Yuri Grachev: An Artist in His Own Right

It would be unfair to categorize Yuri Grachev as belonging to a particular time period or group of artists. In the 1960s, at the beginning of his career in the former Soviet Union, he did not belong to the so-called shestidesiatniki ("sixtyites"). His academic drawings did not belong to the school of "socialist realism. And when while working in applied art he produced tapestries with geometric or abstract compositions he was neither an "geometrist" nor an "abstractionist." Is there really any need to pin these artistic "labels" on every single artist? Yuri Grachev lived his life as an independent artistic entity. There were, in fact, two Grachevs: the Russian-Soviet Grachev of the 1960-70s and the American Grachev of the 1980-90s. This was an academic draughtsman and an artist who was also a textile designer, an expressionist in drawing and painting and a stage artist. He admired the eternal classics such as Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci and such twentieth-century rebels as Picasso and Van Gogh. For years the acknowledged leader of a group of Moscow artists and of dozens of friends, he was also a New York recluse, secluded in his family circle. Primarily drawn towards harmony rather than the trappings of artistry or involvement with well-respected groups of artists and prestigious societies, Grachev seems to transcend the bounds of time. Though he may have succumbed in the daily struggle for survival, in his unswerving desire to create genuine art he was clearly victorious. And he was successful as an artist, with his own vision and honest approach to art.

As a vulnerable child victim of the hungry, impoverished and devastated postwar 1940s, Grachev's love of art and strength of character enabled him to survive great hardships. He drew strength from a deep-seated interest in culture, a love for the singing of Chaliapin and the music of Bach. Yuri was admitted to the prestigious and elite Moscow high school of art at the well-known Surikov institute (or, as it was then known, the "school for gifted children"), where he was considered the best draughtsman. From early childhood he was fascinated by the works of Alexander Ivanov, Mikhail Vrubel and Valentin Serov, and studied in the art school located directly opposite the State Tretyakov Gallery. Along with his classmates he spent days studying works of the classical Russian masters, and the museum was his second school.

Since many instructors at the art school had themselves studied with such masters as Konstantin Korovin and Konstantin Savitsky, the courses were imbued with the traditional heritage of Russian classical art. One of the leading teachers, Aleksander Barshch, was the author of an extremely popular book on the technique of drawing which had served as a Bible to many generations of art school students and whose cover featured a drawing by the young Grachev. There were also frequent excursions to the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum where the young artist spent hours studying paintings of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and admiring the powerful works of Rembrandt. All of these influences would later be reflected in his creations.

Following graduation, Grachev was admitted to the decorative-applied arts department of the Textile Institute which was dominated by the freedom-loving spirit of the best Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920-30s. Particular homage was paid to Liubov' Popova and Alexandr Deineka. Together with his friends from the Institute Grachev began experimenting, introducing into his works some of the best discoveries of the twentieth century which, however, were not applauded by his teachers: open color, an enhanced sense of ornamentation, elements of Cubism and Expressionism and collages. This was occurring at a time when Socialist Realism was the major official trend in art. Though artistic freethinking was punished through "purges" and cancellation of their scholarships, the initiatives of this group of young artists went down in the history of the school. Their manner of expression later became an integral part of the Institute's course of work.

Though he participated in the first exhibition of new art at the Polytechnical Museum in 1963 during the Khrushchev "thaw" and regularly exhibited abstract-geometric tapestries at the annual shows of the Moscow Manezh and Central House of Artists as well as in India, Poland and Hungary, after his graduation from the Institute the bold artistic ventures of the talented young draughtsman and his artistic credo failed to flower. The need to earn a living prompted him to create designs for tapestries and theater curtains. Here Grachev achieved genuine success as a professional while leading the respectable but boring life of an artist-administrator. This basic struggle for survival that crushed artistic ardor was typical of many Soviet artists. At the end of the 1960s Grachev's involvement in the movement for the modernization of art and departure from Socialist Realism towards genuine freedom of creation gained him increasing respect and recognition from freethinking and artistic circles in Moscow, where he taught drawing and painting at the Textile Institute.

Grachev's output of drawings was still fairly small. These classical pieces displayed a precise and ideal line and texture inherited from the tradition of Renaissance artists, in particular from his hero Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet Grachev's feeling that he was not fulfilled as a genuine artist prompted him to leave the USSR in 1977 with his wife and daughter for the US, where he hoped to find the opportunity to fulfill his natural artistic talents. The thorny road of emigration took Grachev through Rome, that mecca of art where he saw the works of those Renaissance painters who had had such a strong influence on him twenty years earlier and paintings by modern Italian and Western European artists which intensified his hope that in America he could devote himself to art.

His education in the precepts of the classical school and academic drawing formed the basis for Grachev's unhindered development as an artist in his new American artistic milieu. The psychological barriers of adaptation to a new social and artistic life, however, proved more difficult to overcome. Despite all of the burdens of emigre life and the struggle for survival which meant that he could draw only in his free time (he jokingly called himself a "Sunday painter"), Grachev's drawing began to develop in a totally different direction, absorbing the culture of his new country along with his new experiences. In a sense this trained and talented classical draughtsman started learning about drawing all over again from an entirely new perspective.

Grachev's drawings seem to emerge spontaneously and fully formed, reminiscent of the way a printer is programmed to roll down a page in a series of smooth sweeps. He has been compared to a potter at the wheel; his drawings came to life in his fingers as clay takes on shape in a potter's hands. Hence the dynamic strength and energy in his works, a sense of their physically tangible reality. Though he later declared that his works were as "fragmented" and split as he himself was, he was an artist of integrity, an artist unburdened by doubts. He followed his own inner star, his drive, his principles. His images were incarnated in an intangible and straightforward form incapable of hypocritically adapting to fashionable artistic trends in art. Grachev knew what to draw. He "saw" a future drawing, and his vision and way of interpreting the world was independent of those styles to which his art would or could be ascribed.

The artist's first new theme in America and later his major one was that of the homeless and poor, those uniquely strange symbols of New York which so stunned and intrigued the painter. A student of philosophy and a believer in Tolstoy's theory of nonresistance to evil, Grachev chose kindness as his unshakeable credo. The sight of an unhappy person made him suffer. The poor and homeless whom he depicted represent his own suffering, a suffering from which he tried to stand aside and as an artist and passive observer attempt to convey the truth to the viewer. His series of several hundred works portraying homeless people is unique to both Russian and American art. Grachev's interest here in an obvious but virtually unused subject for an artist reveals a highly personal vision of the world and places his works among the unique achievements of artists of recent decades.

Grachev's homeless people are rooted in Russian art of the nineteenth century, the "Peredvizhniki" (Itinerants) tradition reflecting the stark, bleak reality of the lives of working people. This was part of that tradition of Russian classical drawing in which common subjects of artistic study were the poor and "holy fools." Artistically speaking, his works reveal the influence of the schools of Mikhail Vrubel' and the German Expressionism of Ernst Barlach and Kathe Kollwitz. The influence of Goya's graphic works such as his nocturnal "Capriccio," that graphic art which Grachev always admired, also makes itself clearly felt.

The artist's homeless individuals often look like the huge black garbage bags dumped on the streets of New York, utterly isolated and indifferent to everything. Yet at the same time their heads acquire the features of mythological fauns possessing a blend of wisdom and a partially animal sensitivity. Taking on a universal existence and significance, they seem to exist outside of time and place.

Although Grachev preferred black and white graphic works, he used color to create humorous and bright images of the artist and models, circus performers and dancing animals. In his work, as in his soul, darkness blended with radiant humor. His pastel drawings of the artist and model were humorous, light in tone, sometimes grotesque or ironic, but primarily radiant, both in mood and in tone. Yuri created extraordinary, soaring works in a single line which, though stylistically akin to sketches, were finished and completed works. This was yet another form of artistic self-expression and self-improvement. Yet he could "relax" in this way, gathering his forces and energy to create darker works, his more gloomy and somber pieces.

Although the theme of the homeless would seem far removed from the idea of universal human harmony, there is a general harmony of form in Grachev's works. He was able to show unhappiness and poverty of the spirit while being at one with his characters, sharing their suffering while observing them from his artist's niche. His line was so harmonious and his drawing so close to perfection as to in a sense blur the "earthy" theme of his pieces and render them as universal abstractions. His works provide a home for the impressions and thoughts which he seems to share with his viewers, confiding in them while guarding his world from the vulgarity of the surrounding milieu. In an effort to understand the true nature and essence of things he gave intensive thought to spiritual and social topics and his extensive reading included the works of Hegel, Marx, the Bible and the Koran.

The most important thing for him, he admitted frankly, was clarity of intent. "Without clarity there is no point in starting a work, and any creative attempt will fall flat," Yuri wrote of himself. He rarely drew from nature, which hampered him through its unattainable beauty and ineffable essence. Nature served him as a starting point, for here he felt that he was gaining that freedom for which he longed.

Grachev was emotional, expressive, spontaneous and more experimental in his painting than in his graphic art. In Moscow he had produced enormous theater curtains and tapestries, and he was accustomed to the huge sets on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera where he had worked as a scenic artist. He preferred the wide sweep of canvases, which gave him freedom of artistic space and made use of free-flowing, strong and broad brush strokes, working spontaneously, in bursts of creativity. He loved stark contrasts and intense emotions.

Yuri Grachev used pure, open colors, believing that an artist who turned away from natural color was inevitably turning his back on "natural" proportions and headed toward distortion. For that reason Grachev, like Matisse, believed in the interdependence and interaction of form and color. His characters usually consist of couples, a man and a woman, an artist and a model, whose exaggerated Cubist proportions sometime convey the impression that there is no room for them on the canvas. His brushstrokes are broad and free-sweeping, implying that the artist needs more space to keep his brush from flying off the limits imposed by the painting's boundaries. The logical conclusion is narrow range of exaggeratedly open colors that creates the impression of a wide array of tints. The artist pushed his experiment to its limits. He did so, perhaps, because he felt less confident in painting than in drawing and until the end of his life believed that his greatest artistic strength lay in his draughtsmanship. His experiments and artistic quest went to far greater lengths in his paintings than in his rather classical drawings. Were it not for his untimely death, he might have produced paintings unique in their degree of artistic freedom.


Alexandre Gertsman

Int Art The International Foundation of Russian and Eastern European Art, New York