УMOSCOW TODAY & TOMORROWФ
March 2003

VIEWERS' ADMIRATION IS ARTIST'S DEAREST REWARD

To say that Alexander Shilov's creative activity is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the world of present-day fine art is by no means an overstatement: for over 20 years now the artist's work has been, and remains, a focus of keen interest among art connoisseurs. On May 31,1997 , the State Picture Gallery named after Alexander Shilov, People's Artist of the USSR , opened in Moscow . The gallery was set up based on Shilov's best pictures, the artist making a gift of the collection to the state. The Moscow City Government provided a mansion to house the collection. Initially built in the early 19th century by well-known Russian architect Yevgraf Tyurin, the building is located in immediate proximity to the Kremlin

Alexander Shilov is known as an outstanding master of realistic portrait, the sitters for his works varying greatly in terms of social status, age group, appearance, intellect and character. There are, among them, politicians and priests, men of science and cultural figures, medical doctors and war heroes, the working class and peasants, businessmen and beggars.

What he has painted appears so genuinely life-like that viewers, as they face his works, will either cry or laugh, rejoice or be melancholy, admire or be horrified by what they see.

In the world of art there exist different attitudes to the artist's works. Art critics, for more than two decades, have been trying hard to explain to the simple-hearted public that the latter "do not understand certain things in art." Many of those critics, however, would not mind, in secret, sitting for the master.

Whatever differences of opinion exist among the art critics, the Shilov Gallery is the only gallery in Moscow where people keep queuing up to see the works of a contemporary painter. The museum has dozens of volumes of admiring comments and reactions from thankful viewers from different corners of the world. The spectators' admiration is the dearest and most invaluable reward for the artist; for him it shows that his work has won true recognition.

- Alexander Maksovich, your principal genre is portrait painting. Why is it portrait painting in particular? You have plenty of beautiful landscapes.

- It is not a matter of choice, it stems rather from a programme I have been destined to have inserted in me. My role is that of its executor; that is the way I see it. I have this kind of longing for human beings rather than landscapes, though I may enjoy painting a landscape, too, if its motif interests me.

- Psychologically, the people you have painted look so strikingly authentic. Do you believe that a psychological insight is indispensable for a portrait painter? 

- A portrait without a psychological slant is not a portrait at all. What is, in fact, a portrait? After all, you have to attain not only an absolute physical likeness, which always remains a binding condition anyway, but you need to express the inner world of the particular person you are painting.

As an artist, I must be sensitive to the nature of the person I am going to paint. If not, I cannot start working on a canvas at all Ч nor can any other portrait artist. You have to tell yourself what it is in the person that you would like to express. If I have no answer to such a question, I will be lost as to what I should do.

- Does it often occur that a picture you have painted is a disappointment for a sitter? Are there occasions when you have managed to see and convey certain character traits that a sitter may want to hide? Goya, to cite an example, was reproached for the fact that the queen was not beautiful in his paintings, nor the rest of the royal family...

- They are indeed ugly. But the pictures were poorly made from a technical point of view. That is my opinion. He could work much better, judging by his self-portrait in the Prado. That small work was painted wonderfully. He never painted anything better.

- Perhaps he simply disliked them?

- I often paint people who I dislike. It is impossible to love or like everyone. I may dislike someone's inner qualities, yet I experience pleasure in painting "negative" as well as "positive" individuals. What I take is an unbiased cross section of society. Whoever I may have painted, I put my signature on that work. Professionally, I should try and do my best in each case Ч irrespective of whether I like or dislike this or that sitter. I enjoy painting beggars, too, Ч the tramps you cannot bear sitting or standing next to.

- Let us go back to the hidden qualities of people that may come out, to the fact that people always wish to look better.

- I once painted a priest. When I had finished the portrait, he came with champagne apparently to celebrate the event. But when he saw the portrait, he sat, without saying a word, for about an hour. He then stood up, put on his coat, and said: "We are not drinking anything. I know what I must reform in myself." And he left. Generally, a portrait painter earns a hard crust requiring moral fortitude; anybody, of course, would like to look better in one's portrait than one is in real life, yet a painter should never fall under the influence of his sitter. He should paint a portrait in such a way that a viewer, looking at it some one or two hundred years on, is able to say what the person's character really was.

But I have not fully answered the question. It often occurs that everyone, except the sitter himself, can see that I have painted a negative character. That is a paradox that I cannot get used to. It is surprising indeed when everyone else can see it, but the protagonist himself notices nothing. That happens, and happens often enough at that.

- If you have taken a liking to somebody, and have decided to paint the person's portrait...

- I make an offer. But not in the street Ч I feel too shy in the street. Though, of course, I sometimes approach a person in the street, too. There is, in the gallery, a picture showing a sitting beggar. The man is not a professional beggar Ч he was formerly a pilot. He was at the time unable to provide for his family; his diseased child and his wife. Consequently he had to start begging. He was very much ashamed, and it took me a year to persuade him to sit for me. Though I did pay him for the sitting, he still felt ashamed.

- And what usually attracts you in a person anyway? His or her destiny, beauty, character.

- It is both one's inner and outer character. An outward appearance can be very expressive, too. Look at the beggar's portrait. Just see how interesting he is both internally and outwardly. When I was painting him, my hands literally quivered with pleasure Ч I would look forward to the next day to continue the work as soon as possible.

- When you meet new people, do you appraise them, perhaps subconsciously, from the viewpoint of a portrait painter? In terms of whether you would like to paint them or not?

- A kind of appraisal will always occur. I keep drawing things with my eyes all the time Ч wherever I happen to be. If a person appears to be interesting, I mentally "draw" him all at once. There are faces that you forget as soon as you see them, and there occur such characters that you would wish to run after and stop them.

- There is a lot of talk about you painting the Politburo members' portraits in the Soviet era. "A lot of talk" is the right expression to use. I do not know where it all comes from. And there are plenty of sheer lies, too. To cite just one example, they have recently mentioned me in one television programme, showing the portraits of Brezhnev and Gromyko. In fact, I never painted and never even met them.

What I did do was Kirilenko's portrait. My first big exhibition came in 1979, six years after my graduation from the Surikov Institute. There was a long queue for the event, and I was so happy. Two years later, my first professional exhibition was held in the hall of the Union of Artists. At that exhibition, I was told that Kirilenko, then number 2 in the State hierarchy, was going to arrive, accompanied by Demichev, Minister of Culture, and Grishin, Moscow 's Communist Party Committee leader. They had been traveling along Tverskaya Street , when they saw a queue standing in the street notwithstanding Moscow 's severe frost, and they decided to visit the exhibition themselves. In party circles at that time there existed not a bad custom of taking a n interest in who, and what, made a success with the people. The exhibition can be said to have brought me fame. There was a great hullabaloo then, and all my exhibitions that followed were as successful, too.

- Following the exhibition of 1981, there were exhibitions held abroad, including such countries as France , Germany , Portugal , Canada , and Japan . When you met with your viewers, what interested them most of all?

- I have indeed met with a lot of them. Some took an interest in the landscapes, some in the portraits, still others in the genre paintings. Their preferences differed. One thing that they have in common is that they long for realistic art. People all over the world are truly interested in the art that follows the lines of classical realism. All the rest is an invention of mass-media propaganda. The avant-garde artists are those who are unable to create anything of any skill, using words as a cover to proclaim new "breakthroughs" in art.

Any realist will do with one hand tied behind his back anything an avant-garde painter has ever done. But an avant-garde man can never do, in his boldest or wildest dreams, anything similar to what a realistic artist does. The avant-garde are those whose conscience, and things will come gradually. As you gradually win the public's recognition, and your art comes to be liked by people, you realize that what you do is truly needed. Which means that the way an artist is going is the right way.

- And what, in your opinion, is an artist's mastery?

- An artist can create something only insofar as he is a master of his art. But of course he needs talent, too, Ч as well as emotion and any hidden technicalities of the work Ч you should see only a perfect result. And you should have the feeling that what you witness is life itself enclosed within a frame Ч like with many great artists of the past. Only such paintings can arrest people's attention. Only then people will be able to enjoy a work of art. Art should contain an element of artistic temptation. You take up oil paints, dead in themselves, mix them up, and create life on a canvas Ч a landscape, a still life, a person's portrait.

- Who was the model of mastery for you?

- I remember my mother taking me for the first time to the Tretyakov Gallery, and I came up to the portraits by Levitsky and Bryulov. I thought then that those were God's creations, not human ones. I still admire such kind of art that will always appeal to people irrespective of any changes in fashion. Because coming into contact with beauty ennobles a person, makes him long for purer and more elevated feelings. That is, there is a correspondence between this or that kind of art and the state of a human soul. And if a soul is lost, human beings turn into human cattle. So I stand for the kind of art that inspires and purifies a person, compels a person to adore it Ч like an icon. It does not depend on time or fashion. It is classical art; it is everything. Where there is no mastery, art turns into an amateur's activity, or, worse still, defines itself simply as a person's unwillingness or inability to work. This inability may be then called primitivism or abstract art or whatever, but all such names are worthless and cannot really deceive a viewer's heart. An artist should paint a picture in such a way as to make any comments from an art critic unnecessary. In a genuine picture, like in genuine music or poetry, everything should be clearly comprehensible. To comprehend a picture, you need not be an artist Ч all that is rubbish. It is exactly like in music: you need not be a composer to enjoy Mozart or Tchaikovsky.

- Do you keep working every day?

- I cannot do without working. While the fire inside is still burning, you have to keep working. It is only when I become exhausted, internally exhausted above all, that I will take a rest. Apart from anything else, there is the problem of the gallery's expansion, and so on. 

- Could you tell us a few words about the gallery?

- In 1996 I addressed speaker of the State Duma Gennady Seleznyov, and told him I would like to make a gift of my pictures. I felt I had the moral right to address the State Duma: after each of my exhibitions vast amounts of letters had come to leaders of the State, and to the Ministry of Culture, asking to make my exhibition a permanent one. My mind and soul were in such a state at that time that I came and said that I wanted to give away everything that had not been sold Ч 355 pictures, ail in all. Though I had never had any problems with selling my pictures. There was a plenary session of the State Duma, and at that session all the political parties, absolutely all of them, voted for the opening of a newly founded State Picture Gallery Ч taking into account how popular my art was. It was decided to give my name to the gallery. The State Duma Speaker addressed Boris Yeltsin, then the President of Russia, to find a house for the gallery. I was offered three halls in the Kremlin, restored by that time. I thanked of course the President, but said that those Kremlin halls were not large enough to house my collection. I remember I advanced another argument, as well, Ч that the Kremlin was an area with restricted access for the general public: how would ordinary people be able to come to the gallery under such conditions, after all? True, they promised to arrange a special entrance for the gallery. But my main objection was that there was not enough room for the works. Gennady Seleznyov then addressed the Moscow City Government.

Yuri Luzhkov responded immediately, for which I will feel obliged to him to the end of my days. The Moscow Government took a decision to allot a building in Znamenka Street for the gallery. The museum was opened on May 31, 1997 . At the opening ceremony I gave my word to the Mayor of Moscow and the Moscow Government that at the museum's every anniversary I would make a gift of those pictures that I did not paint to order, that is to say, most of my pictures. And now every year (every six months, even) I present to the museum my new works.

For the time being, the gallery has 710 paintings and drawings. Only one-third of the collection is exhibited, the rest could not go in. Consequently, the Moscow Government, led by Yuri Luzhkov, has decided to expand the area of the gallery, the decision being taken without any hint on my part (I felt most grateful for being given the building anyway). An investor has been found for the project, and a renovation is now under way.

•  What was the role of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in the creation of the gallery?

- His role is great. Together with the Moscow Government, he has been supervising the gallery, devoting most warm and cordial attention to it. For which the people and myself are very grateful. If you look through the book of the visitors' comments, you will find a lot of praise addressed to him, including especially many comments of distinguished people. He is really a great mayor. The matter lies not only in my gallery. Plenty of people in Moscow feel obliged to this man for what he does. He builds so much, and restores so much, and helps so many artists, war veterans, teachers, medical doctors, everybody. I think Moscow is lucky to have such a mayor and know of no other mayor who compares to him. On top of being an efficient administrator, he is a very kind-hearted, cordial person, too. For such a high-level politician that is a rarity indeed.

- When you walk to your office in the gallery, do the visitors recognize you?

- They do, of course. They will come up to me to ask for an autograph or say something personally. It is an honour, too, that despite expensive railway tickets people keep coming from all over the country, many of them visiting the gallery several times. What else can one hold dearer?