High Art in Russia – 70 metres and climbing.

Hugh Gatenby

Once were warriors…  Except that they never were. However, the three ‘Bogatyrs’; the three noble knights of legend, along with the famous, eponymous painting by the 19th century Russian artist Vasnetsov, are known to every Russian in the world – from stories read to them, and by them, in childhood. Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitych and Alyosha Popovich, in their own respective adventures, righted wrongs and routed the enemies of Russia. Vasnetsov brought the three fairy tale heroes together in his large-scale, much-loved work, the ‘Bogatyri’ which hangs, pride of place, in Moscow’s Tretyakov gallery – one of its must-see paintings.

Which brings us to the large-scale, unloved and unlovely blank wall space on my friend’s 21st floor Moscow balcony. The balcony – overlooking swathes of territory; residential, post-industrial, even ancient forest – has seen better days. Hastily thrown up during the late Soviet period, the massive panel-built housing estate of ‘High Voltage Passage’ was starting to look jaded and faded – as was my friend’s balcony. She tried to brighten it up a bit with plants, she bought some decent outdoor furniture. These helped; and we often lingered there of an evening, watching the summer sunsets over Moscow and beyond. But the place needed something more uplifting than yet another coat of paint.

I can’t remember who it was who came up with the idea of something on the lines of Vasnetsov’s iconic artwork. It certainly wasn’t me. I’ve never painted anything more than a coat of emulsion on a wall in my life – no Banksy me. However, the suggestion of the ‘Bogatyrs’ was most definitely food for thought. These three sturdy stalwarts astride their nags, hands close to their formidable weaponry. However, they needed bringing up to date – just a bit. 

I can remember newsreels at the time (for I am that old) of sixties American anti-Vietnam war protesters, putting flowers down the muzzles of the National Guardsmen’s rifles. In 1970s Portugal, the revolutionary Armed Forces Movement chose the image of the gun and the carnation to convey a ‘we come in peace’ message. I toyed with the idea of the Three Knights bearing bouquets of flowers – but it was absolutely rejected. Hopelessly effete. You just can’t mess like that with a macho Russian icon. On that basis, and to preserve their machismo, I even wondered about giving them Kalashikovs and rocket-launchers – but I self-vetoed that on aesthetic grounds. Then my friend suggested that in place of their stocky mounts,  they could be on hefty motorbikes. Brilliant! That did it. And as for the rest, the pictures can do the talking.

I don’t know if it really counts as street art per se, because it’s on private property on it’s at least 70 metres above any street. Be that as it may – I’m still open for commissions! Bookings through my agent, of course.

A postscript to this story. I put the preparatory sketch of the bikers, juxtaposed with Vasnetsov’s painting, on various social media sites. On the Russian VKontakte site, the post attracted some kindly attention. However, a few commentaries pointed out, that Ilya, Dobrynya and Alyosha, true Russian patriots that they were, would surely not be seen dead riding American Harley-Davidsons, but would ride Voskhods and Urals – possibly the classic version with the sidecar combination. They had me there. Maybe that can be the next one…

Сохраняем русскую культуру и язык. Это точно! На эту тему, как иначе бы русская история оказалась, если бы, скажем, эти серьёзные товарищи художника В.М. Васнецова прибыли не на конях, но на Харли-Девидсонах? Может богатыри-байкеры? Интересный вопросик, да? Я конечно перед Васнецовом очень извиняюсь, но может он одобрил бы современный вариант!

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