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Mikhail Shemyakin  Royal, Religious, Artistic

Text: Maria Gadas
Photo: Roksolana Chernoba, Ivan Ushkov

Mikhail Shemyakin (born 4 May 1943) is a Russian painter, stage designer, sculptor and publisher, and a controversial representative of the nonconformist art tradition of St. Petersburg.

We often look upon the artists of the past with far greater reverence, complaining that we were not lucky enough to meet them in their lifetime. We often pay attention to contemporary artists only because they have an anniversary. Altogether these anniversaries are more of a social event, and society tends to play in its own interests, dissolving the true meaning of a great talent or a personality.

Mikhail Shemyakin has been a cultural hero for quite a while. But there is an important thing in relation between time and Shemyakin. His creations are not a part of some particular time – we guess that with Shemyakin, there is a fair reason to meditate on the overused word “timeless” for a bit longer. This does not touch the fact that the contemporary incarnation of Shemyakin available for us to experience, is very much alive, surrounded by an army of fans and legions of enemies.

In an interview to DE I, he speaks about his artistic roots, about Peter The Great, the first Russian Emperor and the central figure of his art, about his dramatic experiences living in an Orthodox Russian monastery (both spiritual and carnal), and the multi-faceted role of a contemporary artistic personality.

PETER THE GREAT: In Peter, I has always been stricken by his enormous artistic potential. He created the carnivals, the All-You-Can-Drink Council, with a phenomenal sense of humor. He could appear at the carnival mounting a huge boar, and titillate his own court.

I contributed a lot of material for the book Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie, because from my youth I was collecting everything connected to this figure. It is there where you find that even between battles he would lead, he would write carnival scripts in fine details. Manner of dress for particular people to be present at the next All-You-Can-Drink Council. The Gagarin Princes would have to be dressed as Chinese and play a flute and a fiddle. Someone would have to appear in sledge driven by a bear.

It is a real phenomenon in the area of human psyche, and in artistic world. It has not been studied and evaluated as it deserves, thus far. I devoted all of my carnival series to Peter the Great. The insane debaucheries of St Petersburg, where you can see most elements of what Peter was doing. He was a person seriously professional in 14 trades. It was his own graphic works that I re-made into paintings. He did graphics, and whatever possible. He had an inexterminable interest towards everything. Van Gogh once said, “The value of a person is in his ability to adore the world”. I feel that from this point, Peter is absolutely unique. He was interested in everything, he would adore everything. In doing this, he is my major, major teacher.

ART STUDIES: In the “School of Metaphysical Synthetism” we would search for a new symbol, new sign. We studied African art, pre-Columbian art. We would employ images and symbols that were close to us, from religious arts. This is why we called it “Metaphysical Synthetism”. Metaphysics is the area of religious art, and synthesis is everywhere. This is why we named it that. The name looks confusing but it is extremely simple. I study the sources of religious arts to this very day. However, maybe because of my upbringing in the monastery for a period of time, [unlike my artistic collaborators] I would sharply understand that tasks of artists and tasks of the Church are not identical, even if they are parts of one whole. All this is from the domain of spirit, but to mix these, conceptually leads to the making yourself idols.

MONASTERY: For many years, I had a connection with Pskovo-Pechorsky Monastery and was a novice there for about a year and a half. Up to my exile from the USSR in 1971] I would visit it, live there, serve there. The whole kitchen of monastery life is what I know very well. Illusions in the monastery are broken very quickly. I can say that before the monastery, I did not drink. And, when I left it, I was a well-formed alcoholic. I would drink a real lot. All of my training in alcohol consumption was from the monastery. The monastery would shut its doors for common folks at 6 p.m. and a kind of medieval life would start.

Many people who join a monastery feel discouraged later. It is easy to understand. From the first feast in the monastery, when you have to be helped out by nearly being carried away, you can understand a lot. From the very first drink, that is called the Archieréus Cognac. This was my first experience. I had not been drinking before, and I was offered the very Archieréus Cognac. A tall Stalin crystal wine glass the size of baby’s head. It was half-filled with Dvin cognac, I still can hardly stand the cognac smell, and a servant would bring the boiling milk straight from the stove and mix it in the same glass very fast so that milk would not come sour. And this flaming mixture should have been gulped in an instant. The effect was absolutely stunning, as if you had been clubbed on the head with something heavy. You start to hiccup, and then you see under your nose the marrowbone of Father Governor the size of human head, and you hear, “Do not waste the good stuff . Do not hiccup, do not throw up, drink till bottom’s up.” I was connected with a very interesting person, Father Alimpy. He was a former Soviet Red Army officer, an artillerist who entered Berlin with the troops, and then took the monk’s ordination. There are a lot of things written about him. For me he is a model of a New Saint. He could drink till he was drunk and swear and curse brilliantly. And nevertheless when he came to read sermons all the people would cry.

In the Book, it is put as simple as this: “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” I saw holy people in the monastery. There were hermits and clairvoyants. You know how they used to say in the times of old: while in the world, the devil is like a lamb, in the desert, so to say, in the hermitage, he is like a lion. If you enter a monastery, devil tortures you more actively than when you live in the world.


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