Among the innumerable immigrants who have enriched American culture, Nicolai Fechin stands out for the glamour of his art and the improbability of his story.
Born in 1881 in the regional capital of Kazan, east of Moscow, Fechin moved to the United States after the 1917 civil war in his homeland, settling first in New York and then Taos, N.M., before moving on to Los Angeles. Trained by Ilya Repin, Russia's most famous Impressionist, Fechin adapted his lush, bravura style to whatever came before his eyes -- Russian performers, Taos socialites, American Indians, Southwestern landscapes, his wife and his beloved daughter Eya.
He died in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1955. By then he had secured a niche as a Western-theme painter in the United States but was largely forgotten in his homeland. Now his reputation is on the upswing in both countries, thanks to a show that debuted in Kazan and Moscow and is now on view at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis through Jan. 20.
Traditionalist amid revolution
The 40 paintings and drawings in "Discovering 20th Century Russian Masters: Nicolai Fechin" are on loan from private and museum collections in the United States and Europe. They are conventional portraits and landscapes solidly grounded in 19th-century techniques that Fechin mastered at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, from which he graduated in 1909. He spent the following year traveling in Europe and, after winning an international competition in Munich, signed on with an American dealer who launched his career in New York. This proved his salvation when he emigrated to the United States with his family in 1923.
Although Fechin was a contemporary of Picasso, he was evidently unaffected by the radical art -- Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism -- of the time. His portraits rely on sensitive, keenly observed faces and expressive eyes that are alternately brooding, tender, skeptical, gentle. Hands also get attention as they prop a chin, apply nail polish, hold roses. The rest is agitation -- slashing swirls of thick, textured paint that imply the subject's emotional state.
In his 1912 portrait of "Young Woman," for example, only the face is detailed as she leans forward chin on hand. All around her, turbulent passages of tan, ivory and gray suggest her passionate, restless temperament.
His 1926 "Portrait of a Writer (Nikolai Evreinov)" depicts the dramatist as a thin, brooding aesthete with wary eyes gazing from beneath a poetic wedge of long hair. The show's centerpiece is a dramatic full-length portrait of the ballerina Vera Fokina, who had been an international sensation in the 1910 Paris premiere of Diaghilev's "Firebird." In his view, Fokina's svelte shoulders and cupid's bow mouth retain their youthful beauty while her dark soulful eyes ooze tragic allure.
After brief success in New York, Fechin developed tuberculosis and in 1927 moved with his family to New Mexico. Taos then was a popular retreat for artists (Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley) and writers (D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather), and Fechin produced some of his most engaging paintings there. Among them are an evocative little "Winter Landscape" that must have reminded him of his homeland, and "Albidia," a lovely portrait of a pretty young Indian woman sitting on an adobe ledge, wrapped in a striking azure shawl.
Although happy, the Taos sojourn was brief. Fechin and his wife Alexandra divorced in 1933 after 20 years and he was again adrift. He spent his last decades in Southern California, teaching and painting, while his ex-wife remained in Taos. Their handsome adobe house, which he had expanded and Russianized with hand-carved pillars and ironwork of his own design, now houses the Taos Art Museum.
In a self-portrait from his later years, Fechin appears surprisingly youthful, his lean face unlined and his eyes keen and bright as he gazes out with a steely smile, his brush poised.
Although the show nicely surveys Fechin's long career, it includes none of his early paintings from Russian museums. The Russian government refused to lend his works, fearing they would be seized by U.S. officials in response to a legal standoff between the two countries. The court case, which concerns Hasidic religious documents held in Russia, has halted all art loans between Russia and the United States for the past year, including pieces promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington.
"It's caused a Cold War of museums," said Masha Zavialova, curator of the Museum of Russian Art.
Flipping through a catalog of Fechin's work, she pointed to missing paintings she especially admired and one, a dour portrait of Lenin, that seemed out of character. Done shortly after the Russian Revolution, the portrait already showed evidence of the stifling official style dictated by the new government. Gazing at it ruefully, the Russian-born curator speculated about how different Fechin's life might have been had he remained in Russia. Versatile and already successful, he would have survived and adapted, she said, but he was an apolitical aesthete whose soul would have been crushed.
"He would have sold out completely, so it's a good thing that he emigrated," she said.
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