Interviewsand Articles

 

A Face That Held No Riddles

by Tatyana Apraksina, Apr 17, 2016


 

 

  

Translation from Russian, James Manteith.




Alexander Lazarevich Lokshin appeared in my life when his own had almost come to its end. I had never heard of him before this. I knew nothing about what kind of person he was before our meeting — how he lived, what he liked or what was in his thoughts. Even now, the sense I have of him is largely an approximation.
     The story of our acquaintance spans just short of nine months and chiefly stems from my painting his portrait — first preparing for this, then working on the painting itself, and then managing to show it at two of my Moscow exhibits.
     No more than two weeks after the last of these, when I had scarcely returned to Leningrad, Alexander Lazarevich was gone.


I should note that I rarely paint portraits. This isn't because they're "not my genre" — not at all; I greatly appreciate each cause to do one. The thing is, in painting, the act of painting interests me least. My art gains its drive from subjects, and its main heroes must appeal to me in their mature life philosophy, universal moral ideals. This standpoint has led me to academic classical music and its performers — noted or nameless — musicians who form the stage's heavenly batallions as largely faceless personae, whom we see shedding human vanity and changing, before our eyes, into veritable prophets and mediums.
     Yet sometimes I paint a literal portrait for the sake of an individual's purity and merit, a portrait with origins in a perfect Homo sapiens, a thing in itself, a unique personality's self-contained, singular cosmos. Always, everywhere, I fervently seek such human masterworks. Like anything perfect, each one is a huge rarity. And naturally, a chance for closeness, for knowing that other cosmos, is rarer still.
     One look let me discern Alexander Lazarevich's inner masterpiece, overtly, unconditionally real. I don't know whether he was always like this — now and then a person appears in the world with a soul already crystalline — or became like this as he went through all his life held. The reasons meant nothing. Before me was a result I accepted with absolute trust.
     In my artistic practice, to this day the portrait of A.L. Lokshin remains an exceptional case, an interaction like nothing else I've ever encountered.


It all started in late September 1986. Planning to travel to Moscow, I intended to stay there as long as possible. It seemed good to use the trip for learning more of musical circles in the capital. In Moscow I had few musical acquaintances, and I asked my Leningrad friends to give me some reference points, recommendations.
     Boris Tishchenko was among the first I turned to. When I phoned with my request, he at once said, "If you'll be in Moscow, you absolutely must meet Lokshin, Alexander Lazarevich. A remarkable composer and quite an exceptional person. That would be a portrait to paint! Dmitri Dmitrievich had a great appreciation for him as a musician. If you want, come to the Conservatory, I was just now planning to have the students listen to his music, you'll also find it interesting. Then I can also give you an address."
     Both lecture and music made a strong impression. And yet: a portrait is a serious thing, and I stayed wary of forming conclusions and promising anything in advance. In matters concerning professional interests, I can only be sure of judicious decisions.
     Tishchenko said he had already sent a letter to Moscow including advance notice of my trip. Alexander Lazarevich, he added, was in very poor health, with no grounds to expect his condition to improve. Recently struck by partial paralysis, he was bedridden, not even able to speak — his wife spoke on his behalf.
     Quite frankly, I could hardly imagine meeting with the ailing composer.


Finding myself in Moscow, I couldn't immediately make up my mind about phoning: what if my appearance should prove untimely and only complicate the situation? Yet after such hesitancy, I had to dial the number.
    Recalling that first call and all that followed, even now I feel deep distress. Since then, more than ten years have passed, and in all those years I never found enough inner stability for another immersion in the turmoil of that time, for bearing its intensity. Now, resolving to write of this, I try to aim for as much formality as possible, maintaining a safe distance.


In the receiver sounded, barely audible, an uneven, disconnected voice, weak as the rustling of leaves, nearly a whisper. Listening to it was painful, it seemed ready to break off at any moment. I felt terribly guilty at having called. But just then Tatyana Borisovna picked up the conversation, and her tone, self-assured and polite, encouraged me a little. We arranged to meet.


I always managed to arrive at this home late, for some strange reason, though lateness is generally not my habit. My first visit was distinguished by a nearly two-hour delay! By phone, Tatyana Borisovna had given a detailed description of the route, but as my confusion grew along the way, somehow nothing worked out: I ended up on the wrong subway lines, on the wrong buses, riding the opposite way and getting off at the wrong stops.
     Aghast at my sudden lack of form, frantic after the transportation fiascos, perplexed by the layout of buildings and entryways and finally reaching the right floor, I find myself in darkness: the stairway is unlit. I make a long search for my own lighter, then a long search by its weak flame, scorching my fingers, for the apartment door, whose doorbell I'm long unable to find. Bracing myself for a cold welcome, I press the button.
     The door opens, and at once, complete transfiguration. I'm met so warmly and joyfully I forget my troubles then and there. How wonderful, the whole family coming out to greet a guest: as if I were already liked here, as if I were a person of terribly great importance.
     And when I notice the slow approach, along the corridor, of Alexander Lazarevich, something in me gives a sharp click, like clock-hands coinciding.
     Nearly weightless, nearly disembodied, hardly able to stay standing, bracing his right hand on a cane and gripping the wall with his left, quaking like an autumn leaf at each slightest movement of the air, he seemed to me not so much ill as immeasurably withered and incapacitated by suffering — ethereal as a wisp of smoke, with a bright gaze full of childlike, open attentiveness and trust.
     At my first sight of his face, I felt wholly entranced by its almost provocative refinement. It had a certain something I'd never encountered before — I'd call this the "mark of pure thoughts." Such faces belong in a Red Book of the rare and endangered, need protection as sacred relics. To me it seemed completely unreal—like a sound the eyes can see. But here it was right in front of me, I had recognized it, and this led to a mystical sense of a higher power interceding.


It took me no time at all to fall in love with this family, this home, its charming atmosphere of sincere kindness and geniality. And what a find — a family whose members all understood and supported each other. Whenever I phoned, the first thing I heard — no matter who answered — was the question, "Tanya, when are you coming over?" The married couple clearly shared a special closeness, the deep, inner kinship that as a rule forms out of closeness in the face of shared trials.


That very first evening, we began talk of the portrait. I could make no definite promises, but already knew I hadn't come here needlessly. This was my "heavenly commission" — as if, in communion, I had swallowed a flattened spring whose coils, sooner or later, would see their own time of release.
     Not rationalizing about the work's actual form, I decided on the usual course of action, with the necessary start — total saturation in the new fire's smoke, coming into resonance: knowledge, mastery, then love. Only after this does creativity begin.


Time went on. Alexander Lazarevich gradually ceased to use a cane and could peacefully walk around in the apartment. He tried to show emphatic hospitality, to extend small courtesies. He now sat down to dine with everyone.
     Dinner — that was indispensible. Standing in the kitchen, Alexander Lazarevich waited patiently for me to wash my hands, then invited me to the table: "Tanya! Come. Please, have a seat at your suitable place!" So the unchanging formula went. A chair against the wall became my "suitable" place, squeezed between the table and some other object. Most often, Alexander Lazarevich also sat by the wall — facing opposite, near the door. Conversations begun over dinner usually continued in his room. There we could also listen to music.
     The exact content of our talks remains vague in my memory. The main thing lay elsewhere: in the weak, drifting sound of the high, tense voice, the inimitably distinctive intonation, the delicate, organic, unmannered aristocratism of his movements, soulful and spontaneous — the raised brows, the look of surprise, the unconventional turn of the head, the refined bow.
     He sometimes seemed to live like a ghost or heavenly being — not touching the earth. Always just a little above. But through this superterrestriality ran a trace of pain; there was something of those who learn to walk barefoot over fiery coals or broken glass. And all was marked by a barely discernable hint of redemptive, sacrificial absolution and limitless understanding, like the precious patina on an archaeological rarity. Some of the details I learned about his complicated biography explained this completely, as I saw it. Yet generally speaking, I felt no need to know more — I found enough in what I had before me.
     Seeing this uncommon and, by all indications, alien being make sincere attempts to appear simply human and earthly, I ached with an awareness of the ephemerality, the insecurity of his presence here, so close beside us. Whenever I said goodbye and went back out to the street, I felt broken and drained. Often in tears, I barely shuffled my feet, as if the door had shut with every vital power left behind it.
     In fact, our meetings came quite rarely, numbering just a few. My visits' frequency depended on the state of Alexander Lazarevich's health. Honestly, I don't think I could have sustained a more intense exchange — such was the incredible strain this already cost me.
     

I once brought along slides of my paintings. Among them was my portrait of D. Shostakovich ("Faces of Shostakovich," 1986). We talked a bit about the portrait and then progressed to the topic of Dmitri Dmitrievich himself. Alexander Lazarevich recalled a minor incident at the Composers' Union in Moscow. Shostakovich was already ill, his doctors demanded he give up smoking, this was no simple matter for him, and Irina Antonovna, accompany­ing him everywhere, made sure this regime went unbroken.
     Alexander Lazarevich said he'd just happened to be smoking on a stairway landing when Shostakovich had approached him and, with hurried backward glances, asked to borrow his cigarette. The attempt failed — Irina Antonovna appeared in time.
     By now, Alexander Lazarevich too had long since stopped smoking, of course. Coffee was also strictly off limits. Upon hearing that I shared tastes formerly his, he insisted on personally brewing me a serving of coffee in a gleaming percolator once brought spe­ci­al­ly for him from abroad. He said he absolutely had to make the coffee him­­self, with his own hands, which would partly take the place of enjoying the drink now unattainable for him.


He tried to follow what went on without him in the world of musicians and composers. By this time I had already defined the range of my Moscow musical contacts and sometimes knew a fair amount about certain interesting events. Among my acquaintances had appeared performers, composers, violin makers. I tried to make the most of every chance to attend concerts and rehearsals of the Borodin Quartet, and also heard a number of performances at the "Moscow Autumn" composers' festival and had a first experience of "December Evenings" at the Pushkin Museum.
     Really, Alexander Lazarevich and I talked most about music. He listened very closely to my detailed reports, asked for specifics, had unexpectedly temperamental and sometimes painfully intense reactions. I once found him listening to a radio broadcast of one of the festival concerts. A composition by A. Schnittke was being performed. For the first time I saw Alexander Lazarevich in a state of extreme irritation and annoyance. I don't remember exactly what had provoked him, but he found something in the music outrageous, and a sense of proud aggressiveness awoke in him, awareness of his right to judge categorically.


Meanwhile, his health slightly better after our wait, we held our only portrait session. At least minimal life drawing was needed, although I planned to paint the portrait itself at my temporary lodgings.
     Alexander Lazarevich felt a bit nervous. He doubted whether he was properly dressed or whether his hair was well-combed. Untrimmed tufts of wispy, white hair wafted about his head like fine feathers. Everything was perfect, I assured him. He was as only he could be — this was enough.
     The session took place in his room. I seated him in the middle, opposite the window. There was almost no conversation. Gradually his anxiety passed and he felt freer. He posed conscientiously, trying not to move, although I did allow him to shift slightly and even speak. He sat quietly, swaying a little, an occasional smile — reflective, sad — apparent on his face.
     Normally my interests as an artist have long focused expressly on musicians, and namely on musicians in action — interaction with instruments. The necessary place of musical attributes in a painting concerns not simply professional identity but a certain conceptual approach, layered content. Musicians with instruments are themselves changed into instruments.
     Here the whole situation was different. As a person and a composer, Alexander Lazarevich's nature, organically visible, honed by the work of a virtuoso mind, possessed such self-contained musical expressiveness that anything added would have seemed forced. He himself was an exceptionally crafted musical instrument — sensitive, refined, rich in overtones.
     I managed to get through a few charcoal sketches, and then we ended our work: Alexander Lazarevich had grown tired, and I myself felt faint with weakness. We decided to continue another time, yet no opportune moment was ever found, and I had to make do with my first approximations.


I pinned the sketches to the wall, hoisted the stretched and primed canvas onto the easel and applied myself to the task with relative vigor. At the time, it scarcely crossed my mind that this welcomed work could progress as a form of drawn-out torture.
     Painting the portrait took nearly four months — this instead of a couple of weeks or so, as I had presumed. And all this long while, I constantly felt overwhelmed by my own helplessness. How, do tell, can materials show a delicate inner refinement, its perilous frailty and yet indestructible resilience?


Any painterly or artistic audacity here was useless and unwarranted. I had to serve my own reverence for what was really seen, with all its heightened charm: an apparently worn-out body, almost nothing left but naked spirit. The living ingredients of magic: blending wisdom with naiveté, experience with purity, trust with skepticism, pliancy with ruthlessness.
     It seemed impossible to avoid introducing crudity, generalization, in this case tantamount to barbarism, even blasphemy. I knew well I would find full satisfaction only if the representation could make itself appear on canvas by its own will, with the model's living tension intact. My errand lay only in letting this come into being, ideally leaving the mysterious process unimpeded.
     In working with a model, I always proceed from an essence, an inner foundation — this should capture and control me so completely that its pulse becomes as tangible for me as my own.
     Setting to work on the portrait, I immediately found myself at an impasse. The slightest touch of the brush instantly altered the whole painting, and the face on the canvas underwent unbelievable transformations. Their range of contrast was dismaying. I began to be afraid of the headstrong picture. It refused to obey; it wanted to live a life of its own, full of caprices and quirks. The face had sudden spells of anger or near-mindlessness, and sometimes would abruptly acquire a flat, plebian expression. It showed alternating signs of dejection, fear and, conversely, arrogance and smugness.
     For hours, like a hunted animal, I circled the easel with no strength to undertake anything. The face in the portrait pursued me like a nightmare wherever I went. It endured the most contradictory phases. Vibrancy, weariness, curiosity, disdain, ridicule, indifference — and boundless grief. Pacifying the face was beyond me, it hid that very thing I so desperately, stubbornly sought. This became completely unendurable, at times I began to hate the portrait — for its power over me, for an unruliness that fueled thoughts of witchery or hexing.
     The easel stood at an angle to the room's entrance, directly beneath a ridiculous chandelier whose light was flat, inexpressive and very unwieldy. In the entry hall beyond the door, a mirror hung on the wall. Once, ready to go out, my street clothes on, I approached the mirror and shuddered with horror at the sight of the portrait's reflection through the gaping door — it was an utter failure. I felt an undermining urge to go to the telephone and halt the torture with one call, saying the portrait had not turned out and I was abandoning all further efforts. I am certain no one would have thought any worse of me for it!
     One way or another, the time had come stop playing this infernal game. I could no longer wrestle with this rebus on my own. The portrait had to be saved.


Alexander Lazarevich weathered the cold winter with difficulty. I waited very impatiently for an opportunity to see him again. My battle with chimeras could be my undoing. I had to drink from the source, refine the impression, corroborate its details with my eyes. When at last the day came, the entire evening passed without my even once looking away from this face which I already knew so well. Now, though, it opened to me much deeper, it seemed to hold no riddles at all, not a trace of that chaos I witnessed daily in the portrait and which poisoned my existence. I gazed probingly at each slightest point and mentally posed my question.
     I was asked about the progress on the work and whether it would be possible to see the finished portrait soon. Disconcerted, I could give no coherent answer. I said there had been a few difficulties. This was my last chance to memorize — to imprint, graft, implant, assimilate fixedly in the blood — all I saw, understood, felt. The metamorphoses occurring with the portrait seemed to intimate a danger I was bound to have to deal with.
     In the freezing streetcar that took me to the subway, I sobbed with spite and despair, as if something unimaginably important depended on me, but I was powerless and had no idea what I ought to do.


I'm unable to recall precisely when the chimeras began to retreat. It occurred on its own: from the depths, from under penetrated strata, the true contour slowly started showing through. My stifling burden of unattainable perfection gradually melted away, flowing into the painting and returning me to freedom. A moment arrived, as unexpectedly as always, when I realized there was nothing more for me to do there, except perhaps paint a signature.
     I knew the portrait had now attained accuracy — as much as my experience had served to reflect its model. The question was whether this reflection matched the view of others closer and longer acquainted with Alexander Lazarevich than I. Absorbed in the work, I might have lost some objectivity.
     How Alexander Lazarevich himself would react to the portrait, whether he would recognize himself there, remained unknown. Upon a first look at their depictions, almost all people feel shocked — with different degrees of seriousness. The outsider's perception — and only an artist can really communicate personal perception — frequently comes as a surprise, offers an unaccustomed angle and, most importantly, is very different from the familiar image in the mirror. It takes a certain broadmindedness to accept an outside point of view, and for this to happen, sometimes considerable time must pass.
     As soon as the painting was dry enough, I took it away for inspection by the "groom." I must say I had no expectations for the portrait to be so well liked. After an astonished pause, Alexander Lazarevich pronounced, with his frail, ethereal voice, "I didn't dare hope that such a gift might still come to me in life." He added that he could see my traits in his portrait and thought it all the better for this.




A. Lokshin.
T. Apraksina. Oil on Canvas, 1987.

My first Moscow exhibit opened on March 31st, 1987, at the Palace of Culture of the Kurchatov Institute. I'd certainly never have supposed that Alexander Lazarevich, after many months without leaving his apartment, would find a way out for a glimpse of the paintings. This made his visit a still more priceless gift. At first I couldn't believe my eyes, seeing that he and Tatyana Borisovna had arrived in a taxi.
     Stopping now and then, he reached the exhibit hall and, opening the door, froze on the threshold. Before this, he had seen my paintings in slides, but here, real, in life, they of course looked different. Surveying them was a long process, and then, after resting, Alexander Lazarevich took the book of viewers' comments and, laboriously calming a disobedient hand, left a note: "A stunning impression of the exhibit. A. Lokshin."


With the first exhibit closed, I immediately began to move the paintings to the next, at the Glinka Museum. No time remained for anything, but I had word that things kept getting better for Alexander Lazarevich, and Tatyana Borisovna once told me that for the first time after a lengthy hiatus he was trying to play the piano.
     After the second exhibit's close, I delivered the portrait again. It was now best for the imprint to remain forever at the original's side.


Our last meeting fixed itself in my memory especially well. Alexander Lazarevich struck me as stronger, full of new tranquility. It looked like his life was starting to go forward with more of a basic day-to-day rhythm. Unexpectedly, he began talking about the soul. He said that recently he had been thinking about it a lot and that he would like somehow to discover whether there is a soul and what it might actually be. "Of course," he said, "it's true we've gotten used to thinking of it as a fantasy. I can only believe in the existence of things that can be measured, touched, weighed." His delicate fingers drummed the edge of the table. "We're materialists; we only trust what science can substantiate. But lately, all the same, I often wonder: just what if I'm wrong?"
     He felt awkward and spoke in a careless tone as if trying to show that really he paid no mind to such rubbish. Then suddenly he stopped speculating and, gaze surprisingly timid, asked directly, "Tanya, what do you think, does the soul exist?"
     He needed — straight away, right now — to get a clear, conclusive answer. I looked him in the eyes and with great seriousness answered, "I think it's the one thing that really does exist." I tried to instill my words with gravity: right then he was in great need of a soul.


I left again for Leningrad, not planning to return to Moscow: I had concluded my business in the capital.
     On the 10th of June, in the glorious season of the White Nights, a friend of mine arrived from Moscow, and she and I decided to go out walking to take in the beauty of the raised drawbridges. We wandered the embankment the whole night, turning back towards my home at almost six in the morning.
     We walked without speaking. It was a quiet, clear morning, no one was out yet; crooked bands of sun striped the asphalt paving, wet from cleaning. While crossing the Field of Mars I noticed a slight loss: from my bracelet had fallen a stone, a simple shiny speck. And in no way could I understand why such a small thing should suddenly bring the hopeless pang of damage beyond repair. I came home with this feeling.
     It was the morning of June 11th, and at nine o'clock the telephone rang.

       
 

About the Author

Tatyana Apraksina is an artist and writer who also produces the magazine Apraksin Blues. A native of St. Petersburg, she maintains a studio in Oakland, Calif. Other English translations of her work include California Psalms.

 

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