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Oleg Vassiliev is one of the most highly respected figures in Russian contemporary art. He was born in Moscow in 1931. He attended the Moscow Secondary Art School from 1947 to 1952 and graduated from the Surikov Institute of Art in 1958 with a specialty in graphics. From the time of his graduation until his emigration, Vassiliev worked as a children’s book illustrator in close collaboration with his boyhood friends Eric Bulatov and Ilya Kabakov. In 1990 he immigrated to New York. He lived and worked in St. Paul, Minnesota until his death on January 25, 2013.
Vassiliev has been the recipient of numerous artistic awards and grants, including from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (1994 & 2002). He also was the first recipient in 1999 of the “Liberty Prize,” which is awarded jointly by the Russian Ministry of Culture and the American University in Moscow.
How I Became an Artist
(Instead of Autobiography)
did I become an artist?
How do I perceive myself as
an artist? How did I find myself in the circle of unofficial
artists? Have I become someone I dreamed of becoming?
have previously written on similar themes in the text to my work Substitutions and
102 pages. An article on my attitude toward painting was
published in A-Ya magazine.
Reflections on my encounters with the painter V. A. Favorsky
included in a two-volume set dedicated to Favorsky's life and work.
Reflections on my collaboration with Eric Bulatov on
book illustrations were published in Pastor.
Other writings have been about memory, about friends and
colleagues. It is possible now that I will be repetitious,
inconsequential, or worse, forgetful.
Memory, after all, is not a simple imprint, but a "metaphysical, creative memory." It selects and intensifies some aspects of the past, erases other, transforms them, spruces them up and even dramatizes them. The theme of memory is one of the most important for me.
Fallen Leaves is the name of one of my paintings. Leaves naturally reappear each spring. But before their appearance there is a brief flurry of withered leaves from the previous year - a metaphor for personal memory. Life continues as long as memory exists.
"Poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree" (Keats). this does not pertain to me. I do not feel like a "creator." For me, each painting is a labor filled with doubt, bordering on despair. Only much later in life did I realize what my professor had in mind when he used to tell me: "You are lazy, Vassiliev, plain lazy!" At that time, I was completely absorbed in my work, I thought, even more so than others. I was at ease as long as I didn't begin "to ponder." Later, due to my "pensiveness" in Plantonov's sense, I turned out to be an "unofficial."
In childhood, I loved to copy postcards. I liked Shishkin and Germashov: Germashov especially, because his work was comprehensible and not as busy as Shishkin's. I fondly remember postcards of Germashov's pictures: one, a winter evening, as small house in a forest, and a light in its window. Another: late autumn, a yellow house, windows with white casings, a birch-lined walk, and puddles on the road all surrounded by a white border. A third: also in autumn, a courtyard, a fence iwth a stone gate, yellowish-red trees behind the fence and, in the foreground, a little old man sweeping away leaves from the path.
At the Tretyakov Gallery, I liked Shishkin, Vasnetsov, Levitan and, standing by itself, Ivanov's Christ Appearing to the People. Later, when I was in the Moscow Secondary Art School, Levitan overshadowed them all.
War, evacuation, and return to Moscow changed the nature of my pursuits. I became indifferent to my previous interests. Painting departed my life completely. In the courtyard I was teased for my Vyatsky accent, which I had acquired in Kirov (our evacuation place; now it is Vyatka again). Fortunately, my biggest "tormentor" was weaker than I and we became friends. Our main activity was "playing war" - battles with sticks and a salute after each of our victories at the front. We blew up cartridges and grenades, which we stole from the nearby military depot. Incapacitated German tanks had been brought there from the front line. There was no guard.
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