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Sergey Kalmykov: Why was the last Russian avant-garde considered a city madman

The popular opinion, according to which every genius is a little crazy, with respect to Sergei Ivanovich Kalmykov, acquires special significance. The history of this artist, who managed not only to survive in the era of repression, but also to continue the traditions of the Russian avant-garde, proves: there are times when madness is the highest form of wisdom.

Young man on a red horse
Although Sergei was born in 1891 in Samarkand, his first impressions are related to Orenburg, where his family soon moved. There Kalmykov graduated from high school and, making sure that the provincial life leaves little chance for self-realization, he waved first to Moscow, where he studied for some time in Yuon’s studio, and then to Petersburg.

In Petersburg, 1910s a unique creative environment was formed in which such brush masters as Dobuzhinsky, Petrov-Vodkin, and Bakst worked simultaneously. The aspiring artist gets to know them at the Zvantseva art school and is fond of the ideas of avant-garde. Very soon, he finds his own style, his ideas and enters into the circle of avant-garde artists as an equal. Moreover: Sergey’s work begins to influence his teachers. It is believed that the famous “Bathing the Red Horse” (1912) is doubly obliged to Kalmykov: Petrov-Vodkin not only portrayed him as a young man on a red horse, but was also inspired by Sergey’s painting “Red Horses”, written a year earlier.

By 1917, Kalmykov became one of the most promising representatives of the Russian avant-garde. He was considered such even after the revolution – during that short period when the Soviet government considered it acceptable to deviate from realism in painting and even patronized the same Malevich. But the favorable period did not last long.

Even in his youth, friends considered Sergei a man living on his own wave. Paradoxically, this estrangement from this world allowed Kalmykov to feel what was hidden from others, to notice the slightest changes in the social atmosphere, to foresee and foresee. In 1926, on the eve of the first wave of persecution of the “former”, he forever left Leningrad, saving himself from many problems. Kalmykov returns to the city of childhood – Orenburg, where for the time being censorship does not pay unkind attention to the strange, far from revolutionary ideas, world of his paintings.

In Orenburg Kalmykov fruitfully worked for 9 years: he painted, made sketches of theatrical costumes and scenery. But little by little, the nuts begin to tighten here too: every now and then the remarks are heard that the paintings of Kalmykov are incomprehensible to Soviet people, and there is no realism in them. The artist did not wait until they were interested in not only critics, but also the relevant authorities, and moved again.

This time Kalmykov returned to where he was born – to Central Asia. From 1935 until his death in 1967, he lived without a break in Alma-Ata, where he worked for many years as a decorator in the opera and ballet theater. There he created a huge number of works – about one and a half thousand. Modern art historians define their style as a combination of expressionism and surrealism, although many researchers believe that the late Kalmykov cannot be reckoned with any artistic movement – his work is unique.

Looking at the paintings of Kalmykov with their fantastically vivid colors and mysterious subjects, it is difficult to imagine that they were created in the era of socialist realism. But in Alma-Ata, the attitude to surrealism or avant-garde was simpler than in Moscow, also because the local creative elite vaguely imagined what it was. However, the main means of salvation for the last Russian avant-garde was the mask of a madman voluntarily put on by him.

Well aware of the very special attitude to the holy fools characteristic of Central Asia, the former representative of the St. Petersburg bohemia appeared before the townspeople in a characteristic way. He wore a cloak to which tin cans were attached, a yellow frock coat, multi-colored trousers, a scarlet visor, and he himself invented and sewed his bright outfits. Every day he went outside and painted, but never sold his work, preferring to donate it. In his one-room apartment, instead of furniture, there were piles of newspapers, and the artist ate only bread, milk and vegetables.

Exotic appearance and eccentric behavior did not prevent Kalmykov from perfectly performing his work as a decorator: he was even awarded a medal for valiant work. But everyone considered him something like a city madman, and what crazy demand? And therefore, all the repressions of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the persecution of abstractionists of the Khrushchev era, bypassed Kalmykov.

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