Details & Cataloguing

Russian Pictures


Oleg Tselkov
signed, titled and inscribed in Cyrillic and dated 1969 on the reverse and bearing various exhibition labels on the stretcher
oil on canvas laid on board
50 by 38cm, 19 3/4 by 15in.
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St Petersburg, The State Russian Museum; Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery; Frankfurt am Main, Städel et al., Nonkonformisty: vtoroy russkiy avangard 1955-1988, 1996-1997, illustrated on p.264 of the catalogue


The present lot dates from the late 1960s, a high-point in Oleg Tselkov’s career. As the recognised leader of the Soviet Underground, which was buzzing with both artists and ideas at the time, he had his own faithful public, easily able to read his codes and metaphors. It was at this time that he found his own poetic language, and simultaneously the need to improvise. It was the very theme of the circus that encouraged Tselkov to combine his tried and tested approach with an element of risk.

In speaking of Tselkov’s poetry, I mean the constancy of certain characteristics. In those years his palette definitively established itself; artificial, slightly metallic, inspired by Malevich’s late work, almost with the texture of industrial spray-paint; but also his characteristic spatial resolution – an optical effect which has a hint of theatricality in these works. In his series of circus works this can be explained by the very theme of the spectacle. However, this artificiality can also be seen as tribute to Tselkov’s only teacher, the great director and artist Nikolai Akimov.

The main feature of Tselkov’s poetry is the incredibly assertive imagery which he found immediately and remained true to forever after: the red-faced (or ‘scalded’ as his wife so aptly expressed it), aggressive creatures with rotten teeth, human-like but at the same time contradictory to the very idea of humanity. Critics have interpreted the essence of these creatures in many ways. Some saw in them the anthropological expression (or degeneration) of the social experiment which was the Soviet Union. Alain Bosquet saw the visualisation of some sort of incarnation of Tselkov as a ‘humourist and incurable terrorist’ in them. The artist himself spoke with a typically modernist and philosophical confidence of the flip side of the divine – faces, in which ‘there is nothing of god’.

In the present lot Tselkov’s corporality is both aggressor and victim. It is part of a series entitled Circus, in which red grotesque faces appear everywhere, at every imaginable turn and angle; but they are pinned down by various metal objects: buttons, nails and curtain rings. Critics have described Tselkov’s images as hackneyed, as if his approach were deliberate. I however would speak of matrices which make up the world of his paintings. These matrices have form-defining, as well as metaphorical, connotations. The corporality in Tselkov’s work is created under pressure according to a given image and form, while at the same time somewhere inside there are processes, independent and unaccounted for, which produce something living. On a metaphysical level this refers to the build-up and strengthening of the presence of the artist’s images in our visual world.

We are grateful to Dr Alexander Borovsky for providing this catalogue note.

Russian Pictures