Pray, Kinsman, In a Foreign Land...

Leaving behind the hopelessness of Soviet life and dreaming of creative freedom, Yuri Grachev was prevented from achieving tranquillity of the spirit in America by that common Russian ailment nostalgia. His brightest memories of his native land were of friends who had stayed behind in Russia. Though he had left voluntarily, he could not shake that homesickness which came through in his letters, revealing that "the home of the artist's soul" were forever Moscow and Leningrad.

He was charming, cheerful and somber, kind and ironical, in a word, quintessentially Russian, and responded with Russian sensitivity to injustice and deception.

Grachev was one of those individuals whose life at the crossroads of two cultures became a clear expression of the "emigration of the Russian spirit" with its inherent search for the meaning of life and justice. The rigidity of American democracy stunned him, particularly during the early period of his emigration. Dozens of incredibly emotional drawings portray the broad diversity of faces of the throngs of life's castaways in New York. His characters are bums who have long ago lost any semblance of humanity, street musicians similar beggars and American women whose clothes display a glaring clash of colors. Everything here is of interest to Grachev as he said, simultaneously frightening and interesting. And that forced him to work more intensively than in Moscow. The artist once noted with sadness that in America human nature had become clearer to him. Our Russian responsiveness to the world's flaws gave him the strength to create images which reveal a unique blend of pain, compassion and deep disappointment.

Prosperous America had never before seen such drastic depictions of its backyards. At the time Grachev left in 1977 Moscow's facades and back alleys as well were looking quite respectable, for the bums and former prisoners had been packed off to remote climes.

His extremes of grotesque do not border on caricature, for he has clearly classical guidelines pointing to imagery that transcends time. His mordant sketches from life are balanced by hints at the expressive characters of Hieronymous Bosch and Francesco de Goya's "Capriccios." For a long time these hundreds of varied drawings which drew their expressiveness from his sincere empathy for what he saw were Yuri Grachev's sole outlet for the tidal wave of thoughts and feelings he was experiencing.

"How frightening it is to live among people, my every step is dogged by suffering..." this line from the lyric romance which the artist used to sing conveys a singularly precise formulation of his worldview, his weltanschauung. The skillful stylistic variations in Grachev's drawings reveal his solid knowledge of tradition, and most importantly excellent school training. He could rightfully say of himself, "I draw absolutely freely." That justifies his lifelong love for Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Matisse, and in particular for their graphic legacy. Interest in traditions did not deprive him of his voice, for the style of his drawing continually emerged anew depending on his mood and intent.

The emphatic expressiveness of the artist's style was in keeping with the feelings which welled up in him, and they justified the exaggeration in form which made the idea incarnated in a drawing more expressive and semantically more striking. Yuri Grachev's drawings are primarily done in charcoal. Drawings in charcoal have more freedom and a specifically picturesque quality; they cannot be reworked over and over. The material itself provides for that spontaneity which was integral to the artist's nature. In some of them "Alone," (1981), "Two Bums" (1983), "Nighttime Talk" (1985), "Bag Lady" (1982), "In a Cafe" (1985), "Sly Man" (1987), "Running Horse" (1982), "Goat" (1984) and others the artist shows extraordinary talent, combining laconic artistic skills with striking emotional intensity. Reality provided Grachev with the initial impetus, followed by the process of "symbolization" of a motif or scene. The artist's imagination transferred it to a sheet, reworking and pruning it of insignificant or secondary elements in dozens of subjects ("Homeless," "Old Woman with a Cane," "Homeless under an Umbrella," "The Subway," "The Artist and a Model," "Happy Friends," "Alone," etc.).

For the first five years of life in America, in the intervals between jobs which allowed him to survive, all he did was draw. Painting had become an objective impossibility, since Yuri Grachev only got a studio in 1982, and at the time he was probably did not feel the inner need for openly resounding colors and the wide sweep of canvas. In Moscow work on tapestries and teaching had taken up nearly all his time, and only rare plein air group outings kept him from abandoning painting once and for all.

Yuri Grachev's paintings of the 1980s, "Boy with a Ball" (1984), "Boy in Red" (1989), "Woman Shopping" (1986), "Young Couple" (1986). "Old Woman in an Armchair" (1984) show aggressive colors and are done with a sweeping brush and sense of the grotesque. They contain something close to the works of contemporary American painters, but with one clear distinction an inexplicable gift for combining irony and benevolence which justified what at first glance seemed to be a strange range of themes and subjects.

"Homeless Man with his Dog" (1989), "Homeless under an Umbrella" (1991), "Subway Ride" (1993), "Homeless in the Rain" (1993), and "By the Garbage Can" (1990) are among the most successful paintings of the 1980s-1990s. The exaggerated forms justified by intent, saturated with reflexes of a range of brownish-gray like the color of wet mud dribbling off the sidewalks in the rain, the line of the brush rapidly sweeping across the canvas are means with which the artist creates these impressive images of New York "city characters."

Yuri Grachev's one-man show, held in 1998, helped to rid him of a kind of diffidence, or, more precisely, constraints. In a whirlwind of color the large format of brush strokes on canvas burst into the real space of the exhibition room. These were familiar characters; they had moved from sheets of drawings to canvas. Color enriched them with tinges of feelings and made the "countenances" of the big city more brightly vivid, sometimes even garish, reflecting the aesthetics of America society. From canvas to canvas the confident sweep of the brush continues to grow and the intensity of the resonance of pure color is enhanced. Years of work in the theater had developed a maximalism of color; meaning changes, indicating a shift from external depiction of a subject to a kind of semantic generalization: "Under a Red Lamp" (1999), "Man and Woman" (1998), "An Apparition" (1998), "Two" (1999), "Triptych" (1999), "Thinking of You" (1999).

His last 10-15 works showed new potential. This was a long awaited and powerful spurt of inspiration. It seemed as though he had now achieved the same freedom in painting that he had had in drawing. If only he had had a little more time... a little more time.


Olga Musakova

The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg