In 1960, a young Moscow painter had just portrayed a man’s face when he realized that he had unintentionally depicted something else: The face of Man. Not any particular face, more or less appealing, more or less familiar, but the very face that lies hidden behind all faces. Not just of a human being, but all of humanity. The face of all mankind had vaguely taken on the appearance of a spud torn open by a gap-toothed mouth, but it was unmistakable: It was the real thing. The young artist had not sought out this effect: It just appeared, it confronted him. There was much to be impressed about—and he was—but also in a certain way, he was relieved to be spared the fumbling, the hesitations, the dead-ends that are common to all, even the greatest, artists. It was no longer his problem, this was no concern of his anymore. A way had opened up to him, and his life would be devoted to following that path. Fifty-four years later he’s still on it.
The young painter was Oleg Tselkov. Born in 1934, he was the perfect poster boy for the sixties generation, the shestidesiatniki, who grew up amid the Great Terror, then during the Great Patriotic War—as WWII was known in the Soviet Union—and matured when the revolution, according to Anna Akhmatova, became vegetarian: meaning that it was no longer devouring its children and that the horrors of the Stalin years mutated into the gray, morose but relatively peaceful Khrushchev and then Brezhnev years. Fear still lingered but it was less extreme and less convulsive. They lived badly, but they still lived. They stayed warm drinking and conversing in kitchens and telling Soviet-era jokes, like: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” or “The Western attempts to bring the USSR to its knees were futile; it stayed flat on its back” (this one, less well known, I got it from Olga Schmitt, we’ll hear more about her in a moment).
In those days, artists had two choices. On the one hand, official art, which was exhibited, praised, rewarded, and despite being proletarian was essentially petit-bourgeois; on the other hand, there was non-official art, banned, dissident, avant-gardist, and for all these reasons denounced as bourgeois. The young Oleg Tselkov was burdened with all the stigmas of the non-official artist: kicked out from every art institute, expelled from all the academies, excluded from joint exhibits. Legend has it that he not only sneaked in to the basement of the Russian Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to make surreptitious copies of Malevich works, but that one of these copies is now on display there: fake Malevich, real Tselkov.
There’s a lot of legend about Tselkov, who rapidly gained mythical status in Moscow’s underground, and most of it is true on the word of Olga Schmitt, who is his stepdaughter and one of my best friends. She was brought up by him, and now she’s dedicated herself, with evident success, to enhancing his international acclaim. Legend and Olga mention that his studio was so tiny he could not step back far enough from his paintings and had to use binoculars backwards to get a full view of them. They say Henri Cartier-Bresson, passing through Moscow, shot his portrait and that Tselkov had so many groupies that copies of this photograph were pinned up—next to snapshots of Vladimir Vysotsky—in all the kommunalki, the communal apartments of the capital. I was told that another visitor, Arthur Miller, brought along by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, wanted to buy one of his paintings and asked about the price. Oleg wasn’t selling in those days but his bottom line was and still is top price: He asked for 500. “Dollars,” thought the famous playwright, considering it cheap, but Oleg was thinking rubles, and even though 500 rubles was chickenfeed, it was a fortune for Oleg, and that’s how Marilyn Monroe’s husband became the first owner of a Tselkov in the West. Legend and Olga also describe how Oleg met his wife, Tonya. He was drunk, plastered as he often was, blotto in the way Russians can be, he sat bedraggled, in a daze, watching the boob tube. Suddenly there appeared on the screen the face of a woman so breath-taking that he exclaimed without hesitation: “She’s mine! She’s my wife!” Tonya, a famous actress, was performing in Ostrovsky’s play The Abyss. In the evening, Oleg met up with friends at the home of Bella Akhmadulina, the poet, and it’s interesting how things arrange themselves in the lives of geniuses—the famous actress was there. He approached her, took her by the hand and addressed as witnesses the group of friends who surrounded him: “You all know my wife, don’t you?” The famous actress didn’t bat an eyelash. She took him under her wing, the impoverished and alcoholic painter who depicted what lurks beneath the human face, and from that day on they were inseparable. She nourished and cared for him and totally dedicated herself to him. Her daughter, Olga, came to live with them.
Tselkov did not consider himself a dissident, even though he was obviously closer to being dissident than official, all his friends were more or less dissidents, and in Oleg’s and Tonya’s milieu people distributed samizdat, copying by hand the clandestine Gulag Archipelago manuscript. His only concern was to survive without making waves and do what he must do, stay on course, lavish the human face with sumptuous colors, all that purple and emerald green which only he can create—colors that make a Tselkov stand out at a hundred meters, dominating all the surrounding canvasses. And you can ask yourself whether these are the faces of executioners or victims, whether he is denouncing something in depicting them. But for Oleg, this is not the right question. It’s not Homo sovieticus he’s painting, it’s just plain man. Like his friend Joseph Brodsky, he was more un-Soviet than anti-Soviet, and it’s this “social parasite,” as opposed to dissident, quality that led him, along with Brodsky a few years later, to be banished from the Soviet Union in 1977.
Many Russians who left their native land either voluntarily or under compulsion in those days compare this exile to an amputation and speak of it with incurable nostalgia: not Tselkov. For him, homeland was a few square meters where he painted tirelessly, patiently, like Andrei Rublev painted his icons or Giorgio Morandi his bottles, and he saw no impediment to transplanting those scanty square meters to the Eleventh arrondissement of Paris. Moreover, he was lucky to expand the space where he lives and works, never going out any more than a monk in his cell. When he arrived, along with Olga and Tonya, they did not have a centime and did not speak a word of French (incidentally, neither he nor Tonya became much more fluent). But an auspicious sale, one of the many milestones of his career, allowed him to move into a roomy apartment on the Rue Saint-Maur that they have never left. There is no atelier as such. His studio is in a corner of the living room between the grand piano and the bookshelves full of books in Russian. And this corner is impeccably neat: no artist’s disarray here, no rags or dripping colors; after nearly forty years there’s barely been a paint spot on the carpet. He starts in the morning, at 12:30 cooks some vegetable soup, and after lunch gets back to it. The workday ends at 7 o’clock, when he uncorks the first of two bottles of red he drinks in the evening—or rather, used to drink, because at the age of 84 he had to stop, and after an entire life of assiduous boozing he’s adapted nicely to the change. Painting after painting, the works succeed each other; when he finishes one he hangs it in the sitting room, if it sells, another one takes its place.
Over the years, his fame has steadily increased without his efforts. For a long time, it was subterranean, maintained by a happy few admirers and collectors who circulated as if it were a password the name and legend of the greatest postwar Russian painter. For several years now, and mainly because of Olga, his reputation has become huge. Major museums acquired his works, and it is the time for tremendous retrospectives. Is he overjoyed? Without a doubt, but in my opinion, he enjoys even more the borsch prepared by Tonya, because borsch is far more concrete than fame, and Tselkov is of the material world; he believes in the concrete, he’s not pursuing the quixotic. Pursuing the hidden face of man is more than enough.
Perhaps he tells himself how fortunate he was to be assigned a task clearly and early on. It came down to him, he responded to the call. Life was filled with adventures and ambushes, but in the end it was simple. He followed the path, the path led him, he confronted what no one wants to face up to, and, strangely enough, when you do that, you find yourself at peace. You wake up in the morning to do what you have to do, at night you go to sleep having done it; you know you will do it until you die. And if that’s the way it is, you can watch death approach with a minimum of anxiety.
In the meantime, you paint.
Translated from the French by Jean-Claude Bouis