Today is 13 August and, as well as being my birthday, it is the fifth anniversary of the death of a great artist of Russian origin who travelled the globe, a true Artist of the World: Alexander Sasha Parkevich (Moscow, 1941 – Plain, 2016). In 2018 I was contacted by one of Sasha’s sisters, Natalia Codevilla, a fine artist herself now based in Milan, commissioning me to write a critical analysis of her late brother’s artistic poetics that would accompany a commemorative exhibition in Wisconsin, America. I accepted with enthusiasm because Sasha Parkevich’s works speak to the heart and trigger many thoughts and reflections. Today, in order to remember him and to make him known to those who have not yet had the opportunity to see his work, I present here the art criticism written in both English and Dutch.
Enjoy your reading.
Sasha Parkevich, the creator of Modern Divinities
Two years have already passed since the death of Alexander Sasha Parkevich (Moscow 1941 – Plain 2016), an eclectic artist of profound culture and modern Renaissance man. Sasha never wanted to confide his past history but, thanks to his many works (paintings, sculptures and graphics with sketches and comics) imbued with his distinct sensitivity, even those who were not fortunate enough to know him personally now have the opportunity to enter his transcendental, symbolic and spiritual world.
Sasha was a multi-faceted artist with multiple passions, as he himself said, ‘people need to have a passion for something’. Even from his youth, he was attracted to literature, languages, art history and cultures, architecture, gardening, nature and above all to ‘doing’ in the first person: already during his stay in Trieste, Italy (1951-1958), this philosophy of life soon led him to make his first reproductions of Italian Renaissance works of art, which he took up again later, as he came of age, as evidenced by the quick and incomplete sketch in his notebook representing The Madonna and Child, or Madonna of the Chair by Raphael Sanzio, 1513-1514 now in the Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
His mastery and creativity were consolidated not only by his studies at the Fine Art Institute of Indianapolis in the early 1960s, but also by the numerous journeys he undertook between Chicago, San Francisco, Spain, Germany and Mexico between the 1960s and 1970s, during which he never stopped studying and observing the world around him. It was during this twenty-year period that the young artist produced a large number of rapid sketches of different subjects, transfiguring their souls and elaborating on the many artistic currents he observed during his pilgrimages. In his notebooks, one can see reclining nudes with a clear Symbolist and Expressionist quality reminiscent of Egon Schiele’s studies, but also more composed nudes with Matisse-like masks and Picasso-like African masks, such as Women with Chocolate Cookies. In other sketches, human presences can be found in highly detailed interior scenes such as American Gothic # II (homage to Mr and Mrs Grundenbacker) which pays homage to the American artist Grand Wood, or in everyday scenes such as Homage to Edward Hopper or, finally, in astronomical, symbolic, surreal and primordial landscapes rendered with shorthand mastery that closely resemble the works of Joan Mirò, such as the study for Menzonita Busches.
However, it was his stay in Greece between 1983 and 1985, first on the island of Santorini in the village of Oia and then on the island of Lesbos, that gave the artist his first strong impulse: here Sasha was able to concentrate uninterruptedly on his work, perfecting his painting technique and establishing his new philosophy. Looking at her quick sketches of the island’s stray dogs and her charcoal on paper with Two stray dogs, one can see how important these animals were for understanding Mother Nature: in these works, a new spirituality and Sasha’s transcendent soul are legitimised by the laws of Nature because, according to her philosophy, “we are here because Mother Nature wants us to be here. Our sense are her sense. Our hopes, aspirations, fantasies and loneliness are her also”. This does not mean that the artist has simply rendered the subjects in a passive and realistic manner; on the contrary, they have been reworked according to the emotional value of the experience lived in that instant, according to a markedly subjective vision, in the words of Sasha “my Santorini stay was the experiance of a lifetime. When I think of Santorini, there are so many good memories and so many great experiences”. Greece also played another important role for the artist: here he rediscovered his old love for iconographic art, which was so forbidden in Russia during the Stalin regime. In fact, Parkevich produced several icons on wood, in reduced format, of clear religious value, such as the reproduction of the 12th century Mother of God Eleousa, known as the Mother of Vladimir, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow: Sasha wanted to use the traditional Russian iconographic method with gold leaf and natural colours, ground by hand and added with an emulsion based on yolk and white wine, to give the two-dimensional images hieraticity and marked symbolism, thus uniting the sensory world with the trans-sensory and trans-temporal world. All this intense work earned him the title of Icon Painter.
His return to America at the end of the 1980s, more precisely to the small town of Plain in Wisconsin, gave Sasha his second artistic impulse: here he finally felt at home and built with his own hands his studio and private garden to exalt Mother Nature to the maximum. His analyses and studies did not end there, as he was constantly searching for something in his art and, as his sister Zora Tammer said, ‘he wanted to make something beautiful with his hands’. Looking at the artist’s production over the last thirty years, one can perceive an intense investigation into Nature, man and the deepest soul. Thanks to Francis Bacon, famous for his disturbing and disfigured portraits characterised by a violent expressionistic charge, by the first half of the 1990s Sasha grasped the soul and feelings of his subjects to transport them exclusively onto their faces, distorted and swollen, made by instinctive, automatic and almost casual brushstrokes. These transfigured works include oil paintings entitled Francis Bacon tribute and King Lear, mixed media oil-pastel paintings depicting the portrait of Dragan Parkevich and The Gambler portrait and, pastel works and sketches depicting Eight portrait sketches of Cardinals who almost became Pope, Six Historic Characters, Six Philosophers, and Nadezhda (Hope in Russian). Of the latter work, it is interesting to note what it conceals: during his childhood, the artist heard a tragic story of a young bride who was struck down by a mysterious illness that changed her external beauty and forced her to shut herself away in a monastery surrounded only by books, poetry and a small icon.
It is now clear how important Russian icons were in Sasha Parkevich’s background from an early age but, having made them his own, from 2000 until his death he decided to create new Cosmic Deities, new Icons, which he made naturally without effort and which, in his words, “I never worry if it is saying anything or does it make any sense”. By now he had completely broken out of the vicious circle of religions, instituted by men themselves in order to have no responsibility for their own actions: his modern Deities were exclusively spiritual and based on Mother Nature and her laws, leading him to take up anthropological, geological and astronomical sciences as well. Sasha defined his Deities primarily as objects of art and they were for him “portraits of our souls on the good days and on the bad days”: thus, for example, Galaxy salesman (oil on panel), Preistess from puma-Punka or Dark figure (both oil on canvas), Study of a Saint (oil on styrofoam) and Socrates on the edge of the circle (pastel on paper), represent deified human souls within blinding golden Almonds that stand out in the dark and silent cosmic space. Painted in a symbolic and expressionistic manner, with brushstrokes laden with thick matter that made them three-dimensional, Sasha’s Deities transcend the intent of the subject and become pure spirit, outside of raw and binding corporeal matter, in a Universe-Mother Nature that gives the possibility to create a new spiritual order , as can also be seen in Golden Diety # II (oil on canvas) in which the gold leaf and almond (a typical element of traditional icons) prevail over the entire space of the canvas, thus reaching the apex of the process of deification and complete detachment from matter.
In conclusion, it can be said that Alexander Sasha Parkevich has succeeded in fully achieving his goal: to make himself known only through his works of art.
Milan May 2018