Do not — I repeat, do not — make any assumptions about the art of Nicolai Fechin, judgingonly by the reproductions accompanying this article. Photographs smooth out too much of the raspy, piled-up physicality of the paint in his best work, conveying just a fraction of what’s going on in his canvases.
The Russian-American artist (1881-1955), who had his heyday in the 1910s and ’20s, is the subject of a big retrospective at the Frye Art Museum. It’s curated by Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, and you can see why she’s championing him, even if it’s evident why he’s semi-forgotten.
For Fechin is a curious case. He’s primarily a portrait painter whose startling renditions of his subjects’ clothes and backdrops seem to point the way toward Abstract Expressionism. His work can be fresh, rough, eccentric, adventurous. It can also, in its later phases, verge on the trite.
One thing is certain: You need to get up close to these paintings, in person, to see what’s happening in them technically.
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Fechin was born in the Russian city of Kazan and attended the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Within a year of graduating in 1909, he was showing his work internationally — notably, at the Annual Exhibition of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.
Russian wartime and revolutionary upheaval forced him to flee to New York in 1923, with help from American collectors of his work. That same year, he had a solo exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago and was prominently featured in a Brooklyn Museum survey of Russian art and sculpture.
In New York, he did portraits of notable figures in the arts, including author Willa Cather (not included in the Frye exhibit) and fellow Russian artist David Burliuk (a highlight of the show). Poor health compelled him to move to Taos, New Mexico, and then Southern California.
The Frye owns a number of his paintings, and the new show blends those holdings with works on loan from Russian and American collections, both public and private, making this an unprecedented survey of his career.
The first painting that greets you is “Portrait of Miss Sapojnikoff” (1908), in which all of Fechin’s best qualities are at play. It cannily evokes the personality of its subject, one of the artist’s early patrons. But its painterly wizardry is manifested more in her wardrobe, accessories and surroundings. The folded fan she holds looks almost three-dimensional from some angles, while the wall behind her seems a palimpsest of differently-colored peeling stucco layers.
Small landscape paintings from the same era have the same dense allure. The wintertime orchard in “In the Evening” (ca. 1910) seems to smear itself, in thick and tactile paint, toward something fluid. In “Russian Peasant Hut” (ca. 1910), the color is so slabbed and crusted onto the canvas that the human figures in the picture almost battle to emerge from it.
Several female portraits emphasize a felicitous disconnect between closely rendered facial expression and a looser, jazzier approach to garb and background.
In “Portrait of Nina Belkovich” (1910), the child’s wary expression is as finely handled as in any work by Mary Cassatt. But her white-and-blue sailor-suit costume is treated far more sketchily, with the grain of the canvas plainly visible beneath much of the paint. It’s almost as if Fechin is saying, “See? You don’t need more than this. Shorthand isn’t just adequate. It’s optimal.”
Fechin hits different kinds of heights with “The Artist Burliuk” (1923) and “Portrait of a Writer (Nikolai N. Evreinov)” (1926), paintings of his New York colleagues in the arts. His broad, hectic brush strokes latch onto the brash character of the two men. “Portrait of a Writer” is especially curious for the way Evreinov’s facial expression is so focused and direct, while his gray suit seems to disintegrate in some wild cubist manner around him.
By the 1930s and ’40s, sentimentality was creeping into Fechin’s work. But the decline wasn’t universal. In one undated painting from his California years, “La Jolla Landscape,” his slurries of paint are a perfect match with the declivities of ocean bluff and ravine that caught his eye.
Fechin’s fullest flowering as an artist may have been over by 1930. But it’s well worth revisiting.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com