The end of the 19th century, Kazan. Two talented students, Pavel Benkov and Nicolai Fechin, meet at art school and become friends. As Fechin recalled, having ended up without the support of their parents, they lived together “in one room in an old, non-residential building… surviving on tea, bread and milk”.
Having successfully finished school in 1901, both left for St. Petersburg and entered the Academy of Arts. Fechin was fortunate to study under the most famous teacher there, Ilya Repin, and Benkov worked in Dmitry Kardovsky’s studio. Even at this stage, each of the artists acquired their own signature style. Benkov’s fellow students nicknamed him “Titian” for his heightened interest in colour. Fechin’s palette was more restrained, with occasional bursts of bright colour. His work was marked by unusual composition, virtuoso use of line and a rather nervous dynamism.
On graduating from the Academy, Benkov and Fechin went abroad, although in the end both returned to Kazan and began teaching in their old school. Circles formed around them, with students splitting into “benkovites” and “fechinites”.
The Revolution and Civil War disrupted everyday life. The heating was turned off at school. Fechin and his students worked in coats, felt boots and mittens. Finding canvas and oils in starving, disease-ridden Kazan was almost impossible. During that period Benkov was moving eastwards with the retreating White forces and worked as a theatre designer in Irkutsk and Omsk. He also suffered terrible hunger and poverty and witnessed destruction. After the Bolsheviks came to power, Benkov joined the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), travelling extensively across the country and then returning to Kazan, painting revolutionary subjects. The artists struggled to survive, and both were married to aristocrats, which added to the lack of stability. Benkov and Fechin, like the rest of the Russian intelligentsia, faced the question of whether to leave the country or to remain in the hope that things would change for the better. Their paths finally diverged in 1923: Nicolai Fechin decided to emigrate to the USA. Benkov remained in the USSR, but moved from Kazan to Uzbekistan.
Fechin immersed himself in the excitement of the “roaring twenties” and discovered the beauty of the first peoples and primordial nature of North America. In Uzbekistan Benkov found colourful, aromatic bazaars, shady yards with howz pools, magnificent historic buildings, and picturesque local types.
The title A Place in the Sun can be read in two ways. In the literal sense, both artists ended up in warm, sunny locations and developed unusual palettes: one created portraits of Native Americans and the other explored the nuances of Eastern mentality and everyday life. The departure from their native city required that both artists find their place in the sun in the professional sense. Neither of them failed. Fechin was popular in the USA. Celebrities commissioned portraits, collectors bought works straight from the easel and the press referred to him as a contemporary “old master”, however his family fell apart, he had no close friends and emigration weighed him down. Benkov became a respected artist in Uzbekistan, with a group of faithful students. Of course he did not have Fechin’s professional freedom or income. His contribution to the art of Uzbekistan and Central Asia was rightly recognised: for a considerable period, the Samarkand Art Institute, where he taught, and the street where he lived bore his name.
This exhibition, which was conceived as a contraposition of two different paths, where one artist left for the USA and the other remained in his native land but moved to pastures new, opened up a curious similarity. Having found themselves at opposite ends of the world, Pavel Benkov and Nicolai Fechin used their paintings to reflect the brightness of the world around them, which was illuminated by a single sun.