A century ago, Russia’s greatest artists—Viktor Vasnetsov, Ilya Repin, Mikhail Nesterov and others—were often called upon to design and decorate important national monuments. So, in 1998, when Dmitry Slepushkin was asked to paint the portrait of Emperor Nikolai I which would hang in a renovated Great Kremlin Palace (see page 64), he took the assignment as a great honor.
“We heard like a chant in our history classes that Nikolai I was a reactionary, and that was that,” Slepushkin, 34, says. “But he was also the one who spearheaded the construction of the Great Kremlin Palace, deciding it should be done in the Byzantine style, based on the premise that ‘Moscow is the third Rome and there shall not be a fourth.’”
Upon graduation from the Surikov Art School in 1994, where he studied in the portraiture workshop of Ilya Glazunov, Slepushkin joined the team of teachers at the Russian Academy of Art, Sculpture and Architecture on Moscow’s Myasnitskaya street, restored thanks to the efforts of Glazunov. There, Slepushkin said, his students can “breath the spirit of Moscow’s great Itinerants—Levitan, Savrasov, Serov.”
In fact, Serov’s credo (“one must know his craft and not deviate from the right path”) was Slepushkin’s guiding principle during his studies and one he seeks to impart to his students today. “I was lucky to have been educated in the traditions of classic artistic education,” Slepushkin says. “Unfortunately, this is now being ignored or simplified elsewhere.”
A native of Leningrad, Slepushkin grew up in the inspiring environment of “Peter’s creation,” which played a favorable role on his formation as an artist. Upon graduation from the Ioganson Art School, he went to Moscow to take exams for the Surikov State Art Institute. He failed on two occasions, only being accepted in 1987, on his third attempt. “It was even better this way,” he said, “you cherish more what you get.”
And yet, despite such a hard-won position at the institute, Slepushkin did not try to get a deferment on his army duty. “I had the opportunity to do some draft-dodging and, in fact, I could have avoided the draft quite legally had I wanted to. But for me it was quite natural and normal—I had my ideals and wanted to prove myself.”
It also fits with Slepushkin’s special interest in historical and military themes: “I am sometimes asked why should I depict a history that is distant to us? How can it move our contemporaries? In my mind, it is not about the specific historical period ... but rather about the general human notions of goodness, self-sacrifice, love for one’s homeland, valor, melancholy or slight irony that I am trying to convey.”
Indeed, an interest in military themes and art was fused in Slepushkin early on, when he viewed Franz Rubo’s Panorama of the Battle of Borodino, outside Moscow. “It so impressed me, that I started to study everything related to the events of 1812,” he said. Later, Slepushkin became an active participant in Borodino battle reenactments and his co-reenactors became characters in many of his historical paintings. In fact, his Borodino-inspired diploma work, “Prayer Before the Battle,” earned Slepushkin special honors upon his graduation.
While still a student, in 1992, Slepushkin saw his work exhibited in Sweden. In 1993 he painted a number of portraits of Anneli Alhanko, prima-ballerina of the Swedish Royal Theater. In 1995-1996 he participated in the St. Petersburg and Samara exhibitions, “New Names in Russian Realism.” Recently, his work was included in the book, New Russian Realism, a two-volume tome underwritten by Ericsson.
Yet, while Slepushkin clearly seems to be focused on historical themes, art lovers will also appreciate his landscapes, such as “Courtyard in Pompeii,” or his highly impressionistic, “Scandinavian Motif” (1994), and especially his St. Petersburg cityscapes (see page 2-3). His talent certainly belies his broad, classical art education and shows he will be a leader in Russian realist art in the decades to come.
To Slepushkin, artist and art teacher, “the future belongs to Russia.” Why? “Because,” he said, “a country which has lived through so many misfortunes and disasters—which fell on her as if from a horn of plenty in the 20th century ... deserves some cosmic justice … a justice which will place Russia on the level where it belongs.”
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