“The hand of the Lord
was upon me,
and he said to me,
‘Get up and go out to the plain,
and there I will speak to you.’”
“While I am alive,
no one will take
away my brushes.”
“After living 12 years in America, he speaks about nine words of English,” noted the writer, Stefan Sullivan, in a 2001 cover story about artist and friend, Alexander Zhdanov. In the five years that followed, prior to his untimely death, few would argue that he picked up any more. He didn’t need them. Zhdanov was visual, in art and in life. A Soviet dissident whose work and life story were marked by difficulty, defiance, determination, and perhaps madness, his was an underground experience of making art in impossible circumstances. 25 years later, his graphic works express the stark decay of Russian life under Communist rule and the need to escape it.
The “Émigrés” series, as it came to be known, document mysterious figures, Pans, (Greek mythological gods of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature and hunting), self-portraits, and family scenes, almost all drawn in silhouette of the sun or the moon, and almost always in motion – either running from something, someone or towards the unknown, perhaps to freedom. The parallel of these images and their narratives to that of his own personal life is uncanny and equally as dramatic. His love of experimental technique, haunting landscapes, and a healthy disdain for the decorative Socialist Realism he was formally taught, all fueled a deep-rooted tension between form and content, independence and control. In the words of the influential Russian art critic, Sergey Kuskov, his was “a lonely path in modern art.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Zhdanov was part of a group of “non-conformist” artists who openly challenged the authority of the Soviet regime. Hunger strikes were staged. “Samizdat” underground press and political manifestos were read out loud and in public. Four times he was expelled from the Grekov Art School and was never granted entry into the Union of Soviet Artists, which at the time, was the only means of access to a studio, materials, and the ‘right’ to work and exhibit as an artist. In September 1974, Zhdanov participated in the now-historic “Bulldozer” exhibition where “unofficial” artists organized an outdoor showcase of their works, which was forcefully broken up by Soviet authorities employing bulldozers and water cannons. Following his daughter’s defection in 1982 from the USSR, (she was a member of their 1980 Olympic team), the KGB began to follow the political and social activities of the artist and his wife. Repeated requests for an exit visa from the Soviet government on grounds of artistic freedom of expression were routinely denied.
If history plays a hand in contextualizing Zhdanov, his subject matter is hardly new and pays much tribute to a Russian figurative tradition, especially to that of The Wanderers – a 19th century group of Russian realist painters, who in protest to academic restrictions, formed a cooperative focused on spiritual scenes and folkloric tales. In contrast to them, Zhdanov brought a unique, almost abstract, and signature style that respected their approach, while expanding towards his central theme of figures in flight. It’s a shift of style, rather than ideology – imagine the traveling Wanderers working in a modern, pop age. The anachronism of Zhdanov’s respect for nature and classical art, when coupled with his use of text, found objects, and extemporaneous exploration of ‘drip’ painting help make his work unabashedly original. There’s no mistaking his art for anyone else’s.
Born in 1938 in Rostov-on-Don, at the height of Stalin’s purge and campaigns of repression, World War II soon interrupted Zhdanov’s early life. His father, also a professional artist, was called to army service until its end. The younger Zhdanov grew up around the military bases of Arhkangelsk and the Far East regions, which later influenced his panoramas, and perhaps, worldview. Russia’s difficult post-War environment of destruction, shortages of goods, and the forced relocation of political exiles, left behind a criminal culture. There the future artist lived a double life: mean streets reconciled by deep emotions. His mother, a librarian, introduced him to books at a very young age, including classics of foreign literature, and of course, the mythology that stayed with him throughout his life.
On November 30, 1987, a month following a protest in front of the American embassy in Moscow, Zhdanov and his wife were officially deported from the Soviet Union. Eventually resettling in Washington, DC, he continued to build on the artistic legacy of his non-conformist roots. Championed by the American collector and patron, Norton Dodge, Zhdanov’s work is also found in both museum and private collections, and has been exhibited worldwide. Of note, M. Kelner Gallery is the exclusive representative of the work of Alexander Zhdanov.
|1997||International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC|
|1997||The Art Society, Washington, DC|
|1996||Embassy of Yugoslavia, Washington DC|
|1995||Global Artists Support Group, Washington, DC|
|1994||Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, Washington, DC|
|1994||Multicultural Art of Refugees, Washington, DC|
|1994||Fine Art and Artists Gallery, Washington, DC|
|1993||Embassy of Russia, Washington, DC|
|1991||Alla Rogers Gallery, Washington, DC|
|1991||Capitol Hill Arts League, Washington DC|
|1990||State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, USSR|
|1989||Von Brahler Gallery, Alexandria, Virginia|
|1988||Private Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts|
|1988||The Slavic Center, New York, New York|
|1987||Private Gallery, Vienna, Austria|
M Kelner Gallery
1390 V Street NW
Washington DC, 20009
Washington DC, 20009