A Russian artist in Shanghai

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

I met an interesting artist today at a private showing at a friend’s house. He was in China for just a few days, on his way home to St. Petersburg, Russia from Osaka, Japan.

Georgii Kovenchuk’s paintings have been condemned in the old Soviet Union for their “formalist” stance, show a strong, bold use of color and shape. Here is one of a white lily from the Gallery Kadieff in Helsinki. And here is “Woman on armchair.”

At the party, Georgii was joined by one of his old friends, a Chinese artist who came to St. Petersburg to study in 1955. The Chinese friend still remembered a smattering a Russian, and we had a fun time trying to communicate. Later on in the evening, one of the other guests spoke Chinese, and for a while we had a relay going – the Chinese artist would say something in Chinese, the other guest would translate it into English, and I would relay it into Russian for Georgii — and then back again for the response.

Georgii had some run-ins with the Soviet authorities because he wasn’t interested in the Soviet Socialist Realist style of art. But he told the story that when he had trouble getting into art school — his father was serving 25 years in a Gulag, accused of being a British spy because he had been a POW in a German camp that was liberated by British forces — it was a KGB official who helped him get in.

These days, he says, he can say whatever he wants, and, better still, he is able to travel overseas. He has lectured in the United States, and has had gallery showings around the world.

He had some slide shows on his laptop but his computer had crashed and he was feeling pretty down about it. Fortunately, I have magic fingers when it comes to technology. I plugged the laptop in (thus solving the “it doesn’t even turn on anymore” problem) then booted in safe mode, which allowed it to run long enough to see the pictures. The problem was viruses on the hard drive — easy enough to fix, when he gets home, by installing an anti-virus program.

To thank me for my help, he gave me a wood cut as a present, which I plan to get framed tomorrow and hang on the wall. If I had known ahead of time there was a computer with a virus problem, I would have brought an antivirus disk with me and cleaned the computer up for him. Now I feel sorry that I couldn’t do more to help.

The party itself was in an old lane house in the French Concession part of Shanghai. The hostess, Maria Laletina, shares my first name – at one point, there were four different Marias present, creating a little confusion.

The narrow house had five stories, with a room on each floor and a steep, twisty staircase. It was a beautiful, gorgeous house, the kind of place I would love to live (instead of the modern apartment in a high rise, where I actually live — I didn’t choose it, it was chosen for me).

Shanghai is starting to develop a very vibrant, multi national artistic community which I have been ignoring for the most part, sticking to business and economics instead.

I’m a little hyper-sensitive and most art makes me feel unsettled and unhappy. Kovenchuk’s – such as the bright pieces that were hanging on the walls of the apartment — had a grounded, happy feel to them with an undercurrent of depth and peace. It was a nice feeling.

I left early because I had to work. China has a funny habit of shutting down for a week at a time several times a year for government holidays — but forces its people to work on the weekends to make up for some of that time.

Also, I’m trying to clear off as much out of my plate as I can, to get ready for my own vacation next week. So for me as well, it’s a long, wearing weekend.

Signing off in Shanghai,