On Sunday, May 14, a celebratory reception in honor of distinguished artist and sculptor Mikhail L. Zviagin was held at the Synodal Headquarters of the Russian Church Abroad in New York City. Through the Northern Cross Society, the sculptor presented ROCOR with a bronze bust of Alexander Pushkin.
In his work, the sculptor was able to show the final minutes of the great poet’s life, when he was still with us, but departing into eternity. This work has been put on display many times in various New York City art galleries, and has always received extremely positive reviews. After the presentation ceremony, the First Hierarch of ROCOR, Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America & New York, hosted a celebratory luncheon in honor of Zviagin. All who are acquainted with the sculptor and his work have nothing but the deepest respect for his talent, sense of purpose, and geniality.
Below we offer the reader an overview of Zviagin’s life and work, in the artist’s own words:
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I was born in Leningrad in 1931. My father worked in a factory and my mother was a homemaker. My parents were involved in my education. Mother loved beautiful things, gadgets and very early in my life tried to accustom me to drawing. She bought me colored pencils, paint, albums. Above our sofa, there hung some painting with a castle on a cliff by the sea and a sail on the horizon. [The memory of] that picture has stayed with me all my life. Back then, to my childlike understanding, that painting seemed like a fairy tale and the height of perfection. It roused the imagination and beckoned me some wonderful faraway place. Unfortunately, during the war the painting was lost.
The war began for me when my father volunteered as a soldier. I loved my father very much father and always remember his kind eyes and a sort of constrained smile. His image has stayed with me for the rest of my life. By that time, I already had a little sister, she was three years old then.
The war had reached Leningrad. Once during the bombings, as we sat in the shelter while the siren roar hung over the city, someone shouted to us that my father is standing wounded near our apartment. We were shocked! All of us immediately rushed home. My father stood at the door, leaning on a [cane]. It was evident that it was very difficult for him to stand. After the hospital, he was left to serve in the city.
The blockade of Leningrad began with fire at [the] Badaev warehouses where, apparently, on someone’s criminal orders (as people whispered back then) were brought food supplies from all over the city. Anti-aircraft defense was then insufficient, and after a raid by German aircraft the warehouses burned for several days, enveloping the city in black smoke. Everyone understood that this was a disaster. The starvation began almost immediately. First, the food products disappeared, then the pigeons, and eventually all other animals. What hunger feels like can be understood only by those who have experienced it on themselves…
All this had fallen on us suddenly and violently. We burned furniture, lived on 125 grams of blockade rations, and constant, hallucination-like, thoughts of food.
Then, after a few years, the topic of the blockade appeared in my childhood drawings when I was at the Palace of Pioneers. Generally, the theme of the blockade and the tragedies of war have entered my work specifically with that terrible period.
I will not elaborate on the details of the blockade. It’s very hard. Those who did not experience it will not understand me. Death from starvation was an everyday reality. And in this reality the childhood would pass. We quickly matured. During those days, my wounded father died in the hands of my mother in the hospital. I loved my kind father very much and was very upset when he passed away. We were left alone. We didn’t have any relatives.
In April 1943, we were evacuated to Vologda district across the Lake Ladoga. There I forever fell in love with the Russian landscape. I very much wanted to paint but had neither paint, nor colored pencils nor paper.
In 1944, we returned to Leningrad. I started to attend the Palace of Pioneers, the Arts classes of a wonderful person and a fi ne teacher M.A. Gorokhova. Under her guidance, we painted mainly still life paintings, as well as compositions on the theme of blockade. I fell in love with those classes and the Palace of Pioneers, and would always come to classes early.
Life was hard. At school, I didn’t perform very well academically, especially in mathematics, because of the educational time lost during the blockade. During the evacuation, I had to walk three kilometers to school. I would freeze, but I [went on].
In 1945, I enrolled to the Architectural-Artistic Vocational College, where I entered the Decorative Arts Department, which prepared masters of decorative works. Fortunately, they provided the students with clothes and fed us three times a day.
In 1949, I graduated from the college, having received the 5th degree and a certificate. And in the same year I enrolled to the Secondary Art School under the Academy of Arts, however a year later I was discharged for underperformance in all mathematical subjects.
In 1950, I studied in various studios and also painted quite a bit from nature.
In 1951, I was drafted to the motorized troops. I was lucky since I found myself serving in Moscow. The life of a painter in the army is standard: I painted roadside posts and toilets, created stands, painted pictures for army command, and even made political caricatures and even published my works in army newspapers.
In 1954, I leave military service and returned to Leningrad. I went to work in the shop for painting fabrics, or shawls, to be more precise. This shop was located on the territory of the Alexander Nevsky [Lavra]. The work was interesting and was conducted in a complex but infinite in its capabilities hot batik technique, which, over time, I mastered fully.
In the same year for the first time I showed my works at exhibitions of the Union of Artists in Moscow and Leningrad. My works were noticed, and in the autumn of the same year I was accepted as a candidate to the Union, in the section of arts and crafts. Moreover, I entered the Pedagogic Art School named after Serov. I was accepted directly to the third semester of the Painting Department, and graduated in 1961 with a degree of an Instructor of painting and drawing. During the studies, my works were repeatedly exhibited in two sections: arts and crafts and painting. In 1962, I was admitted to the Union of Artists of the USSR.
The 1970s [were] years of intense searches for figurative expression: landscapes, still-lifes, nudes… "Invalid from the Island of Valaam" – the painting which executed in 1981, was a kind of a throw into the world of complex human problems, a breakthrough through the veil of false academicism, by means of which our society for a long time would dissociate itself from its invalids, while receiving new ones from Afghanistan. This reality did not fit with the optimistic war reporting. Precisely during this period, I started working on my most ambitious in size and design painting "Babi Yar," the canvas to which I devoted five years of my life, from 1980 to 1985. While still in the army, I heard for the first time about the tragedy in Babi Yar from a soldier from Kiev, whose barrack bed was next to mine. As a boy, he had seen it all with his own eyes, and his story had shocked me. My imagination began to paint a terrible picture, but I was still not ready to implement such a conception. It took about thirty years for me to start feeling the strength to take on such a complex subject. Having started to paint the work in 1980, I was able to finish in only 1985. That’s when I presented the painting to the exhibition, but it was rejected almost unanimously. There was only one vote "for" amongst almost twenty members of the exhibition committee, and it belonged to Gleb Alexandrovich Savinov. I’m still grateful to him for the support, because for me it was very important.
About the present period, which began after the completion of the work on the painting "Babi Yar," it is difficult for me to speak, since I now live in it. During the last 10-15 years, I was able to repeatedly travel abroad to Bulgaria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, USA. I’ve also lived for a bit more than three years in the United States, the city of New York. That experienced had broadened my horizons and forced me, in many respects, to take a new look at things, both in terms of my artistic and ordinary lives, especially after visiting the galleries and museums of the Western Europe and America. It’s very regretful that this didn’t happen 20-30 years ago, but unfortunately back then it was simply not possible.
I care about what I see around me, and by means of my art, I try to show this world, a complex and cruel world. God willing, things that I show in my paintings will never happen in real life!
We live in a difficult time – a time of stocktaking and soul-searching. The twentieth century was of the most violent in recent history – two world wars, tens of millions of victims, the twentieth century – the century of the collapse of the ideals of humanism, the trampling of the laws of co-existence and humanity, the twentieth century – the century off great contradictions – the Nazi death camps, the Gulags, the atomic bomb, the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet empire, the ongoing war on the African continent, in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the Chechen war – all this appeals to the analysis and comprehension of what is happening. My paintings are my actions in this world, my understanding of what is happening and my anxiety. The themes of my paintings are multifaceted. I paint what I see and what I think. My paintings are not for the faint of heart. They are the cry of my soul, I want to reach the hearts of people, but alas… What is happening in the world can be compared to a bestiary, a carnival of masks, slapstick and mummers. The freaks are conducting the ceremonies. For how long can this last? We live in a Wonderland where we’re told one thing, see another, while something of the third kind actually takes place. My canvases are the mirrors that reflect the world around me in the present time. The demons and masks are all around. What will we see when the masks are removed?
I am an artist of the second half of the twentieth century. My view of the world is a kind of transformation of that which is happening, from a different perspective. To see, to think, to listen to the hum of the era. One likes to think that the third millennium will be different, I very much hope so. I’m just a witness of the time I live in and by means of my art. I try to express and convey it to the viewer.
Biography source: Russian Compatriots in America