We rarely think of art as the force capable of changing the world for the better. The changes it brings about do not happen overnight but are more profound and long-lasting than any political coups or international alliances.
This summer marks 56 years since Oscar Rabin’s first solo show in London, announced as the First One Man Exhibition by the Russian Painter Oskar Rabin; paintings 1956-1965 at Grosvenor Gallery, 30 Davies Street, Mayfair, between 10 June - 3 July 1965. The exhibition was mounted by the gallery’s now legendary owner Erick Estorick – an American sociologist, journalist, author, art dealer and art collector, who endowed the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art along with the house at 39a Canonbury Square, London. Rabin came to know Estorick when the latter was on his first visit to the USSR in 1960 and was looking for the works made by the so-called unofficial Soviet artists, i.e. the artists outside the state control exerted through the Union of Artists. An international journalist Viktor Louis, who acted as a go-between, brought Estorick to Rabin’s place – then a dilapidated barrack in Lianozovo, just outside Moscow. This is how Estorick started his collection of Rabin’s paintings and then decided to organise the artist’s solo exhibition in London – seventy paintings in total, all owned by Estorick. On the opening night, Rabin, who could not travel to London from the USSR to inaugurate the show in the Grosvenor Gallery, printed black-and-white photos of his paintings and together with his artist wife, Valentina Kropivnitskaya, hung them on the walls of their more than humble abode. As they walked past these photos, they would imagine being present at the exhibition preview in London.
This was the first solo show of Oscar Rabin, the leading member of the Lianozovo Group, future organiser of the famous Bulldozer Exhibition in 1974 and patriarch of Russian non-conformism. And what is meant here by “first” is not just the first exhibition in London, but the first official Rabin’s exhibition in general – unofficial artists were the pariahs, dismissed as “parasites” in the USSR. Strictly speaking, some Rabin’s works were first displayed in Grosvenor Gallery in June 1964, at the group exhibition “Aspects of Contemporary Soviet Art”, with his painting The Kingdom of England (1962) featuring on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. Thus, in 1965, the public in London was already well-prepared and awaiting the artist’s personal show, which even had to be extended for a few days “because of the public response”, as reported The New York Times on 15 June 1966. The critical response was also positive, with Terence Mullaly from the Daily Telegraph writing on the same day of Rabin as a “major talent, an artist in whom rare qualities of heart, mind and, unusual in the twentieth century, wit, are united with skill”.
Unexpectedly for Rabin, his art was politicised by the British press more than he thought it was necessary, the fact that strained further his already tense relations with the official powers-that-be in the Soviet Union. He had already been harassed in the press for his Rubbish Dump № 8 (1958; now in the collection of the Tsukanov Family Foundation). After the exhibition in London, he was viewed as collaborator with foreign intelligence services. What also infuriated Soviet officials about Rabin’s art was his expressionistic and decidedly unheroic representation of the Soviet reality – suburban slums, neglected cemeteries, dilapidated places. It is now widely believed that artists like Oscar Rabin contributed to the ideological erosion and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.
Eventually, he had to suffer the severe consequences of his artistic and political rebellion. Like other members of the Lianozovo Group, after the Bulldozer Exhibition in Moscow in 1974, Rabin became politically “undesirable” for the Soviet regime. In 1978, he was exiled from the USSR to France, then stripped of his Soviet citizenship and ended up in Paris with his wife, artist Valentina Kropivnitskaya, and their son Alexander, also an artist. Interestingly, when leaving, Rabin was not allowed to take with him the paintings which had been criticised in the Soviet press – this way, the Soviet State obliquely acknowledged their significance and value. The remaining artworks required official permission to be moved abroad, and the artist ended up paying hefty sums of money to obtain the necessary documents. Several decades later, Rabin’s Russian citizenship was restored to him, but the artist preferred to remain in France for the rest of his life.
After they left the USSR, Rabin and his family eventually visited the UK in February-March 1978, so as to be present at the personal exhibition of Valentina Kropivnitskaya, held in the Parkway Focus Gallery in London. The exhibition was supported by Keston Institute, or Keston College, as it was called then. Remarkably, some of her and Rabin’s works were exhibited at Parkway Focus Gallery even in 1976 at “The Religious Movement in USSR” exhibition, two years before they had to leave the USSR. The Keston newsletter read: “We celebrated May Day with the opening of an exhibition of unofficial Russian religious art and samizdat at the Parkway Focus Gallery, London. We are grateful to Alexander Glezer for the help he gave in mounting the exhibition and to Jonathan and Bärbel Grange in whose gallery it was held”.
I was lucky to meet Oscar Rabin in Paris almost eight months before his death in November 2018. The meeting took place in April during the Art Paris Art Fair in the Grand Palais, where art patron Mark Ivasilevitch with the support of The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, and founder of the AZ Museum in Moscow Natalya Opaleva, mounted Rabin’s exhibition stand to celebrate his 90th birthday. “I have had many exhibitions in Paris, but none on such a grand scale. It is the most significant gift for my 90th birthday, to have my first exhibition at the Grand Palais,” commented the artist. Many visitors and friends, including artist Mikhail Chemyakin and French couturier Jitrois came to congratulate Oscar (as he was known among his friends), who seemed to radiate friendliness and calm and was happy to welcome all visitors to his exhibition. I believe, the following conversation clearly speaks of the artist’s own philosophy and values: it is quite remarkable that Rabin was universally highly regarded by the members of his own circle and other fellow artists. He never spoke ill of anyone, never sought any position of power or influence, his biography is almost hagiographical – he was a quiet and humble man, whose words were simple and wise (Professor Donald Rayfield even called him a “saintly man”). He never compromised with his persecutors or betrayed his ideals, always leading by his example. Arkady Nedel in his recent biography of Rabin, defines his works as novellas. Remarkably, the artist appears to support this statement in the interview.
Oscar Yakovlevitch, can you say that France and Paris have become your home?
I do not have any other home, you see? I am not sure if I can call France my own country, but I have no other. If I travel somewhere, I have nowhere else to return to, but Paris. And nowhere else do I feel as much needed as here. And I need Paris, too. With France, of course, it is quite difficult, because I was not born here and did not experience everything that the French people went through. Therefore, I do not address any political or social issues through my art in France. I understand that I will not be able to respond to them in the way, which would reach the French audience and touch this special string in their souls. I made a number of paintings, capturing what I love in France the most – its provincial landscapes, which is not very typical of me. I perceive France only lyrically, but, obviously, this is not enough to approach the people here.
And what about the restoration of your Russian citizenship?
Well, this is another Russia. In 1978, I left the Soviet Union. I was born there, lived there, and left it. So, when they ask me if I am a French or a Russian artist, I reply that, in fact, I am a Soviet artist. I have never known or seen the old Russia. Neither do I know the new one: I have visited it for a few weeks, but that does not mean that I know the country. Many things are still the same, and yet, this is not my Russia. Oh, but please, do not think that I am a fan of the Soviet Union — I hated that system!
How would you sum up your work in your own words?
My paintings are the life that surrounds me. It is everything that is happening to my loved ones, my fellow neighbours. And by saying “fellow neighbours”, I refer to the word in the broadest sense: this can mean the whole country. I paint my inner life as I perceive it. I like it when my work finds an inner response in the hearts of other people. And I am not interested in anything else besides.
Which one of the recent paintings is most dear to you?
The Abandoned Train Station. St Michel. It is a forsaken provincial railway station. A quiet, unprepossessing picture. It is all about loneliness. Even though we are leading an extremely busy and noisy lives here on earth, many of us experience this feeling. And not only people, but the objects, too.
And what about your latest painting Gare Père Lachaise. Terminal, which you have been working on for 10 years and which is the highlight of the exhibition?
This is the work about myself and my life. I have lived a long life: there was youth, and love, and children. Everything, what a person needs, I had it: sorrows and joys, and even the old age itself, which is also believed to be something good. Surprisingly, it has turned out to be a happy time for me. I should confess, that the one who turns 90 is not particularly overjoyed at this fact. However, everybody says, it is a very good thing! I only hoped to make a painting, which could somehow sum up and capture my life in Paris. And you know, no matter how hard I hoped or tried, nothing would turn out. Then, at some point, it became clear to me that the most important thing about my life was that I have two homes. One is the home where I live in Paris. And the second one is where my son and my wife are [buried], the one which still awaits me. And this is the most significant thing that has happened to me throughout these 40 years, that I spent in this country.
You seem to have a preference for certain subjects recurrent in your paintings. What are they, the archetypes of Russian life?
Somehow, I am trying to capture my life, express my feelings stemming from my experiences. A herring for Russia (and those who have lived there, would know this) is practically an equivalent of the bottle of vodka. Well, not entirely, but they do rhyme well together, don’t they? Furthermore, I like the overall appearance of the herring, its shape, — as an object. I refer to such images as characters, personages. And in the same manner, an icon and the crucifix are also characters and protagonists in my compositions. I use them to convey what I wish to express.
I am not an abstractionist; I cannot narrate the whole experience through the light alone. It may help and will, no doubt, enhance the mood. And yet, I believe, that if I had literary talent, I would write. Since I am completely devoid of any literary abilities, I narrate through my paintings by trying to bring all these objects together.
In this case, which role does the light play in your paintings?
Well, formally, light is an opportunity to highlight and emphasize what is most important to me. If we are not speaking just technically, the light creates a certain atmosphere, some kind of comfort, the sense of human warmth.
You frequently address issues that can be viewed as Christian, religious. One of your impressive paintings is also titled as King of the Jews.
Well, quite recently there was released a film under the title The Flight into Egypt. I do not belong to any religious denomination or follow any religion, however, while watching this film, one may get the wrong impression that I am a religious person and a believer. I am as much a believer as anyone else. Neither do I belong to those who do not believe in anything (I think that, generally, it is impossible not to believe in anything – a person should believe in something). Nor can I say that I belong to the group of believers, although Christianity is much closer to me in the sense that I grew up in the country that once used to be Christian. And even the fact that at some point that country rebelled against religion, and seemed to have stopped being Christian (by persecuting believers, forcing atheism upon its citizens, and so on) – nevertheless, its Christian past did not just disappear overnight. These Christian foundations resurfaced in life and culture and manifested themselves in various ways. All this is quite complicated but, nevertheless, true… I have been brought up on the amazing church architecture. Of course, I have always liked icon-painting, and the art itself — I mean, all art that came into existence through Christianity and on its behalf – the great art. Nevertheless, I turn to Christianity in another sense. I do not perceive it as a religion, but as a presence, an inalienable attribute of everyday life around me. This has always been something relevant to me. When I was young, it was fashionable to have old icons in one’s house. If one looks at my works, one may single out approximately 20-30 objects, which recur from painting to painting throughout my whole artistic career, even now. I treat them as characters, because I seem to have failed at representing people: they come out rather as caricatures than humans – not that I have not tried! Still, it is not the caricatures which I am after, but my feelings, my life captured in my paintings. I have no intention of ridiculing someone or something.
And here, the King of the Jews is very direct, strong, practically head-on, as the pack of wild wolves surrounds him. I very rarely do such poster-like works, and yet, this is how it used to be in the real life! They persecuted the religion all the time, and I wished to express my sympathy to the persecuted believers. This is the way I am: there are people who are always on the side of the winners and themselves belong to the pack of winners. And there are those who belong to the flocks of the persecuted – my sympathy lies with them. And even though I have not been persecuted throughout my whole life, I am always on the side of the persecuted, humiliated, and oppressed.
Oscar Rabin died on 07.11.2018 in Florence on the eve of his retrospective show and was buried at Père Lachaise with his first wife and son.