Opening Remarks & Art Paper at the ROGATCHI’s BLUES Inauguration   Exhibition

By Dr Judith Harris

Florence, May 4th & 5th, 2011.

Art historian Dr Judy Harris at the Michael Rogatchi’s exhibition opening in Florence, where she delivered her art paper on his works, with Member of the European Parliament, the member of the board of The Rogatchi Foundation Dr Hannu Takkula. Florence, 2011. (C) the Rogatchi Foundation.

Almost a hundred years ago Russian art was indispensable part of the European avantgarde. In 1915, Kazimir Malevich – born in Ukraine to Polish parents – created what is considered the first abstract work, the famous Black Square. Like Michael Rogatchi, Malevich also worked in theatre, creating futuristic cube for Victory over the Sun opera in 1913.

It is not easy to conceive of an even more abstract and minimalist painting of a total black colored square, but just think of Jasper Johns’ Grey, painted in 1958, more than half a century after the Black Square.

While there is a direct line there between Malevich and Johns that leads to abstract, there is also a second leading path in modern art. In Russia, during the same period of Malevich, also Marc Chagall worked, and his direction was completely different. Instead of abstract, Chagall went to the romantic, poetic figuration which, however, does not hide deep, under its’ surreal joy, a thread of melancholy.

I mention these two tendencies because the abstract expressionism of the Russian Malevich and of the American Johns from one side, and Chagall’s surreal figurative art, from another, are meeting each other, and merge, to some extent, in the pop art of the sixties; in fact Johns, – and therefore, his predecessor Malevich – are considered precursors of pop art.

At the Rogatchi’s Blues exhibition of the works by Michael Rogatchi in Florence. May 2011, Florence. (C) Michael Rogacthi Archive.

Returning to the art of the early twentieth century, Marinetti who wrote in the first manifesto of Futurism in 1909: “We are on the last promontory of the centuries. Why should we look back when what we want is to throw down the mysterious doors of the impossible?..”

Mysterious doors of the impossible. Here is what, as I think, is represented in the works of Michael Rogatchi. That is, he tries to throw down for himself and for others the mysterious doors of the impossible.

His paintings are, or giving the impression, to be romantic in the way Chagall’s ones were romantic, but also having a substratum of abstract expressionism, shared also with Malevich and Johns. And, as the works of Pop artists of the sixties, they have what in English we call an edge, the sharp point of a knife. Among his works there is even an oil painting, Portrait of Rain, where everything appears as grey, with a grey rain from which appears a woman’s face, grey, too.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Dream of Rain. Oil on canvas. 90 x 86 cm. 1996.

And that combination is what makes Michael’s work fascinating and beyond it, moving. According to art experts, some paintings perspire a sense of spirituality that adds an extra dimension in the works of the artist. In Venice – for example – in contrast with the beautiful Veronese, we sense this spiritual dimension in the frescoes by Tintoretto, who worked for forty years on biblical scenes in the School of San Rocco.

Where is this spirituality is coming from? Goya’s resulted from his illness: he became deaf while he saw first-hand, in person the misdeeds of the corrupt and arrogant Spanish court.

In the case of Michael, apart from an innate sense of colors – like the Blues in this series -, and also forms, texture, touch in his work, we must consider his extraordinary life and career. Searching for the reasons of the spirituality of Rogatchi’s artistic world, one just cannot stop to think that the set of experiences he has lived through is truly extraordinary for an artist of any kind in any country.

It is true that Michael does not like to talk much about himself, but few artists have had so rich and diverse experiences and this is inseparable from his paintings. In my view, it is the primary source from where the spirituality of his work emerges so powerfully.

Michael Rogatchi with the guest at his exhibition’s opening in Florence. 2011. (C) Michael Rogatchi Archive.

Michael Rogatchi born under Stalin’s rule in early 1953 in a Soviet Gulag in the Far North of the Soviet Union, where his father was jailed as a political prisoner in a concentration camp. The family was later exiled to Kazazkhstan. From there Michael Rogatchi eventually succeeded in reaching Ukraine, the native land of his immediate family, and graduated in neuro-chemistry there. Becoming an expert in biochemistry, he became a part of The Pavlov Institute for Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at that time).

While writing scientific papers, he also continued his studies of arts, both at the Academy of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg and at the Theatre & Film University – as Malevich had during his time – thus he found himself designing costumes and sets for three major theaters of St. Petersburg in the mid 1980s, before moving with his family to live in Finland and finding a real home for them there.

Over the years, this scientist-turned-artist has devoted much time to painting images of the Old Testament figures, including a series on the Patriarchs and Matriarchs from Jewish tradition. As written by Julia Weiner – art historian at the Regent’s American College in London – ‘The Jewish identity of Rogatchi was always central in his art. Many of his works […] have been inspired by Jewish texts that he studied continuously […].They express a powerful message about the importance of universal Biblical heroes and heroines, who are at the center of the world of the artist.’ And of course, we remember that Chagall did find an inspiration for himself for his work in general, and brought to us a modern visual reading of the Bible, too. 

The search for universal values for Michael is continuing in the current exhibition The Life of Two of Us which opens now. This is evident in his paintings that are also a tribute to Florence: in spells of moons, in its dreamy women, in that naked woman emerging from within a black diamond, in his Cappuccino for Two.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Black Diamond. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. 2010.

One of Michael’s and mine beloved poets and singers, Leonard Cohen searching the world for those universal values in his own unique and widely appealing way, made a gift to us all with creating a credo of “there is a crack in everything: this is where the light is coming in. This is where the light is coming in”.

In many of Rogatchi’s works, also those presented in this exhibition as well, in his new collection The Life of Two of Us, there are quite a few ‘cracks’ where from the light is coming in – in the flying over Florence and sleeping on the Moon woman, in another female figure looking for such crack in her lonely night, in that guitar player – who resembles Cohen himself – living in his world but giving the light coming from his ‘crack’ to all of us. 

Michael Rogatchi (C). Blue Sound. Homage to Leonard Cohen. 110 x 100 cm. 2011.

By the end of previous year (2010) Michael Rogatchi has had over 70 solo exhibitions in many different countries. One called Dream, Memory, Love made the tour throughout Europe. In recent years, with Bolero he has landed in London. His new series, called Forefathers, are already scheduled for a tour in Europe and then to be shown in the United States. Twelve Nudes and Their Stories will be presented next year at Villa Mangiacane, near Florence, the place where Machiavelli lived after being exiled from Florence and where he has wrote The Prince

After an exhibition in London, the British critics, who are not used to overstatement, expressed flattering words for Michael’s style that has been defined as metaphorical expressionism. Among others, the critic Charlotte Gait wrote that ‘Rogatchi paintings are characterized by its magical colors‘, and that ‘they are overwhelming‘. For the Finnish writer and diplomat Lasse Lehtinen, Michael’s works are ‘strong, clear and powerful continuation of Chagall”. 

Magical, overwhelming, strong, powerful – it would be difficult to go beyond these words, so I limit myself to one: Bravo, Michael!

Judith Harris 
Author and art critic 
4-5 May, 2011 

Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened, and art consultant for a number of exhibitions based on the book in New York, San Francisco, and many other US cities, 2011-2013. Previously prolific author for Time magazine and Wall Street Journal, and the long-termed host of the culture programme at the Italian RAI radio, she currently writes also for ARTnews, New York.