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Friday, August 28, 2015

Vlady Kibalchich Russakov

Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals, 1972-82, Vlady Russakov
When we contemplate Mexican art during modern times, we almost instantly think of large scale murals, decorating both the inside and outside of public buildings. It would seem that Mexicans love their murals. Yet, for the most part, this love affair is less than a hundred years old, although they can be found among the ruins of the ancient Olmec civilization. Murals were also used to Christianize the Central American population in the Post-Hispanic era as well. However, most present-day murals date from the era following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) when the new constitutional government sought to unite the country into a single nation through the use of what were, essentially, cultural propaganda broadsides. From this era, three names stand out, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They were the first generation. Vlady Kibalchich Russakov was a second generation Mexican muralist, though, more accurately, he should be termed a Jewish Russian/Mexican muralist.

Vlady Russakov Self-portrait
Vlady Russakov basically reinvented the Mexican mural. He was inspired by Venetian colors, as well as the monsters of the Bosco, and the fluid rhythms of Francis Bacon. But the melding of soft forms, hard lines, and stark precision, reflected in his Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals (top), are unique in the world of mural art. Mexican artists invented muralism in the 1920s to present a human and heroic image of the Zapata revolution. Russakov was able to transform this art movement combining his informed cultural encyclopedia and his vivid Russian imagination. Today, Mexican muralism integrates two currents, the old--Orozco, Siqueiros and Ribera--with Russakov's.

Vlady Russakov in his studio
The Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals of the Ministry of Finance were commissioned by then Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez in 1971. Russakov labored on this monumental work from for some ten years. Most of the frescoes were executed directly on the wall, using the stone as a pictorial element. The arches of the gates were painted on several giant canvases. Some of his more intimate works have been installed in a mezzanine. A burning Chapel adjacent projects the Freudian revolution. This library is located in an ancient temple-like building of pure Baroque style, designed by San Felipe Neri, and built in the 17th century as a hospice. The vaulted murals of the main reading room have often been compared to those of the Sistine Chapel, though in fact, at some 2,000 square meters, they occupy a space almost four times greater. (The Sistine ceiling is a mere 567 square meters.) Russakov's murals are dedicated to revolutions--all revolutions--from Cromwell to Lenin, the American Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, as well as those of Latin America. But all revolutions are not political or military. Russakov includes the Christian revolution, the Freudian revolution, and even a musical revolution depiction of Johann Sebastian Bach shaking hands with John Lennon. Russakov combines Russian emotion with European traditions and Mexican vitality to create a new type of mural expression.

Russakov is dwarfed by the scale of one of his
Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals.
It was a long, treacherous road from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Vlady Russakov was born in 1920. His father was the Russian writer/photographer, Victor Napoleon Lvovich Kibalchich, better known as Victor Serge. Serge was secretary to Leon Trotsky. When Joseph Stalin took over around 1924, the family was exiled to Kazakhstan, where they lived in extreme poverty. In 1933, Russakov's mother succumbed to mental illness and was committed to the psychiatric clinic of the Red Army. Vlady accompanied his father to the gulag. His schooling during this time came from Bolshevik professors allied with Lenin who were also deported by Stalin. Thanks to pressure from European writers and intellectuals, the family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1936 moving first to Belgium then to France. While in France, the young Vlady became involved with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, though he was too young to join the fighting. Along with a revolutionary spirit, Russakov's time in Belgium and France gave him his first exposure to modern art, which inspired him to become a painter. In Paris, Russakov studied with various painters including Victor Brauner, Wifredo Lam, Joseph Lacasse, André Masson and Aristide Maillol. However, with the likelihood of a German invasion of France in 1941, the family once again became refugees.

Russakov's work varies from near abstraction
to Expressionism with fascinating touches
of Realism at times.
Russakov and his father were able to catch a boat from the south of France to Cuba, even though it meant leaving Vlady's mother in a mental hospital. She died there in 1943. He and his father never saw her again. From Cuba, father and son were obliged to move on to the Dominican Republic and from there to the Yucatan Peninsula. Later they found their way to Mexico City. Vlady was twenty-three, and neither of them spoke Spanish. Nonetheless, Russakov had his first exhibition in 1945 and married a Mexican woman the same year. His father died just days later. In 1947, Russakov became a naturalized Mexican citizen.

Another section of the Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library mural.
Although Russakov developed his artistic career in Mexico, he also maintained frequent contacts with Europe. His first visit back was in 1950, as the continent was recovering from the war. He traveled to the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Spain, Italy, England and France. During the 1960s, Russakov returned to Europe on at least three occasions. Then in 1989, following the Gorbachev era, Russakov returned for the first time since childhood to the Soviet Union where he pressed unsuccessfully for the rehabilitation of his father and Leon Trotsky. Russakov lived and worked in Mexico City until 1990 before moving to Cuernavaca, where he bought a country house with a large studio. He continued to live there with his wife, working until his death on July 21, 2005 from brain cancer. He was eighty-five.

The frustrating thing about dealing with Russakov is that his various Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library mural elements are seldom title individually.


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