“The terrible thing, my dear, is not that they call Schnabel the Michelangelo of our time. They call everybody the Michelangelo of our time. The terrible thing is that Michelangelo was really the Schnabel of his time, and I’m the only one who will tell you so.” The speaker, red-bearded and blue-eyed, is so slight of build that nothing he says sounds as a challenge. His accent is more peculiar than Russian, and it helps him make the girl from Boston laugh. “You know, Igor,” she says, at once playful and conspiratorial, basking in the strange weightlessness of intellectual freedom that seems to fill the old house, “I never really liked Michelangelo.” She wants to go on; to tell him she never heard anyone say things like this in college; to ask him if he really means it all; and a thousand other questions; but she doesn’t know where to begin, and anyway, he interrupts. “You nice girl, dear,” he says, pouring iced, gem-green vodka from a crystal decanter half-filled with black currant leaves. “But you need husband.”
Thus passes a Sunday afternoon at Igor Galanin’s studio, the top floor of his house, hidden in the woods of Westchester County, New York. But on weekdays the scene is different. Or is it? The stereo murmurs Verdi, the exotic plants have been watered, the morning pours in through the windows and the skylight, and the little man stands by his worktable, painting the thigh of an imaginary reclining nude. The figure he has drawn is sculptural, solemn, startling, like a paradox of genius; but its surroundings on that canvas—the Empire couch, the pearly landscape, and especially the tiny bearded man wearing a bowler hat who stands by his easel painting a self-portrait—make one smile an inward and disarmed smile. The work is far from finished, but the figure is already vying with the nudes of Rubens and Ingres. But just as soon as its beauty has spoken, another voice chimes in. “You nice girl, dear,” the tiny bearded man with the black bowler seems to be telling her, “but you need husband.”
Igor Galanin was born in Moscow in 1937, the legendary year marking the height of Stalin’s terror, to a Jewish mother and a father whose roots, recorded in the Velvet Books of Russian nobility, can be traced back to the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. (“All that money to put them through Hotchkiss,” the artist says proudly of his two children, now in their first year at Yale, “and still they look Tatar!”) The seven centuries of recorded history on his father’s side make him view the Protestant aristocracy of his adopted country with gentle skepticism; his mother’s practicality and wisdom, and his own experience of survival as an artist under the Soviet regime, help him keep a realistic distance between his world and the world of his patrons. He considers himself a “quintessential bourgeois, like Balzac,” and of course that description, like so much about this man, is itself a paradox.
In 1972, when the opportunity he terms “divine” presented itself, Galanin, with his wife and two children, then five years old, left his native Moscow. While waiting for U.S. entry visas in Italy, a standard procedure for all Iron-Curtain refugees, Galanin, who had achieved prominence in Russia only as an illustrator of children’s books and theater designer, had his first show at the Paesi Nuovi gallery in Rome. The Americans who bought out the show brought word of the artist home, and within a year after his arrival a second show was arranged in—of all places—Fishers Island, New York, whose 18-page telephone directory listed, in 1983, four Du Ponts, five Fergusons, five Gaillards, two Lords, four Russells, a Whitney—John Hay Whitney, to be precise—with a Symington, a Phelps, and a Boocock nestling cozily in between. This show, too, was a success—as were others, in Boston, that paved the way for Galanin to meet Joachim Jean Aberbach, whom he calls “the poet of art dealers,” and to his first “real” exhibition in 1978 at Aberbach Fine Art in New York. The paintings in that show were sold in a matter of days; between 1978 and 1983 came five more such shows. This year is no exception; Igor Galanin’s seventh one man show at Aberbach Fine Art opened in March.
For those who buy them, and for many who just come to look, Galanin’s paintings are a revelation. They seem at once to distill history, of which the history of art is but a fragment, and mock it—but lovingly, tenderly, as a parent might the accomplishments of a child. Independent-minded (“seditiously inclined,”, as Galanin puts it) collectors find this refreshing, and addictive. By contrast, many professional art critics have taken this “whimsy” as an affront, almost an insult directed at them and at their calling. But obviously a man who speaks of Michelangelo and Schnabel with equal irreverence—and of Ingres and Bailey with similar admiration—is unruffled by what critics think. Besides, he has his defenders in the press gallery as well. Theodore Wolff, writing in the Christian Science Monitor of a 1982 series of Galanin paintings, commented:
They were not, after all, intended to make a great deal of logical sense, only to delight, amuse, intrigue, and enchant. And neither were they intended to reflect a concern for the great formal or theoretical questions of the day. They are too happy and carefree for that—although they do have just enough melancholy to make them look “modern,” and just enough enigma to make them feel at home in the age that produced Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and the strange and fantastic goings-on in the canvases of de Chirico, Ernst, Dali, and Magritte.
That put Galanin in pretty good company.
Galanin’s often deliberately preposterous pronouncements—on subjects “Woman With Rabbit” by Igor Galanin. ranging from American politics (“I want a triumvirate for President: [North Carolina Senator] Jesse Helms, [New York Mayor] Ed Koch, and [Harper’s Editor] Lewis Lapham”) to higher education (“I am against it”) to contemporary poetry (“Lynch Merrill,” the motto on a T-shirt he contemplates ordering, is aimed at poet James Merrill, scion of the famous banking family)—have amused and, on occasion, antagonized his reviewers and potential patrons alike. The wiser among them have kept in mind that for a Russian of Galanin’s milieu, “the Tongue,” in Catherine the Great’s phrase, “is there to whip the Air.” Only in one’s work, balancing the real and the imaginary, the serious and the whimsical, the eternal and the transitory, must the artist find that unique equilibrium for which he is ultimately answerable. Galanin’s heterodox opinions contain more than mere grains of truth; but, more important, he knows that in the end he will not be judged by them. Leading an impeccably bourgeois life-style, saying things that raise bourgeois eyebrows, painting pictures—of Victorian comfort, of aristocratic games, of “life as I wish I could live it”—he insists he is not an “enigma.” What is he, then? “A free man.”