The Book Review, No.13, May 26, 1993, page 7
RIDER ON THE TRAIN OF THE TIME
by Nina GROZOVA
the hard benches of a suburban train, poorly dressed citizens while away
the time with a bottle... Levon Khatchatrian's illustration for Erofeev's
immortal book "Moscow to the End of the Line" seemed to me suspiciously
familiar. I get it: Khatchatrian’s drawing is a citation of Pavel
Vassiliev's painting "Lenin on the Way to Petrograd." But instead of
Lenin, the hero of Venedikt Erofeev's novel is talking with the
passengers. The artist is playing his game with the viewer, saying: if you
know, you'll get the point.
Khatchatrian became “sick”of “Moscow to the End of the Line" many years ago. The magic of Erofeev's fantasy wouldn't release the artist until he finally understood that it wasn't enough to simply illustrate this book in good faith, it had to be lived with the author.
"The Erofeev’s book deserved to become custom-made" says the artist and shows me an unusual mock-up.
On each page there is an illustration, as if grabbed from the context of our recent life. Here there are photographs of the USSR leaders and posters from "Lenin rooms," and coupons for vodka, and labels from canned meat… But the most amazing is a phantasmagoric line that runs throughout the book: words from a characteristic memento of the Soviet era written records, a civil defense training aid. And this isn't all. The artist is convinced: the unique limited edition of the famous author must not be a book in the ordinary sense, i.e., pages in a binding. Much more pertinent are the pages tied with twine and placed in transparent plastic bag, together with an empty vodka bottle, a small loaf, and a stationary order-form with a name-by-name list of an "order." Will a publisher be found that will be attracted by this fantastic but worthy idea? I would like to be a believer…
Meanwhile the artist is continuing his search for means of reducing to a
minimum his presence in his own work. The things he uses are the most
prosaic, but ones that have much to say to us, citizens of our country: a
card-file box, the binder of a "personal file," newspaper clippings,
street announcements, a tear-off calendar. The amazing combination of
these everyday things brings to light a sort of new reality. I think that
the old newspapers have a particularly strong effect on the viewer. The
newspaper clippings that Khatchatrian quaintly assembled in narrow strips
about twenty years ago (in order to make them easier to hide in case of
possible house-check), now attract the viewer’s look more than many
The artist since long understood: newspapers are a highly explosive thing. Even if heroes and events are selected taking into account the viewer's reaction to the huge sheet of paper. It is amazing: when you start to look, it draws you in more and more strongly. Khrushchev, Kennedy, Dubcek, Che Guevara, Soviet pioneer parades, the BAM [the Baikal Amur Mainline - a hugely expensive, much propagandized, but little-used rail line built in the 1970s and 1980s], drug addicts of the "rotten West,", the Vietnam War… And somewhere on the side of this explosive bundle of History there is a photograph of the artist himself from those years.
Even then he was convinced: adequately expressing his era was possible only with the aid of contemporary materials. The artist consciously worked for the prepared viewer (the future viewer, of course – obviously one couldn't think of exhibiting or even showing to friends anything like this is those years), knowing how to gaze into life, loving to read, and to think over what was read.
Among the favorite writers of the artist himself are: Solzhenitsyn,
Platonov, Dovlatov, Shalamov, and Erofeev. A photocopy of Dovlatov's novel
"The Zone" made under Brezhnev times, is now considered by the artist as
an independent work, a peculiar memento of the era of Samizdat.
Levon determined his priorities in literature long before the official "permission" of disgraced writers. In one of his works the "generals of literature," whose photographs he put in a row, as if on a Socialist “Board of Best Workers,” were harshly contrasted with a single portrait of Varlam Shalamov, apart from the rest, drawn by the hand of the artist and "nailed up" to immortality with an office thumbtack.
And here is the next mystification. Under the picture there is a signature: "Ivan Denisovich Shukhov." But the Solzhenitsyn's famous hero has the face of… Osip Mandelstam. Or there is a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg signed with the name "Elizaveta Denisovna Voronianskaya." This woman voluntarily took her life after she revealed, under questioning, the place where the manuscript of "The Gulag Archipelago" was hidden. The artist hopes that, having in mind the schoolbook portrait of the German Communist, people will remember the worthy name of quite a different woman.
When Andrey Tarkovsky died, Levon put a tear-off calendar in a frame, in which he pasted a photograph of the great master and wrote alongside his birthday date: "Andrey Tarkovsky was born.”
"Soumgait" is the most terrifying of Khatchatrian's works. There is no image as such. On the rough craft paper there is written only the short note from the Soviet Encyclopedia about this small town, absolutely unknown before the tragic events. The alphabet letters similar to cemetery inscriptions and flowers cut out from a cheap greetings postcard influence the viewer more powerfully than many of realistic paintings.
Or one more work by Khatchatrian, where a sign, a word stand for unique heroes. The small characters of Zoschenko and Platonov's names divided by a bold horizontal line and placed on a big sheet of craft paper, look particularly defenseless.
Sometimes the maestro allows himself to be ironic. In his studio, which is of itself an artwork in the spirit of the conceptualist avant-garde, solemnly hang several genuine "Grateful Letter" forms (do you remember that not long ago there was such a genre?). On them, carefully, letter by letter, are glued the names of the leaders of Soviet underground culture, those who in our times have unexpectedly become the new "Generals" of the official art.
It remains to add that in the amazing studio there also live Khatchatrian’s well-known works in cartoons and his illustrations for the magazines "Ogonyok," "Pioneer," and "Misha." The artist himself, in fact, doesn't like to talk much on them. The main works of Levon Khatchatrian until now has been known only to his family and close friends, though they were done fifteen and twenty years ago. When the wave of "forbidden art" arrived, the artist thought it was awkward to push, clawing his way into the overcrowded train of the time. So until now he is riding in the entryway, sharing in a way the fate of Erofeev's immortal hero.