Galery by Lev Tabenkin

MY FATHER

Let us ask ourselves the question: what takes the place in Ilya Tabenkin’s pictures? Against drapery resembling a theatrical backdrop we observe the existence of human figures - they are simplified in childlike fashion, at once sad and amusing - and of birds, and of animals. Observe them closely. A startling and profound world is revealed, created with deliberately limited means.

Here is no superficial dazzle, no gold foil. Here are no •bombastic, melodramatic effects, which for the Soviet and post- Soviet viewer stood in for the impossibility of expressing human feelings, or for the absence of human feelings.

Schiller wrote that wisdom leads to "narrow circle". Ilya Tabenkin's art ;is£ also a "circle": to some it may seem a "narrow sphere", but it is a magic “circle", where figures-that-are- signs, and drapery that evokes the "hangings" in a temple carry a sacral message, contained in the mysterious precision of their mass, weight, gestures and positioning.

Scale is not fixed in these pictures. They could be enlarged to cosmic proportions. And then we would see the enigmatic temples and deserts, the nomads’ tents, the earth and the sky. The very fabric of the painting, the simplicity and equilibrium of the forms, the luminosity: these all suggest meaning that is by no means confined to the area of the canvas.

Here every picture is a prayer. A series of pictures is a Book. As in the Bible, the repetition and emphasizing of ideas, like variations of a musical idea, create a hypnotic effect the act of looking at these pictures transports the viewer into a world of harmony and authentic beauty.

"Art as the solution to the riddle of Good and Evil": was a thought that preoccupied the artist. His pictures are not alienated; they are harvest of a human spirit that endured much suffering. They represent a form of high tragedy, when harmony is attained out of suffering.

It is of the essence that Ilya Tabenkin was born into a profoundly religious Jewish family. His art has a national character. It represents the best traditions of his people, a victory of the spirit over the chaos of-existence, of wisdom over madness. One of his pictures is called "Extra-Terrestrials". He was just such an “extra-terrestrial", a "stranger" from a world of beauty and knowledge, a bringer of light, the reflection of divine light.

My father was bom in 1914 in town Mozyr on the Pripyat River. He was the youngest from five children in the family. My grandmother, Sophia llyinichng sang well and dreamt about becoming a singer. She went to St Petersburg to her cousin Kugel, the well-known theater critic at that time, for entering at music school. And she received offer to learn. But, studying and living in the capital meant to abjure her faith.

It could never be. So she returned to Belarus and married with my grandfather, Lev Tabenkin.

It's from her, from his mother, he inherited this passion for the arts, understanding and guides, the convinced and uncompromising nature. There are such breakthroughs in philistine environment.

Grandfather was a dentist and an unlucky businessman. The father remembered how someone persuaded him to invest his savings in a factory of soft drinks. This lemonade had stood all around the home in unlimited quantities, until that factory successfully went bankrupt.

And then the revolution made lots of things, including destroying of the "Pale of Settlement”. And in 1924 the family moved to Moscow, so children could learn. And they began to learn. The elder brother Nathan became a bridge builder, outstanding in his field, but the father hardly finished seven classes. Mathematics was not come to him at all. I fear that he had never mastered the multiplication table. But passion for drawing was living in him.

In 1920s in Moscow the life was unusual as elsewhere. The Jews tried to settle together. And they lived in the Tverskoy Boulevard, building 7, near the synagogue and the Jewish theater. In a school scuffle he had hurt his back and became a hunchback. How did rt bear with? And it was still needed to get from the school to home. The father remembered the breadth of soul of chieftain of homeless children’s gang, who sat on a fence and at the sight of his hump, he ordered: "Don't touch that" Out of this moral a morality of the huge country had grown. All achievements of Christianity, of aristocratic culture, of the Russian history, accumulated for centuries, were replaced by this ‘touch" - "don't touch." And when the "touch" had already started for everyone, he, the poor boy, fell into this meat grinder.

Balzac wrote that a soul of hunchback is passionate and boundless as in the good as in the evil. Perhaps it comes from the replacement of ordinary, normal life, the relations of others. Let us remember the Richard III: fury of evil, limitless cynicism. But the father's soul walked along the path of good. And this good and kindness was endless in him. He dreamt, worked furiously, and he was able to overcome disbelief of family and he entered at the College "Memory of 1905 year". From a life in the college, he especially remembered Mikhail Xenofontovich Sokolov, the remarkable artist, who had a huge influence on students. Indeed, Sokolov’s creative work is romantic in the best sense of the term. It's romantic and noble.

I do not know who of them was "taken" earlier. The father was arrested in 1934. Then, Stalin had done away with Kirov and developed a new wave of terror. And orders came in educational institutions too: 'To imprison so many!" The father, a kind soul, sent paints to friend in a camp and in his twenty years he had got a fatal naivety to tell about it in the class. He was arrested and was firstly taken in the NKVD Department of the Moscow Region - such a beautiful building in the Lubyanka, - and then in the Butyrskaya prison. A fair amount of people sat in prison cell. And Uborevich, Red Army’s commander, and an actor Mikhail Nazvanov, the future Hamlet's unde, who unlucky joked with a friend that it was easy to "bump off' Stalin from behind a curtain of the Moscow Art Theatre during performance; and the future professor of Vilnius, Matusyavichus, who had hastily leapt the Soviet border because of love to communism and found himself in the cherished paradise in a role of Lithuanian spy.

Then there was a camp, a building of the railway Karaganda-Balkhash. Somehow he woke up in the night, and a caress slept on his breast. It warmed itself. I wonder if they bite people. He was saved from death due to friendship and patronage of experienced swindler and business man (I don't remember his name). He was the Jew, and he had not forgotten about own people. There were in those times such Ostaps Benders. This man managed to cross the Soviet border with gold and jewellery there and back for many times. All roads were opened to him. In the end, to be honest, he was imprisoned, but in the camp, of course, he was a quartermaster. Administration valued him. And my father had got the opportunity to seat and to warm himself near the stove. And they stoked up with bast shoes, a million of them were sent to builders: apparently, most suitable shoes for the Kazakh winter. As well they caught up something besides a soup from vobla. Then, after many years, this savior, a good soul, had found my father and came to visit him in a flat After escaping from the camp, he had got a luxurious apartment in the Gorky Street, took an assumed name and was a director of a big food store in Moscow. The man was strong. Well, the Spanish proverb says: "Seek a courageous man in prison and seek a coward in a church.” Is this true?

After the camp there was an exile. Despite all troubles, the father continued to work and to dream about art. I have kept some things of that time. He had got reproductions of Cezanne, of Impressionists and their influence is felt. How far it is from Aktyubinsk, Tuymazy, where he happened to visit! But what education was available in exile, God may grant it! In no capitals so many wonderful people were collected, well-educated in all fields. The father recalled how his neighbor in exile made a real piano literally from nothing and played it. These were people there! Color of the nation! There he learned to cognize literature and music.

And then the war began. Jews started to evacuate from Moscow under the threat of inevitable death. And my grandmother, Sophia Ilyinichna, went to her favorite son Lucya in Tuymazy. I read letters, how he and his mother lived in that

Tuymazy. They lived in moist and cold basement. The father got firewood and hauled it on sleds. Grandmother froze, but stood. So they warmed each other. And then for some wonder my father found out that the Surikov Art Institute was situated in Samarkand. It needed to ride on four trains there. There was the war. But it was a chance, the only one chance.

And my grandmother had developed a plan: how to get there, to announce that the documents were lost (and rt was a "wolf ticket"). She gathered all her money, food that was there, bread. I need to read, and I cannot, I cannot open a folder with her last letters. How was she able to persuade him to leave? What is the role that she played? She played her best role from unplayed opera repertoire. She had relied on neighbors who will help. She wrote in her last letter that my father had wept all day, and begged to stay with her. But she needed, it was necessary for her that he could live, to live and to realize his dream. After his departure, she fell ill and soon died of sorrow, hunger and cold. Of course, there are millions of such stories. But I am proud of her and worship her, her feat her self-sacrifice and heroism.

Meanwhile the father rode in train. Of course, everything was stolen from him and he had fallen ill with typhus yet He could not get out the train which should be changed for the next one.

The train was standing on the siding, and my father was in fever, in freeze, nor food nor drink. He lapsed into unconsciousness. And then a miracle, a real miracle happened. Suddenly doors of wagon opened, a man entered, looked at him and said the only one word: “Jew?” So it has been taken between Jews for two thousand years of persecution to help each other. Otherwise, even the memory about the people would not left.

This man went away and then returned. He brought food, drink and warm blanket He burnt a stove and gave a medicine. And so he had been come and looked after him until the farther got well. Then he handed him in the right train, said goodbye and went away. Probably he returned back in heavens.

When Ilya reached to Samarkand, he had shown to teachers his works (they were not stolen like all the rest: apparently, it was a lack of desire for art among people).

There was the war, and mostly intelligent people gathered there and he was taken in a number of students like talented man who had lost his documents and was non-obliged for military duty.

They gave him temporary "clear" documents, picked out a room in the Shir Dor Madrassa. And he began to learn. So abruptly his "harsh route" had turned.

The works of his Samarkand's period remained, amazing for their subtlety and skill. It is no way about etudes of times in exile! The environment had already worked here: lots of talented people gathered there, what Dorizo's landscape paintings cost only!

And lots of artists had painted their best works there, in Samarkand. They painted on smelly "insecticide", received pieces of bread by food-cards, but at heart of many there was poetry.

Then the war ended. The institute returned back to Moscow. My father learnt from S.I. Grabar. Their relations were quite good. Once Grabar told him that in his youth he was almost killed by robbers climbed into the house. But he survived, lived long and did much good.

So Ilya Lvovich studied and registered in a hotel, feared to appear at his father's house and looked for passport women in a militia department And in one moment he took a decision and went to simpler one. He showed her his temporary documents - and suddenly got a normal passport: probably, they had burned the archives in 1941 after all. And then he had courage or, as he said, "stupidity" to return back in his father's flat, where once he was arrested. He had just nowhere to go. There was such flat, as the whole life around was. So from the childhood it is recalled to me, born in 1952.

* * *

This corridor had a lifetime length, probably one hundred meters long. Our door was the third from the entrance, and on the other side, at the back stairs, quite different people lived.

The front door was tried to be locked up by Dubinsky in one button underpants, who always moved along the corridor with the chamber pot in his hand - empty or full one. The man was extremely old, but he adored his wife who was seen only by ambulances that daily supported her life. When the door was locked, lovers of woman of easy virtue began to hammer on it; she and her son lived in the middle of the corridor. She was sweet and charming in her carelessness, the bed was always uncovered, bottles of unknown brandy laid about a floor. Because of intense knocking a dog of a "magician", uncle Sergey, began to howl, it was faithful in spite of public beating. He was named a “magician" in one newspaper thanks to work with the firstly appeared plexiglass. How colorfully uncle Sergey treated his bums from his profitable and granted work with plastic! Of course, using the urine, but purposefully, his sweethearts tried but could not do that because of inappropriate and non-point constitution of their urinary apparatus. One of his important works was the first visor for washing of glasses in the store "Armenia" in Moscow. I went to see it - down and up the Tverskoy Boulevard. Commonly speaking he was a usual riff-raff, but in glasses with a gold rim. Such he was, uncle Sergey, a sailor, who was in bordellos on the shores of hot Italy in years of the war, perhaps, where the third invisible front had run. Conversations dragged about him and his wife. How his wife, Tonya, the fruit of pre-revolutionary love of old gentleman and scrubwoman, appeared before the war on a territory of corridor, the alone and unmarried. Coming together with an old scribe of music, she interrupted his weak breath by a pillow. She took his kennel and using military mess, moved into the first and the best room (an aristocratic origin will always reveal itself after all!). There

she met returned and unexpectedly alive uncle Sergey, who apparently was demobilized from Italy.

When he returned, he immediately built his own toilet. It was a wonder, all people were talking about it and it was worthy of that because there were two toilets in the corridor. They were located nearby. On the one rt was written «ladies'», on the other - «gentlemen's» (exactly so, with apostrophes).

But in those times sexes were mixed in hearth of the Soviet reforming and in mornings there was the long line of "ladies and gentlemen", everyone with own newspaper of same political beliefs.

There was a wonder in the middle of the corridor too. It was a room of a puppeteer, long as a pencil-case with a window overlooking the yard. For whom she was doing her dolls, God knows, but they filled all walls of her twilight room and settled plays in my childish mind. She was scraggy, with "Belo- morkanal" cigarette in teeth. But there were not enough miracles, and it was a little boring for these who have windows overlooking a courtyard. The only thing they were able to see at night through gaps in drapery how a stage director Goncharov, who lived opposite, was counting money. Of course, other people's money is a poor substitution for daylight. But it is better than nothing.

But I had got occasions to visit this great and beautiful room but on the ground floor because of the friendship with son of a leader of the Soviet theater. They did not only count money, but they could nicely spend it. These were Homeric feasts. Heroes were in pants at the table and in coats at small TV screens (among them there was the well-known sports commentator with sometimes hysterically shrill, sometimes the didactic voice). In a theater, there, in the courtyard, soldiers went, but money was real, paper one.

There were a little wonders. And my father-artist was too. Our room was the third in the corridor and even with its small, two meters long kitchen and a sink. There was an easel in the middle of the room. The fifth room was a big one, near thirteen square meters - it was the room of my friend Kolka Bobrov. Because his dad was in a "long-term business trip" there was not enough furniture. There were five beds. On them and under them the whole life passed by. You will remember Maupassant here. There were breakfasts, lunches, dinners and suppers, holidays and weekdays. There were Kolka, a mother, a brother, a grandfather and a grandmother. But if these four people took part in public life: Kolka studied for the third year in fifth grade, his brother was going to go in colony, the mother sold wine in the "Grocery", the grandmother sat at the entrance on the chair - and their beds were idle sometimes, so the grandfather was from the kind of Stylits. He did not get off the bed, apparently, because of a chest under the bed. When the grandfather was sitting, he kept his leg on the chest, and when he was laying, he shoved his toe in keyhole, again recalling heroes of the French literature. Kolka said that there was a gold in the chest and unsuccessfully tried to drive away the grandfather from the chest. And the key was ready long ago. What's a thing up - to shove the key in the lock? I remember how we were eating something good from the "Grocery" on the Kolkas bed and the grandfather asked from the chest, "Give me a taste."

“Come here," replied Kolka.

But the grandfather had got a belief, and nothing happened, although Kolka was a great romancer. There was no loft or dormer-window without his observation post Once in evening I went with him on a hike upon roofs. Every "significant baby" in the area had her own schedule for viewing when she comes, when she undresses.

There was a dream, indeed: if we had trophy binoculars, like these ones which a major from the 38th room overlooking the yard had got! Such binoculars have power even for gaps in curtains. And the major tastefully spent winter evenings, watched and compared a "someone else’s sex life." Although, in general, sexual activity frequently took place in corridors in the dark and had no romantic subdued light that the cultural West recommends.

Once my father told me a story from a camp life - maybe of his own or of some barrack mate. While deporting at night they were driven in a women's camp. They got laid with women on plank beds, and in early morning also still in the dark, they, men, marched on. So they did not see feces of their girlfriends.

But a life of the others was not so romantic. For many of them it passed peacefully and quietly as in a small fifth room looked like a warm pub. A woman lived there, a modest and childless. A chef of the restaurant car occasionally came to her, he was as nice and soft as a pillow, but courageous and with mustache. However, he seldom came, dividing free time from restaurant between two families. And, perhaps, another woman had got more of his manhood, because there were children. So she sat alone in her pub near red tablecloth under red lampshade.

And further rooms and rooms were gone...

In the end of the corridor there was a mysterious window overlooking the yard, littered with unknown decorations of sometimes the Jewish theater, and now of the dramatic one. The murder of Mikhoels was not in vain for that theater. That yard, behind the backstairs... How I wished to look at and to dig in that lumber, but something was missing. Perhaps it was a lack of courage. And I went back. I went back in the warm start of corridor.

Then, in the 1960s, party members had grown old and began to complacent. The Manege was driven away and artists were being given studios for work. Firstly they wanted to give out keys in mornings, so artists should check it back in evenings but in a fit of general complacence-keys were left. Then “men of the sixties" behaved brutally, gave their greed for high-mindedness and purposefulness. And my father received a small room in the Vavilov Street after just a little more one. And he went his own way. doing as he liked to say, the "useless for anyone business." In the 1950s achievements of the Samarkand's period, conventionalities and nobleness of colors were abandoned. He wrote realistic landscape paintings, as everyone did in attempts to subsist on. Then in the 1970s the agonizing process of finding itself, of own language and own voice began. So. if there is something in man, it looks for ways and breaks out with sprouts like grass through asphalt At first there were his still-lives - and he realized himself in this field before everything else - they were like intermediate ones. Objects are real, staging background is real. But step by step he came to conventionality. And. in the feet what he was beginning to make in the 1980s, of course, it cannot be named still-lives. If you like, these pictures are parables or icons with their own symbols of superior beings. There are angels and heroes and mythological animals in live and relative environment.

In the 1980s, in the last years of his life, the circle closed up. What was dreamt about by the boy with big and naive eyes, it was realized by the man who had carried so much but did not lose himself. And I am proud that one day in a hard moment of uncertainty and agony of despair, which sometimes tormented his soul (and it torments souls of the all of us), I said him: "Father, you are a winner, and you should be always conscious of it You could go through everything and confirmed things what you believed and believe in. There is no higher way for man."

If art is a belief, not only cowards attend church. In the old times it was said that the way of artist is the way of warrior. You don’t get along without practice here. But without feat you don’t get along too.

 

2008

 

Lev TABENKIN