Although he received his artistic education in Moscow and now lives in Berlin, Genia Chef is one of the chief artists of the Novia Akademia group, which originated in St Petersburg, inspired by the ideas and theories of the late Timur Novikov.
Novikov saw that art, apparently set free to do whatever it wished by the fall of Soviet Communism, was in fact endangered by the brutality of new, unregulated capitalism. He said once that advertising had now stolen the idea of beauty, and that it was the duty of progressive art to steal it back. He understood that the much-publicised perestroika artists of the Gorbachev era had been so dependent on the use of official Soviet symbolisms that with the fall of the regime they had lost the most intimate part of their subject matter. And he was keenly sensitive to the classical beauty of St Petersburg itself.
Most of these themes can be traced in Genia Chef’s work. He uses the most modern image-making techniques, based on computer digitisation and often developed for purely commercial purposes, to construct images of melancholy dignity. These images owe much to the ‘classical’ strain that has been prominent in Russian art ever since the time of Catherine the Great. For example, one can find parallels with the work of Karl Briullov, whose most celebrated work is The Last Day of Pompeii, painted in 1833. There are also links to the work of artists who are not Russian, notably to the German Symbolist Arnold Böcklin.
The conjunction is significant, since Böcklin also provided a major source of inspiration for the early work of Giorgio dei Chirico. From de Chirico, in turn, stems a whole series of development in both Modern and Post Modern art. He was a major inspiration for the Surrealist Group; and he has been seen as the real father of Post Modernism, and notably of the Pittura Colta (‘Cultivated Painting’) group in Italy, founded in 1978, the year of de Chirico’s death.
Most of the Pittura Colta artists passed through a fascination with Conceptual Art before they found their own mature styles, and it can also be said I think that Chef’s work, despite its seductive visual details, is also rooted in Conceptualism.
To understand how this is so one has to look a little bit beyond the boundaries of the Modern Movement, as this is generally seen by critics. There is a strong case, for example, for the idea that the first truly ‘modern’ or avant-garde style, as we now understand that idea, dates from the mid-18th century, and was in fact the Neo-classical movement founded and promoted by Winckelmann. The artists whom Winckelmann supported, such as Anton Rafael Mengs, always regarded art as being, first and foremost, a vehicle for ideas.
This was indeed their justification for stripping away the dramatic effects characteristic of the Baroque style that had then been dominant in Europe for more than a century.
One finds a not dissimilar rebelliousness in Chef’s art. He is not interested in flashy Modernist effects. Even more, he is not interested in the idea of avantgardism as this is now generally understood.
Sometimes there are abrupt changes in the artistic situation that are generally misinterpreted by critics. A well-known example of this was the switch from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Abstract Expressionism had reached a stage where it was supported by almost all the major American writers on art, and the rise of Pop was seen as deliberate treason – a calculated insult to painfully established cultural values. Now, of course, Pop seems like a cogent expression of the then state of the American psyche, at a moment when the Abstract Expressionist impulse had self-evidently run its course.
Chef seems to me a representative of a rather similar mood of crisis in our own culture. He embraces the Conceptual impulses that have prevailed in supposedly advanced art for the last forty years, and at the same time rejects them.
As Neo-classicism itself demonstrated, one of the most effective ways of creating something new in art is through an uncompromising reinterpretation of the past. Neo-classicism was followed, first by the German Nazarene group, then by the British Pre-Raphaelites. In each case, a group of ambitious young artists appealed to aspects of the past as a way of expressing an overwhelming dissatisfaction with the art that was successful in the society that they themselves inhabited.
This dissatisfaction is increasingly visible today, and one of the most conspicuous forms it takes is what has begun to be called the ‘retro impulse’ or even the ‘retro-avantgarde’. Pittura Colta was an early example, but in its most radical guise it is seen most often in Eastern Europe – not only in Russia, but in the activity of groups such as Irwin in Slovenia.
Chef’s work can be related to these drastic impulses, but is also marked by a refined and melancholy poetry inherited from the Symbolists. That is, it can be enjoyed on an intellectual level as a cogent attack on the smugness of established ‘avantgarde’ values, which now produce what is best regarded as official art, of a kind now seen in a multiplicity of ambitious biennales all over the world. It can also be enjoyed emotionally, as a product of the long-established Russian impulse to discover “the tears of things”. And perhaps that is the better way.
1954 born in Aktjubinsk/USSR
1972-77 Polygraphic Institute Moscow (painting and graphic art)
1977 first place citation for his Diploma, “Master of Fine Arts”
1978 member of the Association of Painters of Moscow, participates in numerous exhibitions of the
Association of Painters and of nonconformist artists, Moscow
1985 moves to the West, lives currently in Germany, Spain and New York
1988-93 studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
1993 “Magister artium” of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna (painting and graphic art)
1993 Gold medal of the Academy (Fueger Gold Prize)