A favourite of the people

Expelled from the USSR in 1971, Chemiakin become hugely popular in the US. Now he is equally successful in Russia. But critics scorn him, says Geraldine Norman
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The Independent Culture
LINED UP on top of a cupboard at the back of Mikhail Chemiakin's studio is a row of human skulls. These macabre items add a nightmare element to the dense accumulation of objects that pack his huge work space, a former auditorium in a parkland setting 100 miles north of New York. There are 17th-century furniture, curiously shaped stones, silver, pottery, the stuffed carcases of birds and beasts suspended from the ceiling, and everywhere his own work - often hard to distinguish from the objects whose colour, texture and form inspire it.

Images of death, madness and torture in Chemi-akin's work are largely the result of his early experiences in Russia. At the age of 18, he was thrown out of the Repin Academy of Art for his enthusiasm for artists such as Durer, Bosch, Van Gogh and Cezanne who were disapproved of by the Soviet authorities. Incarcerated in a lunatic asylum and used as a guinea pig for psychiatric drugs, he was deported from Russia in 1971 and now lives in America.

In market terms, Chemiakin is one of the curiosities of the Cold War- perestroika transition. Though his colourfully "Russian" paintings are disdained by Western critics and the art establishment, they are a huge hit with Middle America. Bought for their decorative qualities rather than their critical acclaim, they have commanded high prices even during the art-market recession. This distinguishes him from Kabakov, Bulatov and other dissident artists who blazed a trail through Western museums and art journals after perestroika. At the same time, Chemiakin has become the Russian people's favourite living artist. His work is regarded as the epitome of Western chic by art lovers long starved of such culture.

In 1989, Chemiakin became the first exile invited back to exhibit his work in Russia - at the Doma Khudozhnikov, or House of Artists, in Moscow; 8,000 people tried to attend the exhibition opening, battling a police guard, and there were fears that the massive concrete stairway of the Soviet-style headquarters of the Artists' Union would collapse. Last autumn a second vast exhibition was shown, first at the Manege in St Petersburg - the former Imperial riding school - then at the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, now the most prestigious exhibition space in the capital. People were prepared to queue for hours to get in.

It is hard to tell how posterity will judge Chemiakin's work. His success so far is an intriguing illustration of the way art buyers are capable of ignoring the critics. Handled only by lesser dealers and shown in less prestigious spaces, his work has nevertheless attracted a vast public, and huge prices. His lithographs sell for $2,000-$4,000 (pounds 1,300-pounds 2,600), his pastels for $18,000-$70,000 (pounds 12,000-pounds 45,000). Prices for his monumental bronzes can reach $300,000 (pounds 200,000).

Chemiakin's work is the kind of stuff you don't need a fancy art education to appreciate. He loves colour, mysticism, myth, the articulation of form - distorted, but generally exotic or beautiful. His work is mostly figurative; even his abstracts echo recognisable reality.

The volume of material Chemiakin sells supports a lifestyle verging on the grandiose. He has a small park outside Hudson, in the fashionable part of upper New York State; Merchant and Ivory live next door. A large 19th-century mansion at the top of the estate has been converted into a huge multi-halled sculpture studio that recalls the gaunt mansions of horror movies. At the bottom of the hill is a former auditorium, where Chemiakin also works and lives with his American companion, Sarah de Kay, six dogs and two cats. The park is dotted with his bronzes, carefully placed to create intriguing vistas.

Born in Moscow in 1943 but brought up in the Baltic port of Konigsberg, Chemiakin was the son of commandant of the Soviet Army. Running the post- war streets with a mixed group of German and Russian boys, he claims to have witnessed "hunger and death, rape and looting, debauchery and drunkenness".

By the time his father was transferred to Leningrad in 1957, he had learnt to draw. At 14 he entered the Repin Academy of Art and found himself stigmatised as a dangerous troublemaker for propagating a taste for what was regarded as degenerate Western art. He was thrown out of the academy a year before graduating and incarcerated. His mother fought desperately for his release, and the authorities finally relented and let him go.

After roaming southern Russia and living in a remote monastery (where he fell under the spell of icon painting), Chemi-akin was thrown out of the country in 1971. "They told me I must leave or go back to prison or a lunatic asylum," he says. "I wasn't allowed to take anything with me: no paintings, no money, not even a suitcase. But the general who arranged my deportation liked my work and bought some of the pictures I left behind."

Chemiakin lived in Paris in extreme poverty before being taken up by the Carpentier Gallery, which initiated his extraordinary success with the public. In 1981 he decided to move to America - "the socialism of Mitterrand held frightening echoes of Russia," he says - where his success continued, though the art press took little notice of him.

In the late Eighties he began to gain a whole new following among the Russian nouveau riche. There, his reputation is not based solely on his art. During that decade he had used his money and influence to campaign for the release of Russian prisoners of war in Afghanistan. He also befriended Russia's most famous dissident musician, Vladimir Vysotsky. "His protest songs were the voice of Russia - though his poems were not published until after his death in 1980."

These extra-curricular activities have helped make Chemiakin a hero to the perestroika generation. The reformist mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, has adopted him as a favourite son. Chemiakin's bronze statue of Peter the Great has been installed in the courtyard of the Peter and Paul Fortress; his monument to "the victims of political repression", incorporating two bronze sphinxes, was installed on the banks of the Neva last spring, at the spot where the drains from the KGB basement used to pour blood into the river.

Sobchak has also asked Chemiakin to erect 12 life-size bronze figures on Nevsky Prospect but the project has run into unexpected opposition. The official artist who advises the city council on protecting the aesthetics of St Petersburg has objected. There are signs of a backlash among St Petersburg's aesthetes - the disdain with which Western critics treat his work may be spreading to Russia. !