Mihail Chemiakin says "I wanted to live in a free world"

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Paris-based Mihail Chemiakin who believes that only a serious understanding of earlier masters can give artists wings.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Nov 05, 2022

The life of Paris-based artist and explorer of art Mihail Chemiakin is captivating. His artistic discoveries and turns of fate are entangled in such dramatic ways that his career could inspire a Hollywood film; there is no shortage of both hardship and glamour. The artist’s brilliant lithographs, serigraphs, pastel drawings, theatrical designs, and monumental sculptures are inhabited by fanciful characters, grotesque creatures, and mythical imagery produced by unique imagination fed by his inexhaustible interests in fairytales, religious art, theatre, history, mythology, metaphysics, and literature.

In a recent phone interview that follows a short introduction, we discussed the artist’s first show in a psychiatric hospital in Saint Petersburg, confrontations with the KGB, being forced to leave the USSR with $50 in his pocket at the age of 28, becoming friends and enemies with a famous art dealer Dina Vierny, the first artistic breakthrough, and being a passionate student all his life to keep discovering new ideas and himself.

Mihail Mikhailovich Chemiakin was born in Moscow in 1943 in the family of a Kabardinian from the Caucasus Mountains, Mikhail Kardanov, who was adopted by a White Army officer Piotr Chemiakin; he became a Soviet Army officer. Chemiakin junior spent his early years in East Germany where his father served after the war. The family returned to the Soviet Union in 1957 where young Chemiakin studied at the secondary art school affiliated with the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Leningrad. He was expelled in 1961 for failing to conform to the expected norms of the then prevailing Socialist Realism. Until being forced out of the USSR in 1971 Shemiakin worked various niche jobs, including handyman at the Hermitage Museum; parallel to that he participated in various art projects and exhibitions.

The monumental sculpture Children-Victims of the Sins of Adults near the Kremlin in Moscow | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
The monumental sculpture Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices near the Kremlin in Moscow Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

The artist lived in Paris for a decade before relocating to New York. After working in America for 20 years he moved back to Paris, to be closer to post-Soviet Russia where new opportunities led to such projects as the staging of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, which has been showing for more than 20 years; such monumental sculptures as Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices near the Kremlin in Moscow, and Peter the Great in Peter and Paul Fortress and Memorial to the Victims of Political Repressions, both in Saint Petersburg; and Hoffmaniada, a 2018 Russian stop-motion-animated romantic film based on Hoffmann's diaries and fiction. Mihail Chemiakin resides and works at an 18th century chateau in Normandy with his second wife, American-born Sarah DeKay. They met in the 1980s when DeKay worked on a documentary about Vladimir Vysotsky, a legendary Soviet poet and songwriter, and a close friend of Chemiakin.

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your very first exhibition was held exactly 60 years ago at a club-like editorial office of Star (Zvezda) magazine in Leningrad in 1962, right?

Mihail Chemiakin (MC): Not quite. My first exhibition took place one year before that, in 1961, in a psychiatric hospital in Leningrad where I was incarcerated. That facility was run by the KGB. I was just 17. One day, I was awakened by nurses who took me by the arms and brought me to a large conference hall with lots of students. I was in my underwear, while a professor of psychology demonstrated my drawings, which were hung on the walls, neatly framed. I came to realise that I was being presented not as an artist, but as a talented schizophrenic worthy of a close examination. And I had to respond to those students' questions. That was my debut exhibition. Curiously, decades later, when I lived in America, I had an exhibition at a gallery called Asylum. [Laughs.] The show you mentioned was my second exhibition, and it was shut down by the police just a few days after the opening.

VB: Why was the show closed? What did you exhibit?

MC: Remember, this was the Soviet Union. The authorities could shut down anything and for any reason. For example, still lifes could be judged as too grim for the optimistic spirit of our time. I did not exhibit anything remotely political there; the show presented my still lifes, landscapes, and several tiny metaphysical works – nothing out of the ordinary. What happened was that some members of the Artists' Union came to the show and they sensed that there was something unusual. Immediately someone contacted the Artists’ Union Department of Ideology – at the time every creative union in the country was required to have one. The Department of Ideology worked directly with the KGB, keeping track of artists' activities, and determining whether they were appropriately moral and ethical. My show was closed because of that call. That was normal. My work was confiscated in this way many times, and then, eventually, it was I who was arrested. It was a different world then, bizarre but interesting.

Carnival at St. Petersburg by Mihail Chemiakin | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
Carnival at St. Petersburg by Mihail Chemiakin Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin
Mihail Chemiakin’s Carnival at St. Petersburg series | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
Mihail Chemiakin’s Carnival at St. Petersburg series Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: Let me understand something – Were the authorities trying to punish you because you saw the world differently? Or did they try to change your way of seeing things?

MC: The authorities couldn’t care less about how I saw the world. I once had an unexpected visitor, a tall man in an expensive suit. It was Vladimir Semyonov, a high-ranking Soviet diplomat and a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; he served as Ambassador to East Germany and later to West Germany. He was a major collector of avant-garde and non-official Soviet art – he owned paintings by Alexander Tyshler, Robert Falk, and Aristarkh Lentulov, among others. He heard somewhere that there was a talented young artist named Chemiakin and came to see me in my communal apartment. He bought four or five of my best paintings on the spot, shook my hand, and left.

I complained to him about the many restrictions and obstacles I was going through. The very next day someone called from the local police station and apologised for the exhibition closures and the searches conducted in my apartment. Then I received a call from the publisher who had halted the publication of a book with my illustrations, telling me that the book was finally scheduled for publication. Suddenly all my problems disappeared.

Soon after, I was invited to visit Semyonov's apartment for an informal supper. He showed me his collection, which by then included my own paintings, beautifully framed. During our conversation, he explained, "Please understand that the government, of which I am a part, doesn’t care what kind of art you produce. The problem is that you yourselves, artists, denounce one another. These denunciations are forwarded to the KGB and they simply have no choice but to react. Look at my collection," – he went on – "no one in the government cares what I collect. Some of my colleagues collect abstract paintings, although they are not officially approved."

  • Sketches for the costumes of The Nutcracker | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
    Sketches for the costumes of The Nutcracker Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin
  • Costume sketches of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
    Costume sketches of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: Among those who had an artistic influence on you, you most often name the artist Matthias Grunewald and the writer, composer, and artist E.T.A. Hoffmann. You discovered both as a child, living with your parents in East Germany. What have you learned the most from these two Germans?

MC: I was influenced by Hoffman’s drawings, but his tales made a more lasting impression, with their mystical philosophy. I grew up in the city where Hoffman was born, Königsberg, the historically Prussian city that became Soviet Kaliningrad in 1946. And Grunewald brought me closer to religion. My atheist parents often quarrelled, and I found solace in my dialogues with characters from Grunewald’s paintings. I started making copies of his works and my dialogues continued, building my religious consciousness. I took to visiting churches and soon this grew into a strong habit. Of course, that was quickly noticed by the authorities and repressions followed.

So, Grunewald influenced me as a mystic through his art and Hoffmann affected me with his stories' strange characters that I could sense and see with my spiritual vision. These influences have lasted my whole life. You can see it in my Nutcracker for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg which has run for 21 years now. Everyone calls it "Chemiakin’s Nutcracker". I made the sketches for the sets, all the characters, their costumes, and even the nature of their movements. The production’s colourful phantasmagoria was inspired by Hoffmann's incredible imagination with its elements of grotesque humour, peculiarities, and miraculous transformations; I tried to combine these graphic elements with Tchaikovsky's musical dramatism.

Costume sketches of two characters in The Nutcracker | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
Costume sketches of two characters in The Nutcracker Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: How did you first meet Dina Vierny, a famous art dealer and collector living in Paris and who organised your first show there even before your exile in 1971? 

MC: We were introduced by Valentina and Jean-Claude Marcade, prominent Parisian collectors of Ukrainian avant-garde art; I met them in Leningrad during one of their visits. I presented to them some of my watercolours. The Marcades were friends with Dina Vierny and showed her the works upon their return to Paris. Dina was impressed and soon after I received visitors in my communal apartment: a short, stout lady speaking quite loudly in Russian with a strong foreign accent, followed by her husband, a German baron, and two sons, Oliver and Bertrand. I showed her my work and she immediately offered to organise my show in Paris.

For Dina, it was the discovery of a new Soviet artist; for me, it was an opportunity for my family to escape from the country. I wanted to avoid my daughter Dorothee’s enrollment in a Soviet school because she was brought up in an atmosphere that bore no resemblance to Soviet culture and ideology, and I was worried that she would suffer from the shock of the contrast, and the authorities would try to isolate her as well. My first wife, Rebekka, was half-Jewish, and it was not difficult for Dina to produce papers that proved them to be relatives. Then we divorced to remove obstacles to her departure, ostensibly to join with relatives. Soon Rebekka and our daughter left for France.

I remained in Russia hoping to follow them sooner or later. I was ready to escape even illegally because I wanted to live in the free world. The KGB was keeping a close eye on me all that time, and I was arrested the same year; it was 1971. The KGB basically gave me three choices: either I go to jail, to the psychiatric hospital, or give up my citizenship and leave the country. I could take absolutely nothing with me, not even a small suitcase. They gave me $50 cash. I was 28-years-old and ready to start my life from scratch. I still remember my conversation with colonel Popov. He said: "Mihail Mihailovich, go try your luck in the West. Stay away from politics. We believe that Russia will change. And we hope that you come back to a new Russia with your shield, not on it," citing the well-known Spartan phrase. In other words, he believed that one day Russia would be a free country and that I and others would come back not as victims but as heroes. I will never forget that.

Mihail Chemiakin’s sketches for the costumes in The Nutcracker staged in Paris | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
Mihail Chemiakin’s sketches for the costumes in The Nutcracker staged in Paris Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: It is incredible that he could see so far ahead into the future, being a Soviet bureaucrat in the early 1970s.

MC: And just a short while after that they expelled Joseph Brodsky, Sergei Dovlatov, Vladimir Maximov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few. Of course, it would have been easy to throw us all in jail, but Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, came up with the idea of sending all dissidents out of the Soviet Union, in a program reminiscent of Lenin’s "philosophers' ships" in 1922, when many of Russia’s prominent intellectuals were exiled from the newly-formed country. That was how the Bolsheviks cleansed the spiritual space. Andropov did the same thing fifty years later.

VB: But, in a way, your exile was a good solution for you, since your family was already in the West, right?

MC: Well, I didn’t really have a choice, and getting out was the only way for me to survive. They put me on a plane to Paris and simply got rid of me. When I landed, I was met by Rebekka, Dorothee, and Dina, who took us to her property outside of Paris where she lived in a chateau. There were several smaller castles on the grounds, and Dina handed me the key to one of them. It was a royal welcome. But then a few days later she came to see me with a contract in her hands. I was to work exclusively with her for 10 years, during which time she would dictate what kind of work I would create. Once I realised what was in that contract, I returned the key to the castle with the words, "Dear Dina, we are leaving you for good. You can keep your castle." I said that I had not escaped from a steel cage to enter another cage, even a gold one. She responded: "You’ll come crawling back on your knees in a few days." I said, "Climb up onto your tallest tower and watch in your telescope for our return."

At least she was kind enough to book a hotel for us for a few days until we could find another place to stay. After all, she kept all my paintings which she sold for handsome profits. A few days later, in the dead of winter, when the booking ended, we were practically on the street – my wife, seven-year-old daughter, our dog, and I. We had no money and did not even speak the language. It was a miracle that I ran into the American writer Suzanne Massie whom I knew from Russia and who helped us move into a former billiard club with no basic facilities, not even hot water. We lived there for several years.

Monument Children-Victims of the Sins of Adults erected in 2001 | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
Monument "Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices" erected in 2001 Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: When did you get your first breakthrough?

MC: Well, in a way, success came right away. From the moment I arrived in France, I heard my name quite regularly on the radio. But all my connections were through Dina and once I left her, I lost everything. Then one of my small works was included in an exhibition at the Grand Palais, where it was noticed by a young fashion designer, Jean-Claude Gaubert. He convinced two of his wealthy clients to open a gallery to display my work. That's where I had my first real show outside of Russia which brought me my first commissions and many contacts. It was 1974. That show was the beginning of a completely different life for me and my family.

The costume sketches of the various characters of The Nutcracker | Mihail Chemiakin | STIRworld
The costume sketches of the various characters of The Nutcracker Image: Courtesy of Mihail Chemiakin

VB: Your works feature metaphysics, phantasmagoria, mystery, allegory, grotesque, masquerades, fairy tales, folk art, quotations, historical facts, studies of riddles and forgotten words of the Russian language, and a total fusion of different times and styles. And you call your paintings inventions. How would you describe your style and what would you say your art is about?

MC: Many artists like to philosophise about their work. But I see myself as an eternal student of nature and of those great masters who created fantastic worlds before me. I think that only profound knowledge makes it possible to conduct exploratory experiments like the ones you just listed. For example, I love Commedia dell'arte and study the traditional masks with their long noses. One of the masks in my collection has a nose that is 50 cm (20 inches) long! I think knowledge is the most important thing every artist needs to gain before anything can be invented. Only a serious understanding of earlier masters can give you wings. I think the tragedy of our time is that so many artists are illiterate about art and culture in general.There are very few who even know basic techniques – the very notion of professionalism has been largely lost. Many artists turn to conceptual art or installations and no longer work with their hands.

I taught a group of artists for six years at the Steiglitz Academy in Saint Petersburg based on the methodology that I developed over my own career. I am mainly self-taught but in the process created a serious methodology for myself, which has informed my artistic work. I spend endless hours in libraries and museums. I am an analytical artist, I am an experimentalist. I want to know who was first in producing certain ideas or techniques and discoveries. For example, I like grouping artworks by themes. I have thousands of books and boxes of images sorted by theme. For example, for many years I have been collecting images of wrapped figures such as mummies in art. Another topic is the depiction of grimaces. Yet another one is stairs and ladders as they are represented in art. I share this research in the form of exhibitions and publications, with the help of my foundation in Saint Petersburg, and soon the research will be available on the Internet on a portal currently in development. I am very passionate about this research and analysis, and I will always be a student. I think that is the point of art – to keep discovering new ideas and yourself.

What do you think?

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