From Russia with ambition

Life on the street and in a psychiatric hospital has only served to inspire painter Sergei Chepik. By Ian Phillips
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The Independent Culture
IN 1988, SERGEI CHEPIK received a visit in his Leningrad studio from the Soviet censors. The painter's first masterpiece, an allegory of the paranoia and horror of the USSR, entitled The House of the Dead, had just been rejected for exhibition four times. He should, they advised him, adopt a more "positive" attitude - something he had always refused to do.

Realising that there was no artistic future for him at home, Chepik obtained a tourist visa for France, shipped as many paintings as possible out of the country and arrived in Paris on 1 August 1988. Three months later, The House of the Dead won the Gold Medal at the Salon d'Automne. The following year another painting, The Tree, was awarded the Monaco City Award, and a one-man exhibition was held at the Roy Miles Gallery in Mayfair in 1990. Of the 102 works on show, only three were unsold. Critics hailed him as "Russia's foremost living artist", and "the new Repin". Margaret Thatcher commissioned a portrait from him, and Rudolf Nureyev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn subsequently agreed to pose.

Chepik met Solzhenitsyn in 1995 on his first trip back to Russia. The visit also gave him with inspiration for his latest work, Golgotha, now on show at The Gallery in Cork Street, along with all the preparatory drawings and monotypes. "I really had the feeling that my homeland has been completely crucified by the terrible political, economic and social situation there," he told me at his Montmartre studio. "When I look at the current leaders, I ask myself whether Russia has a future, whether its civilisation will not simply be wiped out."

Golgotha's originality lies in the fact that Christ is represented only in the shadow of the cross. The viewer therefore finds himself in the position of the crucified, confronted by a crowd of onlookers, whose expressions run from horror and pity to contempt and disbelief. The stifling midday sun and oppressive walls of the ancient city create an almost unbearable claustrophobia. Its impact is breathtaking.

It is not the first time that Chepik has depicted the Crucifixion. As well as a series of monotypes in 1987, he also completed a first version of Golgotha in 1989.

When we meet, he has just returned from the Venice Carnival, and a party scene in St Mark's Square sits on the easel. Throughout the interview, he gets up regularly to touch it up. "Painting is a physical and intellectual necessity for me. I couldn't not paint, even if nobody saw my work."

He certainly seems to have been predestined to become a painter. He was born in Kiev in 1953, on Repin Street (named after the famous Russian artist). His father was a renowned painter. His mother is a sculptress and he asserts that "as far back as I can remember, I have always drawn". From 1971 to 1973 he studied at the Shevchenko Art Institute in Kiev, and then at the prestigious Repin Art Institute in Leningrad.

After graduation, he found himself literally on the street, as he spent nearly a year gathering the necessary papers for an artist's studio. Throughout that time he slept in rat-infested cellars, railway carriages and airport terminals. A doctor friend even arranged for him to live in a psychiatric hospital for two months so that he would have a bed to sleep in. "It was extremely unsettling," he admits, "but at the same time, very profitable. It was a time which was very rich in terms of the people I met, and allowed me to frequent all sort of drop-outs. It really formed my vision of the world and formed me as a painter." The sketches he made of the patients in the psychiatric hospital would, for example, later form the basis of The House of the Dead.

Other formative influences include the work of his "masters": Rembrandt, Titian and Velzquez. Chepik does not shy away from comparisons with big names of the past. "An artist today must measure himself against these champions and must be as good, or what is the point?" he declares. "When I started to paint Golgotha, I knew I'd have to compete with the greatest masters."

How does he feel he has fared? "That's for time to tell," he answers. "As the years pass, either the painting will be remembered, or forgotten."

The Gallery, Cork Street, London W1 (0171-287 8408) to 13 Mar