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 a 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 the 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 back side of 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 spilled 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 unequaled representative of expressionism. His works with their energy and sense for colors interlaced on surface with thick brushstrokes enchants 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 color 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 take out of the country as they were considered "National Heritage". 

Zverev's fame abroad annoyed the Soviet authorities and they harassed and persecuted him all his life.  Maybe they would have been happy to tame the artist by pouring money on him and making him their representative of the officially accepted and notorious Socialist realism.  If only he could be one!  But... he could not.  He would not have been Zverev as an artist and as a person if he had compromised.  And Zverev would not have become the founder of Russian abstract expressionism if he had been another personality.  He did not become Zverev, an artist.  He was born and remained him all his life.  And that is the clue to Zverev's phenomenon. 

Knowing Anatoly or Tolya as we called him very well I could visualize him reading the visitor's entries about his retrospective exhibition: almost every one contained the word "genius".  I imagine he would shrug his shoulders and murmur: "They try to deprive me of my freedom."  He would be happy to find many lovers of his work but he would not allow himself to be affected by popularity.  In fact he heard much praise in his lifetime: "His place is in the Pantheon" (Igor Markevitch, French conductor)  "artists of that calibre are born only in 100 years" (Robert Falk, a famous painter).  Zverev consciously shunned commercialism and fame.  He knew that real warmth and understanding could not be bought for money.  So he surrounded himself with true friends who were trying to support him and guard him from the KGB's persecution. 

It seems that this extreme thirst for independence lead Anatoly to the discovery of a unique style and techniques.  He could not follow the fashionable "isms" of the time.  Subconsciously he was doing what his inner drive dictated and not because something was fashionable or forbidden;  He became a nonconformist against  his will.  It was pure spiritual nonconformism born as a result of this inner search for self-expression.  Thus he organically became the founder of the new "ism" without being aware of it.  His new technique "touchism" was born as a result and not out of imitation of some prominent artist. 

Jackson Pollock and Anatoly Zverev simultaneously discovered the style without knowing each other.  That was probably the Universal clock which 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 brush stroke 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 "time scapes") 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 defense 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 through 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  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 the 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 were associated by many with an eternal Biblical struggle of Satan and Savior.  When Khrushev 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 rumors 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 rumors 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 a am a harmonist", which was a play of words.  As in Russian a harmonist means a person who plays 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 at every day.

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


  1. 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  - integral part of the range of colors 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 of details makes clear relationship of certain features which 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 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. Museum is called in the honour of Anatoly Zverev, one of the heroes of free Russian art, who was working in the second half of 20th cenrury. It's slogan is - "All genres but the boring ones!"



 Russian Art Gallery 



 About Zverev

 Anatoly Zverev