Arts : Sculpture : Nikolay Silis
Biography Exposition Exhibitions Criticism Replies

Lenna Gessen

Much has changed in Moscow during the past few years. Old streets and mansions were given a facelift; completely new things had appeared: billboards on the streets and avocados in the stores. The brightly lit streets, foreign cars, and continuous construction give the ancient Russian capital a feeling of energy, youth and liveliness.
When walking along the streets of Moscow past hundreds of stores and casinos mushrooming everywhere, inhaling the scents of freshly painted houses and churches, passing endless underground crossings' vendors, beggars, or women in beautiful Russian fur coats, one might get a feeling that this city has opened all its secrets to him.
That is not so. There are still some known only to those who are initiated. In the country as mysterious as Russia it is not only the state secrets that are concealed. There is one particularly big Art secret of a magnitude that if a connoisseur discovered it he would be embarrassed for not finding it sooner, and anyone who can recognize the real thing from junk would be just happy that he did not overlook it, because it is not the pseudo art exhibited and sold on the streets, but the magnificent art that often remains invisible, proving words of Ovid that "art is in concealing art".
What a pity that it is not common to call the living artists great. People usually find out that they were lucky to live "next door" to somebody great post factum.
For instance, where will one place a memorial plaque for Nikolay Silis and Vladimir Lemport, when the time comes? It could, of course, be nailed at the entrance of the open-air pool "Moscow". It would read "For three-and-thirty years / at dawn three times each week / illustrious Lemport here came / to swim with celebrious Silis". Or on a worn-out wooden bench in an old Russian bania (baths) near "Taganka" a brass plate would boastfully announce "Here, bathed in sweat, on Thursdays Sculptors sat, they drank and talked,.. and never smoked". Alas, the pool is gone (it was built to replace the Cathedral of Christ the Savior after it was destroyed, and is gone now to make place for the replica of the former church), and who knows for how much longer the bania will survive in the country where Jacuzzi is taking over.
The more traditional text, like "Here from the year to the year worked world famous Russian sculptors Vladimir Lemport and Nikolay Silis", could perhaps be attached to a small iron door of their workshop. However, the memorial plaque will be an issue for the future generations. At present, Vladimir Lemport and Nikolay Silis are very much alive and instead of thinking of immortality have been coming there almost every day for over fifty years to create sculptures that would take care of it themselves.
They first met in 1945 as students of the famous "Stroganovka" art school. Lemport, now 75, had behind him five years of war; was wounded three times, with fingers of the left hand left motionless as a result. Silis, now 68, had his own difficult experience of growing up during the worst war in history. After graduation they started working together on different "official" monumental projects that were later to decorate buildings in Moscow, other Russian cities, and in countries as far away as Greece and Nigeria. Working on these projects, they were also trying to find and develop their own artistic individualities and styles. Soon they were able to lease a basement big enough not only for the big projects but also for the thriving artistic egos. Now, this huge basement of a big gray apartment building, not far from Poklonnaya Gora, is filled with what some call works and some call masterpieces by Lemport & Silis.
Today all the "on-order" projects have been abandoned and it is difficult to find traces of them in the studio. Instead, it is bursting with works which are as different as their creators.
For fifty years Lemport & Silis have been under the same roof; a period so long that it is a rarity even in marriages, and such a union between two artists is simply unknown in the history of arts. Silis jokes, that it is as improbable as leaving two spiders in a jar - one for sure is going to eat another. Their alliance is impossible to explain by similar tastes, character types, or points of view. Silis and Lemport have very different personalities and they frequently disagree and passionately argue. Lemport says that for half of the century he was learning tolerance from Silis, who in turn was learning firmness from him. "We surpassed each other in the end", - says the older sculptor. They are even more different in their art; and in each other's work each of them admires what he can't do himself. Whatever the reasons this unique tandem survived decades.
The left side of the basement is Lemport's kingdom. It is a world populated by serious men; men first made by Nature of wisdom, nobleness, and courage, and then embodied in ceramics, stone and bronze by the Sculptor. Quite a gathering: Socrates, Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Boris Pasternak, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Jesus Christ, Nikolay Silis and many others. They exist here thinking, reading, singing, marching, sometimes suffering like Einstein who plugs his ears at the sound of the atomic explosion, and sometimes just simply looking in bewilderment and delight at the opposite wall of the basement. There women rule.
Slim and fat, girlish and pregnant, sitting, and standing, and lying, and floating bodies. Relaxed or tense, happy or in despair, dreaming, playing, stretching they are all jubilantly beautiful. They are carved and molded by Silis who makes one believe in lightness of bronze, in warmth of ceramic, in eternity of wood.
Silis' women do not have faces but their bodies speak. One of his most significant works is "Requiem". It consists of eight figures, which give such a strong impression of unbearable grief that anyone who sees them is moved to compassion. If they were greatly enlarged and placed somewhere on an open field or a mountain, so that they could be seen from far away, they could become the grand monument of mourning for each and every loss of mankind. But whatever the subject and the emotions it brings out, all Silis' works are so stunningly pul-chritudinous that everyone who sees them feels an urge to touch the smooth curves that seem to come to life under one's palm.
Among all these feminine curves and feelings a big man "all bones" is sitting directly on the floor, leaning on one hand, holding a fresh flower in another. This is the world's chief romantic - Don Quixote. This well known Spaniard is the only man Silis ever sculpted and of whom in the basement there are sculptures, there are drawings, there are lithographs. Perhaps, being Silis' hero, he is the source of tolerance that Lemport wants to acquire.
For fifty years they've been coming here - Silis early in the morning when nobody can bother him, Lemport after two o'clock since no one and nothing ever bothers him - to bring life to the soulless clay and stone, and delight and wonder to everyone who meets them and sees their works. Although their existence is a secret for some, those two great artists are long and well known. Their sculptures adorn many private and museum collections in Russia, Europe, the United States, and South America. Their works had been exhibited in many countries. Many articles were written and documentaries were filmed about them. Hundreds of visitors left their basement taking away the strong impressions of this unique world and its two unique personalities. It is almost impossible to name all the famous people belonging to the Russian and foreign intelligentsia that visited Silis & Lemport's studio during half of the century: writers and mathematicians, poets and physicists, actors and architects, businessmen and film directors. People that had been here once, always want to come again and to bring friends. To come and to see. To sit and to talk. To talk and to sing. Just like most of the ordinary geniuses Lemport and Silis have many talents among which singing is not the last one. Lemport's guitar has its honorable place in the basement. This instrument is very special. It not only helped Lemport to restore movement of his left hand, enabling him to fulfill his dream of becoming a sculptor, but also has accompanied so many wonderful people who sang here.
If they wanted Lemport & Silis could make a carrier as actors. Their personalities are so rich and their looks so original that many of the film directors entering their basement asked them to act in their films. Few times they had even agreed and played in films shot by such prominent directors as Yuriy Ilenko and Sergey Gerasimov and a few others, but they just did not have time for more.
There is a saying: "looks aren't everything", which is particularly true for Lemport & Silis who are very multifaceted. Fifteen years ago after reading some writings by Silis and listening to Lemport singing Georges Brassens' songs translated by Lemport, himself, into Russian, 1 was amazed. But when a couple of weeks ago I saw Lemport's recently published translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" I decided not to be surprised at these people anymore.
Sourse - «Were Moscow»/June 1997