Kolyada and Old Moscow

THE OLD MOSCOW OF ARTIST
Sergei Avksentevich KOLYADA
By Vladimir KOSTIN

Sergei Avksentevich was born in Moscow in 1907. His family’s home was in Sokolniki and even as a child he was well acquainted with this typical outlying of Moscow with its little lanes, its tiny houses of wood and stone. Later, when he moved to other districts of the city, he came to know and love the quiet streets and lanes of Zamoskvorechie, Taganka and Arbat. There the churches seemingly formed the centrepieces of both characteristic and unique architectural ensembles.

Childhood impressions often remain with an artist all his life, but are not usually visible in all periods of his artistic development. More often they surface after many years of endeavour, of searching, of experimentation in various genres and kinds of art – and Kolyada is no exception. It was only in the mid-1960’s that Kolyada’s childhood impressions of old Moscow came to the fore with unusual clarity and precision. And so he began to seek out and find the (alas!) already vanishing streets, buildings and courtyards whose poetry he had come to love and cherish more and more.

But this happened at a time when he had lived on this earth for over fifty years; when he had left far behind him his days of study in the Institute Superior of Arts and Techniques (Vhutemas) under S. Guerasimov, A. Drevin, M. Rodionov, as well as D. Shterenberg, in whose studio he executed the work that was to gain him his diploma (final honours thesis). This was followed by the years of public office and administrative work in the Moscow Oblast Artists Union, of participation in a host of exhibitions, of work on portraits, still lives and thematic paintings.

But all this had been preceded by an event that was to prove crucial to Kolyada’s career as an artist.

This was his meeting with Nicolai Petrovich Krymov in whose private studio Kolyada studied in 1925 before entering the “Vhutemas”.

The most significant feature of  Krymov’s work both as an artist and as a teacher was his insistence on the primacy in art of tonal contrast and depth of tone. He regarded as particularly important the artist’s ability to sense the overall depth of tone in a landscape, the strength and degree of saturation of the light in it, and to convey this accurately. The master taught that if the overall impression of tone in a landscape, or in any other artistic depiction of reality was correct, this freed the artist from paying excessive attention to fine detail and imparted a depth to the work, assisting in correctly arranging the components of the composition on the canvas and making possible the creation of a truly realistic work. These lessons were mastered for all time by the budding artist even though he was shortly to come up against a completely different conception of art when he entered the “Vhutemas”. Here colour, not tone, and especially the innate colour characteristics of a particular object irrespective of differences of illumination, was proclaimed (especially in Shterenberg’s studio) to be the most important thing in the artistic depiction of the world.

However, the union of these two different artistic methods was definitely beneficial to Kolyada insofar as it saved him from following either of them too slavishly, since both of  his teachers (Krymov and Shterenberg), while each vigorously maintaining the unique correctness of his own particular principle in theory, in practice adopted a compromise between tone and colour in many of their actual works.

And when in 1964 Kolyada was at last able to start painting landscapes of old Moscow from life, the thing he was most conscious of was the necessity of accurately conveying the overall depth of tone of the scene, the strength of the light and the degree of illumination in the landscape at the moment of recording it on canvas. This accuracy in the artistic transmission of the overall intensity of illumination usually yields, the most convincing expression of a particular condition of nature, that which we call the “atmosphere” and “poetry” of a landscape.

However, Kolyada’s works show that he also never forgot that it is essential to convey the rich variety of colour and the ornamental beauty of the buildings, churches and streets of old Moscow.

Work on the series of studies of old Moscow landscapes completely absorbed the artist for all of the ensuing period of almost twenty years. The series was inspired by an inner spiritual need, interpreted as an artistic duty, to record for posterity, with the greatest possible accuracy and truth, the face of old Moscow before it became transformed beyond recognition by new building projects.

The desire to convey the poetic content of the landscapes of Old Moscow determined the strictly harmonious, gentle and compositionally organised pictorial structure of  Kolyada’s series of Old Moscow paintings. Kolyada’s landscapes are modest in theme and composition. They are devoid of deliberate striving for effects and are notable for their avoidance of particularly famous or beautiful buildings or ensembles. Conversely, most of the paintings depict the humblest, sometimes even run-down and neglected backyards and streets with single or two-storey dwellings that are simply awaiting their final hour.

In his portraits of streets and buildings, the artist pays particular attention in attempting to convey their past by recording signs of modifications or extensions, as well as the tell-tale marks of no longer existent structures, such as the square discoloured patches left by former apartments on neighbouring walls and the remains of various reinforcements and supports. This recording of the visual history of the buildings imparts warmth and vitality to Kolyada’s landscapes : it is as if we can meet in them beings from the past who have experienced and seen much that is still of interest to us today.

The pictorial structure of the “Old Moscow” landscape series is very free and conveys an impression of lightness, naturalness and simplicity. If you examine the paintings carefully, you can see the mixture of liveliness and austerity in the design, the feeling of the architectural proportions, the ability to convey with the merest hint the character of a door or a window and their surrounds and ornamentation. The series also contains straightforward portraits of individual buildings. A typical house is painted in some detail with full depiction of all the architectural embellishments of the façade, the windows, and the door from which the figure standing at the corner has perhaps just emerged.

On the whole, the presence of people can be sensed even when they cannot be seen in the empty streets. Kolyada has the knack of conveying the feel of traffic as well, of depicting crowds of people as well as individual figures in his cityscapes. Two of the master’s paintings illustrate this particularly well. They are: “Rain in Bolshaya Alekseevskaya Street (1978) and Mianistkiye Vorota (1975) owned by the Tretiakov Gallery.

The figures are executed in the rapid, fluid manner of a study, yet nearly every one of them, even though merging with the crowd, maintains its own unique “look”.

Myanitskiye Vorota” shows buildings running off towards Red Gate, cars filling the street while crowds of people travel along both sides of it. But oddly enough, looking at this huge mass of moving vehicles and people, we can hardly isolate one single figure or separate car. And it is with precisely this device that the artist manages to convey the customary feeling of the city person walking along the street, constantly seeing everything yet distinguishing nothing from the mass of familiar impressions.

In Kolyada’s landscapes everything seems to be painted with great clarity and fidelity and at the same time only a single fleeting moment has been recorded. It is in this that we see the facility – acquired directly from Krymov, of achieving with a mere touch of the brush and a sort of carefree dab, the portrayal of objects, people, streets, traffic and other details of the cityscape.

Particularly successful are the landscapes showing little streets and old houses with the gnarled trees in front of them – which are in turn, luxuriant in summer and gaunt in winter and autumn. Without creating an illusory depth, the artist is able to give a convincing account of the dense asphalt of the roadway, streets going off into the distance, the crooked old laneways, the natural rhythm of the variously ornamented little houses, each of which seems both thoroughly familiar and surprisingly novel.

In many of the landscapes, the minor key is rejected in favour of the cheerful resonance of the major tonality in the beauty of the old churches, the architecture which the artist feels and understands so well. We recognise unfailingly by no more than their cupolas, or a silhouette, the church of the Saviour “On the Blocks”, the Church of Sergei Radonezhsky and many other beautiful monuments to the ancient architecture of Moscow which the artist has painted as they are: surrounded by the old city blocks and streets of the capital. The richness of their forms and their architecture – whether solemn and severe or showy and festive, are treated by the artist with the same naturalness and simplicity as all the other elements of the landscape.

All of these features combine to constitute the pictorial music of Sergei Avksentevich Kolyada’s outstanding series of paintings entitled “Old Moscow”.

Vladimir KOSTIN, Honoured Artist of the RSFSR – 1985

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