Yesterday was one of those days when sadness and inner smile collided, as the weather outside continued to play the game of ‘I cant’ make up my mind’. As the taxi took me to the Mall Galleries, where the first major retrospective of the work of the Russian artist Sergei Chepik was opening for preview, I felt sadness that this gregarious, larger than life Titan wouldn’t be walking around the gallery and talking in his lovely Russian drawl to the people who came to see him and his work. He died suddenly in November of 2011 and yet every time I see his paintings, I smile and think of an extraordinary man who carried his Russian sense of self with great pride and yet his talent and art spoke to people around the world, making him a truly universal artist, whose art easily transcends borders.
I met Sergei Mihailovich a few years ago at one of his exhibitions held at Catto Gallery in London and since that day I felt deep affection for his work. Very tall and expressive, with a cigarette in his mouth, he smiled and laughed, always engaging with those who came to talk to him about his work, no matter what their age.
As Andrew Graham-Dixon, British art historian & broadcaster, told the audience at the retrospective opening, ‘Chepik was a tender painter’ and you can see it in his wife Marie-Aude’s portraits first and foremost.
‘He could dip his brushes in and our of any style of old Masters like Matisse or Velasquez’ yet his work was always full of Russian character and inner identity that you wouldn’t confuse with anyone else.
The exhibition is divided in parts, so in one room you will reflect and feel deep sadness looking at the religious paintings that he created for St. Paul’s Cathedral and then walk into brightness and light of his work that collectors kindly agreed to lend for the exhibition.
You see his range of skills dating back to 1978 in his diploma work, as well as Russian fairy-tale themed paintings that I adore and that make me feel transported back in time, to my childhood, where Baba Yaga or the Russian version of Cinderella seemed real to my young and vivid imagination. Pause for a moment in front of his ‘Russian Tale ( Yvan Durak ) and you will feel the smile starting to touch your mouth. You will see the beauty of Russia and marvel at the meticulous ‘Petrushka’ that took two years to complete’.
Sergei Mihailovich often painted himself as part of his canvasses, as a clown in the circus or the magician in the ‘Ship of Happiness’. His paintings of Paris are breathtaking and will transport you back to the magic of the city, irrespective of the time of the year, as if his canvas soaked the atmosphere when covered by the artist’s brush strokes. You will experience the intensity of the boxing match or the bull-fight through his paintings and it will leave a lasting impression on your heart, thus allowing Sergei Chepik to live through his work.
In 2011, after the opening of his latest exhibition at Catto, on their way back home to Paris, Chepik talked to Marie-Aude of his desire to have his major retrospective in London, the city which always held a special meaning in his heart as the British public gave him his first opportunity to shine ( later he was bestowed an honour of painting Margaret Thatcher, who looks at you from his canvas as it alive, just pausing for thought ). Sergei Mihailovich was married for 22 years and he exhibited the same loyalty to the galleries that represented him and to his formidable art dealer Vera, asking her on occasion to ‘come and see the monster that I painted’, while throaty laughing.
The retrospective not only celebrates Chepik’s life’s work, it gives you an opportunity to buy Marie-Aude’s fourth monograph about him called ‘Sergei Chepik, Ultima Opera’ (covering his work from 2008 and up to his un-timely death from a heart attack on November 18th 2011, ten days after the opening of his latest solo exhibition at Catto Gallery, London ) and to see the photographs of him working in his Montmartre studio. On the opening night French songs floated around his Paris paintings as his friends, colleges and collectors of different ages, as well as Catto and Mall Galleries staff ( who did an incredible job of assembling and exhibiting the artist’s work in the most incredibly touching, poignant and advantageous way ) reminisced about a very human yet extraordinary man who lived life to the fullest and whose physical presence is thoroughly missed.
One of my own personal memories of Sergei Mihailovitch Chepik dates back to 2009, when he agreed to illustrate one of my favourite books by Mikhail Boulgakov, called ‘The White Guard’ for the now defunct St. Petersburg publishing house. The book was presented during his solo exhibition ‘New Works’ at Catto and there were a few drawings from the book available for viewing downstairs. We talked about Boulgakov and his books and I voiced how perfect Sergei Mihailovitch would be for illustrating Boulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’, the book that is as mysterious, as it is impossible to put down, no matter how many times you have read it in the past. As I got ready to leave, Sergei Mihailovitch grabbed his book and tenderly signed it, using my name and that of my infant son in a very endearing, completely Russian way. I adored the book before, now it is even more precious to me, knowing that Sergei Mihailovitch not only drew incredible illustrations but his hands held my book, before gifting it to me.
2014 is a year where Russia and United Kingdom are celebrating each other’s cultures, so I urge you to go and see Chepik’s works, in order to fully understand the depth of the Russian soul & meaningful connections between our history, religion, traditions & literature that transcend borders. Russians shouldn’t be defined by the silly few who don’t know what to do with their money but by the substance that the likes of Sergei Chepik bring to the world stage.
Sergei Chepik (1953-2011) retrospective exhibition is at Mall Galleries, The Mall, London SW1. It runs till February 13, 2014
Marie-Aude Chepik also set up a foundation, The Sergei Chepik Charity Trust, that will aim to keep alive his memory and promote his work. The Trust would like to host an exhibition of sculptures of Sergei Chepik’s mother who is 93 and is a very talented sculptor.
For all information related to Sergei Chepik & his work, please visit the newly launched website: http://www.chepik.com/en/