Paul Ryzhenko (1970-2014) was a peculiar artist, especially for our times. He was staunchly realist—he believed that realism was the only ‘real’ art and scoffed at modernism as the result of a morally deteriorating world—yet he was also an unabashed Christian and a deep idealist.
Intensely, rebelliously, Pavel definitely did not believe in art for art’s sake.
Instead, he believed in art for God’s Sake and for Russia’s sake.
For God’s Sake:
Ryzhenko always said that he became Christian ‘very late’ ( he was 23!), but when he did, he embraced it with characteristic fire:
Everyone person, but especially the Russian, in the depths and mystery on one’s heart, gravitates to the light – to Christ.
To me, faith in Christ came very late, but, once I believed, I wanted to run after him, hoping sometime to come near to that light.
But it to speak of people, those who have left and those who are still alive, who are the carriers of the faith and spirit of the Russian Empire… is necessary for me – I must.
He credited his conversion to his grandmother, who though senile, crippled and uneducated, would
always turn towards the window and exclaim “Mother of God!” He would later say:
Grandmas – are windows to that other Russia, a Russia where the phrase “that’s your problem” did not exist
Indeed, after he was baptized at age 23, Pavel immediately decided to leave the world and become a monk. He spent some time as a novice in the great northern monastery Valaam, but realized that monasticism was not his path.
His family, later, became his ‘promise of paradise’ on earth, as he would say.
But Pavel Ryazhenko still drew monks very often, always in a misty, peaceful quiet. Some people even teased him, despite the obvious fact that he had a wife and children, that he was like a monk himself.
His love and awe for monasticism lends a luminous light to most of his canvasses, a haunting ideal of a contemplative life of prayer and peace.
For Russia’s Sake
People were also always surprised by how quickly he worked, a hurricane of paint and activity that resulted in huge, colorful canvases in days: perfect in their furious, mute motion.
Those who knew him often say that he gave all his energy, physical, emotional and spiritual, to his expansive paintings, so massive that they didn’t even ‘fit into normal museums’. The Russian Revolution, the topic of many of his later paintings, especially pained and tortured him.
Many say that it was this furious, untiring habit of work that led to his premature death at age 44.
Perhaps, the sharp sense of immediacy he worked with came from Pavel’s deep personal conviction that his work was necessary, now, for his country and the salvation of the souls of his countrymen, to reawaken the Russian, the Christian in each person who came to look.
To speak these things on canvas–because that is my duty before the great truth of Russia.
It’s my duty to allow the still-not-fully-broken city dweller. see, how, again and again, these strict and loving faces of our ancestors reappear, those who spilled their sweat and blood for Christ and each one of us.
He believed that artists often veered into lives of passion and sin, wasting their creative potential to awaken the passions in people or please people. Meanwhile, he believed that the artist must approach his art like service.
Rizhenko was notoriously unmaterialistic, only getting himself a ‘normal’ car two years before his death. Supposedly, he didn’t really advertise his exhibits either, believing God would send the right people anyway.
He was right; the tickets to his exhibits always sold out quickly.
He was often upset about how Russians forgot their own heritage and looked to the West for direction.
I don’t identify with the common-European culture, cosmopolitan culture, but with the culture, which threads back to the centuries of the apostles, through Byzantium into Russia.”
Ryzhenko drew scenes from the past—battlefields, saints and criminals—endowing it with a spiritual chord that gives the historical images a new dimension.Most obsessively, Paul
For this, he was often criticized by his contemporaries as too ‘backward.’ But he would just say:
I think, the most relevant genre of historical comprehension…there is nothing more relevant.
In order to answer the question “how can we go on?” I bring in examples of history.
Its a movement neither forward, nor backward, but towards the soul, towards your own history.
Moving towards an Orthodox monarchy, which, in my opinion, is the only honest form, absolutely free in the margins of the law of God.
Paul lived with an expectation that the Russian people would reawaken, by returning to the truths of Orthodoxy, and he thought of his paintings as ‘steps’ into the church.
It’s honorable to be “a step, a servant of God. And beyond Church, there’s already Eternity.
One of his last works was a huge, unconventional fresco of the Last Judgment.
At the center of the composition is Pavel himself – a sinner awaiting, with trembling, the moment of Judgement.