By Marie Giral
“You constitute your own happiness; all the rest are incidents that you may
like or not like. Amen.” Anatoly Zverev.
The ‘AZ Museum,’ is the name of the museum dedicated to the Soviet artist Anatoly Zverev who was born, lived and died in Moscow (1931-1986). The address is 20/22, second Yamskaya Tverskaya Ulitsa. If you go there from Mayakovskaya Metro station, you will find, at number 20/22, a note on the door that says (in Russian): ‘Sorry, we moved to Ulitsa Arbat a few months ago.’ How long this note has been here for?, better not ask! You are about to turn away, thinking that you got a wrong address, but a second thought tells you to persevere. Remember, all these street numbers, probably dating back to those of long-gone properties, churches, mansions with gardens. Walk two doors further up the street and there is another entrance to the museum that is open.
The AZ (for Anatoly Zverev) museum, is set in a 3-floor modest ‘ocobniak,’ (mansion). During the warm season, the last floor transforms into a roof-top café. This is a private museum that came about thanks to the passion and personal collection of Natalya Opaleva, one of its two founders (the other founder is art curator Polina Lobachevskaya). In 2013, Aliki Costakis, daughter of the famous collector George Costakis, donated over 600 works by Zverev to the museum, along with archival materials from her father’s collection.
Today, the museum owns over 1,500 works by Anatoly Zverev and over 500 works by non-conformist artists of his circles. Indeed, Zverev, the grandson of an icon painter, never belonged to any one single trend or group, and remains difficult to classify in any painterly movement familiar to us. Nevertheless, George Costakis considered Zverev to be the first Russian Expressionist. Picasso himself said that Zverev was the “genius painter of the 20th century,” no less. Another Soviet artist of the first avant-garde, Robert Falk, said that: “Each stroke of his brush was a treasure. Artists of his stature come by just once a century.” However, Anatoly Zverev spent his life living a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing where he would spend the next night and hiding from the authorities who could not stand his anarchic way of life and mind-set.
Not only did his ‘friend’ artists – Plavinsky, Nemukhin, Rabin, Krasnopevtsev and many others – not to mention, again, collector George Costakis protect him. They also organized in his lifetime exhibitions of his works in underground galleries, away from Soviet officials.
Before the opening of the museum in May 2015, the two founders organized two exhibits in the new Manezh, so as to remind Muscovites of this forgotten artist. Since its opening, the AZ Museum has been offering exhibitions devoted to one theme of Zverev’s œuvre. Each time, the whole building transforms into a space arranged accordingly, with taste, talent and knowledge of modern museum scenography.
The theme of the present exhibition is about how Anatoly Zverev illustrated four of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales: ‘The Nightingale’, ‘The Wild Swans’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and ‘The Little Mermaid.’
Zverev created this series of illustrations in 1961, at the request of one of his protectors, the choreographer and ballet-master Alexander Rumnev. For many years, these drawings have been kept in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. In 2012, the drawings were first presented and became an invaluable discovery for both specialists and the public. In 2013 AZ Museum published a book: ‘Zverev draws Andersen’s fairy tales.’
Andersen and Zverev have more in common than one might think. Both endured extreme poverty in their childhood. Andersen, like Zverev, had to support himself and he too started his vocation very early. Both were also very prolific. As famous as Andersen may be for his fairy tales (more than 200!), he also wrote a number of plays, travelogues, novels and poems. Zverev’s legacy includes more than 30,000 works, most of them stored in museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with some of his works exhibited in the Museum of modern art in New York.
As with previous exhibitions, the ‘Andersen’s Fairy Tales’ exhibition occupies three floors of the Museum. When you enter the museum, after leaving your coat at the garderobe, you immediately find yourself in the underwater world of the little Mermaid. The floor, chairs and walls are transparent, aquatic, fluttering in blue and white. Words of the fairy tales appear in portholes along with the artist’s drawings: a single stroke, characteristic of his intention to render direct sensations by working at great speed.
You walk up (or take the very adequately transparent lift) to the third floor and after experiencing the submarine world on the first floor, in case you had forgotten you were in Moscow, you now find yourself in an endless enfilade of red spaces reflected ad infinitum on the mirrors covering the walls. This is the Palace of the Chinese Emperor who loved listening to the nightingale’s chirping. You can see the cage of the mechanical one and hear the singing of the Nightingale. On one sidewall a short video clip presents a forest with the full Moon rising and fading.
Walking down to the second floor, you are with the Emperor’s New Clothes tale on one side, and the story of the Wild Swans on the other. Here also, short video clips and objects accompany the themes: spools of threads surround the shape of a naked shape while a mechanical mobile moves slowly, symbolizing the swans of the tale. Finally, you will dive again to the first floor in the little mermaid’s water world and sit for a quiet moment watching the short movie (in Russian) about the similarities in the life, and work too, of the two artists. The four scenography artists deserve a special mention in this exhibition.
Do not leave the museum without having a look at the tiny bookshop. The ‘AZ Museum’ publishes its own fine books, all about Zverev or the exhibitions. Some of them are in English, well worth having a look and buying. ‘A Hundred portraits of women’ is particularly beautiful. Presenting portraits along with pictures of the models, it shows how Zverev was able to capture the spirit of a person. In ‘Round & About,’ Zverev friends call to mind their memories and anecdotes about him. On the right page, they are also portrayed, with the same exceptional talent for projecting in a few strokes the essence of people.
For those with kids who learn Russian, special programmes are proposed for children with an enchanting guided tour and a small master class. The project also offers a cycle of lectures by leading experts on the works of Andersen and the history of book illustration.
Visiting the Andersen exhibition at the ‘AZ Museum,’ the Ambassador of Denmark in Russia found the drawings and installation ‘unique.’ After the show closes in Moscow at the end of April, it will travel to Denmark, where Andersen’s modern compatriots will see his tales anew.