Our International Editor Simon Hewitt reviews Alexis Gritchenko – Dynamocolor by Vita Susak.

ALEXIS GRITCHENKO (1883-1977) – a Ukrainian artist who blossomed in Moscow but spent over half his life in France – hovers in the wings of 20th century art history. Vita Susak’s majestic appraisal of his life, writings and artistic output will surely bring him closer to centre-stage.

Gritchenko married a Frenchwoman of Creole extraction when he was 44, and settled on the Riviera. The first half of his life, full of Dickensian ups and downs, was ten times more interesting.

He was one of ten children born to a bank manager in Krolevets – a modest town on the Moscow-Kiev rail line, then in the Tsarist Empire but now in north-east Ukraine (50 miles from the Russian border). He learnt to draw during his four years at a seminary in Chernigov, the nearest city, where he developed an interest in religious imagery later fostered by visits to the monastery where his younger brother was a monk.

On the back of a 24-page essay on Gogol, Gritchenko was admitted to university in St Petersburg – but lasted just one year before decamping to Kiev amidst the revolutionary tumult of 1905. His studies would lurch on until 1913, ostensibly in the field of Natural Science, but he was more bothered about Art. He studied with Archipenko and Bogomazov under Svitoslavsky in Kiev, summering in Crimea, where he staged his first exhibition – with Lentulov and two others – near Yalta in 1908. He then moved to Moscow, attending Yuon’s studio and encountering the revelation of Cézanne at the Golden Fleece exhibition of 1909.

Inspired, suggests Susak, by his grandfather’s tales of Cossack ancestors, Gritchenko was always travelling. After Crimea, the Caucasus. Then Paris, and Delacroix (‘my master’), and Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Munich. Above all: Italy, where he was so smitten with the Primitives and the Quattrocento that, when hired by Ivan Morozov to catalogue his Icon collection in 1917, he would liken Novgorod and Pskov to Florence and Siena.

It was a staggering rise to artistic pre-eminence, and a period Susak covers in admirable detail. Within months of graduating in botany (ferns a speciality, notes Susak), Gritchenko was lecturing on Russian Painting and Its Ties with Byzantium and the West, and sounding off in print about How Painting is Taught & What We Must Understand By It. He set up a class at the newly-founded SVOAS (Free State Art School) with his fellow-Ukrainian Alexander Shevchenko in 1918. His work The Bridge was acquired that year by the Tretyakov, which asked him to become its Director. Gritchenko declined.

As well as writing and teaching, Gritchenko swiftly acquired a unique painting style, strongly influenced by icons and Cézanne’s spatial construction, but with a softer, duller palette than those of Malevich and his Avant-Garde acolytes. ‘The planes of colour in his painting are never in conflict’ writes Susak. They ‘butt up against each other’ with the ‘surface always done in fine strokes that make it look fuzzy.’

Gritchenko labelled his approach tsvetodynamos, which sounds as if it ought to be rendered as ‘colour dynamics.’ But his former friend Lentulov was espousing tsvetodinamika at the same time – hence Susak’s quaint but unconvincing choice of the term ‘dynamocolor.’ The title of the 182-work exhibition Gritchenko and Shevchenko organized with their students on Bolshaya Dmitrovka in May 1919 is duly given as Dynamocolor & Tectonic Primitivism. It featured 69 works by Gritchenko; just six have survived. Of the hundred works he had painted earlier in Crimea, none survive. And all the 500 paintings Gritchenko completed or was working on in Moscow were destroyed, so desperate was he to get away.

By Summer 1919 the Russian Civil War was in full cry. Mayakovsky, whom Gritchenko appears to have viewed with dread and contempt, was trumpeting the need for art to serve as a vehicle for revolutionary propaganda. Gritchenko had no intention of being drafted into the Red Army (he had been conscripted into the Tsar’s Army in 1915, but secured a pen-pushing job far from the front). He lobbied David Shterenberg, Head of Art at the People’s Commissariat for Education (and fellow-Ukrainian), for a travel-permit. These were like gold dust. As soon as he received one, signed by Shterenberg on 23 July 1919, Grtichenko ‘padlocked his studio, threw on a coat, grabbed a light suitcase and headed for the train station,’ as he would later recall. He had no time to pack up his paintings, casually entrusting them to Andrei Shemshurin – who baulked at the idea of carting over 500 canvases across Moscow to his 7th floor flat, and was relieved when a commissar – perhaps acting on a jealous tip-off from Varvara Stepanova – arrived to impound Gritchenko’s paintings and flog them as re-usable canvas.

Gritchenko later wrote that his paintings had been ‘slaughtered.’ These were works from his best and most original period: their destruction counts as one of the greatest, if least-known, artistic tragedies of the early 20th century.

But Gritchenko, implies Susak, may only have had himself to blame. He was a ‘stubborn and independent character;’ in Nadezhda Udaltsova’s words, a ‘self-satisfied and self-confident milord.’ He was a man of few friends, and some of those he turned into enemies. He wrote, for instance – not in private correspondence, but in the prestigious pages of Apollon magazine – that ‘the only similarity between Picasso and Lentulov is that they are both immediately unintelligible’ (just two years earlier Gritchenko had been lodging at Lentulov’s). His ‘friend’ Shemshurin would later gloat at the fate of Gritchenko’s paintings, given his subsequent bourgeois lifestyle in the Capitalist West.

After spending Autumn 1919 lying low in his native Krolovets, Gritchenko ventured to Crimea and sailed to Constantinople as a ship’s hand. He stayed 16 months – initially, he would claim, in a British refugee camp. His passport was stolen by a Spanish Embassy official, and he was ‘penniless.’ This assertion sits as awkwardly with Ismail Namik’s 1920 magnificent portrait of a perky Gritchenko resplendent in Turkish costume, in the pinkest of health, as it does with Susak’s claim that Gritchenko revolutionized the Turkish art scene by ‘bringing Avant-Garde ideas to Istanbul.’

After half a year in Greece, which he criss-crossed with characteristic energy and curiosity, Gritchenko landed in Marseille in Autumn 1921 with ‘14 chests of watercolours and gouaches,’ many depicting Greek Dancers whose ‘laconicism of form and colour, and lightness combined with a complex technique of execution’ remind Susak of ‘Picasso’s post-war ceramics.’

He landed – we are assured – with a measly 50 francs in his pocket. Yet, within weeks, his watercolours were on show at the Salon d’Automne alongside Fernand Léger. Within two years had been signed up by ex-Modigliani dealer Leopold Zborowski and could count the fabled Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes amongst his patrons. We are again left marvelling at meteoric career progress.

Although, as Susak’s photos illustrate, Gritchenko was tall, strong and handsome, romance plays little part in her tale. In 1927 he married Lilas de Maubeuge. She was 18 years his junior. Her mother owned an hotel in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the Riviera resort where Renoir had died eight years earlier. The newly-weds made Cagnes their home, but continued to travel: Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Canary Islands, three trips to the U.S. when Gritchenko was in his seventies and eighties… Their only recorded visit to London was for a group exhibition in July 1935, about which Susak has regrettably little to say.

Whatever his Wanderlust, Susak views Gritchenko as a Ukrainian hero. The tone is set in the Foreword, written by Michel Lièvre Markovitch, who asserts that Gritchenko ‘was Ukrainian – his life and his work remind us of this every moment.’

To Susak, Gritchenko’s four years at Chernigov Seminary were of ‘crucial impact in solidifying his Ukrainian identity.’ Although, after 1919, he never returned to the eastern Ukraine of his roots, the 1930s saw him fêted in the western Ukrainian city of Lvov (then part of Poland) with a solo show and a published monograph (in Ukrainian and French); the Lvov Art Museum acquired several of his paintings. These would be secretly burnt, along with 1,700 other works, as part of a late Stalinist attack on ‘formalism’ in 1952 – by when Lvov was the western outpost of the USSR.

Gritchenko’s name, writes Susak, ‘was deliberately forgotten in Soviet Ukraine.’ The six-volume History of Ukrainian Art, published in Kiev in the late 1960s, fleetingly referred to him as a Ukrainian artist living abroad, engaged in ‘essentially formal pursuits, following the pseudo-innovations of contemporary bourgeois art.’

In 1957 Gritchenko published nostalgic memoirs, L’Ukraine de Mes Jours Bleus, and in 1963 established a Gritchenko Foundation at the Ukrainian Institute in New York as a holding for paintings and archives he wished to see transferred to Ukraine if ever the country gained independence. His dream came posthumously true: in 2006, nearly thirty years after his death, the Foundation was transferred from New York to Kiev.

Susak has written a readable work of scholarship (albeit one lacking an index), richly documented and abundantly illustrated. It would help if picture dimensions and whereabouts were noted alongside, rather than listed separately at the back. She has an eye for telling technical detail: we learn that, in Istanbul, Gritchenko ‘began to use a stiffer base for his compositions – Finnish cardboard — small format, almost square’; and that, during World War II, a ‘lack of long-bristled brushes forced me to change my style.’

But Susak does not seek to get under Gritchenko’s skin, or to answer the questions that haunt the reader throughout her book: why isn’t this remarkable figure better known, and why are his works so modestly priced compared to those by, say, Lentulov and the other Avant-Garde artists with whom he worked but who (Tatlin excepted) he held in scant respect?

The destruction of the vast majority of Gritchenko’s powerful early works is one explanation, the lack of visibility of his surviving paintings another: the bulk of his oeuvre is to be found in private collections or scattered around the Russian provinces (in museums from Serpukhov to Vladivostok via Perm, Saratov, Astrakhan and Krasnodar). His later style – one is inclined to view his marriage as a turning-point – moves towards a vigorous expressionism that brings to mind Kokoschka but lacks the originality of his early years.

Susak’s book is in American English – ‘flophouse’ and all – but contains some irritating slips. Côte d’Azure, Fontnay-aux-Roses, ‘the Montparnasse’ and Odesa should have been caught during proof-reading. One expects the translator of such a book to be reasonably au fait with geography and art history (‘Quatrecento’ indeed!), and I struggle to see why Russian Icon is rendered as Ancient Rus Icon, unless to prove some recondite Ukrainian point.

Last but not least: there should be no T in the English transliteration of Грищенко (pronounced Grishenka). But for this we can only blame the pronunciation of his adopted France – and Vita Susak has given us Monsieur Gritchenko in all his glory.

Published by the Rodovid Press (Kiev), 320pp