How a Biologist Became an Artist
This year is the 70th anniversary of the well-known Russian biologist, geneticist and embryologist Leonid I. KOROCHKIN.
L. I. Korochkin is a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Professor of Moscow State University, Head of the laboratory of genetics and neurogenetics of the Institute of Gene Biology, RAS, and Head of the laboratory of molecular biology of the Koltsov Institute of Evolution Biology, RAS, Moscow. Laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation, 1996, and the Koltsov Prize of RAS, 1994.
Korochkin’s scientific achievements made in the forty years of his career are impressive. In particular, he is an authority on stem cell research — an outstanding discovery of the modern age on which we are going to dwell in the future issues of our journal.
Korochkin, however, is more than an eminent scientist, talented teacher and charming personality. He also is the author of a series of publications on biology, history of Russian philosophy, and modern painting. Moreover, he is an avant-guard artist who took part in a number of exhibitions including the well-known modernist exhibitions at Malaya Gruzinskaya.
What our journal presents here is only a tiny collection of amazing pieces of art created by this man of versatile talents...
When I was a child, many people thought I would become an artist. My faculty for painting showed itself early: Father’s genes must have been at work. My father was a professional doctor and a professional artist; his teachers were Kotov and Mashkevich, well-known masters of Soviet art. It was my father who taught me the mysteries of perspective, graphics, taught me to paint in watercolors…
On top of that, I attended a drawing studio in the city of Kemerovo. Went straight to the senior group as was put firmly in the genius category. Drew balls, pyramids, flowers, and later portraits, but eventually felt bored and gave up drawing and painting and everything connected with them. Studied philosophy, got carried away by science and was absorbed with it completely. There is a science called histology it studies living body tissues — and I decided to give my life to it.
I graduated from the Tomsk Institute of Medicine, shortly after graduation earned a candidate’s degree and in 1964 moved to Novosibirsk Akademgorodok. I didn’t have any hobby at that time except occasional reading of philosophy tractates for fun and by force of habit. I always found fiction profoundly boring, but I continued listening to classical music, which I always liked, especially when it was performed by Italian singers.
At that time it occurred to somebody at the top to take care about the health of our scientists. And what can promote health better than football? Plus there were regular football championships held in Akademgorodok, in which professionals from Novosibirsk participated. You had to work hard and, above all, develop physical stamina in order to get in. As for the football-playing technique, I acquired it in my school years and managed not to forget all of it. Well, I made it, and my injured knees and knocked out jaw still remind me of it…
I was the goalkeeper. In one of the matches, I left the goal to catch the ball. Did it, and the rival, instead of kicking the ball, kicked my head. Long after that I could hear a deafening noise inside my head but the next night I felt an irresistible desire…to paint!
And not just to paint but to paint in an unusual style. I had read in the Soviet press that in the bourgeois West paintings made with a donkey’s tail or monkey’s arm were in high value. As I had no donkey’s tail, I made up my mind to paint in an ordinary way, with paints and a brush. Dug up imported paints, good Whatman sheets, excellent brushes of kolinsky fur – all left behind by my father – and proceeded to create a picture of a surrealist nature.
I did it in a flash, thought it wasn’t that bad, and started another one at once, then a third and a fourth till I collapsed. In the morning I took my creations to work and showed them to the connoisseur of modernist painting Grisha Dymshits. He possessed a collection of books on the subject and a huge color album of Salvador Dali, a great artist I had no notion of at that time. Grisha ran an experienced eye over my pictures and said, “I like it!”
Inspired by his words, I rushed back home and plunged into creating new works. Apart from paints, I tried colored ink. For two months the suddenly awakened creative itch gave no sign of waning, distracting me from science, but finally a balance between work and creative activities was struck.
I took to reading about modernists, rummaged some books on the subject in a curiosity shop; and my friends from abroad sometimes sent me something. The Moscow embryologist Serezha Vasetsky had a big book by Woddington about the connection of science and modern painting. I didn’t just read but studied it and made notes. I understood that the Soviet press was defaming modernist artists when trying to plant the idea that they just couldn’t draw properly. I began working on the classical drawing technique, drew from nature, and remembered up the balls and pyramids.
The first professional to see my creations was Victor Brel, a famous photographer, who came on business from Moscow and was wandering about Akademgorodok at night. At about 2 am somebody said he should go and see Korochkin, who didn’t sleep anyway. Brel took the advice and knocked on my door. My mum made pirozhki, we had supper and I took a chance of showing my pictures to him. Brel looked at them and suggested organizing an exhibition. I thought it was a bit too early to think about it.
Nevertheless, on my next visit to Moscow, where I went quite often, I took a couple of pictures with me and showed them to the wonderful artist Marina Dmitrievna Sterligova. Her teacher had been the star of Soviet modernism Vasiliy Sitnikov, who by that time had emigrated to France and demanded to be housed right in the Louvre. Marina Dmitrievna said, “ Two pictures out of ten are quite decent, and this is very good.”
With my friend Larisa Romanova I visited all the unofficial art exhibitions held in Moscow, which were plenty, and understood that it was time to paint in oil. The first picture looked terrible but I didn’t lose spirit, and the third attempt was successful: I found my style, which was a great turn-on.
During my next journey to Moscow, I met our most eminent avant-garde artist Oleg Tselkov. We made friends, and afterwards I went to see him every time I happened to be in Moscow until he emigrated to France in 1976. Oleg kept a watchful eye on my painting, gave good advice, and determined to a great extent the formation of my manner. I began to exhibit my works — first in Akademgorodok, then in the youth centers of Kazan and Moscow. The public liked my pictures, which stimulated me to paint some more.
In 1980 I moved to the capital and plunged into its academic and art life. Met the artists from Malaya Gruzinskaya whose pictures communists ruined with bulldozers. One of them, Dima Baranov, was especially friendly. He opened a bottle of wine in the entry hall of the house where modernist paintings were exhibited, made a sip and passed on the bottle to me, “There you go, get used to it!” On his advice, I brought my picture to the exhibition.
The exhibition board were critical and exacting. All of a sudden the well-known artist Glukhov stood up and said, “Why not, let’s go for it!” Later I took part in another exhibition at Malaya Gruzinskaya and had some personal ones at the Moscow youth center, at the Maltese embassy, in Novosibirsk Akademgorodok. Made a lot of acquaintances with artists and well-known collectors.
The foreigners who came to see me often asked me to sell this or that picture but I felt embarrassed about it; I did get a decent salary after all. So instead of selling my pictures I exchanged them for antique books on religion, philosophy and history of painting. These books were not easy to get, and I granted this right to the “buyers.” Besides, back in those times there was a specialized book store to which foreigners were admitted, but a regular Soviet citizen had no right to enter; this is where I sent my foreign fans. Many pictures I gave as presents, so the works that I think are my best are in the West: in France, US, England, Germany and Malta. A reproduction of my picture called “Trinity” even made it to the Anthology of Soviet Painting, thanks to the efforts of Victor Brel, mentioned above. Since that time I’ve gained a “legal” right to be referred to as an artist, not only as a scientist.