Anatoly (Anatoli) Zverev

(1931 - 1986)

Anatoly Zverev, the founder of the Abstract Expressionist Touchism style in Russia was one of the most profoundly influential Russian artists.

  • With Zverev, we find ourselves in the presence of an artist miraculously gifted, who will likely take his place among the most accomplished painters of our time. There is all to be a case in Zverev’s phenomenon. He contrived the history of modern art for himself, not conscious of it, but by chance. His place is in the pantheon of the most perfected artists of modernity. Igor Markevich, conductor

  • Every brushstroke is a treasure. Painters of his calibre are born only once in a hundred years. It is useless to teach him anything, he will only be guided by his intuition. Something that is not suspected by others is open for him. Philosophical vision and comprehension of the reality which surrounded him was the great gift of Zverev as a thinker and Zverev as an artist. Robert Falk, painter

    • Zverev is the first Russian expressionist of the twentieth century and a mediator between early and late avant-garde in Russian art. I consider this remarkable painter to be one of the most talented in Soviet Russia. George Kostakis (Costakis), art collector

    • I feel that Anatoly Zverev is a divine painter he is equally from heaven and from the ground. I honour him very much. He was from our time of youth. I knew him superficially and I watched him when he painted on a wall of a staircase in my presence. He painted on everything including the backside of the wallpaper. Pyotr Fomenko, theater director

  • He had got such unexpected turns, such unusual ways in his pictures and even in his stories and poems, which characterize the genius. Andrej Amalric, writer

  • When the Lord was anointing us, artists, He spilt a cup on Tolya’s head. Fellow artists

  • The best Russian graphic artist, whom I wish many years of creative work. Pablo Picasso, 1956

    • Anatolij Zverev is an unequalled representative of expressionism. His works with their energy and sense for colours interlaced on the surface with thick brushstrokes enchant with their inner brightness. Witalij Rachman, art historian

  • Zverev is an innovator with his abstract and figurative works. He possesses that rare talent to join chaos with rhythm and discipline. In that, I see the character of his genius. His works overwhelm with their colour gale. Wjatsheslav Zawalischin, art historian

Anatoly Zverev

Presented by Ann Messerer at Macquarie University, July 1995

Picasso considered Anatoly Zverev the best Russian master. He had dozens of personal exhibitions in major cities of the world but he never had a one-man show in his own country, Russia, almost until his death in 1986. Only a handful of experts abroad and in Russia cherished his talent and from time to time they exhibited his works in underground galleries hiding them from Soviet officials. Nevertheless, Zverev's artistic worth was known to the Government as he was the only artist whose paintings were not allowed to be taken out of the country as they were considered "National Heritage".

Jackson Pollock and Anatoly Zverev simultaneously discovered the style without knowing each other. That was probably the Universal clock that determined the appearance of certain personalities and certain artistic styles. But what is important to note is that Anatoly Zverev based his creative searches on a very deep philosophical conviction: he was zealously devoted to the idea of momentalism. It was his firm belief that everything which surrounds us is in constant change. He was convinced that the more you look the more distorted images appear in your mind. So in order to penetrate the essence of a thing and reflect it on the canvas, an artist must catch each moment, fathom and fully experience it through his creativity.

All his life he was perfecting his technique to achieve immediate exactness, to render the first direct sensation. And in this respect, he became a real virtuoso. No mistakes, no blind searches. Some unwittingly considered his speed as a trick. Watching him paint was quite an experience. Never in my life have I seen such a transformation of a person. His eyes began to burn (not metaphorically) as if invisible fiery rods connected his fixed gaze and the object he was drawing. Each gesture, each brushstroke was exact, brusque and calculated. One had no time even to follow his movements, they seemed chaotic and random. You could not guess what he was planning to achieve until the very last stroke. Suddenly you see a finished work, extremely expressive, rhythmical and balanced. He did not give a final answer, his personal sensations are to be finalized by the viewer. His works are fragile and metaphorical. He leaves space for various interpretations.

Reflecting on his life I came to the conclusion that in life (except these fleeting creative moments "timescapes") he was oblivious to time and space. He had no permanent shelter, he never knew where he would spend the next night. He never stayed long in one place. He seemed to be living in the present time without looking back, without making plans for the future. He was never in a hurry as there was nothing to be late for in his life. Zverev was absolutely indifferent to material values. He always wore shabby clothing and it was impossible to better his attire. He would immediately give away anything to anybody else who happened to like it. Whenever I gave him something new i.e. practical and warm he made it a present for someone else.

Zverev was not easy to get to know. His language was metaphorical, his manners were sometimes provocative. He could be rude if he sensed some mercantile approach. If fact he was spiritually isolated and acquired a kind of a joker's mask as a defence mechanism. He was speaking in parabolas and one had to decipher the real meaning of his utterances which at times were extremely profound. But what did betray the artist were his paintings. There was nothing of the jester that he chose to project as his public image. Mental agility, depth, philosophical conceptualism reveal his true nature as a thinker and a serious observer. His artistic colleagues knew that. There was a saying among them "When the Lord anointed us, artists for our profession, He poured a whole cup of oil on Tolya's head".

One can understand Zverev better if we trace his life back from his very birth. It is a very sad story. He was born in a village. His grandfather was an icon painter. Apparently, Anatoly inherited the gift from him. Zverev's father was a war invalid and died when Tolya was a little boy, leaving a widow with three small children. His mother was a charwoman and tried to support her family by doing hard physical labour. They barely survived World War Two. Anatoly's childhood memories were: hunger, rats and cold. The first day when he came to school he shocked everybody as he was wearing two different shoes. His mother could not afford to buy shoes for her children. He started helping his mother to make some money very early on. His first job was in a recreational park, he painted fences and boards. Once he asked permission to paint some scene from a fairy tale for children and surprised everybody.

He was noticed by a certain art lover Rumnev who immediately introduced the young lad to a famous art collector George Kostakis (Costakis). Kostakis' collection of Russian Avant-garde art has been shown in major galleries all over the world. Whenever someone of importance visited Russia he had the privilege of visit an apartment to view the paintings. Suffice it to say that Robert Kennedy spent a day at this place. So Anatoly Zverev was ushered to this Temple of Fine Arts and his artist's career started at once. Meanwhile, he was fired from the Recreational Park because the Director saw him using a mop for his paintings "against the regulations" was his verdict.

These two events were symbolic of the course of Anatoly's life. On one hand, the Director of the Museum of Modern Arts in America bought his paintings, on the other hand, harassment, abuse and prosecution from Soviet officials and especially security organs. His first Fairy Tale paintings in the Recreational Park led him to world prominence, while his real everyday life was more of a horror story.

All these circumstances, his childhood, weak health, Cinderella career without a happy ending, caused psychological withdrawal, a sense of insecurity and mental instability. His Western promoters sometimes did him a bad turn. For example, LIFE Magazine published two portraits by two painters, who to their mind, were most representative of Russian Arts of the period: it was Serov, an official Soviet icon and Zverev, an underground Avant-garde artist. Serov's portrait of Lenin's and Zverev's self-portrait was associated by many with an eternal Biblical struggle of Satan and Savior. When Khrushchev learned about the publication he was outraged and forbade all contacts with Western visitors, closed down all semi-legal exhibitions. And of course, Zverev was the main target of his outrage. Tolya's life became intolerable, he had to hide, struggling for a piece of bread. From time to time he disappeared and the rumours of his death began to spread about Moscow. He had given me a secret phone number where I could find out about his health and wellbeing. Each time the rumours were not justified.

Sometimes Tolya came to my place with bruises, broken limbs and murmured: "They have stumbled on me again". He never complained, he made jokes: "I am not a communist, I am a harmonist", which was a play of words. As in Russian, a harmonist means a person who plays the harmonica and a pacifier who brings harmony. He approved of my decision to emigrate and gave me a permission document to take all my paintings with me out of the country. He even consented to accompany me to the office to sign the paper. On his way, he kept saying: "I do not believe I am going to a Soviet office. I haven't visited these places for decades."

I learned about his death when I was abroad in 1986. This time I did not have his secret number but somehow I realized that Anatoly Zverev had died. Thousands and thousands gathered at his funeral to pay their last respects. Three years later I visited Moscow again for the first time after emigration and I was approached by different people: "They say you knew Zverev, you even have his works. He is the pride of our nation. He is our Russian classic!". After his death, there was a major retrospective exhibition for several months in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. They had to extend the exhibition as the people were queuing up to get inside from early morning till late night every day.

The works by Zverev could be found in the collections of the largest museums of Russia and other countries, including Tretyakov Arts Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Arts in Moscow and Metropolitan Museum in New York.


  1. A combination of extraordinary freshness, immediacy, spontaneity and strong structure feeling distinguishes Zverev among his contemporaries.

  2. No one like him could make better use of the text texture of his paintings: canvas, wood, cardboard - an integral part of the range of colours he chose for each piece of art.

  3. The combination of brilliant flashes and texture of patches of the canvas create unusual effects of space and light.

  4. Eliminating details makes the clear relationship of certain features that immediately identify the inner state of a person. He achieves a dramatic effect of spontaneity and a fleeting moment.

  5. He gained complete command of his spontaneous sensations. This synthesis of immediate perception with the exactness of intellectual sophistication creates the most powerful effect.

  6. Zverev worked in different styles and genres i.e created portraits, landscapes, still life and religious art.

  7. From the faithfully realistic depiction of his models to symbolic metaphysical representation.

Zverev Center of Modern Arts

Moscow, Ulitsa Novoryazanskaya 29, building 4

The Zverev Center was founded in 1992. The museum is called in honour of Anatoly Zverev, one of the heroes of free Russian art, who was working in the second half of the 20th century. It's slogan is - "All genres but the boring ones!"



Russian Art Gallery

Anatoly Zverev


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