No. 1



Translated by Sacha Vichnevski       

The Parallel World of Sergey Kalmykov

                                                                          Genius is the biological tragedy of an artist.
                                                                                                                          Sergey Kalmykov

Which one of the two parallel lines that never cross and run away into eternity is 
superior? Who is better, Repin or Malevich? Or are both of them better? 
Sergey Kalmykov existed in his own special dimension, which was drastically different 
from all the others. This was precisely a case when the life of an artist interlaces with 
his private life. Kalmykov had the reputation of a village idiot, which saved him and 
the freedom of his art from the authorities and from imprisonment. What claims would
you lay on a village idiot? He is harmless, quiet, walks along the streets wearing 
motley, shabby dress and draws and draws…In the Asian city of Alma-Ata where 
the artist lived for over three decades until his death in 1967, such people are 
considered to be marked by the hand of God, which required a sort of respect for
them. People got accustomed to Kalmykov, to his self-sewn trousers with trouser legs
of different colors, to his scarlet beret, to the empty rattling tins dangling from his fancy
jacket. With time he became a unique part of the Alma-Ata city landscape, a kind of 
a hummingbird in the Siberian taiga. 

Whenever he could he would change this decoration, although never abandoning the
overall decorative stylistics of his dress. This is how he was portrayed by the late 
Yuri Dombrovskii (in his novel The College of Unnecessary Things): “The sun was 
setting. The artist was in a hurry. He was wearing a beret of burning colors, dark blue 
trousers with stripes and a green mantilla with bows. At his side hung a tambourine 
embroidered in smoke and fire. He didn’t dress this way for his own pleasure and 
content, or for the people around him, but for space, Mars, Mercury, for he was “the 
first rate genius of the Earth and of the Universe, decorator and performer at the Abay
Opera and Ballet Theatre, Sergey Ivanovich Kalmykov”, as he used to call himself. 
You would agree that such a figure would not fit in with the stock image of the ordinary
Soviet worker, “a committed soldier fighting for the victory of communism”. Had he 
made for himself a capitalist type checked jacket and cowboy boots with high heels, 
he would probably have had to face administrative measures, even to the point of 
being taken into custody. But somehow it never occurred to anyone to arrest a 
“first-rate genius” of the streets with his easel”. 

“He would work day and night”, continues Dombrovskii, “and not for his 
contemporaries, but for future generations. He didn’t care about the 21st century, he
would work for the 22nd century. He would produce his grandiose cycles, hundreds 
of canvases and sketches in each, for those remote descendants… He did not show 
anything to anyone, perhaps he just did not have time”.

Neither did he sell his works to anyone; sometimes he would give them as presents to 
people he thought pleasant, but never sold them. Poverty in his everyday life followed
him closely; he knew undernourishment and starvation. Every year milk and bread 
were his main food. The furniture in his hovel was made up of packs of old 
newspapers tied up with string. Sure of his destiny, Kalmykov wrote not without 
“One should not be afraid of geniuses. They are nice people. I can judge by myself. 
I am a genius myself. I have no superiority complex. I am very modest and poor. 
Ordinary people in all probability imagine a genius in the following way: High salaries. 
Popularity. Growing fame. All having manuscripts, money. Each nursing his wealth. 
But we modest professional geniuses know: A genius means torn trousers. It means 
socks with holes. It means a worn out coat…” 

Before his death in a hospital ward he would marvel at the taste of hot food. 

Sergey Kalmykov belonged to the masters of the Silver Age of Russian Culture and 
was probably the only one of them who survived till the late 70s, nearly till our own
time. He was a contemporary of Malevich and Kandinsky, Shagal and Filonov. 
In 1910 he entered Zvantseva’s school in Petersburg where he attended classes 
conducted by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. After a year of 
study Kalmykov produced the picture Red Horses Bathing. Petrov-Vodkin highly 
praised this work of his disciple: “Kalmykov was like a young Japanese who had just 
learned to draw”. Well, and the “young Japanese” held his “Red horses” in high 
esteem… About a year later Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin showed his famous work The 
Bathing of the Red Horse, that in a certain sense became a symbol of the Russian 
avant-garde along with the Black Square by Malevich.


Kalmykov used to chafe: “For the information of the future compilers of my 
monograph, it was me whom our dearest Kuzma Sergeevich depicted riding this red 
horse! Yes, yes! The soulful boy depicted on this banner represents no less a person 
than me”. 

In 1918 he left Petrograd and moved to Orenburg where he had spent his childhood.
Kalmykov was convinced that the roots of world art go back not to Paris but to 
Babylon and therefore his place of permanent residence seemed to him to be of no 
particular significance. The scurry and scramble of life in the capitals would irritate 
rather than attract him. Besides, it was a tumultuous time… Kalmykov was right: had 
he stayed in Petersburg or in Moscow he would hardly have been able to live till old 
age, outliving his famous contemporaries by a full quarter of a century.

According to very rough estimates, Kalmykov left a legacy of over one thousand five 
hundred works—drawings, prints, paintings—and nearly ten thousand pages of 
manuscripts, that look like a kind of self-publication: sewn, collated and bound books 
that were lavishly illustrated. All of these texts without exception were made by hand;
every letter a drawing, every page presents a complete composition. It included 
essays, art critical works, philosophical speculations and novels. The Pigeon Book, 
The Green Book, The Factory of Booms, The Moon Jazz, A Thousand Compositions
with Atomic Reflectors. He was concerned about the future and the past, about 
Space and the Atom, about Peace and War. He wrote: “The war with the Japanese 
and afterwards admiration of Japan. Admiration for the Germans and afterwards war 
with Germany. Fluctuations are going on not only in me. And now, too. Russia is 
between the East and the West, between Europe and Asia, between the past and the 

And yet, Kalmykov was closer to the future than to the past with its Babylonian 
cultural roots. Working in different genres of Fine Art he still preferred expressive 
graphical compositions and monofigure painting to the descriptive city landscape. 
Under the famous “mosaic sky” realistic details were presented against a fanciful, 
unreal background. He did not ignore abstract compositions: for a long time his 
famous Suprematist composition was ascribed to Malevich, and later on to 
Chashechnik; only recently the efforts of dedicated researchers have yielded 
documents proving Kalmykov's authorship. 

In his famous abstract triangular paintings Sergey Kalmykov is in a state of a dialogue 
not with Kazimir Malevich but with Vasily Kandinsky. Kalmykov opposed The Theory
of a Square to The Theory of a Point, which in his opinion was the basic dominant 
element of Fine Art. Kandinsky is close to him not only in his painting but also in his 
consideration of the importance of the musical pause, which is the equivalent of a point
in a musical work.

Kalmykov drew brilliantly and produced about thirty self-portraits during his lifetime. 
The last, made two months before his death, was completed in the “Monster style” 
he invented. The gallery of self-portraits up until outlines the whole life of the master, 
and by its level and emotionality, is probably comparable with the artistic achievement 
of aVan Gogh. 

Sergey Kalmykov lived in a terrible, surrealistic epoch, when people believed that 
black was white, that Dzhugashvili (Stalin) was the best friend of children and an 
authority in all sciences, that communism would be established by the 80s of the last 
century and all citizens would be absolutely happy and content. Kalmykov perceived 
life as it really was: impenetrably grey with stains of blood. Thus he wrote: “Just imagine
that millions of eyes are watching you from the depths of the Universe: what would they
see? A colorless dull and gray mass creeping on the ground and suddenly, with the 
effect of a sudden shot a bright-colored spot. That is me stepping out into the street”.

Sergey Ivanovich Kalmykov thought he would live at least a hundred years. He died 
at 76 years of age. Nobody knows where his final resting place is.




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