Leonid Purygin: a life of sin

Alex Lachmann

17 May, 2021

Leonid Purygin. Naked. Oil on canvas. 58.5x78.5 cm. Courtesy ARTSTORY gallery

Collector Alex Lachmann reflects on his friendship with a Russian outsider artist, who met a tragic fate. His solo exhibition is now on view at the Moscow’s Artstory gallery.

I met Leonid Purygin (1951–1996) not in Russia, but in New York, at some time in the 1990s. Later, in Germany, where I was living and had my gallery, I acquired a few paintings for my own collection from the German journalist and writer Norbert Kuchinke before he passed away in 2013. It seemed to me that Norbert Kuchinke was one of the first people to support Purygin in the 1970s, when no-one was interested in his work. They were close friends and this was no small feat. Purygin was not an easy character to like, he was an outsider in the sharpest sense of the word. Not only did he not conform to the official Soviet art circles, but he also did not belong to the non-conformists, either. He detested what he saw as the intellectual snobbery of the educated elite with their bourgeois tastes. You could not call him a political dissident like artists, such as Dmitry Krasnopevtsev (1925–1995) and Oscar Rabin (1928–2018). He was a cultural dissident.

Purygin was a buntovshchik [Russian word for rebel, often applied to the Pugachev rebellion during the time of Catherine the Great]– a rebel rejecting tradition from the inside. He would provoke the circle of artist artists, writers and intellectuals around him who formed the Soviet “underground”, those who collectively propagated the values of the time about what constituted great art. He called himself a genius – signing paintings as by ‘Purygin the Genius from Nara’ – but, of course, did not think of himself as a genius at all. He was poking fun at those artists who styled themselves as geniuses. He was a rebel by nature and this rejection of everything even turned upon himself, as he did not see himself in a positive light and, in fact, he felt that his alcoholism and the lack of decent behaviour was something to be promoted. He did not make any attempts to hide his vices, in fact he went further, he tried to exhibit this side of his personality.

About his paintings, he saw himself as a simple person and he showed this in his art. On the one hand, it is formalist and seems to belong to the tradition of primitivism. But you can only call it primitivist on a stylistic level, not a conceptual level. Certainly, his primitivism does not come from the Rousseau tradition nor share anything in common with Pirosmani (1862–1918), the great Georgian primitivist. I would say he is more a Dadaist connected with dada of the beginning of the 20th century, when artists tried to give a slap in the face of good taste to shock society through their ideas and their behaviour. But he also was different from the original Dadaists, his ideas about formal aesthetics are different. The Russian avant-garde created a new kind of art, but Purygin was not looking for the next new thing. He simply wanted to oppose tradition for its own sake.

His art was a kind of scream of the soul, and it was his natural calling. However, of his paintings, you cannot say that he was a rebel when it came to aesthetic form. He drew inspiration from Russian folk art, he hand-crafted frames and made wooden sculpture and bas reliefs, often taken from Russian religious visual traditions. He made diptychs and triptychs, adopted the tradition of the skladen [icon which folded up often for transport]. But talking of his personality, I don’t think he was a religious person in the deepest level as we understand it today. Perhaps, he believed in God, but saw himself and led his life as a self-proclaimed sinner, it was through his rebellious behaviour that took him to the roots of Russian religion; he was a kind of Dostoevskian antihero.

To understand him, look at the two extremes of the Russian character. On the one hand, take, for example, his contemporary Dmitry Krasnopevtsev. He drank, too, a kind of Russian affliction, but was not a hooligan or a rebel. He had only a few friends, he led an exemplary life painting in his studio one and the same thing. Purygin, on the other hand, was someone who could quite easily have resorted to thuggish behaviour, he could have hit or punched you and he embraced this behaviour without any shame. On a religious level, both artists are quite different: for Purygin you sin in front of God, for Krasnopevtsev you need to try to be good.

But perestroika and moving to the United States, in some ways, helped to lead to his downfall. You could see it in his work, which I think became more repetitive and decorative once he left Russia. A lack of freedom motivated him, not just political freedom, but he had grown up in this condition of ‘nesvoboda’ [a noun in Russian meaning lack of freedom] and, like his contemporaries, he had adapted to it. They got used to how it worked and then when they finally got freedom, it destroyed much of their artistic world. It is a different predicament to create freedom, many artists who emigrated managed to adapt, but many lost themselves when it disappeared, you cannot continue to look back to the past.

His was a sadly fitting end for a tragic figure. He had decided to return from New York to Moscow. Some years later, his wife who had remained in New York flew to Moscow to help him during a particularly difficult episode where he was battling with his own demons, but she was killed in an accident in the taxi on the way from the airport; Purygin died a month later. A broken heart – or heart attack, as it is officially recorded. Today, he is as misunderstood as he was during his lifetime. Western curators do not understand his work and he never made any efforts to be liked. But he made a towering achievement: he created his own world and not one that was socially constructed.

Leonid Purygin. Love and Me

Artstory Gallery

Moscow, Russia

June 15 – August 1, 2021

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