximov committed everything that happened to him to paper in notes and drawings. What was more, his quest for a style of his own was not prompted by any desire to make money or to become well-known the world over. Even in his thoughts Maximov hardly ever considered his work as a means of enrichment. He worked mostly for himself, “for the desk drawer”, as the Russians put it. It wasn’t because he didn’t think of the importance of his work or was unhappy with its results. He just belonged to that type of artists for whom the very process of drawing was life itself rather than work. Maximov drew always and everywhere with and on whatever came in handy. Practically anything could become the subject of representation for him. What mattered was that nearly always the artist himself was directly involved in what was going on in his works.

 

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Registering Thoughts.1981

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Morning in Gurzuf. 1981

 

A few words about his way of life. Together with his wife Vera (another frequent protagonist of his works), Maximov lived in a tiny apartment in Beskudnikovo, upon entering which you simultaneously found yourself in the lobby, kitchen and, I beg your pardon, toilet. In fact, there was no lobby to speak of, nor any bathroom – instead there was a shower with a curtain, a sink and a toilet bowl, all huddled on an area of 1.5 sq. m. It might be that precisely the small size of the apartment was responsible for Maximov’s striking ability to cope with the most complicated angle and space, or rather its refraction. Space was so restricted that the artist was unable to step back to look at his work from a distance in order to verify proportions. As artists say, “There was no going away from the work”. Perhaps, precisely for this reason Maximov was so particular about fragments of the interiors and individual objects.

 

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Bathroom. 1986

 

Maximov dressed in a very simple way – heavy duty thick-soled walking shoes with deep sole patterns, well-worn sweaters, a windbreaker for all seasons and a tarpaulin backpack. His beard and steady gaze examining the interlocutor alone showed that he was an artist. By the time I met him, Maximov had become a fan of urine therapy, a fad of the late 1980s, and a peculiar smell trailed after him everywhere. As soon as the characteristic aroma filled the Kovcheg Gallery, there could be no doubts that the artist Maximov was there. He was in general very keen on a healthy way of life – he did not drink or smoke, practiced yoga, listened closely to his body and immediately jotted down everything in notes and drawings.

 

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Chakrasana. 1979

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My Legs Ache. 1981

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To Study Yourself Isn’t Easy, Nobody Wants to Do That. 1981

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Visiting the Alexander Maximov Land. 1974

 

I guess I won’t err much if I say that there is hardly any artist in the world who would not try at least once in his/her life to do a self-portrait. Maximov did so every now and then under different circumstances, and his self-portraits were not always complimentary. It all started in a fairly traditional way.

 

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Sketch of a poster. Late 1950s

History knows cases when doctors made injections to themselves, inoculated themselves with smallpox serum or tested medicines they had invented on themselves. Maximov did much the same when he drew self-portraits. He not merely portrayed himself and studied his appearance, treating himself as a free sitter and trying different versions of representation with the help of spots and lines varying in scale, color and density. Palekh or Gorodets style versions gave way to self-portraits revealing an interest in the antiquity and Ancient Greek painted vases. There was no self-admiration in that. At times it was just the opposite. Take, for instance, his drawing Visiting the Alexander Maximov Land.

 

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Self-portrait Gorodets and Palekh Style. 1983

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Sunday in Chelyuskinskaya. 1981

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Self-portrait. 1981

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Self-portrait. 1981

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Self-portrait. 1975

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Self-portrait. 1983

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Self-portrait. 1977

 

After testing a technique “on himself”, Maximov subsequently made active use of his finds in easel works and lithographs. Copious `texts accompanying pictures are noteworthy. This entailed certain difficulties at that time. The authorities categorized lithograph-making as copying technology with the possibility of copying leaflets. For this reason printing studios and lithographic stones were under a close watch. So law enforcers were particularly suspicious of texts in pictures.

Maximov somehow managed to convince everybody that he simply made Russian lubok print arrangements, that is, that his works were a variety of Russian lubok prints. Just as Ilya Kabakov, another artist who used texts in his works, Maximov collaborated with the Murzilka children’s magazine at that time. Unlike Kabakov, Maximov never attempted to use his texts to influence the surrounding reality, to say nothing of the existing regime. He was in general an artist concerned with purely creative matters and practically not interested in politics. Like a folk bard, Maximov depicted everything that happened to him and came to his attention. It was a picture diary of sorts. With their true-to-life quality and natural absurdity the texts in Maximov’s works were as topical as those in Kabakov’s.

 

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At a Dairy Shop in Novogireyevo. 1976

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Galya Ivanova, a Well-known Moscow Artist. 1974

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The Longed-for Kiss. 1962

 

Talk about undeservedly forgotten artists has been rife of late. Small wonder, if you take into account the numerous social and political upheavals in twentieth-century Russian history. Many artists of the first half of the past century either perished or were crushed by the regime, and their legacies sank into oblivion. Individual attempts are being made to “exonerate” some artists of the 1920s through the 1930s. Books are published, exhibitions held and surviving works incorporated into Russian museum collections.

It’s a pity though that even in peaceful time, without any revolutions or wars, we haven’t learned to appreciate and cherish talent. Quite a few wonderful Russian artists of the 1960 through the 1980s remain practically unknown not only to the world community, but even at home. Many of them are already gone. Speaking of the underestimated Russian artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Alexander Maximov should be in the front rank. Russian art history has not seen artists of such stature for a long time.