Two Russian artists died recently. Georgy Kovenchuk (1933 – 2015) was a St Petersburg-based graphic designer, book illustrator and painter. He was popularly known as Gaga, and was a grandson of the futurist Nikolai Kulbin. Kovenchuk studied graphic art at the Academy of Art, was a member of the Union of Artists, and during Soviet times, was one of the authors of the Military Pencil, agitprop posters made by some of the best Leningrad artists of the 1960s. His first solo exhibition was in 1971 and closed down for ‘formalism’. In 1975, Kovenchuk’s illustrations to Mayakovsky’s Klop (The Bedbug) became a byword for the application of the traditions of the Russian avant-garde to book design. Censors banned the book and it wouldn’t have been released had it not been for the efforts of the likes of Lilya Brik and Valentin Pluchek. In 2013, the illustrations were republished by Timofei Markov in a separate silkscreen cover.
Vladimir Ovchinnikov (1941 – 2015) was born in the province of Perm where his family had been evacuated from Leningrad. He was not trained as an artist, but worked as a scaffolder at the Hermitage museum, the Mariinsky theatre, where he decorated churches. In 1964, he organised an exhibition of five artists at the Rastrelliyev gallery of the Hermitage, which (besides him) included Mikhail Shemyakin, Galina Kravchenko, Oleg Lyagachev and Vladimir Uflyand. He became one of the earliest of the unofficial artists (the non-conformists) to be allowed official exhibition in Soviet times – in 1974 and 1975, his works were put up at the houses of culture. Here the Soviet citizen was able to see domestic contemporary art distinct from the officially affirmed socialist realism, and to see its development from abstraction to surrealism. Subsequently, Ovchinnikov became a member of the Academy of Contemporary Art at St Petersburg.
Ovchinnikov’s art is generally always figurative with an important role played by its subject. In the works of the 1970s, everyday scenes of Leningrad life dominate, in which are embedded subtle mythological or biblical referenes. In later works, the artist addresses himself to twentieth century literature, developing the theme of absurdity as a timeless reference of modern reality.