Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Russian Artists in Normandy.

A Seascape, Rein Tammik.

Text ©Alexander Anichkin
Pictures ©Rein Tammik, ©Nieka Stenberg, 
©Timur D’Vaatz, 
©Oxana Akhmetova, 
published with permission.

New Russians, of course, follow the rich crowd to the Cote d’Azur to play with their WAGs and yachts.

But a quieter, more discerning invasion is taking place in north-western France where Russian and former Soviet artists are following in the footsteps of famous French painters who have settled in Normandy.

Russians are, of course, no strangers to the region. In the nineteenth Century, Deauville determined to become a centre of centre of elegance and meeting place for nineteenth century celebrities. From 1860 onwards hotels, a casino, Victorian and Moorish villas rose from the marshes. During its days of splendour, during the celebrated Belle Époque and in the 1920s, famous Parisians, millionaires and Russian dukes assembled along the waterfront to bathe in the morning, gamble  through the afternoon and stroll and drink cocktails in the evening. 

Today, however, it is the peculiar, unique quality of the Normandy light as well as the beauty of countryside which has drawn such artists as Monet, Sisley, Turner Pissaro, Seurat and Renoir, Gaugin and Picasso over the years that is inspiring today’s Russian painters inadvertently to follow in the steps of their country’s late aristocracy. 

“The morning mists diffuse the light in such a way as to make shadows almost transparent and gives extraordinary contours to the trees and cliffs and buildings” says Muscovite Nieka Stenberg. “As far as I know this is unique in Europe.”

Stenberg, the daughter and granddaughter of reknown Russian avant-garde painter Georgiy Stenberg and artist and scenographer Enar Stenberg, studied at Moscow’s elite fine arts school the Surikov Academy.  In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed,  she fell in love with prize-winning Estonian painter Rein Tammik, whose work hangs in Moscow’s prestigious Tretyakov Gallery.

But it was an unhappy period for artists, writers and musicians in Russia. The intelligentsia was tolerated and to some extent protected by the Soviet system which afforded them a reasonable living.  
In the new, mercenary, dog-eat-dog world of post-Soviet Russia it was almost impossible to work. “The pressure was so intense that we lost our freedom of expression,” says Stenberg.  Otherwise I would not have left Russia”

But when, during their exhibition in Helsinki, a French agent offered Tammik and Stenberg, both members of the Russian Federation Union of Artists, a contract to live and paint in France they jumped at the chance.  

Le Treport, Matin, Nieka Stenberg.
Stenberg sold her flat in Moscow and in the early nineties the couple bought a tall narrow house in Eu, near Tréport in Upper Normandy, a wonderful curiosity shop of gallery cum atelier where the two live and work with their French born daughter Marie-Christine.  

“Before coming here I was a confirmed urbanite” says Stenberg, whose work  in both oil and water-colour has a strong modernist, even surrealist, streak and is  much influenced by her work designing theatre sets in Moscow. “But in Normandy I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of the countryside:  a cow bathed in mist or an apple orchard in bloom.  My father came to visit and described Normandy as a “paradise for the artist.”

“When a man changes his environment, everything in his life changes” says Tammik. “But in Normandy I am still on the same shores as I was in Estonia. Thus I can draw inspiration from the Normandy landscape because I feel comfortable within it.

“Living here has also deepened my appreciation of the great artists who have lived and painted in Normandy: I  can see now how much people like Renoir, for example, worked from real life.” 
Tammik, a classically trained, versatile painter is equally at ease  in modernist/avant-garde and traditional-realist styles, describes his style as “post-art”. With a long list of artistic awards to his name, he paints landscapes, portraits and still-lifes but has also completed a series of erotically charged collages,  ‘Les Petites Femmes de Paris,’  centred around old postcards of Parisian prostitutes.  His biggest sellers, however, are the oil on canvas large Normandy seascapes which are snapped up at around 2,500€.  

‘It  is his Baltic roots, his memories of sailing from the Estonian coast which perhaps make him unrivalled in capturing the changing light, the movement an excitement of the sea wave’,  sniffs Stenberg. 

While their work changes hands at international auctions and among private collectors, Tammik and Stenberg also enjoy direct contact with their clients and exhibit every year in Le Touquet, Versailles, Brittany and at Paris’   Carrousel de Louvre.  

further details: www.tammikstenberg.com

Interestingly, the ruggedly good-looking Russian artist Timur D’Vatz arrived in Normandy on the crest of the UK property boom and subsequent British immigration to France  in the early naughties.  

The Morning Hunt, Timur D'Vaatz.
Born in Moscow, D’Vatz had a classical fine arts training during the 1980s at the Republican Gallery of Art in Tashkent, capital of the then soviet Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

Then, a chance friendship in post-soviet 1990s Moscow lead to him fulfilling a lifelong dream to study at the Royal College of Art in London.   In 1994 he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s famous Summer Exhibition and won the Guinness Prize for “First Time Exhibitor”.  Two years later he won the AT Kearney prize at the Academy’s degree show and his career was launched during which he has also won the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award in 2002.

D’Vatz’s  decorative, figurative style had always been inspired by Russian icons and medieval tapestries.  “When I arrived in Calvados and saw the Bayeux tapestry for the first time I was incredibly excited. It was as if the way of arranging figures in processions in my recent works was a reflection of  the tapestry itself.

D’Vatz bought his studio near Pont Farcy in 2003 and like so many artists before him is fascinated by Normandy’s skies.  “I am constantly impressed how incredibly fast the cloud formations form and reform. This constant change never ceases to stimulate the imagination.”

D’Vatz’s large canvases or decorative “panneaux” sell internationally and he  exhibits in London, Paris and Florence and the US. 

further details: www.timurdvatz.co.uk

In Normandy, the sun shines very low on the horizon for an inordinately long time before setting.    This may not make sense, scientifically but even non-artists remark upon how long the evening shadows linger.

“The evening sun sinks so low the town acquires extra long shadows as it sets” says Oxana Akhmetova. “Normandy is fantastic for artists.”

The Granville Port, Oxana Akhmetova.
Akhmetova arrived in Normandy’s famous sea port and spa town Granville on a circuitous route through Wales.  Ethnically Russian, Akhmetova was born in Samarkand on Russia’s famous silk route. Daughter of a famous photographer from Lenin’s home town of Ulyanovsk who made his name in the 60’s compiling artistic photo guides for soviet era tourists, she was sent to a boarding school in Tashkent which specialised in art. 

She continued studying fine arts in the Uzbek capital until moving to Moscow in the nineties where she met her British husband and moved to Cardiganshire. 

In Wales, she continued to paint and exhibit, adopting the name Roxana  as an artistic nom de plume,  until the family uprooted to Normandy ten years ago. 

When the marriage broke down, Akhmetova opened her own gallery in Granville as a showcase for both her own work and that of contemporary Russian, formerly soviet, artists. 

“My style is cosmopolitan but based on the soviet realist school of art of my training.”

Despite having her own gallery, Akhmetova loves networking and exhibits locally in Normandy where she sells mostly to French clients. 

“Today I am working on a commission for a huge - 2m x 3m format - oil “artistic representation of Uzbekistan for a local Granville client who wants it for her bedroom!  The canvas is so big I can’t get it into my studio so I am having to work in the garage.”

Irrepressibly energetic, Akhmetova, who now lives with her French partner - her son has gone back to University in Aberystwyth - also gives art classes to the local community and does restoration work.  She is also organising a France wide association promoting the artistic links links between France and Russia. 

Further details: oxanahmetova.tripod.com

Normandy’s artistic heritage

Monet’s picture, Impression, Soleil Levant, 1872, widely regarded as the cornerstone of the Impressionist movement, was painted in Le Havre. Claude Monet is perhaps one of the best known Impressionists and his house and gardens at Giverny are one of the region's major tourist sites, much visited for their beauty and, of course, the famous water lilies. Normandy was at the heart of his work, from the paintings of Rouen's cathedral to the famous depictions of the sunrise at Le Havre and the cliffs at Etretat, as well as the beach and port at Fécamp.

The American art museum, also in Giverny, reflects American inspiration is also well worth a visit.
Monet met Eugène Boudin and Jongkind in Honfleur, and brought fellow artists such as Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir to Honfleur to paint. 

The River Seine was also a source of inspiration to these painters whose new technique enabled them to depict the sparkling colours of moving water and the reflection of clouds and sky. Further north, at the tip of the Manche département, the painter Millet produced several works depicting the local church and peasants working in the fields.

Despite Monet's work hanging in collections all over the world, a remarkable number of Impressionist works can still be seen in galleries throughout Normandy.

While Eugène Boudin, Raoul Dufy and Marcel Duchamp are Norman by birth, numerous other painters fell under the charm of the region, stayed there and even settled in Normandy whose  landscape has been immortalised on canvas not only by Monet, William Turner, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, George Braque, Pablo Picasso and others.

The celebrated painter Georges Seurat summered in the small fishing village of Port en Bessin - dubbed “Normandy’s little St Tropez" by the writer Françoise Sagan - in 1888 and painted six views of the port.

In the summer of  1874,  the famous Russian painter Ilya Repin holidayed on the Normandy coast and noted in his diary the “astounding beauty of this French province” which reminded him of the agricultural landscapes of his beloved Russia.

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