This interview was recorded on November 23 at the 100th birthday of the artist Moisey Feigin, a student of VKHUTEMAS, the last living member of the Jack of Diamonds art group.
Moses Alexandrovich, please tell us how you moved to Moscow?
I was born in Warsaw. My father is from Rechitsa - you know - Rechitsa? Gomel? ... The most such a Jewish place. They had a small house. And when my father grew up, I had to somehow fit in. It was impossible to go to Moscow - a Jew. I went to Warsaw. He got married there. So I came to be.
When I grew up, I had to go to gymnasium. For Jews, there was a percentage rate - even if you handed in everything for fives, you could not take it if you did not pass by lot. I took exams at four grammar schools - all fives. My father drove me to the exams in a dashing way. Out of four I ended up in the Third Warsaw. And then the war. The gymnasium was transferred to Moscow. Was the Third Warsaw, became the Thirteenth Moscow. What about us? We left to leave because of the war. The German is already in Warsaw. I lived for six months with one aunt in the Chernigov province, six months with another aunt in Rechitsa. We were waiting for the minister to allow us to live in Moscow. And indeed - they did better than the Soviet authorities - they allowed it.
A year later, a notice came - I can go to Moscow. So I got to Moscow about three years before the revolution. I went to the Kremlin. I was ringing the bell of Ivan the Great - it had to be rocked for half an hour for it to ring.
How do you remember the days of the revolution in Moscow?
We lived in Maryina Roshcha. On that day, I only remember that the fires started, and the adults were whispering among themselves. The next day I took my younger brother - I said: "Lenechka, let's go and see what is going on there." Not a single person in the city! We walk along Tsvetnoy Boulevard - not a single person! We move along the wall, we reached Neglina, and from there soldiers and sailors leave in trucks. They turn to Petrovka, and shooting begins at the Peasant's House. And I'm standing with my brother - I got scared, let's go back. This is how I remember the revolution.
At that time, did you already know that you would be an artist?
This happened after the revolution. I entered the test-preparatory department of VKHUTEMAS - first grade. Shemyakin and Grigoriev taught there. They helped to determine the direction - my painting was good. And I started going to Osmerkin's painting. With him we were engaged in academic painting, and there was also a class of formalism - innovations, new forms. The teacher was Lyubov Popova, a famous abstractionist. She worked with us for a while, and then they gave her a hat - this is AHRR (AHRR - Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (1922-28) - K.R.'s note) began its work. In general, the Soviet government did a lot by the way. Especially later, when Stalin turned over everything that Lenin arranged. I consider Lenin a brilliant figure. Revolutions do not happen by chance - the tsarist government itself is to blame. And Stalin perverted all Leninist ideas. For example, my family lost everything due to the fact that my father, by order of the Soviet authorities, began to trade. Then Stalin came and made us absolutely disenfranchised - we were left without an apartment, with the label "disenfranchised" hung up, and everywhere our NEP's past followed us.
How did this all affect your art?
The worse life is, the better the artists work. Conversely, the better the conditions, the worse it is for creativity. For example, I once visited one exhibition on Krymsky Val - contemporary French painting. So weak! So bad! Helplessly. So they write now from the most left to the most so-called right artist. They live too fat. Painting grows in struggle. Resistance gives rise to anger, acuteness, pressure. When everything is smooth, it turns out sweet. For example, when did Malevich appear? When did Filonov appear? In the nastiest, most difficult times.
Please tell us about the artistic situation of the early 20th century. It is known that you took part in the Jack of Diamonds group.
In fact, Lentulov was in charge in Jack of Diamonds. The leading figures were Konchalovsky and Mashkov. And we were their students. I became the last student to enter the Jack of Diamonds. So I remained the last one - everyone had already died.
Was the modernist tradition felt in Soviet Russia?
Osmerkin didn't have that. We wrote realistically - that is, realistically. And that camp considered real painting unnecessary. But later we began to experiment - my fellow artist Volodya Fedotov and I decided to send the real canons to hell and got carried away with abstraction.
How seriously did you take your experiments?
Very seriously - we were constantly searching.
What did you find?
At first it was not clear whether we had mastered some of our own direction or not, but we gradually came to something. This became clear much later, when we did our exhibition in 1979 - there were already works that made us stand out.
How did the change of government affect the artists?
Many then repented, agreeing that everything western was no good - we need to develop our domestic and so on. And some rebelled against such one-sidedness. For example, my teacher Osmerkin is one of the few who dared to give these our masters in the face. He said: "Cezanne is a great artist, and I do not teach my students anything bad". He spat and left. And the persecution began on him. All over Moscow - global. In every institution that was related to art - colorful, frame, mechanical, literary - everywhere they worked and dice as they could. And he started having strokes, and eventually he died.
How did you react to the events connected with Osmerkin?
I can say in my favor. As soon as it all started, I get a piece of paper - they summon to the Pushechnaya in the Central House of Art Workers (Central House of Art Workers - K.R.'s note) to study Alexander Alexandrovich. A million prosecutors! Where did they come from! Previously, he was surrounded by beautiful ladies, students, but here - no one. Alone. You understand? I came, entered the foyer: the stage seemed to be staged by the director - there were a lot of people around, and he was standing in the middle (he was a handsome man) holding a magazine, looking around - no one was around. And suddenly, I heard footsteps - I walk diagonally towards him - looked around, said: "Monya, are you against me?" He said loudly, in front of everyone. And at that time it meant a sentence for me too. I hugged him, kissed him twice and walked with him for two hours. Not a single person approached us - they were afraid. I don't blame anyone. Because it’s so scary ... If it hadn’t been for Osmerkin, I would not have approached. And I have a wife and children at home - I take risks. I was already like a leper.
And what were the consequences of your action?
Apparently, it was so defiant on my part that if I followed any actions in response, they would sign in their complete tyranny. I was not touched. But they didn’t give anything. Previously, they wrote in magazines, newspapers, but here - nothing ... Completely nothing.
How did the work proceed under these conditions?
I worked and worked - the same way. And Osmerkin has already been removed from everywhere. Before that, he was very popular - he taught in Moscow, Leningrad, and Yerevan. And now - he lost everything absolutely.
Did you have exhibitions at that time, were the works sold?
There were exhibitions. Since the twenties already. But we didn’t sell anything - we didn’t buy from us. We were considered a spoiled generation. Those who studied with Osmerkin. Although we graduated from VKHUTEMAS.
During the Soviet era, did your works go abroad?
I myself have never been abroad. And my work was. Even under Stalin. When he was still alive, an Englishman came to us - he bought drawings and traded them abroad. And then he decided to buy a painting. He was shown the work directly by the artists - not through the Council. This helped him choose us - he liked us, but our Moscow Union of Artists did not like us - we were kind of opponents of official art. And then the broadcasts on Western radio began - there were reports on the BBC, where they talked about me. And there is a scandal in Moscow - formalism is being bred with English money in Moscow.
What art exhibitions are you interested in today?
I practically don't go anywhere. Only at Malevich I was in the Manezh - two years ago. A very good exhibition. A wonderful light was set to illuminate the painting, an amazing black background is usually made lighter, but here, on the contrary, the work is dotted with special lamps that do not spoil the paint, and it is dark around. Malevich is a genius. I don't like Kandinsky - he seems to me a little luscious, sugary. And Filonov, Malevich admire me.
Who do you like among contemporary artists?
I don't know many new ones. In general, I can say that Russian artists are much stronger than Western ones. They were always more modest, they were not as luxurious as, for example, the masters of the Renaissance. At the same time, we must not forget that all the works of the Renaissance were created according to a template. Titian - it's written according to the template. Our artists worked more with form. By the way, contemporary Russian artists already practically do not know how to work with form - they create their works from existing images - they cannot design themselves.
Perhaps they are paying this price for their freedom?
I don't even know what the word freedom is. It seems to me that there is so much contrived in him - so - there is only one conversation. Today the artist works more for sales.
Are you satisfied with this situation?
It seems to me that nothing has changed in life. You always have to do something to adjust. This has little to do with painting. The artist always had to do something to please.
What did you do to please?
I wrote at one time to Stalin, Lenin. I sold these paintings and lived on them. This was done on purpose in order to live. And in the morning I went to the forest to paint landscapes or worked on some painting at home - this is for myself. And my trash was - a political portrait painter. For example, I wrote the four-story head of Stalin for the house on Kotelnicheskaya embankment. The order came - such a portrait is needed, and we - three artists - were assigned to complete it. I was the main master in the group. This is very hard work. Can you imagine - an eye with a window and a half? We draw it, and the devil only knows what it looks like. We asked the workers (political prisoners worked there) to raise the canvas a little above the ground, at least for a moment - but this could not be done. And I had to climb on foot to the 29th floor and look from above at the portrait spread in the courtyard. It was scary - I went to the very edge of a house under construction - in the distance the Kremlin, like a toy, a tiny Moscow River - and I felt as if standing on a cliff. You look at the canvas from above, you remember - where it is brighter, where it is darker - this is how they worked, they also earned money. Now in Moscow, for example on Sokol, skyscrapers are being built again in the likeness of Stalin's. Now they can probably be called putinks.
How do you feel about such a sign of the era?
Maybe it will be beautiful. I don't think this is a worrying sign. I think that that era will not be repeated. Something else is happening all the time. I can say by my own example - I am always trying to find something new. Do you see the canvas? There was a job on it, which somehow I didn't like - I scraped it off, primed it again and decided to write something on my hundredth birthday. Made. But it seemed to me that it turned out to be some kind of nonsense, I covered it up too. I am still on some kind of search. Sometimes I don't even know myself what I will do in a moment. The main thing is a constant desire to create something new.