This interview was recorded on November 23 at the 100th birthday of the artist Moses Feigin, a student of VKHUTEMAS, the last living member of the “Jack of Diamonds” art group.
Moses Alexandrovich, please tell us about how you moved to Moscow
I was born in Warsaw. My father is from Rechitsa - you know - Rechitsa? Gomel? ... A very Jewish place. They had a small house. And when my father grew up, he had to make do on his own. It was impossible to go to Moscow since he was a Jew. So he went to Warsaw. He got married there. And that's how I came to be.
When I grew up, I needed to go to the gymnasium. For Jews, there was a percentage quota - even if you had all the highest marks, they could refuse you if you did not draw the lot. I took exams at four grammar schools - all top marks. My father hired a ton-up driver to take me to the exams. Out of the four I ended up in the Warsaw Three school. And then the war. The gymnasium was transferred to Moscow. Used to Warsaw Three, and became Moscow Thirteen. And what could we do? Of course we left because of the war. The Germans were already in Warsaw. I lived for six months with one aunt in the Chernigov province, then six months with another aunt in Rechitsa. We were waiting for the minister to allow us to live in Moscow. And they did, acting much better than the Soviet authorities.
A year later, a notice came saying I could go to Moscow. So I got to Moscow about three years before the revolution. I visited the Kremlin. I rang the bell of Ivan the Great - it had to be rocked back and forth for half an hour before it would ring.
How do you remember the days of the revolution in Moscow?
We lived in Maryina Roshcha. On the day I can only remember that the fires started, and the adults were whispering among themselves. The next day I went up to my younger brother and I told him: "Lenechka, let's go and see what is going on there." Not a single person in the city! We were walking along Tsvetnoy Boulevard and do not see a single person! We were moving along the wall, reached Neglina, and there saw soldiers and sailors leaving in trucks. They turned towards Petrovka, and shooting began at the Peasant's House. And I was standing with my brother - I got scared and we went back home. This is how I remember the revolution.
At that time, did you already know that you would be an artist?
That happened after the revolution. I enrolled the test and preparation department of VKHUTEMAS - first grade. Shemyakin and Grigoriev were teaching there. They helped me to determine and decide on the direction - I was doing well in painting. And so I started going to Osmerkin's painting classes. I did academic painting with him, and than there was also a class on formalism - innovations, new forms. The teacher was Lyubov Popova, a famous abstract artist. She worked with us for a while, and then they AHRR (AHRR - Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (1922-28) - interviewer’s remark) got to work. In general, the Soviet government did a lot the wrong way. Especially later, when Stalin turned everything that Lenin did upside down. I consider Lenin a brilliant figure. Revolutions do not happen by chance - the tsarist government itself was to blame. But Stalin perverted all Lenin’s ideas. For example, my family lost everything because my father started trading on the orders of the Soviet authorities. Then Stalin came and made us absolutely disenfranchised - we were left without an apartment, with the label of "disenfranchised" hanging over us, and our past of the New Economic Policy era followed us everywhere.
How did all this affect your work?
The worse life is, the better the artist works. And vice versa, the better the conditions, the worse it is for creativity. For example, I once visited an exhibition on Krymsky Val - contemporary French painting. So weak! So bad! Helpless. That is how artists ranging from the far left to the most so-called right paint right now. They are living too fat of a life. Painting develops in struggle. Resistance gives rise to anger, acuteness, pressure. When everything is smooth and calm, it turns out too sugary. For example, when did Malevich appear? When did Filonov appear? In the most wretched and difficult of times.
Could you tell us about the situation around art in the early 20th century. We know that you took part in the “Jack of Diamonds” group.
The man in charge in the Jack of Diamonds was Lentulov. The leading figures were Konchalovsky, Mashkov. And we were their students. I became the last student to join the Jack of Diamonds. And he remained the last of them all - everyone had already died.
Was the modernist tradition felt in Soviet Russia?
Osmerkin didn't have that. We did realism, that is actuality. And that camp considered realism painting unnecessary. But later we began to experiment - my fellow artist Volodya Fedotov and I decided to hell with realism canons and became absorbed in abstraction.
How seriously did you take your experiments?
Very seriously - we were in the constant state of searcg.
And what did you find?
At first it was not clear whether we had mastered some kind of our own direction or not, but we gradually came to something. This became apparent much later, when we did our exhibition in 1979 - it already included works that made us stand out.
How did the change of power affect the artists?
At the time many repented, agreeing that everything western was no good and we need to develop our own domestic product and so on. And some rebelled against this one-sidedness. For example, my teacher Osmerkin was one of the few who dared to “punch” these so-called masters of ours in the face. He said: "Cezanne is a great artist, and I do not teach my students anything bad." He spat and left. And thus his persecution began. Throughout all of Moscow. In every institution that was related to art - paints, frames, mechanical, literary - they went everywhere they could. And he started getting strokes, and eventually passed away.
How did you react to the events around Osmerkin?
I can only speak for myself. As soon as it all started, I get a piece of paper - they are summoning to the Pushechnaya in the Central House of Art Workers to work on Alexander Alexandrovich [Osmerkin]. There is a million prosecutors now! Where did they all come from?! Previously, he was surrounded by beautiful ladies, students, and then - there was no one. He was alone, you understand? I came, entered the foyer - the stage seemed to be set by a movie 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, and there was no one near him. And suddenly, he heard footsteps - I was walk diagonally towards him - and looked around and said: "Monya, are you against me, too?" He said it loudly, in front of everyone. And at that time it meant a sentence for me as well. I hugged him, kissed him twice and walked around with him for two hours. Not a single person approached us - they were afraid. I don't blame anyone. Because it was all so scary ... If it hadn’t been for Osmerkin, I wouldn’t have come up to him myself. I had a wife and children at home so it was a risk. I was already like a leper.
And what were the consequences of your actions?
Apparently, it was so defiant on my part that if I any action followed in response, they would sign off on their complete tyranny. They didn't touch me. But they also didn’t give me anything. Previously, there was talk in magazines, newspapers, and then - nothing ... Absolutely nothing.
How did the work proceed under these conditions?
I continued working same as before. But Osmerkin has already been removed from everywhere. Before that, he was very popular - he taught in Moscow, in Leningrad, in Yerevan. And now he lost absolutely everything.
Did you have exhibitions at that time, did your works sell?
I did have exhibitions since the twenties. But we didn’t sell anything - no one would buy from us. We were considered a ruined generation. Those who studied with Osmerkin. Although we graduated from VKHUTEMAS.
During the Soviet era, did your works get abroad?
I myself have never been abroad. But my works have. Even under Stalin. When he was still alive, an Englishman came to the USSR - he would buy drawings and trade them abroad. And then he decided to buy paintings. 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, as it were, opponents of official art. And then there were broadcasts on Western radio - there were reports on the BBC, where they talked about me. And there was a scandal in Moscow - formalism is being bred with English money in Moscow.
What art exhibitions are you interested in today?
I barely go anywhere. I only went to see Malevich in the Manezh about two years ago. It was a very good exhibition. A wonderful light was set to illuminate the paintings, an amazing black background - they usually make it lighter - but here, on the contrary, the worka re spotted with special lights that do not spoil the paint, and it is dark all around. Malevich is a genius. I don't like Kandinsky - he seems to me a little mawkish. But I admire Filonov and Malevich.
And which contemporary artists do you like?
I don't know many new ones. In general, I can say that Russian artists are more powerful 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 was made according to a template. Our artists focused more on the form. By the way, contemporary Russian artists scarcely know how to work with the form - they create their works from existing images and cannot design themselves.
Perhaps they are paying this price for their freedom?
I don't even know what the word freedom means. It seems to me that there is so much artificial in it - there is simply too much talk about it. Today the artist is working with an eye on sales.
Are you satisfied with this situation?
It seems 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 painted images of Stalin, Lenin. I sold these paintings and lived off of them. This was done to live on something. And in the mornings I would go to the forest to paint landscapes or stay at home and work on some painting - that was for myself. And my hackwork job was as a political portrait painter. For example, I painted the four-story head of Stalin for the house on Kotelnicheskaya embankment. The order came that this portrait was needed, and the three of us artists were assigned to complete it. I was the main one in the group. This was very hard work. Can you imagine - an eye the size of a window and a half? We would draw it, and it would look devil only knows what. We asked the laborers - there were political prisoners working 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 to the 29th floor on foot and look from above at the portrait spread out in the courtyard. It was scary. I went out to the ledge of a building under construction. In the distance I could see the Kremlin, looking like a toy, a tiny Moscow River, and I felt as if standing on the edge of a cliff. You look at the canvas from above, and you try to remember where it is brighter, where it is darker, and this is how we worked and how we made money. Now in Moscow, for example, at Sokol, there are skyscrapers being built again similar to Stalin's. Now they can probably be called Putin’s.
How do you feel about this sign of the era?
It might be beautiful. I don't consider it 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 my work on it that somehow I didn't like, so I scraped it off, primed it again and decided to paint something on my hundredth birthday. Done. But it seemed to me that it turned out to be some kind of nonsense, and I covered it up too. I am still on some kind of search. Sometimes I myself don't even know what I will do the next moment. The main thing is a constant desire to create something new.