Big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, Big, Big, Big, Big, Big, Big, Big, Big, Big, big, big, big, big, big, BIG!BIG!BIG!BIG!BIG!!!
"This mural is biggest in world!" says the sculptor, Ernest Neizvestny, pointing a big calloused finger at one of the myriad photographs in the pile of catalogues, pamphlets and publicity stills he keeps rummaging through to illustrate yet another ambition or bit of philosophy.
Big: The mural is 970 meters long, we're talking three-fifths of a mile, folks. It's a plaster relief he sculpted for the Technical and Electronics Institute in Moscow, back before his studio was taken away from him when he asked to emigrate in 1975.
"And this is biggest sculpture in world," he says of his Aswan Dam sculpture that goes 285 feet in the air, towering over, say, the Statue of Liberty, which is a mere 151 feet from base to torch, or the Mount Rushmore faces, which are about 60 feet from chin to forehead.
Big.He points at the illustrations with a hand weighted down with a hawser of a silver bracelet. On the facing page is a picture of that same hand swinging a mallet the size of a mailbox. "Modesty is not my profession," he says, waving his hands and grinning grim grins inside the tiny office of the Sakharov International Committee, which is crammed into the same Capitol Hill town house with four other lobbying groups. The committee is sponsoring a Kennedy Center benefit for Russian human rights activists on today. About 50 Neizvestny sculptures and more than 100 paintings will be on view in the foyer, while the Soviet Emigre Orchestra plays a birthday tribute to exiled Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov.
The phone keeps ringing. Edward Lozansky, who is translating, keeps apologizing for having no secretary, and Neizvetny, a short, thick man with a little toothbrush mustache, tries to explain both his dreams for the mammoth 300-foot "Tree of Life" sculpture and his own tumultuous 55-year history. He is of Siberian ancestry, the son of a Czarist medical officer and a Jewish mother; he was a paratroop commando in the Ukraine during World War II, and was not only wounded but was reported dead. Not just that but he was awarded a posthumous Red Star; an irony which came to light during his famous feud with Khrushchev, when he was accused of being unpatriotic; an irony redoubled by the fact that his name means "unknown," a name which "is common in Siberia," he says.
He prefers not to talk about the feud with Khrushchev, and ultimately Khrushchev's family asked him to design the small memorial over Khrushchev's grave. But during his six-year tenure as Soviet premier, ending in 1964, Khrushchev said that Neizvestny's work could have been "daubed by the tail of an ass" and was "fit only for the walls of urinals." In a book entitled "Art and Revolution," John Berger describes a scene with Khrushchev and members of the police:
"Khrushchev began to shout again. But this time Neizvestny shouted back: "You may be Premier and Chairman but not here in front of my works. Here I am Premier and we shall discuss as equals.'" When Neizvestny was accused of being a homosexual, he replied: "If you could find a girl here and now -- I think I should be able to show you.'"
Imagine it: the head of one of the most powerful countries on earth shouting in public at an artist. But you have to work even harder to imagine the size of the ego of a man who could reflect on the incident and tell an interviewer for "Russia" magazine: "I never knew that history could be violated by such uninteresting, insignificant, vulgar, small people . . . . I never even imagined that it was possible that people with such small qualities would run this huge country . . . . I do not endure those of the intelligentsia who make myths of these people, and say that they are raped not be dwarves, but by giants . . . . I stopped allowing myself to be raped. I want neither stick nor carrot from such Lilliputians." m
After Khrushchev fell from power, Neizvestny rose, achieving fame and riches when Egypt commissioned him to do the mammoth Aswan Dam sculpture.
But in 1975, he asked to leave Russia. He says he felt "metaphysically compressed." He was soon politically oppressed, until even his father urged him to give up. He doesn't know why he couldn't leave, but he says a big help in getting him out was the intervention of Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, and he arrived in Vienna in January 1976.
If a head of state had taken the time to personally attack him, why shouldn't a head of state rescue him?
Big, big, big, big . . .
"I am only comfortable in big countries," he says in the clutter of the Sakharov committee offices. "I love to be in Europe -- I have studios in Switzerland and Sweden -- but Europe is like a museum, and I wouldn't like to live in a museum. There are only two countries in the world where I could conceive of my 'Tree of Life': Russia and America. And only in America can I possibly do it. I am trying to get corporations to sponsor it."
The "Tree of Life" may be mankind's most monumental work of art - Nezvestny calls his style "synthetic monumentalism" -- since the 1920s, when the Soviet Union decided not to build Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International," which was to be twice as high as the Empire State Building.
"In Europe, they buy my small works, they write books about me, but when I tell them about the 'Tree of Life,' they laugh," he says. "But it is so crazy, it could be successful. In history, only the crazy, fantastic things get created. The middle kind of thinking, nobody remembers. The 'Tree of Life' will be 100 meters high. It's hard to estimate cost because some parts will be moving. It will have the symbol of the cross and the heart, and the 12 tribes of Israel symbolizing all peoples, and it will have human beings, nature and technology, all the unities and contradictions of existence."
According to one of the catalogs he hands out, the "Tree of Life" will actually be shaped like a heart "formed by seven interwoven Mobius strips, each in a different color of the spectrum. Each strip is divided into chambers filled with light, sound and art in all its forms, together with everchanging examples of the artistic and scientific developments of the ages." There will be quotations in four languages, so huge that people will be able to walk through them to the seven roots of the tree, symbolizing the Seven Deadly Sins, all of it burgeoning with the mammoth, gnarled, crude-hewn, acromegalic, ex-social-realist grotesquerie of his style, which never gets much calmer than, say, Picasso's 'Guernica.' And it will embody all of the work he's been turning out since he arrived in New York in 1976 and rented his $4,000-a-month duplex studio in Soho.There are etchings, lithographs, reliefs, illustrations, art plates, medallions and stained glass (the latter in three settings, according to the sales folder: plain, Torah, and antique). And the posters, serigraphs, paintings and bronzes: big art, big output, big plains.
All of this in an era of extraordinarily refined and esoteric esthetics in American art?
He pulls his chair a foot closer to his listener and his face focuses instantly into an augering (and auguring) intensity, a set of gestures so remarkable that the translator translates them: "He wants you to know this is a very important question."
Says Neizvestny: "The future is not for the abstract. The future is for synthetic monumentalism." By this he means a style which incorporates all styles, and very big, of course, in scope. By this he also means that the future is for Ernst Neizvestny, despite the fact that the Europeans may laugh or Khrushchev might rage. He dismisses recent American art history in a simile: "Letters are created to write words, words to write sentences, sentences to write books. We have dissolved the book into letters, and now we have specialists in the comma. It's time to create a new plan!"
Aren't these mammoth, brooding revolutionary schemes the classic outpourings of the Russian soul?
"I don't believe in the Russian soul. I don't believe in Russian nostalgia, all this business about the motherland. It is too provincial," he says, arousing thoughts that one of these days the Earth itself might start feeling a little snug on him.
He proposes that all of this be discussed at a corner restaurant, over coffee and cognac. He holds doors for everyone, he wanders onto the sidewalk looking around him as if he might pull out his wallet any second and say: "I'll take it. All of it." He is dressed in black, as always -- "for me very strong, not tragic." His whole body nods, pauses, shrugs, waves while he talks with the translator, who has to go back upstairs and answer the Sakharov Committee phone, so sorry, no secretary.
Neizvestny bellies up to the bar of The Man in the Green Hat. He tears open a pack of cigarettes, pulls on his cognac, and grabs his listener's arm.
"No revolution in art style how," he says with eyes probing his listener's face as if they were guns that insulators shoot foam into the walls with "Only revolution in personality! Personality!" The market which Neizvestny would just now seem to have cornered. "I don't have style style. I have heart style!" And he has freedom, he says. Absolute freedom. "Swoboda . And swobado is swoboda, yes?" Not paradise, just freedom. America. He likes America. He pulls out his wallet and shows his gold American Express card. He understands these things very well. "I don't have money, but I have good cash flow!" he says, laughing a guttural laugh with his teeth clenched in a grin.
He doesn't have the "Tree of Life," either, but he's got a big art flow going.
Big. Nye? Da!