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EXCLUSIVE: Exhibition - Post-Soviet era art - Former Cold War helicopter pilot Oleg Tyrkin showcases work in Bloomsbury

Oleg Tyrkin (third left) with fellow helicopter comrades in 1980s Soviet Union

Published: 23 March 2010

ONE of the former Soviet Union's last action heroes dropped into London last week with a sombre warning for the Nato mission in Afghanistan. 

Oleg Tyrkin was visiting London for the opening of the new art exhibition which showcases his work at the Pushkin House Russian cultural centre in Bloomsbury.

Although a trained Russian Airforce pilot, Tyrkin forsook his own specialist mode of travel – a battlefield attack helicopter – for a scheduled flight from Moscow into Heathrow.

For Tyrkin has long abandoned the blast of war for a more peaceful if, arguably, equally powerful calling - that of artistic visionary.

He is just the latest in an eclectic collection of new wave artists shaping the cultural landsdcape of post-soviet Russia. And there is no mistaking the inspiration for his collection of masterworks on display at Pushkin House.

Arms and Wings draws on the youthful memories of his first calling in life – that of heroic defender of the Motherland, but tempered darkly through reflective maturity of age and the passing of time.

"It's all about a young 17-year-old Soviet boy who enters the magic world of aviation, the world of the sky, with all its unlimited freedom," says Tyrkin.

But he adds: "In aviation school the officers told us to repeat flying manual instructions in the middle of the night like prayers. They used to say that all the instructions were written in blood – of real casualties who forgot that at any time you could die. "

And It's those darker feeling that inform the visceral starkness of Tyrkin's uncompromisingly minimalist technique, a painting style which has been a revelation even to Pushkin House director, Julian Gallant.

 “It’s one of the best shows we've ever put together," said Gallant. "It has taken us two years of preparation, but the result has been well worth it.

"Tyrkin very often adapts concrete, modern images and something more abstract and therefore it creates much wider meaning.

"Those paintings all have one elusive theme but it's not something you can easily put your finger on."

For Tyrkin that elusive theme is inescapable - and was shaped by his youthful glorying in the prospect of war – and mortal combat that, he humbly acknowledges, he was so fortunate to escape.

He and his band of brothers in their helicopter squadron were all set for a posting to the killing fields of Afghanistan, when Mikhael Gorbachev pulled the plug on Moscow's bloody adventure.

Within 15 months the Soviet Union had collapsed and Tyrkin and his chopper comrades were suddenly demobbed, evicted penniless from their airbase hundreds of miles from home, and told to make their own way back. Collapsing Mother Russia couldn't even afford to pay its praetorians' wages.

Today 20 years on Tyrkin says: "Looking back I realise that Gorbachev's decision saved my life. The Soviet Union was fighting for a long time in Afghanistan and nothing good came out to this campaign. It's a shame that Americans and Brits have not learnt this lesson".

Tyrkin threw himself into his quest to become an artist, and 15 years later got his big break when a Russian oligarch happened to see the penniless painter displaying his work  in a backstreet of Moscow –  and offered to buy a particular painting whatever the price.

The result was Tyrkin’s first private exhibition – at the Victor Hugo Galerie in Paris in 1990, organised and sponsored by another rich patron, Sergei Mazharov.

But life in the old Soviet Union came back to haunt a new artistic life. Mazharov was shot through the letterbox in his flat in Paris. “Nobody knows who carried out the hit, but rumour has it, Mazharov was a mentor to the young Khodorkovsky – the oligarch and political activist who fell out with Putin and is currently languishing in a Siberian prison.

Now 45, Tyrkin has exhibited all over the world, with more than 20 major shows in 2009 alone, although the Pushkin show is his first outing in Britain.

He now has paintings in major state archives as well as private collections in Moscow, Zurich, Paris and Berlin, including the Russian State Museum in St Petersburg, the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, and in the Nancy Dodge Collection and the Jersey City Museum in the United States.

For one chopper pilot at least, these are days to savour the heady ecstasy that comes from knowing that it's "mission accomplished".

ARMS and WINGS - Paintings by Oleg Tyrkin
Pushkin House
5A Bloomsbury Square
London  WC1A 2TA   020 7269 9770
Exhibition open until 26th March 2010 
15:00 – 18:00 Monday to Friday


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