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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 12:50 am

Springfield’s universities co-host Russian artist’s American debut

One of 40 lithographs by Russian Sergei Chepik depicting the struggle of young officers defending Kiev in the Russian civil war.

In 1988, Sergei Chepik, a 35-year-old Russian, arrived in Paris, France, carrying only a canvas, his father’s easel and a painting banned from exhibitions in his homeland. A sign of things to come, that painting, “House of the Dead,” went on to earn public acclaim and awards at Salon d’Automne, an important Paris art show.

Chepik began to probe bars in the red-light district, cabarets and other seedy Parisian locales as subjects for his paintings. But there also were paintings on subjects as varied and romantic as bullfights, flowers and boxing. In 1993, he was commissioned to make a portrait of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. In 2005, Chepik unveiled four large frescoes commissioned for St. Paul’s cathedral in London, also in the presence of Thatcher.

Rosina Neginsky, an associate professor of English at University of Illinois at Springfield, was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Paris at Sorbonne Nouvelle when she was introduced to Chepik. Neginsky remembers being stunned by Chepik’s paintings, which stand out from other contemporary artists with bold, expressive lines, passionate colors and intense symbolism.

“It was figurative, it was beautiful and unusual for our times, and it was not empty,” Neginsky says.

After years of Neginsky trying to convince Chepik to have a solo exhibition in America, the artist finally committed to sending a series of 40 lithographs, to be shown at the UIS Visual Arts Gallery Oct. 1 to Nov. 5, and at Benedictine University at Springfield’s Becker Library from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28. An opening reception is 6:30 p.m., Oct. 7, at the UIS gallery, with Neginsky introducing the works. Nov. 5 is a closing reception at 6:30 p.m. in the Brinkerhoff Home on the Benedictine campus.

The series depicts the struggle of Junkers, young White Army officers who fought against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, were betrayed by their superiors and decimated trying to defend their city of Kiev in 1918. Those events were captured in the novel The White Guard, by the famous Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, who, like Chepik, was born in that same city. Chepik doesn’t illustrate the Bulgakov book in his series, choosing instead to illustrate his personal reflections on the characters and events.

“The main leitmotif of Chepik’s lithographs is the same as in Bulgakov’s novel: the Junkers’ nobility of soul, courage and idealism; the dedication of the youth to the cause of saving their country from the unknown but certainly destructive and terrifying future,” Neginsky says.

Ahead of the exhibition, Neginsky returned to Paris to interview the artist and his wife for the exhibit’s catalog, “Sergei Chepik: Between East and West,” soon to be printed by Benedictine University at Springfield. But Neginsky, who has a background in Russian literature, says the artwork can be appreciated without the full context. Following the exhibitions at UIS and BUS, the lithographs will be displayed in the Illinois State Library from Nov. 10 until spring.

In addition to the exposure from the three exhibitions, the upcoming volume of BUS’ semi-annual international literary journal and public radio program, “Quiddity,” includes Chepik as a featured artist. The “Quiddity 2.2” gala will go on simultaneously with the closing ceremony of Chepik’s artwork on Nov. 5.

This is possibly the first time internationally known artist had a first solo American exhibition at the UIS Visual Arts Gallery, says Liz Murphy Thomas, gallery director and assistant professor of digital media. It’s also a first for UIS and BUS to team up to display an artist’s work.

“Whenever possible, we try to bring in artists from outside the region,” Thomas says. “It’s an interesting opportunity.”

Matthew Schroyer is a freelance writer based in Springfield, where he grew up. He enjoys blogging about political events, natural disasters, music and journalism. He can be reached at mschroyer@gmail.com.


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