London is heaving more and more with Russians and more often than not I try to escape the places where they go-not easy but soul saving, as many Russians act more annoyed or guarded when meeting each other, sizing each other for ‘size’. There are always exceptions to the rule and in my latest endeavour, something inside just made me go and see for myself.
I have a long history with Catto gallery in London-a few years ago I made friends with people who worked there and popped in, when I was in the area, either for a catch-up or for the latest exhibition opening. The gallery itself was always openly warm and staff pleased to see you. You could browse, left to your own devices or ask as many questions about artists, paintings or art market. In my case, I constantly learned and that association brought many wonderful and unusual discoveries, like Sam Toft and the wonderfully gregarious Sergei Chepik, an artist of extraordinary depth, joie de vivre and incredibly creativity.
When a catalogue from Catto gallery landed on my mat with a gentle thud a couple of weeks ago, I opened it and was instantly mesmerised by the exhibition brochure. The artists, Elena & Michel Gran were new to me but their work seemed so intricate and so interesting, I have put the date of the exhibition opening in my diary and got on reading a title piece about the artists by Anna Mikhailova, columnist for The Sunday Times.
Last week, when the exhibition opened I popped in earlier than the crowds started gathering and found out from Ian, one of gallery’s owners, that the artists were indeed in town for their exhibition opening. We amiably chatted about things in general and my heart missed a beat when Ian told me that Sergei Chepik passed away four days after his last Catto exhibition, in 2011. I nodded, trying to contain my emotion, thoughts and memories swirling in my head.
A couple of hours later, tired and weighted down after my fashion appointment, I trudged back to Catto, where conversation flowed and people swayed like tidal waves around the paintings. Inside, two people stood side by side, shyly smiling and holding fort with people who wanted to chat to them. We were introduced and I felt instant rapport with the couple. Elena, a tiny, bird-like woman with beautifully coiffed hair and a striking coral necklace, set against her dark sweater and Michel, towering a little, protectively over his wife, chatted to me about their work and life. They met in the 1960s, in the art school in the former Soviet Union ( now Russia ). Elena had artists and architects in her family based in St Petersburg, while Michel was born in Moscow and his father was an artist in the theatre. Both Michel and Elena studied in the Academy of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in St Petersburg where their professional paths crossed during a joint assignment for the play set, which ended up acting as a backdrop to their own love story, that had endured not only the passing time but turmoil and changes.
Elena and Michel left Russia for good in 1981 and settled in Paris, or as Michel put it to me ‘we got a chance to live two lives in our lifetime’. They didn’t have any friends or connections in Paris and neither did they speak French. Sheer determination, drive, love and support for each other, as well as their work propelled them together and possibly made them who they are today-a wonderfully touching art power force.
Both artists work as one and each painting takes anything from a couple of months to over six months, depending on the size and complexity. They work in trompe l’oeil and when you look at their wonderfulwork, I can see no duality, just uniquely beautiful paintings that draw you in, as if by magic.
The exhibition at Catto comprises 28 paintings, which vary in size from 50 x 41 cm to 196 x 130 cm, the largest, proudly titled ‘Tower of Babel’. The Grans collect antiques and seem to be almost childishly, romantically fascinated by the pieces that allow them to create their paintings with their brushes-books, maps, cards, objets d’art, drawers etc. You view each painting and think of the richness of theatrical traditions, litterature, history-each full of meaning, yet open to your own interpretation of things. Elena and Michel don’t pause or stop when working on the pieces and yet seem very real and warm in their attitude and view of the world. They speak in touching terms about late Sergei Chepik and their joy that Catto Gallery now represents them. Their eyes radiate light and joy and looking at them I thought to myself that if they stayed in Moscow or St Petersburg life would have probably distinguished that special light that they seem to emit. Artists in Russia are particularly dependent on patronage and towing the invisible, yet very real line, so many struggle to compromise their talent in order to have a slice of bread with butter and jam.
The tones of the paintings might seem a little sombre in the beginning but the more you look at them, the more you find in them, discovering nuances and accents ( I love ‘After the storm’, ‘Homage to Piranesi’ and ‘Litterature’ ). And isn’t that’s what the joy of art discoveries are for? One day, if lucky, I hope to visit the Grans in their Paris studio, hopefully learning a bit more about their artist process and personal journey.
Pictures are courtesy of Catto Gallery exhibition catalogue