May 01, 2003

Mikhail Chemiakin

Mikhail Chemiakin, one of Russia’s most compelling and acclaimed contemporary artists, turns 60 on May 4. Chemiakin’s work is featured in major cultural centers around the world and his international admirers have localized his name to Mikhail, Michel, Michael and Mohammed. Although he holds an American passport, Chemiakin considers himself a citizen of the world and has traveled around the globe in pursuit of his art.

Born in Moscow, Chemiakin grew up in occupied Germany. Upon returning to Russia in 1957, he entered the Special High School of the Repin Academy of Arts in Leningrad, yet he was soon expelled for failing to conform to the norms of Socialist Realism. His art was not understood or accepted and his life became a trying ordeal. For five years, he worked as a common laborer in the Hermitage. Later, he was forcibly treated at a mental institution — a usual way of dealing with ideological dissidents at that time. This imprisonment led to a severe depression that was only cured when he moved to Armenia to live as a hermit in a monastery.

In 1971, an exhibition of Chemiakin’s work was held in Paris. His art was already familiar to European collectors, but the exhibition evoked the ire of Soviet authorities and Chemiakin was arrested and exiled from the USSR. In Paris, Chemiakin spent a lot of time with his good friend Vladimir Vysotsky, the illustrious Russian bard (see article, page 17), and published Apollon-77, a non-conformist almanac of post-Stalinist poetry, art and photography. In 1980, Chemiakin moved to New York.

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