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Igor Vilokh`s childhood

Russian and Tatar cultures in a paradoxical combination. This is the artist`s native land that later came to him in memories and touching associations. Igor Vulokh was born in Kazan on January 3, 1938. His childhood and adolescence were in the war and postwar period. The year 1941 was very difficult: his father Alexander went off to war, and his mother Lidia was left alone. 

In 1942 Igor`s father dies, and Igor faces the first serious ordeal in his life. Lidia faints from huger and exhaustion. Igor does not know that his mother was hospitalized. He roams the streets and finally ends up in an orphanage. The war ends. Lidia searches for the child for a long time and finds him eventually. Although it is difficult to say today when Igor Vulokh began to think about the meaning of life and faith for the first time, it is certain, that pain and grief like a citation from his childhood, had a major impact on his subsequent life. “The language of the tragic can arise in art only when it becomes very abstract and begins to express the core and essence rather than external appearance and detail of these tragedies”, -  wrote the poet Gennady Aigi in his memories.

The desire to draw came naturally. From his early youth, Igor Vulokh had a thirst for art. His first sketches, very bright and clear, vivid and rapturous, astonished the teachers of Kazan Art College, where he studied painting from 1953 to 1958. As a student, Vulokh was greatly influenced by his teacher Victor Podgoursky (a professor at the Shanghai Art Academy and a connoisseur of Japanese and Chinese art). In addition to mastering the principles of painting, Igor read works on international art in his free time, finding his own path within the history of world culture. A picture of the works of different masters emerged, one complex but coherent in terms of the artist`s associations. It had its own semantic boundaries and inimitable laws and logic. Neither time nor any other external or generally accepted characteristics had any importance here: only Vulokh`s own taste. 

His landscape “Winter” displayed at the All-Soviet Art Exhibition of 1957 at the Moscow Manege, brought him his first recognition: two positives reviews by the classic Soviet sculptor S. Konenkov and painter K. Yuon appeared in the international newspaper.

In and around Moscow

1958. Vulokh applies to the Surikov Institute in Moscow but is not admitted. Thanks to the protection of the well-known painter Georgy Nissky, Vulokh enter the Art Department the All-Soviet State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). The VGIK residence hall is a singular site for encounters. There, Igor Vulokh`s roommate was Naum Kleiman, then a student at the Department of Cinematography and now the director of the Museum of Cinema. The writer Vasily Shukshin also became a good friend. (Unfortunately, Shukshun did not live to make a screen version of his novel about Stepan Razin, “I Came to Give You Freedom” (1971), in which Vulokh was to play one of the main roles). In Renata and Yuri Grigoriev`s film “Friend`s Heart” based on short story by Kazakevich, Vulokh plays Captain Remizov, a Soviet officer.

At the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Vulokhh meets the young artist Anatoly Zverev. His drawings catch Igor`s attention thanks to their unusual and vivid style. A passion for painting brings artists together and they become good friends. In the same year, Igor Vulokh married Kira Viktorova. Echoes of the first avant-garde movements of the twenties were in the air during the sixties, taking the form of the intangible ideas. The most thoughtful young people of the generation caught and tried to transmit this feeling through their art. Everyone endorsed socialist realism officially, of course, but the desire to get to know one`s “forbidden” predecessors was stronger than all artificial barriers. The wind blowing in form the west, and it was felt that art was developing in a completely different way in non-socialist countries. The thaw brought a lot of revelations and stunning discoveries. 

The VI International Youth Festival in 1957 in Sokolnoki Park U.S. and French Pavilions and personal retrospective of Pablo Picasso. For Igor, studies at VGIK, where students had the unique opportunity to watch rare films that were often inaccessible to the public, were interesting but also quite burdensome. He had no need for most subjects connected with Soviet dogma, or those having to do with filmmaking. In 1960, he quit the Institute of Cinematography and began to engage in the creative process freely.

The friends of these years

The year 1961 was a landmark in Igor Vulokh`s career. He met the poet Gennady Aygi, the “friend of these year” at the house of Naum Kleiman, who was working at the State Film Foundation in Belye Stolby. Subsequently, they formed a poet-artist duo: Igor made a series of sketches based on Aygi`s remarkably traditional and all the same innovative poetry. Aygi dedicated a cycle of poems to Vulokh. 

There was something in the field too:
That lived like Jesus in a person:
This had been taken out long ago!

As “twin field” Igor Vulokh and Gennady Aygi understood each other right away. Common intellectual pursuits, artistic tastes and spiritual kinship drew close together. Later on, both worked as editors of the catalog Mayakovsky Artist published in 1961. Gennady Aygi was closely familiar with the first avant-garde movement and was a great connoisseur of poetry, studying forbidden as well as forgotten works of literature. He worked at the Maykovsky Museum, whose visitors included Nikolai Khardzhiev and Aleksei Kruchenykh, who organized exhibitions of avant-garde artist of the twenties – Tatlin, Malevich, Larionov, Goncharova, Filiniv, etc. (Vulokh was especially close with Khardzhiev and greatly influenced by him). These were major events that resonated throughout Europe. Among the rare foreigners living in Moscow who took an interest in the Russia avant-garde art of that time was the Danish art historian Troels Andersen (today, the director of Silkebord Art Museum in Denmark). A connoisseur and lover of the Russian avant-garde, Andersen subsequently wrote a four-volume work on Kazimir Malevich and organized a retrospective of his work in New York. Aygi acquainted Vulokh with a circle of people who were capable to understand and appreciate his art. This was a unique exchange of knowledge, feelings and artistic explorations – similar to the situation depicted in the film “Vocal Parallels”. A reserved person by nature, Vulokh found a friend and new hope in Aygi.

The poet and the artist published a dozen books done jointly in Russia and abroad. In 1989, the cycle of poetry “Veronika`s Notebook” (translated by Peter France) was published in England. Dedicated to Aygi`s newborn daughter Veronika, the book was illustrated by Igor Vulokh. Subsequently, a series of poems dedicated by Aygi to Vulokh were published as a separate book with the emblematic title “Friend of These Years” (1998), for which Vulokh also made a series of illustrations.

The year 1961 was also marked by Vulokh`s first solo exhibition in Moscow at the Exhibition Room of Union of Artists. That year Vulokh also joined the out section of the Moscow Union of Artists.

Igor Vulokh learned of famous collector George Kostaki, whose apartment walls, according to eyewitnesses, were completely covered by works of Russian avant-garde artists of the twenties. Vulokh and Kostaki`s friendship began in 1968, and Vulokh still retains particular and warm memories of Kostakis remarkable collections. 

Theological Academy is the center of the universe

In 1968, Vulokh begins to make white minimalist paintings. He will periodically return to the theme of “pure white” over his entire career. These subtle works in pastel hues make up his so-called “White Period”. At that time, his spiritual strivings and study of theological works brought Vulokh to the Theological Academy at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. There he became an assistant in the Department of Western Religions. At the same time, Vulokh continued to work actively experimenting in different areas of painting.

Senior clergymen from different countries, including the Vatican, came to the World Council of Churches at the Theological Academy. There was no language barrier, as translators assisted in all dialogues. This was a remarkable opportunity to speak with religious figures from all over the world. This allowed Igor Vulokh, who had already taken an interest in the study of religious and philosophical works, to understand the essence of Western Christianity better and its attitude toward and status within their own countries. 

The three years spent at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius were a unique opportunity for Vulokh to study literature at the religious library, get acquainted with new theological works from abroad, and live in a secluded environment. 

Opposites sometimes meet

Vulokh was admitted to the Moscow Branch of the USSR Union of Artists in 1971. Membership in the Union of Artists allowed Vulokh to focus on his artistic activities and dispose of his time as he saw fit instead of working nine to five. Vulokh marries for the second time, and his first daughter Alexandra is born in 1973. 

Despite Vulokh`s complex artistic process and his reserved personality, which often showed a cool Scandinavian side, there were always people around who understood him and tried to help. The sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov was utterly different from Igor: a strong man who is incredibly active yet also sensitive. They were introduced by Borukh Shteinberg, who once invited Vulokh to the sculptor's studio. Klykov cared for Igor like a brother. In the bustle of life, he like others knew how to get things done – something from which Igor had always been scornfully aloof. His life would have turned out quite differently. Klykov organized a joint exhibition of their work in 1979 (something that was unthinkable at that time). A catalog with Vulokh`s works remains from the show. After the exhibition, several of his works entered the collection of the Russian Museum in St.Peterburg. At the certain moment, Vulokh understood that his and Klykov`s views diverged significantly. A line was draw between the pair and after have passed they parted ways.

White period

In 1983, Igor meets his future wife, the artist Natalya Tukolkina-Okhota, at the house of Vasily Grigoriev (the son of Renata and Yuri Grigoriev), which Igor had been frequenting for some time. She already “knew” Vulokh through his works. In the context of reality of times, they struck her with their novelty, originality and powerful impact. This encounter opened a new world in the art for the young man. In 1985, their daughter Lidia was born. With the appearance of family and stability, the White Period fully forms and begins to occupy an ever greater place in Vulokh`s , as a sort of reflection of all the joyous events of his life that took place in those years. 

At the time, many people were thinking about how to bring prohibited art out of closed Soviet society and into the West. Gennady Aygi kept up regular ties with friends and associates from other countries, in particular Troels Andersen and his Russian wife Xenia (historian and translator). When in Moscow, Andersen visited Igor`s family.These ties were very important to Vulokh, for he appreciated Andersen`s independent views of international and Russian art. In 1988, Troels published in Denmark the first monograph about Vulokh, whose art was still not officially recognized in Russia. The preface to the book contained Gennady Aygi`s Twelve Parallels to Igor Vulokh. 

Vanishing boundaries

The Moscow Segodnya Gallery was one of the first to exhibit and advertise works of the “sixties artists”. It promoted Russian art abroad, and many works were regularly Russian art abroad, and many works were regularly sent to international art fairs. Igor Vulokh`s solo exhibition at Segodnya Gallery was the first time that the abroad Russian public could get acquainted with his work. The artworks were purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery in those years. There was a lot of interest in Russian art in the West. In 1991, Vulokh went to West Berlin on the occasion of a solo exhibition of his work at the Brauner and Popov Gallery. In 1993, Vulokh received a fellowship from Brandenburg and goes with his wife for a residential stay at Wiepersdorf Castle in Germany. This fellowship was awarded by the international community to eminent artists from different countries. This trip gave Igor a lot of experience in communicating with abroad international circle of literary and artistic cultural figures. 

In 1994, Vulokh made a series of graphic illustrations for the poetry of the major contemporary Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer; this series was subsequently exhibited at the Transtromer Poetry Festival on the Isle of Gotland. The mentality of Northern people is very close to Vulokh in a way: the traits of asceticism and a certain reserve that are typical of Protestantism are visible both in his personality and in his art. As one of Vulokh`s closest friends, Gennady Aygi believed that Transtromer`s poetry was close to Igor. “ Transtromer`s direct and clear language similar to the cold light of the northern sky, draws the reader in gradually and imperceptibly, in my opinion”, - wrote Aygi. The metaphorical world of his poetry and his combination of different topics was understandable and recognizable to Vulokh, despite such barriers as language, mentality and geographic distance. 

Igor Vulokh asked the Brandenburg administration to donate the paintings that he made in Wiepersdorf to the Danish Museum of Art, whose director is Troels Andersen. This led to the organization of Vulokh`s solo exhibition and his trip to Denmark. Andersen`s museum had an enormous archive on history of international art. In addition to getting acquainted with very rare works on the history of art, Vulokh got artistic inspiration from this trip. The exhibition was successful, while his works acquired museum status in the West.

In 1996, the Ministry of Culture nominated Vulokh for the State Prize. In Soviet times, the Prize was awarded only to recognized masters of socialist realism. The gesture was a token of the long-awaited recognition of underground art by the state. Underground artists were nominated for this prize for the first time in Russian history. 

A few years before, the Swiss banker and collector Urs Haener began to take an interest in Vulokh`s works. Together with Swiss gallery owner Nadja Brykina, Haener made a trip to Vulokh`s studio, examines his works and asked about their origins. Haener, an exceptional individual, astounded Igor with his knowledge and understanding of contemporary art. His passionate enthrallment and sincere desire to make Vulokh`s works known to the world as quickly as possible were truly astonishing. For many years, Urs Haener collected Vulokh`s works and gave him assistance. At the same time, the Soros Foundation awarded Vulokh a grant in 2001 for the catalog of a successful exhibition at the Fine Art Gallery. A few years later, in 2006, Urs Haener orchestrates the publication of a wonderful book about Vulokh – the first and biggest monograph, in several languages simultaneously. Vulokh had a hand in all elements of the book`s conception – from the compilation of biography to the color correction of printed illustrations. 

The publication of the monograph was followed by another solo exhibition of Vulokh`s work, this time at the Nadja Brykina Gallery in Switzerland. Troels Andersen was invited as a special expert in charge of selecting works. He arranged them in groups and wrote a critical review for each group. The exhibition, held in Zurich in 2006, was a success, receiving rave reviews from Western critics. 

Today and always

Igor Vulokh worked until his death. He died on the night of November 28, 2012 in a hospital.

Today Vulokh`s works are sold at all the leading international Auction houses, including Sotheby`s and MacDoudall`s. After George Kostaki`s family transfered the part of his collection to Thessaloniki, an exhibition was held in 2006, and a catalog was published with fifteen early works by the artist. 

In his dialogues on the problems of the language of art, Aygi once noted simply and pointedly: “Most people don`t have the necessary opportunities, strength or talent… No, no one is inferior to a poet or smaller than him, yet people don`t even have time to pay attention to nature, feel the Universe as a whole, and experience human life as a part of the Universe – man`s immortality, the spiritual immortality of mankind… Everyone would like to find and feel this, but people don`t have the time or opportunity, and they don`t know how…”

There is another way to get to what is inaccessible and unattainable in the bustle of life: through art and painting. Here, we can trust Igor Vulokh. 

© Igor Vulokh