The One Raising the Banner: Geli Korzhev

G. O.

‘Raising the banner’ is the name of the central picture in the triptych ‘Communists’. It has been painted by the prominent Russian artist Geli Mikhailovich Korzhev who died in Moscow at the age of 87 on August 27, 2012. The event once again drew public attention to the amazing artist – one of the creators of the so-called ‘Severe Style’ school within the framework of socialist realism. No makeup, no eyes closed upon any contradiction between what is said and what is real… Close social focus upon history and the real world out there was Korzhev’s most principled position. And the origin of such position probably lies within Hamlet’s words: ‘I must be cruel, only to be kind’.

I was shocked by Geli Korzhev’s paintings that have widely been presented on the occasion of his death in several Russian and foreign websites. It was not that I had been unfamiliar with his work before. But the ‘textbook’ works by Korzhev – ‘Farewell’, ‘Don Quixote and Sancho’, ‘Old wounds’, ‘Anxiety’ and others – that scalded me once in my youth with their unusual and frightening naked honesty, – had been forgotten over the years. And in more recent times, his subsequent paintings have almost never been presented in the so-called ‘thick magazines’ that the provincial folks (myself included) like to read.

Yet, he has a great number of them. And despite formal statements like ‘they belong to socialist realism as the main direction of Soviet art’, it seems to me that Korzhev has tried himself in other genres – e.g. allegoric, modernist, Christian-moralistic. There is one main thing, however, that unites all the stages of his work. And that is loyalty to once chosen style of vigorous, resounding truthfulness.

Even after his death, Geli Korzhev is apparently inconvenient to some liberal periodicals adhering to the format specified by bourgeois standards. No wonder he is! Until his death, he remained a communist, although his mentality underwent certain corrections as he was ageing. In spite of everything, he had never denied any of his ‘vigorously communist’ paintings written in his youth. Like his other works, each one of those had been filled with his soul, his blood and his deep thoughts. And perhaps, despite the ‘utopian’ theme, as one would say now, his paintings are still ‘competitive’ in the sense that they are in demand.

For sure, his name cannot be silenced, given all the grandiosity of this galvanising, thoroughly woven passionate creativity that leaves no spectator indifferent. Even those users who randomly bump into the exhibitions of his paintings while surfing the internet for fun, have been (according to their own accounts) struck by apoplexy from what they have seen.

The best art galleries in the world such as the Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum, the Museum of Russian Art in the United States, are proud to have a collection of Geli Korzhev’s paintings. It would not be exaggerated to say that his work has earned a worldwide recognition. But that only occurred in the seventh decade of the maestro’s life. For a long time, and for reasons known only to him, Geli Korzhev adhered to his status of being non-public. Multiple offers to organise an exhibition by museum professionals from several countries were rejected. Eminent collectors left him with nothing after many hours of polite conversation: the artist did not want to part with his works. Only when the impending end was about to come, Korzhev was prompted to think about sharing his heritage in some good hands. His ‘Moscow-Berlin’ and ‘Moscow-Warsaw’ exhibitions earned huge success. In 2007, a great-looking retrospective exhibition of his work was hosted in the United States at the Museum of Russian Art.

He was so far from behaviour such as posing or promotion. Korzhev did not impose his clearly defined life values upon others, although he could – given all the leadership positions he was holding in the Soviet cultural hierarchy. In particular, from 1968 to 1975 he was a Chairman on the board of the Union of Artists of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Even in the pictures portraying himself, it looks as though he says: ‘It’s not me in charge. Look more widely, penetrate more deeply into the essence of things. I'm just your guide…’ His artistic images are saying it indirectly.

Geli Korzhev was a master of that very ‘heavy artillery’ of the ‘severe style’ genre that can confidently target key social objectives. Take his latest works, for instance – the ‘Triumphers’, ‘Don Quixote and the Windmill’, ‘Deprived of Paradise’, ‘Adam Alexeevich and Eva Petrovna’, ‘Garbage site’, ‘Get up, Ivan’. Haven’t they much to say about us, about the society in which we live, about the absurdity of what has happened to the descendants of the ones who had been ‘raising the banner’, about the impoverishment of spirit. These great paintings portray a detailed version of a national trouble scenario... Where did the artist get all the strength, during his last years, to portray such hopelessness? And how one could be able to suffer for Russia, for the fate of everyone whom she had taken to under her wing, to throw these sufferings on a canvas by the desperate strokes of a brush!

A humble intellectual, he was not that kind of ‘epic hero’ protecting mankind on the brink of the world. Most likely, he felt himself like that ‘Gardener’ expected by the Russians during their ‘stagnation’ and ‘perestroika’. Remember that? A gardener would come, and cut away all the unnecessary things by his steady hand, cure the things that were aching, clear up the ground left without care... The old soldier portrayed in Geli Korzhev’s ‘Worries’. Placing his hand on a shoulder of a young girl who represents the spring and dawn of a new life, he sensibly protects her peace, casting his wary looks around.

One can spend hours thinking in front of any of his paintings. No need to say once again about what is interesting and what has caused a thunderstorm of emotions. I only want to pay attention to the ones that express his general line most vividly. The line that goes through all Geli Korzhev’s work, and therefore his personal life, because he many times repeated that ‘he writes the way he wants and the way he lives’.

‘Raising the banner’. It was painted in the late 1950s. Not only it stays in the centre of the triptych ‘The Communists’, but also it is central to all of his work. A kind of ‘visiting card’ for the artist. Its context is quite minimal: a cobblestone road crossed by tram rails. A manifestation broken by violence. Dead bodies of workers. One of them has survived and is supposed to run for his life and hide! Because it is clear that the fight has been lost. But no way! Too much hatred has been accumulated against the oppressors. Incredibly great is Desire to brush the Injustice away. They won’t flinch – strong arms will grasp the fallen banners of struggle, and the struggle will go on… An immensely energetic painting that makes one believe unequivocally: these fighters are not the ones to be broken, to be destroyed.

It’s been more than half a century. Heroes of the paintings changed noticeably. Less admiration they cause. More bitterness is there. The language of colours is getting fiercer.

Here is one of his latest works – the ‘Triumphers’. Its meaning may not be immediately clear to the modern audience. Not only it is highly allegorical, but it also highlights the fantastic creature – either a putrescent bird with an underdeveloped human torso, or a degenerated homo sapiens with a vulture's head and a tail that of a fat turkey. But, those spectators who closely follow history, and are familiar with Geli Korzhev’s series of paintings called ‘Mutants’, – can understand its meaning. Especially, if you pay attention to the year when the work began – 1993, the memorable massacre of those who defended the House of Soviets – the last stronghold of the People’s Democracy of Russia. Having satisfied its thirst for blood, the creature tramples a red banner and triumphantly sets up a black flag. Its ‘assistants’ are next to its shoulders: military force (with a face lacking any expression) ready to grasp the same flag, and… the ideological litter, or, officially put, ‘service’. And don’t you say that the media is not pursuing ideological goals these days. In disguise of the ‘freedom of speech’, it corrupts and pacifies those ‘masses’ who are accustomed to swallow information without thinking, skillfully undermining mental health of those able to resist. It is not accidental also, that the artist depicted the vulture’s loyal henchman with a bird's head. Only a birdbrain can accept foul-smelling ‘bucks’ so shamelessly, pretending not to notice blood on its beak.

And what about ‘the community’? On one hand – the figures of the modern ‘leaders’ and ‘thinkers’ (beefy muscles and fat bellies) cowering with fear. On the other – the thoughtless, careless youth, of neither elite nor (yet) proletarian appearance. Eating away the social benefits created by the ancestor’s hand, they do not yet fully understand the degree of wretchedness of their position: walking indifferently away from the place of execution.

The one who lost this battle is deprived of his face as well, barely seen on the backgound. Looking at his neat shoes, we perhaps can guess, who was opposing the ‘Triumphers’: perhaps a young dreamer from ‘Yegorka The Flier’ (one of the earlier paintings by Geli Korzhev), or the young guy lying under the heavy wheel in the picture ‘Overrun’. Little tiny Don Quixotes stunned by hypocrisy and lies, confused by the unjust order of things?

Geli often brings up subjects of Memory, of continuity and succession between generations, of Responsibility, including that of the living ones towards the ancestors. Throughout his long and fruitful work, he constantly refers back to the War. It was indeed a period when the most important human qualities were exposed to their highest extremes. Whether to stay at the forefront and get killed? Or be fainthearted, run and live with a stigma of Judah?

At the dawn of the Third Millennium, various voices were chattering of a ‘New Era’ for the mankind exhausted by its challenges. Geli paints a requiem picture called ‘Human Screen’. The story is as terse as usual: in front of the advancing troops, invaders have placed all the remaining villagers – elderly and children, women with babies in their arms, husbands crippled by the war… They are standing, doomed between the two great armies, as though from Heaven looking in the eyes of all who came to see the picture. None of them is hysterical, all bear their fate with dignity – to remain the ‘living screen’ for their home land. They stay silent, but their iconic faces bear a question: ‘How are you going to live on our land stained by our blood, you the ones who sprout through our ashes? Is all the sacrifice useless?’

Geli Korzhev’s ‘severe style’ can be understood most vividly in this picture. Ephemeral joy and sorrow, cute little faces, sweet landscapes – do not attract him. His heroes are tired-out, long-suffering people. He explores the depth of life, its ever-lasting truth. Everything comes and goes – youth, beauty, career, love… Everything is short-lived! And for what purpose, in this short period, we have to suffer from anger and malice, from meanness and cruelty, from stupefying work beyond human strength? Why do we humans tolerate this?

Geli’s spiritual testament can, in my opinion, be found in the merciless realist painting ‘Rise up, Ivan!’ He repeatedly came back to it, reworked it, strengthened expression of the scene: from civil indignation to social anger to tragedy. Originally a boozer failing to reach home and symbolising the working class misguided by political lies, in the final version he turns into a worn-out and discarded ‘part of the social machine’… Backyard, rusted barrels, minimum snack, maximum drink… A figure lying on snow, that of a wiry hard worker whose hands are still strong and only recently, it seems, were grasping a pick or a pole… Those who are so afraid of your deadly grip and uncompromisingly pressed lips – hard they have worked to make your head dizzy, to switch you off the driving force of history…

‘Rise up, Ivan!’ – encourages the artist. ‘Brush off the spider web that entangles you, come back to the road lost. The road of Reason, Virtue and Justice!’

Translated from the Russian by Vitaly Pershin.

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