Obituary: Soviet dissident artist Oleg Vassiliev, painter of grace

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2013 - 8:33 PM

Internationally known dissident artist Vassiliev died in suburban St. Paul.

Internationally known for his serene paintings and elegant graphic designs, Oleg Vassiliev was not permitted an official show in the Soviet Union until after his homeland dissolved in 1991.

Vassiliev died Friday, Jan. 25, at a hospice near his home in Shoreview. He was 81 and had been ill with cancer.

After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Vassiliev and his wife, Kira, emigrated, first to Paris and then to New York City. His wife died in 2010, after which he moved to Shoreview to be closer to their son, Alexei, who survives him.

His death was announced by the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The museum staged two exhibitions of Vassiliev's art in 2011, a quasi-retrospective of more than 20 paintings, and a show of 30 etchings inspired by a story by Anton Chekhov. The museum also marked his 80th birthday in November 2011 with a gala that attracted artists, publishers and collectors from as far as Paris, Moscow and New York.

The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota also included his work in a 1999 show of Soviet-era pop art.

Born in Moscow in 1931, Vassiliev graduated from the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow in 1958 and spent the next three decades designing and illustrating books, including children's tales. The innocuous profession enabled him to earn a living while pursuing his own art in private.

Non-confrontational by temperament, he slipped into a kind of internal exile to avoid antagonizing the Soviet authorities. "The path to socio-political struggle ... was impossible for me," he wrote in a 1997 biographical essay. "What we created for ourselves in the studio, we tried not to show to the officials." His only exhibit during Soviet times was a one-night show at a Moscow cafe in 1968.

After the Soviet collapse, however, major institutions acquired his work, including the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as museums in Bern, Switzerland; Athens, Greece; Lexington, Ky., and Denver, Colo.

Vassiliev often used isosceles triangles as structural devices in his delicately marked paintings, arranging them so they appeared to converge at the canvas' midpoint. In both landscapes and abstractions, the forms pull the eye deep into the interior space of the painting.

He loved the flat terrain of northern Russia with its stark birch forests, and often used drifts of leaves to suggest memories or past time. Frequently, he depicted skiers peering in from the edge of a canvas. The figures were veiled portraits of himself and his lifelong friend Eric Bulatov, a fellow artist and book illustrator with whom he frequently took wilderness camping trips to escape the tedium of their official jobs. Even in self-portraits, the intensely private artist would typically turn his back to the viewer as if gazing away into the life of the mind.

A memorial event will be held in spring, most likely on the East Coast.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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