Oleg Tselkov

15 July 1934, Moscow Oblast

In the Abyss of Despair

If you are truly indifferent, no one who could harm you will even remember or think about you.

Victor Pelevin, Chapaev and Emptiness

For over a half century Oleg Tselkov has been painting the same “portrait” of a monstrous mutant, a humanoid creature, and every feature is horrible: the huge flat face, the tiny slits for eyes, and the lipless mouth opened in a scream. The image of muscular violence reminds us of Cesare Lombroso’s research into “born criminals”: asymmetrical skull, protruding face, short sloping forehead, protruding eyebrow ridges….a “physical” creature incapable of feeling pain, neither its own nor certainly anyone else’s.

For many years it seemed that the source of the power, the naked, conquering aggression of this beast was the repressive system in which the artist grew up and matured, although there are no external signs of it in the paintings. Tselkov himself was certain for a long time that he was depicting evil born of socialism, painting a parody of the authoritarian society that created the “new man,” the faceless “Soviet people,” united in every impulse. Following Kazimir Malevich’s “peasant cycle’”(1928-1932), banned from public view and hidden in the storerooms of the Russian Museum in those years, he shows figures devoid of individual traits. In the period of the “great break,” the radical turning of the huge country, which created millions of victims (primarily, millions of peasants), the transformation had only begun. Tselkov sums up the results of the “Auschwitz of the human spirit,” a world plunged into darkness and evil.

Expelled “for formalism” from several art institutions, the rebel rather quickly found his compact and universal formula, the moving force of which was revulsion for the existing order, including the artistic one. Like his contemporaries the Abstract Expressionists, he demonstrated his disillusionment with the humanistic project and studied the dark side of human nature, the instincts of a creature liberated from everything personal and rational. He painted in vivid brutal color, without halftones, almost completely limiting himself to the basic spectrum—red, violet, green, and blue. The insight came suddenly, at the height of the Khrushchev Thaw, which had not tempted or deceived the artist, a few years before the leader of the Czech Communist Party had formulated the popular doctrine of “socialism with a human face.”

“After decades of stubborn and fruitless labor, in 1960 I painted my first, the first, my painting ‘Portrait,’ with two faces. For the first time, I was first, accidentally, I ‘pulled off’ from a face the face ‘in the image’ and saw THE FACE. My amazement knew no bounds. I had painted a kind of portrait, but it was not the portrait of an individually taken subject, but a general portrait. Everyone in a single face, and it was horribly familiar. I had not set myself the goal of ‘tearing masks from faces,’ and what I saw wasn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’ but something that was a better likeness, was more authentic. On the face? Actually, on two faces, was the imprint of millions of years lived by humanity in the past. And just as much in the murky future.” Spreading over the canvases, bit by the standards of the unofficial school, grinning and shoving, the mugs doubled, tripled, multiplied, reproducing and forming a crowd of humanoid monsters, always ready for anything: kicking, lynching, judging, saving.

For Tselkov neither Hellene nor Judea exists, not even the artist himself: his self-portraits are indistinguishable from all the other physiognomies, no more complimentary than the portraits. The Apostles in “The Last Supper” gaze with the same meaningless masks as the characters in “Golgotha.” This is the most primitive variant of mask, similar to those used in original cultures to signify simple and important meaning. The most important of which is always the exclusion of individuality, of any signs of personality, of what informs the traditional portrait. For a very brief time, in the early 1970s, the monolithic system changed, the characters lost their monosemanticity and universality, and recognizable faces appeared in the paintings. Recognizable is a relative term, of course: the artist maintains that he has started looking like his protagonists—he shaves his head and “my eyes have turned into slits, like the heroes of my paintings.” Tselkov’s works became slightly lighter and less expressive after he was forced to emigrate. But the Western world, imposing completely different schemes and images, left space for further misanthropic and sarcastic research into the cruel nature of the true, “inner” Homo sapiens.

Faina Balakhovskaya