INTERVIEW WITH SERGEI CHEPIK
ON THE COMPLETION OF THE FOUR PAINTINGS FOR ST PAUL'S CATHEDRAL
Marie-Aude Albert : How do you feel now that this huge work for St Paul’s, which has lasted two years, is finished?
Sergei Chepik: Firstly, of course, I’m happy that everything is finished. I’m also very, very tired. And, paradoxically, I also regret that it’s already finished. What I mean by that is that the actual work process, day after day, brought me a lot of joy.
MA: And if you can remember, what did you feel the day you started this work?
SC: First of all, I didn’t really believe that I’d have the strength. Once the first large stretcher had been assembled in the studio, I contemplated it with terror, as if it were a gigantic mountain that I was going to have to climb. It was the first time I’d worked on such a huge scale. Then, there was the responsibility weighing down on my shoulders due to the actual theme I was going to treat, the place for which this work was destined, the people who had commissioned it… But, first of all, there was this immense stretcher which intimidated me and which, at the same time, attracted me because all my life I’ve dreamt of painting something huge. I always thought of Titian and Tintoretto who had had the great fortune to be able to express themselves in very large formats. How many times while painting a canvas have I experienced a sense of frustration when I understood that the subject that I was treating required a format two or three times larger than that on which I was working. But, nowadays, everything has to be small. Our world is small. Our passions are small. Everything has to be “intimate”, whereas an artist dreams of painting huge canvases. Finally, once my initial reaction of fear had passed, I felt great happiness at the idea of being able to attain fulfilment in canvases of a very large dimension where the characters are almost life-size.
MA: Had you ever actually imagined that one day you’d be given the possibility to express yourself in these grand formats you’d dreamed of and for such a prestigious place? And do you not consider this work for St Paul’s to be a sort of small “miracle”, given the pitiful state of religious painting in our times?
SC: Quite sincerely, no. I couldn’t imagine it, in view of the cultural environment in which we are immersed today. The times of the great patrons of the Church—popes who placed artists in the service of the faith, of Julius II for instance—are over. And yet, all of a sudden, the Dean and the Chapter of St Paul’s have had the audacity and courage to take a risk and entrust me with their project. Never could I have imagined such a venture! In any case, in France, where I have lived since 1988, this kind of dream is completely out of the question. This country continues to plunge into an increasingly aggressive State-led atheism, of which the Catholic Church is the primary victim. You only have to look at what people dare to exhibit in the name of a so-called “dialogue” between contemporary art and the Christian message! So yes, you could say that a sort of little “miracle” occurred with St Paul’s or rather a series of providential events, which began with my painting “Golgotha” of 1996. It’s a very long story which I cannot recount here. But, let’s say that a string of people of all different classes, different nationalities and even different faiths, but all of whom were supportive of this project, worked together so that it could come to fruition. There were naturally lots of obstacles to overcome, but the “miracle” is that this dream has finally become reality.
MA: It’s not the first time that you have turned your hand to religious painting. While you were still living in the Soviet Union, you even painted crucifixions, which were of course not exhibited… What do you like in this pictorial genre?
SC: It’s a wonderful genre. First of all, it’s a chance… I know that it’s a bit arrogant to say so… to measure up to the great masters of the past, who were all men of faith and who all worked extensively in this genre—Rembrandt, Michelangelo… It’s not that I compare myself with these giants. It’s more just the opportunity to enter into competition with these champions. Then, there is the fact that religious painting offers an artist eternal, universal themes, which have not aged at all, which concern mankind today and speak about the world of today. The Gospel absolutely doesn’t need to be translated once more or given a new interpretation. Today, the words of our Saviour speak for themselves and we can all understand Him if we make the effort to listen to Him. His sermons speak of our times, our problems, our anxieties, our doubts and sorrows. His words are so topical that they move and trouble us. They trouble our contemporaries so much that genuine cases of collective hysteria arise, as happened recently with the film of Mel Gibson. It’s less the film than the actual theme of Christ which set off this campaign of hatred and fury. It was due to the fact that the Gospel is so relevant in our times, but is naturally not to everybody’s liking today, as was the case 2000 years ago. I would even say that Christ is the most dangerous theme that an artist could choose today! You have to have courage to dare to place your art in the service of the Gospel. I don’t say that to boast. I am a man born of the Soviet system and as such, for a very long time now, I no longer fear anything or anybody and view the future with a certain pessimism. But in our times, it really is dangerous to take Christ as a theme—not to denigrate him of course (that is really easy and very much encouraged from all sides), but rather to defend him. Moreover, I’m quite aware of what awaits me with my paintings for St Paul’s. There is sure to be praise, but also lots of abhorrence and opposition. To be honest, I hope this will be the case. It’s not so much my canvases as Christ himself who does not leave people indifferent. For 2000 years now, He has provoked the most conflicting feelings—love and hate. For 2000 years now, He has been current!
MA: Earlier, you mentioned Pope Julius II and the great era of religious painting. Do you not have nostalgia for those times past when art and artists played a considerable role in our society, when figurative painting and technical skill were held in esteem?
SC: No. I think it’s much more interesting to live in our times. Of course, I regret the disappearance of these learned and refined men, who encouraged the arts as was the case during the Renaissance—a veritable springtime in Europe, which was unfortunately never followed by a summer. But, I don’t have any nostalgia for those times of great culture and great faith. Somehow, it was easy for an artist to work in those homogenous societies, united by the same faith and the same values, whereas today, the true, free artist has to struggle against the tide… It’s difficult, but it’s also exciting.
MA: Before talking about each of the four different panels, explain to us how the overall composition came about, in which order the paintings arose and what enabled you to link them all together?
SC: At first, everything was unclear and I looked for a common thread for quite a while. I knew that there would be Golgotha, because it’s a theme that’s dear to me, and that there would be the shadow of the cross. All the rest remained hazy and I couldn’t work out how to organise the composition around this shadow that obsessed me. Then, from sketch to sketch, the composition emerged and imposed itself. But, this whole process of reflection and research lasted a good three months. Moreover, I had to keep in mind how these paintings would be set out in the cathedral. They face each other in two pairs and the dialogue between them is very important. That’s how numerous things came about —the ray of light which falls down onto the Virgin Mary and is extended in the Baptism; the rather faint face of the Father in the Baptism, who looks at his crucified Son on Golgotha; the child, who can see himself resurrected rather than dead; the contrast between the figure of Christ preaching the Truth and that of Jesus condemned; the look on the face of Mary who gives us her son, who gives him for us to insult and tear him apart, but who at the same time knows that he will be resurrected. And perhaps once the paintings are hung in the cathedral, other threads and other links between the different parts, which I hadn’t seen in my studio, will become apparent. When working on the composition, I always kept in mind the spectator situated between the two pillars in St Paul’s, looking back and forth at the paintings facing each other. That’s why I painted the water in the Baptism, which is at the height of the onlooker’s gaze, with extreme realism, just like the stones of the Way of the Cross. I hope that I have succeeded, but it’s difficult for me to judge until the paintings are actually in place.
MA: Although you’ve already spoken at length about them, let’s take the paintings in order and begin with the Holy Virgin (or Nativity). She is very different from the usual depictions. She doesn’t convey either physical beauty, gentleness or shapeliness. She is emaciated, bony and the look on her face (it’s difficult to say whether it’s one of astonishment or fear) can surprise or even disconcert us. For you, what is she looking at?
SC: Of course, she is looking at the crosses opposite her. However, I must make it clear that throughout this work, I wanted the Holy Virgin to look like a woman of our times. There’s nothing very original about that. In past centuries, artists have used the same process and dressed Biblical characters as their contemporaries or at least in timeless costumes so as to avoid a historical reconstruction. Out of all the characters I have depicted, only Pontius Pilate is really dressed as a Roman, with his toga edged with red and even then, it’s more a homage to the Pontius Pilate of the writer Mikhail Bulgakov than a concession to any historical truth. Instead, I aimed to place my figures in a timeless setting so they could also be our contemporaries while at the same time avoiding any contemporary details which would mean they’d inevitably appear dated in a few years’ time. I wanted all women to be able to recognise in the Virgin the face of someone like them—a woman living in troubled times, suffering because of her child. The Virgin is looking at the crosses and knows perfectly well that a “sword of pain will pierce [her] heart” and that her child will know the most atrocious and ignominious form of torture possible. I wanted all the mothers of the 20th century, who have seen their child die in the Gulag or in the concentration camps, and all mothers of the 21st century, whose fate may well be even more terrible, to be able to recognise themselves in her.
MA: And the strange megalopolis in the background?
SC: I don’t know what this city is. It sprang forth from my paintbrush of its own accord. I don’t know quite why or how. It’s perhaps Jerusalem, but to tell you the truth, I am incapable of commenting on this image.
MA: And the Child Jesus? He too is far removed from traditional imagery. His attitude is a fortuitous find because it embodies his whole destiny. He has come to call men unto himself and those very men have crucified him. The look on his face is also strange. It’s both confident and joyful, penetrating and lucid. Then, there are the symbols at his feet—the vine and the wheat. Everything is already foretold in this first panel, no?
SC: You are forgetting the bells, which ring out for war or peace, joy or misfortune, which call out for vigilance and remind us of the word of God… As for the face of the Child Jesus, I encountered much difficulty in painting it. I had no preconceived idea, no “recipe”. I seem just to have conjured it up, rather like the face of the risen Christ, which also took a long time to come to me.
MA: Is the Child Jesus looking at us or at the risen Christ?
SC: He is looking at the risen Christ, but is also looking at us all. I made certain that from wherever in the cathedral we look at him, we cannot escape his gaze. If you draw a straight line between his gaze and the canvas opposite, he’s quite obviously looking at the risen Christ. His smile too was important for me. Only children, whom I’ve observed at length, have this smile which is at once confident and a touch timid. Once again, I took a long time to hit upon what I was looking for. The three faces of the upper panels—the Virgin Mary, the Child Jesus and the risen Christ—are fundamental. They are the backbone of the whole composition. I began with them and if I had made a mess of them, I would most likely not have been able to continue to work on this whole project.
MA: This Virgin with Child has basically nothing to do with the Nativity which you had considered in your early sketches. You’ve got rid of the shepherds and the Wise Men, and the joy of the Nativity has already been left behind here. The drama is already present in the look on Mary’s face, in the gesture of the Child, in the symbols…
SC: Yes, all the drama to come is already set in motion and consciously accepted. For, it leads to the Resurrection. He knows that He is going to die, but that He will overcome death by His death, and He already invites us with His smile to understand that death does not exist. He also solicits us to desire eternal Life, which is the true life towards which He bids us.
MA: Let’s move onto The Public Ministry of Our Lord. Straight off, I have a question about the tripartite composition of this panel, which struck me. Did it come about “by chance” or did you consciously want to use the very form to underline the dogma of the Trinity, which is clearly affirmed here? It’s not the first time that I’ve noticed that in your work, the form often reinforces the content. The painting, “The Foundation of Saint Petersburg”, was a perfect example.
SC: No, I think that it came about by chance or rather, in a subconscious fashion. The starting point was the depiction of the Baptism, and the contrast between the foreground where we see Christ at the feet of John the Baptist and the background where we can see the crowd of those waiting to be baptised. The baptism is the first conscious step of anyone who embraces the Christian faith and it’s exactly for that reason that Christ sets an example for us by inaugurating his Public Life with the baptism.
MA: Once again, your John the Baptist doesn’t really look like the emaciated ascetic that you often see in churches or museums. He has more the look of an athlete with a fantastic body firmly planted on the solid ground of the Law of the Old Testament. He’s rather like the last in the line of intransigent and harsh giants composed by the prophets of the Old Testament. In contrast, the svelte, almost slender figure of Christ presages the New Testament and its new Law of Love.
SC: Yes, you’re probably right. While Christ liked to feast in joyful company, John the Baptist fed on locusts and honey in the desert. As such, I’ve always thought of him as a sort of “maximalist orthodox”, who is admittedly admirable but almost inhuman. I’ve always had the feeling that this man, unlike Christ, was not ready to pardon everything. Indeed, he has neither the gentleness nor the sensitivity of the heart and spirit of Christ, nor the infinite mercy of the Saviour. He would no doubt not have helped to her feet the adulterous woman, whom Christ refused to condemn. That, in any case, is how I see things.
MA: Let’s come back to the composition of this panel. On either side of the central scene of the Baptism, you have painted Jesus the Preacher on the right and Jesus the Healer on the left. For me, it seems like a remarkable summary of the Public Ministry of Our Lord, such as it is described in the Gospels, which from the baptism on is a succession of sermons and miracles.
SC: Yes, it’s His infinite compassion which led Him to carry out so many miraculous acts of healing with such gentleness and goodness. At the same time, in the service of truth, Jesus shows a quite different side. He is a preacher full of fieriness and passion, who thwarts the traps set by his opponents and doesn’t hesitate to attack them. He is thus capable of shouting, of grabbing a whip as in the episode of the merchants in the Temple…
MA: Yes, there is indeed a striking contrast between the beautiful, gentle, sad face of Christ, who is looking with great compassion at the young, anxious mother, while lightly touching the head of her poorly child with a tender gesture, and the Christ with harsh features and violent gestures preaching in the Synagogue. You have moreover accentuated the contrast by playing with colour—the gentleness of greyish-blue surrounding the healer and the aggressive glare of the reddish-orange enveloping the preacher…
SC: He was screaming because he was speaking to deaf people who didn’t want to hear the truth. You will notice that the shadow of the bell in the Nativity extends to above Christ’s head when He is preaching. By this means, I wanted to stress that, like a parish bell, Christ is calling for us to turn towards God and to listen to His word, but that very few people respond to this call.
MA: Some people do either reply in your painting or are on the point of replying, judging from the fascinated and deeply moved faces that can been seen at the feet of the preacher. Once more, as in “Golgotha”, you have cast onto your canvas a quite considerable crowd, whose faces and attitudes express a whole range of feelings and reactions.
SC: Exactly. It was more difficult for me to paint the ill and lame because I didn’t want to lapse into a sort of morbid naturalism. Furthermore, the feelings of these unfortunate people were more or less the same: expectation and hope of being healed. The psychological study of the disciples, enemies and bystanders listening to Christ preach was easier to accomplish: a lowered eyelid, a clenched hand, a faint smile and a whole internal movement of the soul can be discerned and followed by the onlooker.
MA: And the decor behind Christ? What did you want to depict? A synagogue? One of the porticoes of the Temple?
SC: Once more, my aim was not to be an archaeologist. It’s probably a part of the Temple which is represented here. But, the demands of the composition imposed certain “architectural” choices. The stairs, for instance, could not be symmetrical.
MA: And this architrave which forms a cross behind Christ the healer… it’s not by chance that it’s there. It’s by the sacrifice of the Cross which is yet to come that Christ heals and redeems and also our own cross which He invites us to bear.
SC: Of course, that was quite deliberate. The Cross is the symbol of Christ, His glory and His strength.
MA: I would once more like to underline the rather non-canonical face of your Christ. This surprises me somewhat because you have on the wall of your studio a reproduction of the Holy Shroud of Turin, which shows us the true face of Christ and which proves that pictorial tradition knew this face. Why have you renounced painting a bearded, long-haired Christ?
SC: As with the Virgin, I wanted to give Him a face more like those of our contemporaries. Moreover, I have difficulty conjuring up a very bearded, long-haired Christ. Everyone carries within them their own image of Christ, an artist all the more so. Once again, an archaeological reconstruction was not my aim. The clothing with which I adorned Christ is timeless and I did not want to reproduce the image of Turin.
MA: The Passion also has a three-part composition, but this time, it follows a process used in Medieval painting whereby you can see several scenes which follow on from each other in both time and place on the same panel. Around the central linchpin of the Crucifixion, your painting can be read from right to left: firstly the Judgement (Ecce Homo) on the top right, then the Way of the Cross (at the bottom) and Golgotha on the top left. While it uses a traditional process, this composition is no less audacious and original.
SC: Actually, I resorted here to the same measure as in the other panels. I used the ray of light, but with the difference that in The Virgin and Public Ministry the ray descends (towards earth), whereas here, as in the Resurrection, it ascends (towards the sky). And in this ray of light which rises from the Crucifixion towards the Resurrection, the birds (just like the shadow of the bell in the two other panels on the left) act as a continuum. They are a symbol of misfortune in the Crucifixion and of elation in the Resurrection.
MA: When all is said and done, once more the form reinforces the content, for this light which descends on men is in fact God who became Man so that, by the merits of the Cross, we in turn can reach Heaven and eternal life, and share in His glory. And are the walls which rise up behind Golgotha those of Jerusalem?
SC: Yes and no. Once again, I did not aim to create an archaeological reconstitution and this tower on the left could just as well be the Antonia tower as the Tower of Babel. This architecture is suggestive and has no other aim but to serve the drama which is taking place on the canvas.
MA: Your Pontius Pilate is striking. He makes me think of a hounded animal, driven into a corner by its pursuers, trying desperately to defend itself by delivering its final attack.
SC: Yes, I portrayed him in that climactic moment of the Judgement, which hasn’t failed to torment painters of all times—the moment when he pronounces his famous: Ecce Homo.
MA: And the crowd? It’s incredibly diverse and gives the impression of movement, of a throng. How did you compose it?
SC: I needed a pivotal figure to separate the crowd which screams “Crucify him!” from the one which, along with Veronica, grievously follows the way of the cross. It’s a female figure which both separates and unites these two crowds, and which also creates a link to that of Golgotha because she is also looking at Christ on the cross. It’s this woman holding a newborn baby to her breast, who serves as the transition between the cruelty of those who condemn Christ and those who show him compassion. As for Veronica, who was rather a pretty woman in my first sketch, here she is an ordinary woman with an unprepossessing, sorrowful face, who doesn’t think about herself at all, but who is full of compassion for Jesus.
MA: You have avoided saccharine beauty with Veronica and have also avoided exaggeratedly realistic horror with the tortured body of Christ.
SC: Yes, I know perfectly well, especially after seeing Mel Gibson’s film, what a human body gashed by a Roman whip could look like. But, I wanted to avoid falling into pathological realism.
MA: In your sketch, Christ bearing the cross did not show His face. He moved forward with His head bowed. Here, he turns His pained face towards us.
SC: More than anything, I wanted to paint Christ bearing his cross, perhaps in order to pit myself against all the painters who had treated this difficult theme before me. But also because I wanted the visitors to the cathedral to find themselves face-to-face with Him who had suffered out of love for all men in all times. Here, Jesus seems both to be looking at us and also turning His gaze towards His inner self.
MA: Here again in the Crucifixion, you have broken with the canon. “Stabat Mater”, says saint John, whereas here Virgin Mary is lying on the ground, embracing the shadow of the cross with her body.
SC: I don’t aim to be faithful to the canon. Why should she be upright? It’s true that I see her crucified on the ground in the shadow of her son’s cross, whom she accompanies in His torments and tries to console in this manner.
MA: The other figures looking at the cross are disciples and bystanders, of course. But, you also get the impression that you can recognise Peter or even Judas amongst them! Whereas, according to the Scriptures, the apostles, with the exception of John, were not present… Once more, this rejection of the canon?
SC: Yes. I wanted to depict those apostles who had betrayed their master and receive from Him the pardon for their cowardice and treachery. It’s more interesting psychologically than if I had only depicted simple bystanders. But, each is free to see in these characters whomever he likes, not necessarily Peter or the apostles…
MA: Let’s move onto the Resurrection, which is markedly different from the first sketch, where you could see Christ from behind appearing before Mary Magdalene.
SC: It’s the “Noli me tangere”, so appreciated by painters of the past. But, for me, it’s a little too literary. Here, I wanted to depict this Man-God who has vanquished death and who enters into Eternal Life by crossing the gates of death represented by the three crosses. And here, the angels opening the gates of the tomb symbolise that spiritual force which snatches us from the curse of death, from our earthly coil and transports us into another life—true life.
MA: Christ is turned once more towards us. But, what is he looking at? His mother on the panel opposite?
SC: No. I think rather that His gaze is once more turned simultaneously towards His inner self and towards the sky, which is from now on His eternal dwelling place. In actual fact, I couldn’t say exactly what He is looking at, but I attempted to give a face to the risen Christ.
MA: People will of course ask you whether you looked at lots of other paintings before setting to work on these four canvases and whether certain painters influenced you? Was that the case?
SC: Yes, I looked at everything available—both by painters that I like and those that I don’t like. But, more than anything, my goal was to not rehash what had already been done on these themes. I have a good knowledge of art history and don’t really know of another work similar to mine. I’d like to think I’ve managed to offer an extremely personal vision.
Translated from French by Ian Phillips
Copyright, 2004, Marie-Aude Albert