Autobiographical motifs are frequently encountered in the works of Ilya Glazunov, but the painting entitled “My Life” is the most comprehensive expression of the artist’s musings about his fate, tied inextricably to the fate of his beloved Russia. The painting’s completion in 1994 coincides with the start of work on his book “Russia Crucified.” And for that reason the painting’s motifs and pathos may be best explained by the words of the author himself, expressed in the preface to his book: “I am a tiny particle of the nation and I am proud that for more than thirty years of my creative life I have served God, Russia and my conscience, and I do not renounce a single act, painting, or printed word. I have betrayed neither Russia nor myself, thinking just like millions of other Russians. And the public acclaim I have received has been a guarantee against being trampled by my enemies, despite their hatred and their slander. I am grateful to all those who have helped me in my, our common struggle for Russia. This book, along with my paintings, serves as my personal memoirs. My powerful desire to write it came at the urging of my civic conscience, and not just out of hatred towards slanderers of Russia and myself as a Russian artist. After reading the manuscript of one of the books written about me, I realized that I needed to write about myself and express my views on good and evil in the world and fight back against those who would falsify our history and defend it myself – as an artist and soldier of tormented and oppressed Russia….”
The painting depicts the pivotal moments in the life of the artist that influenced the direction of his creative path. In the upper left of the canvas are images reflecting the spirit of St. Petersburg-Leningrad, where the artist was born and where he endured the horrors of the blockade, when his parents died of agonizing starvation before his eyes. The classical image of the fresco “Aurora” by Guido Reni is one of the examples of great masterpieces that hung in the former Imperial Academy of the Arts, where Glazunov honed his professional skills and where he met his future wife – Nina Aleksandrovna Vinogradova-Benois. Below the fresco is a scene characterizing the family atmosphere in which the artist’s two children, Ivan and Vera, were raised.
The socialist era, with its attendant trappings, has been condensed into one comprehensive grouping that interjects itself into the upper center of the painting like a wedge. One side, depicting a towering smokestack reminiscent of the stalk of a nuclear mushroom cloud, as if delineates the socialist world from pre-revolutionary Russia and all that is bright in the inner world of the artist. On the other side is a stairway extending to the heavens, an image frequently encountered in other of Glazunov’s works. The stairway, considered a symbol of spiritual growth in Slavic folklore, is empty. And in the very center a figure balances on a tightrope against the backdrop of apartment buildings. The tension in the young artist’s gaze can be easily understood by the viewer – the images filling the right side of the painting depict the condition of a country considered a superpower in the not too distant past.
This painting, which reflects the major stages of the artist’s life against the background of events taking place throughout Russia, is filled with a tragic resonance. The artist has always attempted to show the harsh reality of life which has touched others’ lives as well as his own. However, he would not be true to his nature if he were to fall into despair, or if he failed to struggle with all the strength of his spirit and mighty talent to find an answer to the “cursed problems” of our time, problems which are especially pressing in this time of discord and collapse of state and society.
The most significant image, which sums up the artist’s experiences and indicates a future direction, is located in the lower center portion of the composition. It is framed by a rainbow, its edges supported by two angels. Beneath the rainbow is the image of Holy Rus’, a constant ideal for the artist. Against its background is a large self portrait of the artist himself.
Ilya Glazunov carries on his struggle to this day, as reflected in his activities in both artistic and public spheres. Above portraits of the artist’s ever increasing number of friends and like-minded thinkers is suspended the image of the Savior. Not everyone can withstand the stress of the artist’s struggle, and the images of those who have abandoned it are depicted nearby. Behind the artist are the bright, animated figures of his children, symbolizing a new generation of youth which already today determines the main direction of Russia’s creative and spiritual renaissance.