Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow | Exhibitions | Oleg Tselkov - I'm not from here, I'm a stranger

MULTIMEDIA ART MUSEUM, MOSCOW
MUSEUM "MOSCOW HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY"
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Oleg Tselkov
I'm not from here, I'm a stranger

Oleg Tselkov. Circus. 1969. Oil on board. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London Oleg Tselkov. Group portrait with watermelon. 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London Oleg Tselkov. Five faces. 1980. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London Oleg Tselkov. Portrait with flower. 1962. Oil on canvas and wood. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London Oleg Tselkov. Self portrait. 1964. Oil on canvas and wood.
Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Oleg Tselkov. Circus. 1969. Oil on board. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Oleg Tselkov. Group portrait with watermelon. 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Oleg Tselkov. Five faces. 1980. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Oleg Tselkov. Portrait with flower. 1962. Oil on canvas and wood. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Oleg Tselkov. Self portrait. 1964. Oil on canvas and wood. Courtesy of Tsukanov Family Foundation, London

Moscow, 10.09—15.11.2021

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Curator: Maria Lavrova
Curator: Maria Lavrova

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Oleg Tselkov

‘I’m Not From Here, I’m A Stranger’

Curator: Maria Lavrova

The Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow and the Tsukanov Family Foundation present the exhibition ‘I’m Not From Here, I’m A Stranger’ in memory of Oleg Tselkov, a classic of Russian and world contemporary art, one of the leaders of Soviet non-conformism, without whom it is difficult to imagine the history of this artistic phenomenon.

‘I’m not from here, I’m a stranger’ is how Tselkov described himself. These words accurately reflect his uncompromising character. An individualist born in the era of suffocating collectivism who never, to the end of his life, fitted in with ‘prescribed circumstances’, he followed one goal — to create the pictures ‘no artist had ever painted’ before.

Oleg Tselkov was born in 1934 in the Moscow region. In 1949, without preparation, he entered the famous Moscow Secondary Art School run by the V. I. Surikov Institute, the alma mater of a whole galaxy of future stars of unofficial art, including Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vasiliev and Vladimir Yankilevsky. According to Tselkov’s recollections there were attempts to expel him from the school every year — even then the works of the young artist were sharply condemned for inconsistency with the canons of socialist realism.

In 1953 he miraculously graduated from the Moscow Secondary Art School, but was not accepted as a student of the Surikov Institute. Tselkov went to Minsk and studied at the Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute, from which he was expelled ‘for formalism’ in 1954, and in 1955 he was expelled from the first year of the Leningrad Academy of Arts. Tselkov managed to complete his higher education only in 1958, graduating from the Leningrad State Theatre Institute with the specialty of stage artist-technologist. However, he considered himself a self-taught artist, emphasising that his pictorial system was formed outside educational institutions. Ilya Kabakov knew the artist well and mentioned him in ‘Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow’: ‘Oleg Tselkov is a genius who has no need of a past, as if he gave birth to himself.’

Tselkov created his early works under the impression of paintings by the Jack of Diamonds group that he secretly glimpsed in storerooms of the Tretyakov Gallery or the Russian Museum. Despite Khrushchev’s Thaw and a relative weakening of censorship, his paintings did not participate in official exhibitions and were venomously criticised by art functionaries. Nevertheless, by the late 1950s Tselkov had become one of the most popular artists in intellectual circles, first in Leningrad and then Moscow, where he settled in 1961. The outstanding writers and poets Arthur Miller, Louis Aragon and Anna Akhmatova, artists David Siqueiros and Renato Guttuso, and great collector of the Russian avant-garde George Costakis, one of his first buyers, all came to Tushino, where the artist lived and worked, ‘for a viewing’.

The decisive starting point in Tselkov’s work came in 1960. While working on the painting ‘Portrait’ he had ‘for the first time, the first, accidentally “pulled away” a face from the face “in the image and likeness”, revealing the FACE.’ ‘There was no limit to my shock,’ Tselkov recalled. ‘I supposedly painted a portrait, but not the portrait of a single subject, rather a portrait of everyone, all together in one person — and terribly familiar… I realised immediately — immediately! — that I had been shown the path I must follow.’ This marked the birth of a ‘hitherto unseen tribe’, the ‘tselkovites’ or ‘tselkoviks’, homunculine characters or masks that equally referred to archaic art, the traditions of buffoonery, and expressionist or surrealistic motifs.

Tselkov developed this powerful plastic image throughout his life — his characters acquired bodies, grew and multiplied, and their interpretations changed to reflect the trends of the day. People saw in these Tselkov ‘muzzles’ painted in caustic aniline colours a parody of totalitarian society, a faceless ‘Soviet man’, generally speaking the ‘mass man’ philosopher José Ortega y Gasset had described in 1930, or even a universal metaphor for the tragicomedy of human existence. The artist himself noted the dialectical nature of his hero: ‘He is both a humanist and an anti-humanist, for these two principles cannot be separated in him.’

In 1965 Tselkov’s first solo exhibition was arranged by physics students and held at the I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. After two days it was forcibly closed. The exhibition organised in 1970 at the Moscow Central House of Architects lasted just 15 minutes. The next day Tselkov was expelled from the Union of Artists, effectively depriving him of the opportunity to participate in exhibitions and obtain commissions (only the intercession of a close friend, the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, helped him recover from this).

‘Something of a stranger everywhere’, Tselkov kept to himself within the circle of non-conformist artists. He was never a member of the art groups that spontaneously formed in the 1960s. In 1974 he refused on principle to participate in the infamous ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’ organised by unofficial artists on a vacant lot in Belyaevo and barbarously destroyed by law enforcement officers with water cannons. ‘From my point of view, dissidents, by proving something, thereby equate themselves with the authorities,’ Tselkov said. ‘I’m not a player with them.’

Under pressure from the authorities, the artist left his homeland in 1977 and relocated to Paris. Despite having lived in France for over 40 years he never took French citizenship, remaining stateless with a Nansen passport (he only received Russian citizenship in 2015). According to Tselkov, he was still misaligned to artistic processes outside his native land, although his recognisable and distinctive style attracted the attention of gallery owners and collectors, making him one of the most expensive Russian artists.

Tselkov’s biography is associated with numerous legends, anecdotes and tales, some of them immortalised in Russian literature — for example, in the book ‘Solo on Underwood’ Sergei Dovlatov writes a colourful description of how Tselkov sold a painting to Arthur Miller. The artist’s inexhaustible vital energy fed his personal mythology and allowed him to work every day from morning to evening for many years. Oleg Tselkov only left this world when he lost his sight and the ability to paint.

Tselkov’s works are held in the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) and the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA), as well as in numerous private collections in the UK, France, the USA and Russia.

The exhibition at MAMM will show the film ‘Tselkov Walk’ by French director Nicolas Hidiro, based on an essay by Goncourt Prize laureate Emmanuel Carrère. There will be screenings of the documentary film ‘I’m Not From Here, I’m A Stranger’ (director: Alexander Shatalov), about the life and work of the artist, at 17:00 on September 25, October 16 and November 20, in the museum’s cinema.

The museum expresses deep gratitude to Igor Tsukanov for help in organising the exhibition, and would also like to thank the AZ Museum and in particular Natalia Opaleva, the VLADEY Auction, and Irina and Sergei Lukinov for providing the works, also Igor Palmin and Vladimir Sychev for providing photographs for the exhibition. The museum is grateful to the Andrei Cheglakov Foundation for providing the film ‘Oleg Tselkov. I’m Not From Here, I’m A Stranger’ for screening as part of the exhibition.

 

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