Anglo-soviet journal, May 1971, Vol. XXXI No. 3
In an artist's studio
There had been a run of interesting exhibitions in Moscow over the past month or two the collection of ikons from Pskov, an exhibition of Soviet eastern scenes by such early Soviet painters as Falk and Konchalovsky, contemporary Moscow artists at the big modern hall on Kuznetsky Most, and a large collection of French Impressionists from Paris at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. But for one reason or another I had missed them all. Perhaps I had just been too busy, perhaps I was suffering from a surfeit of exhibition-going during a recent trip abroad, perhaps I had grown a little blase' about modern art, distrustful of its ability to say anything as important as music or literature. The experience that wakened me out of my complacency came in the form of an invitation to the studio of Pjotr Valius.
I knocked at the door of a basement flat in one of the 19th century blocks that still survive among the towering new steel and concrete of the Arbat district. A dark, sad-eyed woman opened it and showed me where to put my coat. The studio consisted of two curtained, fluorescent-lighted rooms joined by a corridor, all bare save for the large canvases crowded on every wall. More canvases were stacked in a third, much smaller room, where there was also a bed and a kettle boiling on a hot plate. But where were the easel, the brushes, the artist himself ? "He is too ill to come down here now. He works at home when he is well enough. But you are welcome to, look at the paintings."
I walked down the corridor towards what seemed to be a great bird soaring out of a lambent darkness. As I came nearer, however, I saw that the "bird" was human, and the poise of the enormous fire-rimmed wings was unmistakable -a Winged Victory. But this was not the solidly dynamic figure wrought twenty-three centuries ago by an artist who knew only the atoms of Epicurus. This was the work of an artist painfully aware of the atoms of Einstein and Rutherford, of the "swerve" that had become a fission. The limbs, still palpably human, had at the same time the fiery weightlessness of burnt leaves. There was a head. It had not been lost through the passage of time. But it was terribly attenuated, like molten metal squeezed by an air stream, and this was one of the elements of the soaring effect. Unlike the wings, a negative element. For the moment it was still the soaring of victory but in another second it would dissolve into the helpless flight of a draught-driven ember. The colours were indescribable-all the shades of incandescence from golden to white heat-and I was suddenly reminded of the words of a contemporary English song of protest. *
And a light than the morning sunrise
more cruel, more blindingly
Shall golden shine on the green garden
And on the apple-tree.
A Nike of the nuclear age. A Pyrrhic victory. The atoms of Einstein. Somebody beside me whispered the name aloud. I turned my head to look at the next painting. Here the inferno was the glowing orb of the world itself and by some cunning trick of perspective, the head of Einstein seemed to be suspended light years away from it in a sorrowful meditation.
There were several young people in the room One of them said "I suppose if you must give him a label, he's a Symbolist." The sad-eyed woman she was the artist's wife answered rather sharply, "Oh, no more labels, please. We have had enough of labels." Afterwards she spoke movingly about this highly individual painter's life and work.
Of Lithuanian origin, born and brought up in Moscow Pjotr Valius was educated as an engineer and did not devote himself entirely to his art till the age of 35. At first he painted in the Impressionist style of many Moscow artists. Judging by one or two surviving sketches these were often rural scenes with delicate lines and a fine appreciation of colour. His book illustrations show a similar mastery of line. But a turning point came in 196 During a sketching holiday in the Crimea, an artist friend had an affair that culminated in the suicide of his wife Despite the personal tragedy, however, the friend went on painting in exactly the same vein as before But for Valius this was a final revelation an exposure of the insensitivity of the nonartist. He realised that he too had been dividing life from art and with characteristic determination destroyed practically all his former work. Since then he has denied no feeling, no reaction to the life around him, choosing often the direct vision sometimes the allegory of flowers, as his artistic form.
It is indeed hard to attach a label to the art of Pjotr Valius. The apparent Symbolism of the two paintings I have mentioned is belied by a whole series of flower studies although even these are so much more studies in the effect of light that one hardly thinks of them as flowers. Again, perhaps, they are the epitome of living things in the grip of forces beyond our ken or rather, of forces that are just beginning inning to be within our ken. Valius always seems to be reaching out into the unknown.
Sometimes this unknown is a depth of suffering ("Despair"). It can also be a flight of unprecedented recklessness - the figure of a man pinioned against the globe and assailed by strange writhings of red and green. Death is ever near at hand. Sometimes it is actually present. The artist lies dead beside a vision of those who mourn and those who reject him. But these images of the ever-lurking dangers of the modern world are offset by images of exquisite tenderness and strength. The ash-grey figure of the artist lies sleeping while above him a golden-pink womb rimmed with block holds a living embryo ("Dream"). In another painting the embryo is held in the resiliently arched body of a woman in a posture of utter helplessness, eyes only on the breast, emphasising the strength of its protector. (“And vulnerability", Valius himself added when I spoke to him of this painting).
In what could be a self-portrait the artist appears as a large, whitish grey shadow in the background. At first the foreground figures in various postures of dumb despair or resolute determination appear to dominate the picture, but the longer the eye rests on the whole the more all-pervasive the image of the artist becomes. The two things that struck me very strongly about almost all the paintings were their universality of theme-life and death, birth and decay, love and sorrow, and along with this an unceasing search to establish man's place in the universe amid the dangers of the unknown forces that he himself has released. In the course of this search one is made poignantly aware of the essential values, the pools of tenderness amid the rapids of disaster. Secondly there is the demand that each painting makes an the viewer. It is rather like being paired up with a skilled mountaineer, who leads you on by precarious footholds to a narrow ledge from which he invites you to find your own way down. This is very much the case in such pictures as "Inquisition" and "Crucifixion".
In Valius's "Crucifixion" the cross seems for a moment to have been half inverted and the absurdity of such a situation is intolerable until one realises that one is being asked to look at the sufferings of Christ (or Man?) from a new angle - not upwards, in terror or submission, but down in compassion and understanding. The hesitant young man who had been slapped down so abruptly by our guide turned out to be a more daring climbing partner to the artist than any of us. Before he left he wrote in the visitors' book: "Oh, Man who gave birth to Christ and crucified him, how I love you and how I weep."
* The Apple-Tree words and music by Alex Miller.Copyright Robbins Music Inc.