Vasily Romanenkov has died after a short period of illness, aged 59.
A tall, shy man, Romanenkov’s manners were genteel and formal; his movements exact, his words precise. Despite international recognition, he lived in a small Soviet housing block in Kosino, a satellite town outside Moscow. It was with our future accommodation that Romanenkov was chiefly preoccupied: “Our home is in the other world,” he said. “Our first day is on Earth, our second one is in Eternity.”
His work described a world of which he was utterly familiar, much more so than the new materialistic Russia of oligarchs and Moscow bling that exists a few kilometres from Kosino. Romanenkov situated his vision in a reality both inside and outside of this one. His task was to remind us that, “Man came out of the soil and shall vanish into it”.
Romanenkov’s uncles were funeral masons and he observed how easily they inhabited the realm of the departed and how respectfully they laboured in their craft. The late art historian, Ksenia Bogemskaia, said: “Romanenkov lives with the dead. He speaks with them”. Sometimes the dead were cultural heroes like Sergei Yesenin, the peasant poet, beloved of ordinary people and autodidacts, who committed suicide at the age of 30. One of Romanenkov’s breakthrough works, completed in 1988, was his tour de force Dedication to Sergei Yesenin where the poet’s soul is surrounded by an aura of fragmented village life. Alluding to this picture and how he prepared for its construction, Romanenkov said, “I used to visit Yesenin’s grave at the Vagankovskoye cemetery in Moscow. I spent hours with him”.
For Russians, death is not failure. Death is central to life, not an adjunct or a taboo. Death, how we live with it, how we live beyond it, was central to Romanenkov’s vision.
In the lapidary detail of his images, Romanenkov illustrated the microcosm in order to reveal to us our place in the macrocosm. Each work was visualised in its entirety before he put it to paper. His pictures are not improvisations or therapeutic patternings, they are as precise in their philosophical and spiritual content as they are in their draughtsmanship. Working at his living room table, Romanenkov told me that sometimes he found the drawing process frustrating because he could see the next piece clearly in his mind and was impatient to get on with it.
Often the work would take the form of polyptychs. Figures would be gathered in silent rituals like weddings, baptisms, feasts, funerals; ancestral architecture would frame each archaic, choreographed encounter; clothes would be embroidered: males with the symbols of their work, females with more decorative designs.
Romanenkov’s compositions are time capsules, taking us further inside the defining stages of our lives. This is the particle physics of the human soul, informed by a consciousness that did not experience our post-Enlightenment world. Russia went from being fiercely pagan to devoutly Orthodox to ruthlessly atheist with no time in between to cultivate a garden of pensées. Somehow, a remote corner of the Smolensk region, Bogdanovka, Romanenkov’s birthplace, escaped the worst of the atheist persecutions during the Great Terror of the 1930s. “My village was far from any cities. The people lived a traditional life. There were many rites. I keep everything in my memory.”
On each occasion that I visited Romanenkov, we attended the evening vigil service at his local church in Kosino. The church was a few metres from his apartment. The hypnotic polyrhythms of the bells summoning the faithful, banishing demons, filled his living space. Thus, his world was cosmically self-contained.
All the dead lived with Romanenkov. He embraced the pre-Christian ancestors of his culture as well as those who peopled the rituals of the life he grew up with. At the same time, he lived and made his art in the knowledge that, for most of Russia, the highly charged spiritual life of its people had been forced, for 70 years, to become hermetic and hidden.
Born in 1953, the year Stalin died, Romanenkov created a monumental body of work which has contributed profoundly to the restoration of the desecrated architecture of the Russian spirit. God is in the detail.
by James Young