The elusive star of Soviet art brut Foma Jaremtschuk's drawings are sold for thousands of euros as found masterpieces from a Soviet asylum. Why hasn't anyone in Russia ever heard of him?
Note: This article contains disturbing imagery. If you’d rather not see it, check out this piece about Bauhaus architects in the Soviet Union.
Decades ahead of Star Wars
In early January of 2006, a visitor from Russia walked into the art gallery Susanne Zander manages in Cologne, Germany. He was carrying a small cardboard box. The man did not speak German, though he introduced himself by a German name: Alex Gess. With him was a Russian student who served as an interpreter in the conversation that followed. The visitor opened the box and took out several scraps of old wallpaper covered in ink drawings and inscriptions.
The very first drawing shocked Zander. It depicted a naked man sitting on a hospital bed, his body split vertically by an open wound. Instead of genitalia, a meat grinder plate was emerging from between his legs, and another figure’s extended tongue was reaching out to taste the minced meat pouring out. Rows of Russian writing, all of it flipped backwards, crossed over the first man’s legs. Had she contrived to read it, Zander would have found that the text spelled out a stream-of-consciousness monologue with the disheartening conclusion “and now they’ve all croaked, those bitches.”
The rest of the drawings were much like the first. Alex Gess told Zander that he had bought the collection in Russia from the head physician of a psychiatric hospital. The artist, he said, was a patient named Foma Jaremtschuk who had undergone treatment at the hospital from 1947 to 1963. Jaremtschuk had been nearly illiterate and had never learned to draw; before he was sent to the hospital, he had spent 10 years in a Stalinist labor camp. The box contained 233 drawings in all.
Zander immediately realized that she had encountered something very rare and highly valuable. Her mother, Charlotte Zander, had spent many years collecting works by self-taught artists: Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmani, Camille Bombois. From her, Susanne Zander had inherited the responsibility of curating the world’s largest museum of naïve art, which occupies an entire palace in the southwestern town of Bönnigheim. Susanne also went into the family business herself: She runs a separate gallery that displays and sells works by eccentric and marginal artists from around the world.
Zander was deeply impressed by this new artist’s drawings and his life story. “He has his own cosmos,” she told Meduza. “He exists separately from any context, from any external art world.” Nicole Delmes, the gallery’s co-owner, added, “His fury, his rage at the world around him — that’s what we value so much.”
The two collectors decided to buy the entire box of drawings, and they paid Alex Gess 45,000 euros ($54,415 at the time) for the lot. With that, Foma Jaremtschuk’s career in the West began in earnest.
Just a couple of weeks after that initial sale, Delmes and Zander opened an exhibition of Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings at the Cologne Fine Art fair, which typically draws more than 10,000 visitors. The drawings sold for between 750 and 1100 euros ($900 - $1,330) each.
Before long, the two collectors published an album of Jaremtschuk’s work with a preface by the respected art historian and Süddeutsche Zeitung columnist Catrin Lorch. Lorch wrote that she was in awe at the artist’s sense of fantasy: In her words, his drawings “looked as though Foma Jaremtschuk had seen Star Wars or The Matrix decades ahead of their release.”
A couple of years later, Alex Gess brought yet another box of drawings by the prolific Soviet psychiatric patient to Europe. This set included a lot of imagery related to the Soviet Gulag system: watch towers, dead bodies, barbed wire. The drawings were once again displayed in Germany. Then, in the 2010s, Gess offered another box of Jaremtschuk’s work to a London gallery run by Henry Boxer, who made the artist’s name as a Soviet dissident outsider in the Anglophone world. Boxer exhibited the drawings multiple times at the prestigious international Outsider Art Fair in New York City. He also raised the prices on Jaremtschuk’s work to 4,000 – 6,000 pounds sterling ($4,831 - $7,246) apiece.
Following Boxer’s exhibitions, the respected art journals Raw Vision and Wrong Wrong Magazine published articles dedicated to Jaremtschuk. Both pieces were written by Colin Rhodes, a leading scholar of outsider art based in Australia. In 2017, a second Jaremtschuk album hit the shelves under Rhodes’s editorship. The professor even took it upon himself to add English translations to the album’s reproductions, replacing the backwards Russian writing with lines like “the woman felt the taste of force mighty communist force you can eat lard and piss on everyone” and “an angel is sitting and playing in the dirty toilet playing balalaika and singing on the crapper.”
Art brut in the USSR
In the 1940s, the French artist Jean Dubuffet began exhibiting artworks created by patients who were permanently institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals. Before then, only the artists’ own doctors had collected their work. Dubuffet asserted that he had discovered a new aesthetic field and introduced the term art brut (rough or raw art) to describe it. The English-language term “outsider art” soon followed: It refers to pieces created by artists who work in isolation from any broad viewership or art community. Typically, the term is also related to social isolation or to the idea of an artist driven by a severe mental illness deep into their own imagination.
All this doesn’t mean that anyone with a severe mental illness who picks up a pen and a piece of paper can be expected to achieve artistic fame. Dubuffet selected pieces for his collection with extreme care in an effort to seek out “real” art brut. Today, a specialized segment of the fine art market continues that line of work. New outsider artists must be discovered and promoted by somebody else — after all, as a rule, the artists themselves are supposedly alienated from society. Mythological origin stories surrounding the artists also add value to their work. For example, the most expensive art brut pieces circulating today were made by Henry Darger, an impoverished American who was institutionalized at a young age. Throughout his adult life, Darger worked on two illustrated manuscripts that stretched to tens of thousands of pages, but he never revealed his art or writing to anyone. Darger’s landlords discovered the volumes shortly before his death, and his drawings now draw prices of up to half a million dollars at auction.
There were outsider artists in the USSR as well, but scholars and collectors began studying them significantly later. Alexander Lobanov became deaf as a child after contracting meningitis. Beginning in the 1950s, he was permanently institutionalized in the village hospital of Afonino, which is located near the city of Yaroslavl, Russia. At first, Lobanov fiercely resisted his confinement in the hospital, but he gradually came to terms with that new reality and began drawing, constantly creating variations on his favorite motif: firearms. Lobanov’s imagination was something like a child’s in that regard: He drew pistols with dozens of barrels, geometric patterns made of guns and carbines, and hats with rifle muzzles sticking out. After he befriended a truck driver who worked for the hospital and offered to help him, Lobanov also began drawing self-portraits, depicting himself with various guns cradled in his arms. The artist’s viewership consisted of other patients and medical workers, though he organized an exhibition of his work in a garage for other residents of the village as well. It was only in the 1990s that collectors began to display his work on a wider scale and record Lobanov’s story, which ultimately brought him international renown.
In the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Oleg Mitasov spent his young adult years working as an assistant manager in a local shop, but he then suffered a sharp psychological decline. In the mid-1980s, he began covering the walls of his home and the surrounding courtyards with seemingly disconnected messages like “LENIN GAVE EVERYONE AN INJECTION TO THE HEAD. WHERE. ON. EARTH.” Mitasov’s writing was large, expressive, and executed in hard-to-remove oil paints. Before long, it became impossible to stop him. The other residents of Mitasov’s communal apartment began to move out, and he quickly took advantage of that fact by decorating all seven of the unit’s sizeable rooms in his own style. Mitasov’s continuous act of performance art continued until his death in 1999. Nobody ever promoted or sold his work, but he became a local legend.
Alex Xatkevich (pronounced khat-KEH-vich), meanwhile, is still alive. He was first imprisoned as a legal minor in 1968. After serving out an enormous sentence — 15 years — Xatkevich went free only to be jailed once again. At one point, he spent 44 days on death row constantly awaiting execution. However, Xatkevich’s death sentence was commuted. He was sentenced instead to mandatory treatment and moved permanently to a closed psychiatric clinic in Kaliningrad. Xatkevich’s drawings feature monotonic sets of nearly identical objects. Often, the number of objects is exactly 44. The artist himself refuses to say anything about his past, and it is difficult to determine today what he might have done half a century ago to receive such harsh sentences. However, the date of Xatkevich’s first conviction has given rise to the myth that he was a Soviet dissident, and art dealers have stood behind that version of events.
“An art brut master”
Misha Yashnov, one of this article’s co-authors, saw Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings for the first time on the website for the Delmes & Zander gallery. His first reaction was one of delight and confusion. He wanted to know more about the mysterious artist but soon discovered that Jaremtschuk is entirely unknown in his own home country. The bread crumbs of his biography led only to a short note written in English that was copied and pasted on various websites: It said Jaremtschuk was born in 1907 in a Siberian village, finished three grades of elementary school, was sent to a camp in 1938 for “slander against the USSR,” and was then transferred to a psychiatric hospital. The notes all emphasized that Jaremtschuk never formally learned to draw.
Despite those circumstances, the galleries and journals repeated, Jaremtschuk’s output was enormous, amounting to dozens or even hundreds of artworks. Many of them brought together fantasy, grotesque elements, and rampant gore in a manner that was entirely unique for postwar Soviet art: The drawings featured human-machine hybrids, dismembered bodies, disturbing experiments, and disfigured genitalia; they depicted scenes from an enema to a rape in a hospital ward. One centered a malicious-looking cosmonaut with the words “Gagarin is such a cunt in his little jumpsuit” written backwards underneath.
In short, the further you go, the harder it gets to believe that drawings like these could appear in the USSR in the early 1960s or even earlier.
Yulia Vishnevets is this article’s other co-author. She heard about the USSR’s “mad genius” from Misha and noted a strange coincidence in the artist’s name: Foma and Yerema are the twin protagonists of a centuries-old Russian folk poem.
The two of us, Yulia and Misha, began looking through more samples of Jaremtschuk’s work on the Internet, and the more we saw, the more convinced we became that this artist was not the person he pretended to be. Jaremtschuk’s horrific caricatures made us think that this is how a sane person would portray insanity. The style and subject matter of his drawings were suspiciously reminiscent of your average trashy post-Perestroika art. The legend of Jaremtschuk as a self-taught genius also seemed doubtful to us: Amateur artists tend to be either stuffily meticulous or sloppy, but these drawings were complex, deftly constructed, and often anatomically correct. They even featured allusions to classic paintings and sculptures.
Nonetheless, globally renowned experts seemed to have no reason to doubt Foma Jaremtschuk’s story. The art historian and critic Catrin Lorch, for example, was deeply touched by the artist’s tragic fate. Her essay on Jaremtschuk attempts to vizualize the unbearable conditions in which he worked to create the fantastical subjects of his drawings. “It is painful to imagine,” Lorch writes, “how the limbs of these sad, dream-like beings were disemboweled by an enthusiastic council [...] one believes these drawings breathed their last breath, charred like finely-legged insects; if the zeppelin deflated and the tormented extras shrunk down, the shit would have stopped hitting the fan, the vomit would simply have drained away into the ground.”
Professor Colin Rhodes, meanwhile, is certain that Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings represent the work of “an art brut master,” the crème de la crème of outsider art. Rhodes even goes further, comparing the Soviet amateur’s work with that of first-rate professionals like Otto Dix and George Grosz, two early twentieth-century masters who used grotesque imagery to shed light on the poverty and social ills of their era. In the same way, Rhodes argues, Foma Jaremtschuk’s art directly illustrates the historical realia of the Soviet Union. Citing reports by the Soviet state prosecutor Andrey Vishinsky and memoirs by repressed Soviet citizens, Rhodes paints a gruesomely detailed picture of the horrors of the Gulag, transcribing and translating camp jargon like “gavnoedy (shiteaters)” and “dokhodyagi (usually translated as ‘goners’).” It is “easy to see” these character types in Jaremtschuk’s work, he argues, just as it is easy to spot the influence of the “Soviet psikhushka (psychiatric hospital).” In one of his articles on Jaremtschuk, Rhodes cites the Russian theorist of language Mikhail Bakhtin extensively, pointing to the “carnivalesque” origins of the artist’s work. The article argues that Jaremtschuk’s actual life in Soviet carceral institutions reflects the concept of a “World Turned Upside Down” that underlies Bakhtin’s theorization of the medieval carnival.
In addition to those interpretations, Colin Rhodes’s articles contain information about Jaremtschuk that does not appear in any other source. For example, he writes that the doctor who treated the artist was a certain Professor Kutanin, who provided his patient with “ink and paper that was commonly used in stores in the USSR for packing meat, cheese and other commodities.” The doctor stored his talented charge’s artwork in his own home “for fear that if discovered the artist would likely be killed,” Rhodes remarks.
Susanne Zander and Nicole Delmes, whose Cologne gallery staged the very first German exhibition of Jaremtschuk’s drawings, also expressed total certainty that the Soviet outsider’s works are authentic. “I’ve been working in art for many years now,” Zander explained. “I trust my professional intuition.” She added one other unexpected piece of evidence: “When we took the drawings out of the box, they smelled strongly of urine. It’s an unmistakable odor!”
Henry Boxer, the second major dealer to take Jaremtschuk’s work under his wing, also said he was certain that the artist had really existed. Until recently, Boxer’s gallery even featured drawings by Jaremtschuk on the main page of its website. When asked whether an elaborate hoax might be at play, Boxer confidently brushed that theory aside, saying he personally ordered an inspection of the wallpaper on which the drawings were made. That inspection showed that the paper was produced in the 1950s and 1960s. When asked about the details of Jaremtschuk’s biography, the London dealer pointed to Alex Gess, whom he called a friend, as a more knowledgeable source.
It is worth noting that Susanne Zander and Nicole Delmes both spoke about Gess with open distaste.
“We bought the whole set for relatively little — 45,000 euros,” Delmes said. “Two years later, Alex brought in another set of drawings, but we took them under a different set of conditions and for 50 percent profits. Gess was dissatisfied. He wanted the sales to go faster. He put pressure on us and threatened to give the drawings to another collector.”
Delmes described Alex Gess as “a businessman, even a mafia type.” Zander added that her conversations with Gess frequently surprised her. For example, at one point in their dealings, she noticed that his phone was decorated with a rhinestone swastika.
“It’s not about the money”
Alex Gess’s manner of speaking recalls that of Yevgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, though Gess is from nowhere near the Ural Mountains. Jaunty, pushy, and energetic, he told us right away that he is the man behind the largest collection of Soviet outsider art in the world, with more than 14,000 pieces currently in his possession.
“In the 1990s, I bought up everything there was in Russia’s psych wards,” he said. “I bought it along with the patient’s archives, with their dossiers. For kopecks. Sometimes, I bought them for a pack of toilet paper or a sausage link.”
We spoke with Gess over the phone. His number was listed on the website of a company registered to his name. According to SPARK, Russia’s national business registry system, the world’s most successful collector of Soviet outsider art was, at various points, also the CEO of Olimpik-Sochi, Ltd.; Ural Stroi Panel Yug, Ltd.; and Russky Suvenir, Ltd. Through these and other companies, he evidently traded in fur and leather products and provided finishing, painting, and glass services for homes and businesses. Gess himself told us he was born in Volgograd, lived in Sochi, and then moved to Germany under a program that facilitates repatriation for Russians of German descent. In Sochi, Gess said, he founded an art gallery called Cocoon.
Gess claimed that it was he who brought the world’s attention to the legendary, gun-obsessed Alexander Lobanov: “I was the one who tossed him out into the market, but now, I’ve stopped selling. I still have a lot of his pieces, but I’m not selling them.”
Gess said he found Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings in a psychiatric hospital in Saratov and purchased the lot for a pittance from one of the hospital’s doctors. Unfortunately, Gess was unable to learn much of anything about the artist’s life or even discover exactly where he was born.
“It’s a village in Sibera that the woods grew over ages ago,” Gess clarified. “And you won’t be able to find Jaremtschuk’s personal case file in the FSB archives anymore. I bought it. Why are you so surprised? Don’t you know how it is? I paid the right guy, and they just brought out a folder with all the documents.” According to the businessman, his employees are working on systematizing Jaremtschuk’s archive even now, and a detailed biography of the artist will be published “when the time comes.”
Gess confirmed that he did indeed sell Jaremtschuk’s drawings to Susanne Zander but said their “views on art parted ways” soon afterward. He explained that the German collector had a commercialized approach to her gallery while he “wasn’t in it for the cash.” After falling out with Zander, Gess began collaborating with Henry Boxer, who sells the drawings for much larger prices, “though it’s not about the money.”
Despite Jaremtschuk’s success so far, Gess said he has no plans to exhibit the artist’s work in Russia. “I’ve been disappointed,” he said. “Russia isn’t ready for this kind of art.”
When he spoke to us over the phone, Gess promised to send scans of at least some portion of the documents he found in the Saratov hospital and Jaremtschuk’s secret police files, but he still has not done so. When we repeated our request, Gess initially responded by claiming he had “already sent everything,” and then he stopped picking up our calls.
Alex Gess’s Facebook page has no personal photos. Instead, the businessman has dedicated his social media presence primarily to posting drawings by Foma Jaremtschuk. Gess’s friends list includes numerous well-known contemporary artists, collectors, and critics, but it seems that not a single one of them knows Gess personally. Major Russian outsider art collectors were also unfamiliar with Gess, though it would be difficult for one to maintain a collection of 14,000 artworks within this narrow sphere of the Russian art world and still remain entirely unnoticed. Gess’s existence was also news to both Vladimir Abakumov, who led Moscow’s Outsider Art Museum in the 1990s and 2000s, and psychiatrist Vladimir Gavrilov, who gained fame for working with Alexander Lobanov while he was still alive.
Abakumov called Gess’s claim that he had sold the Outsider Art Museum Lobanov’s paintings “a bald-faced lie.”
As luck would have it, Gess said he has forgotten the name of the Saratov doctor who sold him the entirety of Jaremtschuk’s oeuvre. However, the Saratov story is mentioned in Colin Rhodes’s articles, which indicate that the doctor’s name was Kutanin. Sure enough, Professor Mikhail Pavlovich Kutanin did lead the Saratov Medical Institute’s Psychiatry Department until 1964, and the department ran a museum to display its patients’ artwork. The museum’s biggest star was Mikhail Pauli, an attorney who underwent treatment in the hospital (and whose work is now also displayed in Cologne, Germany, in the Delmes & Zander gallery).
Gavrilov, the psychiatrist who worked with Lobanov, tried to find information about a patient named Foma Jaremtschuk through his colleagues in Saratov. Nonetheless, their archival research in the hospital where Dr. Kutanin worked and in the department where his patients’ art was displayed came up empty. There was no trace of any Foma Jaremtschuk to be found. The same is true for the Central Archive of the FSB (though that hardly confirms Alex Gess’s claims that the artist’s documents were simply bribed away).
However, one thing that was easy for us to find is an Internet forum where Russian speakers share stories about scams in the construction business. Posts in the forum name several firms that agreed to produce multi-story buildings but “took the money and didn’t build anything.” One of those companies’ leaders is said to be a certain Alex Gess from Sochi. Federal registry data confirmed that this Gess and our Gess are one and the same.
The leading lights of Cocoon
Even more curious online discoveries lay in wait on the website for Alex Gess’s Cocoon Gallery. Now, the gallery’s web address opens to a ‘not found’ page full of advertisements, but a version of the site from 2011 remains stored on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The website’s main page addresses potential buyers outside Russia, promising them in English that “investment in modern artists, which are represented in the COCOON GALLERY, will bring huge dividends to collectors and investors.” Chief among those artists is Foma Jaremtschuk, who at one point had more than 700 drawings for sale on the site at prices ranging from 1,800 to 3,800 euros ($2,005 - $4,232). Some of the drawings are marked SOLD in bold red print. Also available is a CD with one of Jaremtschuk’s drawings on the cover. Clicking a bit further unveils a pleasant surprise: Jaremtschuk’s bio on the website includes a photograph of the artist.
Under the “Art-Brut” section of the website, other artists share Jaremtschuk’s spotlight. One of them is named Ivan Zhopnik. Zhopnik’s biography states that he was “one of bright stars of Russian Art-Brut” in part because of the “Pain and Suffering” that “came through his whole adult life.” In Russian, “zhopa” is a casual term for one’s rear end. Yet another Cocoon artist is named Vladimir Hernik; his page on the website lacks a biography but does feature examples of artwork for sale. The Russian word “kher” translates roughly as “dick.” Unfortunately, we could find no mention of either Zhopnik or Hernik in any other sources.
However, there is yet another artist featured on Cocoon’s website as a “star of Russian art brut” whose existence is easy to confirm. His name is Peter Dzogaba. Judging by the various drawings, writings, and video clips scattered around the Internet under his name, Dzogaba is a professional artist and showman whose work couldn’t be further from outsider art. However, it is interesting that Dzogaba was born in Volgograd and now lives in Germany, just like Alex Gess.
At various times in his life, Dzogaba (a.k.a. Sasha Shilov a.k.a. Valery Kukets) performed at Volgograd night clubs as his alter ego “Sanitary Pad Man,” worked as a director for a TV show called The Last Hero, shot porn in Italy, and made children’s cartoons in Germany. He remains something of a legend in the Volgograd art scene.
While Dzogaba was working for a cable TV channel in the early 1990s, he made a documentary film about a Chinese dissident poet whose manuscripts were supposedly found in the attic of a Siberian villager’s home. The poet had never existed, and the film was a hoax. Then, in 2006, Dzogaba shot Dasha and the Little Helicopter, a film which he later claimed had “used real sketches by mentally ill convicts from a prison for insane criminals.”
Dzogaba’s own drawings are somewhat reminiscent of Jaremtschuk’s, with their trashy aesthetic and their psychedelic bells and whistles. Nonetheless, his style and his handwriting differ noticeably from those of the elusive Foma.
When we called him, Dzogaba, who turned out to be an exceptionally pleasant conversationalist, suddenly brought up the topic of art brut himself. He noted that leading Russian outsider artists have become very popular in the West. “I have a brother — he’s an artist, too,” Dzogaba said. “When he was younger, he spent some time in an asylum to get away from the draft. I would go visit him, and I got to know the patients’ artwork. There was a little museum in the hospital.”
Dzogaba told us that he had managed to acquire pieces from the museum and transport them to Italy, where they became wildly successful. He then steered the conversation toward the Cocoon Gallery, which he inexplicably called “a collaboration among Italian, French, and Swiss collectors.” Dzogaba sent us an image from the cover of one of the gallery’s CDs. It was a drawing by Jaremtschuk, the very same one that appeared as a CD cover on Alex Gess’s website.
Despite his interest in Russian art brut, Peter Dzogaba said he doesn’t identify himself with Russian art: “I’m not a Russian artist. I’m a European artist to the core,” he explained.
Dzogaba’s brother is named Alexey Shilov. He still lives in Volgograd, where he makes etchings and linoleum block prints. His artworks, like his brother’s, have little in common with Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings. However, Shilov has a friend in Volgograd who is also a like-minded artist: Stanislav (or Stas) Azarov. One of Azarov’s pictures on the social network VKontakte shows a bearded man wearing a hat with earflaps and a Soviet-style star, and something about the photograph looks familiar: Foma Jaremtschuk has a self-portrait with those exact same features. What’s more, some of Azarov’s work includes scrawling backwards writing.
An expensive artist
The Lednik wine bar is nestled within Volgograd’s Loft 1890 creative space. The building formerly housed the Zhigulevsky Brewery before being converted into a food storage facility for the Soviet secret police. Now, it has been restored and refitted to become the central social space for Volgograd’s art scene, including the local characters we’ve already mentioned. Sure enough, as soon as we walked into the bar, we spotted a large abstract painting bearing Stas Azarov’s signature.
The bar’s owner, Yulia, greeted us with exquisite manners and aristocratic poise. She explained that Azarov is part of an artists’ circle called “Chtoty” that helps Lednik “with interiors, posters, and so on.”
Loft 1890 houses the group’s workshop, too. To reach it, we had to climb a fire exit lined with more of Azarov’s pictures. Yulia then showed us a folder full of drawings and engravings. It was clear that Azarov draws very technically and in a variety of styles. It was also clear that he draws a lot. There were hundreds of his pieces in that folder: grotesque figures, landscapes, still-life sketches. The artist’s favorite technique, etching, involves printing a mirror-image impression of a text or image from a solid surface.
It was among those etchings that we found an image of a person curled up in the fetal position inside an old-school telephone. The image is a near-perfect match for one of the drawings in the Delmes & Zander gallery. We wondered: Had we really found our man?
Yulia told us that Stas Azarov has struggled to survive as an artist in Volgograd: Local buyers rarely purchase his work. “If I had the resources, I would buy up the lot!” she exclaimed. “Not long ago, we had some visitors from Moscow, from the Flacon [Design Factory]. They were picking out young artists for an exhibition, but ours turned out to be too old for them already. Though it is true that the Pushkin Museum has acquired a few pieces by Stas and Alexey,” she added.
Azarov’s personal workshop, a two-room apartment in a Khrushchev-era building, was left to him when his grandmother died. Its walls are covered in canvases, boards, and loose pieces of paper. Some of the drawings on them feature backwards writing — these are sketches for Azarov’s engravings. In the apartment’s second room, a large railroad is drawn across the floor. It carries a steam engine made of wooden blocks. “My son made that — don’t touch it,” the artist warned us. “Otherwise, he’ll come in here tomorrow, and I’ll be screwed.”
Azarov himself was as bearded and lively as he appears in his social media photographs, but talking to journalists seemed to make him a bit jittery. In the kitchen, he set up a tea kettle and started telling us about how he has tried to make a living through his art without taking orders he’s not interested in.
“It’s hard to make a living off this, but I try,” he said. “When I was younger, I would make all kinds of designs, interiors, more opportunistic stuff. Those kinds of orders actually still come in every once in a while, but not as often. I’m not 20 years old anymore — I’ve had enough of that. If somebody asks me to draw a bunch of swans on a golden lake, I tell them to go to hell.”
In the course of our conversation, it became clear that Azarov is left-handed, which makes it easier for him to make engravings. “I can write backwards no problem,” he explained. When we pushed an album of Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings toward him, Azarov suddenly seemed to be at a loss for words. He spent a long time flipping through the pages, murmuring aloud about how high the print quality was. It was clear that the artist had never seen this publication before. Nonetheless, when asked directly, he reluctantly admitted that the drawings in the album were his.
Azarov told us that during an exhibit, a couple of strangers had approached him and taken an interest in his work, so he invited them to see his workshop. That was in 2005. “At the time, I was drawing some pretty hardcore stuff,” the artist recalled. “I was in the hospital myself up until then — that’s where all the bunks and bathtubs came from.” Azarov’s visitors were particularly curious about his hospital-themed sketches. They bought an entire folder of the drawings but paid only 300 rubles apiece (about $10.60 at the time). “Money wasn’t important to me back then,” Azarov remembered.
He described the two buyers as “buff guys with buzz cuts.” They said their names were Ruslan and Alexey. Some time after their first purchase, the two men paid Azarov another visit and asked him to “draw 100 more” for a “project” they were working on. This time, they asked for a shift in style: Ruslan and Alexey wanted the drawings to be “even more trashy — just raw meat.”
Azarov said his clients also asked him not to draw any modern-day technology for their order — they wanted the pictures to recall another era. Using old paper, however, was Azarov’s own idea. “At the time, I was experimenting a lot with paper,” he told us. “Shilov and I did prints on whatever, even on flatbread. I had a shit ton of old wallpaper that my grandma and grandpa left behind. It was good material, and it was free. I tried out my etchings on them, made sketches.” It was also Azarov’s own idea to dedicate some of the drawings to the history of the Gulag — he said he was inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s books as well as “music and alcohol.” The two clients were satisfied with the results and made several more orders in the course of 2005.
Azarov said he had never heard the name Alex Gess, and he didn’t recognize a photograph of the businessman, either. When we told him that the drawings he had sold for 300 rubles apiece were now being purchased for thousands of euros, Azarov simply noted pensively, “Well crap, what an expensive artist I am.” As we walked out the door, he asked whether we might give him Foma Jaremtschuk’s album as a parting gift.
Art as insanity defense
Alexey Shilov, the second member of the Chtoty group and Peter Dzogaba’s brother, was extremely surprised to learn that Stas Azarov recognized Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings as his own. “It’s weird that Stas told you that,” he said. “That changes a lot.”
Shilov’s apartment in Volgograd looked something like a laboratory: In the half-darkness, we could see a layer of dust on every surface and a pile of X-ray images in the corner. With his long, hooded sweater and black beard, Alexey himself looked like a former heavy metal rocker still hanging onto his old ways. His etchings turned out to be even more fantastical than Azarov’s, with monsters and imaginary architecture twisting through complex filigreed details.
Shilov spoke with us carefully, clearly wary of causing harm to his friend Stas. He was the first person in the network we interviewed to admit that Foma Jaremtschuk never existed. “The idea was to keep that part secret,” Shilov noted.
According to Shilov, it was the pair of mysterious buyers who developed the Jaremtschuk idea. He added that there was nothing strange about their orders in principle because clients can ask for whatever they want in their commissions. “They can say, ‘We need socialist realism,’” he said, “and why they need it is their business. So in this case, they asked for art brut. We didn’t even know what that was at the time. Since I was living in a certain kind of institution, though, I offered to act as a kind of consultant.”
Shilov’s path into that institution was simple: He didn’t want to complete the term of military service that is mandatory for all men in Russia, so when he got his draft notice, he brought some of his drawings along to his medical examination. From there, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
“I got a really good doctor, and we chatted a lot together,” Shilov recalled. “A couple of weeks after [I was admitted], he said, ‘You don’t want to go to the army? Then don’t go.” We still meet up sometimes. He likes my work.”
Shilov said he is skeptical of outsider art as a concept. How can one prove, he asked, that there wasn’t really a doctor behind a supposedly isolated genius who becomes a darling of the fine art world? When we told him about Jaremtschuk’s success in the West, Shilov seemed impressed: “Maybe I should pin a doctor’s note to all of my pieces,” he mused.
“The real Jaremtschuk”
Peter Dzogaba was astounded at Stas Azarov’s confession and refused to believe that Jaremtschuk’s work in fact belonged to the young artist from Volgograd. Instead, Dzogaba offered a different explanation: Azarov must have copied drawings made by the “real” Jaremtschuk.
“Azarov isn’t that good,” Dzogaba asserted. “I would have an easier time believing that the gallery ran out of the psycho’s original drawings, and those guys decided to take a risk and slap together something similar.”
The fact that Dzogaba’s own brother, Alexey Shilov, backed up Azarov’s claims did little to convince the “European artist.” “He and Azarov are in it together — what do you want from me?” he said. “You know, that always just drove me nuts about Russians. If they’re in league with someone, they’ll forgive anything.”
In our next conversation, Peter Dzogaba took back everything he had previously told us and announced that the Peter Dzogaba from the Cocoon Gallery’s website was actually a different person. When asked what he knew about this second Peter Dzogaba, the first refused to answer and notified us that he would only speak to journalists through an attorney from that point forward.
In the meantime, a social media search led us to a flyer for Dzogaba’s film Dasha and the Little Helicopter, the one that claimed to include art by real prisoners with mental illnesses. The flyer indicates that all graphics for the film were provided by Stanislav Azarov.
We also found brand new materials announcing yet another project: a large contemporary art center to be established in one of Volgograd’s most prestigious neighborhoods. The center will supposedly be housed in a large former industrial building, much like Moscow’s successful Winzavod center, with a small group of organizers at its helm. A June 9 video describing the project includes artwork by a number of Volgograd artists, and Peter Dzogaba and Stanislav Azarov are the first two on the list. The working title for the project is “Cocoon.”
Alex Gess, who owns the Sochi-based gallery of the same name, also disagreed with the idea that Foma Jaremtschuk is simply made up. He said he had never heard of Stas Azarov, but when we showed him some of Azarov’s pieces, he admitted that they were identical to Jaremtschuk’s. Gess then asked us to tell him more about the Volgograd artist so that he could “find him and have a chat.”
Gess denied that he had perpetrated a hoax, and the possibility of an exposé seemed not to frighten him. “It’s all to my advantage, whether it’s good PR or bad PR!” he exclaimed over the phone. “We’ll reprint your article in an American journal and issue a rebuttal. Go on, pour more dirt on me! I’ll give you ironclad proof. And I’ll get free publicity on your dime!”
Nonetheless, shortly after our visit to Volgograd, Gess wrote to Yulia Vishnevets, “Watch out for yourself and your beautiful children! Be prudent, wise, and careful with yourself and your loved ones, and everything will turn out fine for you!” In an apparent confirmation of Susanne Zander’s recollections, Gess’s WhatsApp profile picture really is a swastika. In fact, to be precise, it’s the logo for Russian National Unity, a neo-Nazi group that openly favors ethnic cleansing to create a “Russia for Russians.”
Not long afterward, Misha Yashnov gave an invited talk on Jaremtschuk at a conference held by the State Institute for Art Studies only to receive his own threatening text message: “You’ll have to answer for your actions! Watch out for yourself and your loved ones! And ask yourself, what the fuck do you need this all for, and do you really want PROBLEMS in your life when it’s so short anyway? Here’s some advice: think about how you can put everything back the way it was, and fast!”
When we spoke to Arkady Shvartser, who writes about forgeries of Russian art in the West, he was certain that we had encountered a complex, multilayered hoax. The art historian and antique dealer started off by listing a series of other recent scandals in the art world and describing a few popular fraud schemes. When we showed him the information we had found about Foma Jaremtschuk, Shvartser suggested that the European collectors who first made Jaremtschuk’s name might have known exactly what they were doing.
“Your friends out there did some good work,” he surmised. “They thought up a touching legend, put together a good provenance — that is, a history of sale. For that purpose, the debut of these artworks, the showing that legalizes them, is very important. So they found a couple of experienced Germans and struck up a deal with them.”
Shvartser doesn’t believe in naïve art dealers. In his experience, he told us, only wolves can survive in the art business, and everybody else gets run out within five minutes.
Susanne Zander, meanwhile, was inclined toward the same hypothesis we had already heard from Peter Dzogaba: “Maybe your artist Stas just copied Jaremtschuk? How old was he when we bought those drawings? Under 30? No, I don’t believe he would have been capable of drawing them! This is the hand of someone who has been through a whole lot in life, believe me.” In our Skype conversation, Zander made it clear that she believed Henry Boxer’s Jaremtschuk collection may be fake, but the drawings in her collection are authentic.
Henry Boxer himself wrote to us that he did not doubt the authenticity of the drawings he had purchased because he had seen them in albums, exhibitions, and auction houses. Boxer also did not see any red flags in the provenance that Alex Gess initially described to him. Now, however, the collector has removed Jaremtschuk’s work from his website.
“Holding pieces with a dubious provenance is the last thing I need,” Boxer wrote to us on July 25. He added that he had already sent a list of questions to Gess, who assured the collector that 14 years ago, he himself had given Stas Azarov permission to screen-print T-shirts featuring Foma Jaremtschuk’s designs.
In the meantime, prices for Jaremtschuk’s art have risen steadily. Between 2006 and 2018, they shot from practically nothing to $5,500 per drawing. Up to 1,000 different Jaremtschuk pieces have been exhibited in total at various times and locations.
The group whose actions enabled that massive hoax included four people at the least: Alex Gess, Stas Azarov, Alexey Shilov, and his brother Peter Dzogaba.
Azarov admitted that he was the one who drew the pieces attributed to Jaremtschuk. Alexey Shilov confirmed that assertion. Shilov also got involved in the project himself, albeit tangentially, by giving his friend Stas occasional advice. Azarov also has other sets of artworks that share a common style with Jaremtschuk’s and feature backwards writing exactly like the print that appears in the supposed asylum patient’s drawings. A number of other coincidences also point to Azarov’s authorship, like the self-portrait with the earflap hat (which Azarov also recognized as his own).
That said, it’s unlikely that Azarov himself developed the Foma Jaremtschuk project. For one, he made no effort to keep his connection to the drawings secret: For years, he made engravings based on the drawings he sold, used them to print T-shirts, and posted the results online. His posts included one Jaremtschuk drawing that Henry Boxer had also posted on his own website. Finally, Azarov clearly displayed no interest in the further sale and promotion of Jaremtschuk’s work, and he recently began working on a new series of drawings that include his signature backwards handwriting.
In their conversations with us, Alex Gess and Peter Dzogaba argued that they did not know each other. However, Dzogaba had made a CD about Foma Jaremtschuk’s story for Gess’s Cocoon Gallery, and both that CD and Dzogaba’s own work were available for sale on the gallery’s website. That fact alone confirms that there was some connection between the two men. The CD itself was also produced by Alexey Shilov, who explicitly called the Jaremtschuk character a fake. In addition, during the same year that Jaremtschuk’s first batch of drawings was sold to Susanne Zander, Dzogaba himself created a film featuring drawings by “insane criminals” that were actually made by Azarov. Dzogaba also remains the lone figure in our trio of Volgograd artists who refused to say Jaremtschuk was a hoax and then redirected us to his attorney.
Dzogaba is responsible for a number of other artistic hoaxes as well, and he clearly enjoys trying on various roles, masks, and pseudonyms. All of this points to the possibility that it was Dzogaba who came up with the Jaremtschuk concept before putting his idea into practice together with Alex Gess.
There are also a few other individuals who played some role in the bewildering tale of Foma Jaremtschuk. There was Viktoria Shebarshova, the Russian student who interpreted for Alex Gess during his visits to Susanne Zander; there was the mysterious pair of musclemen, Ruslan and Alexey. There could be many others as well, but it is unlikely that they played any significant part in the scheme as a whole. As for the European collectors and researchers who bought, sold, or wrote about Jaremtschuk, it is unlikely that they were in on the conspiracy. After all, Nicole Delmes and Susanne Zander bought the entire first box of Foma Jaremtschuk’s work at their own risk, and Henry Boxer sold the imagined artist’s drawings once they already had a recognizable provenance thanks to their debut in Cologne.
Alex Gess still has big plans for Foma Jaremtschuk. By the end of 2019, he plans to run two “very large exhibitions of Russian art brut,” one in London and one in New York. He also told us he is planning a separate Jaremtschuk retrospective in the United States. In Gess’s opinion, those pen-and-wallpaper drawings deserve to be exhibited side by side with works by Francisco Goya.
Translation by Hilah Kohen