Much has been written about Tyko Vylka, Nenets artist and Arctic explorer. His primitivist art captivated critics in the early 20th century, while a documentary about his life, The Great Sami, continues to impress audiences today. Lenta.Ru tells the story of a Far-North hunter turned master-artist.
Tyko Vylka’s father was one of the few residents of Russia’s Novaya Zemlya Archipelago who could read and write. Famous for his hunting prowess, he had taught his son everything he would ever need to survive in the extreme local climate: to fish, to hunt, to tell his way on land and on sea.
In 1900, the 14-year-old Tyko Vylka had made a journey to the Matochkin Strait on his own. The beauty of the northern tundras struck him with their sheer magnificence. They would become a life-long influence on his artistic career.
Vylka had the natural eye of an artist. “The icebergs float on the sea like geese,” he wrote. “The flowers here are especially bright, and the air is clear. The sun and the ice on the mountains sparkle and blush in the sun. The birds on the rocks are chattering, rejoicing, and arguing. The bear is a large animal; its meat and fur are very heavy, but it has a very light step – I have learnt how to walk from the bears… The fox is beautiful and agile, but I have never known an angrier animal.”
Vylka met artist Alexander Borisov a year later, assisting him in his journey across the Arctic. The young Nenets guide watched him make sketches and tried drawing himself, using a stick in the sand or a coal on stones. Borisov recognized his talent and began giving him lessons.
Borisov equipped Vylka’s passion with an understanding of shape, colour, and palette – as well as a gift of paper and pencils. Tyko Vylka’s relatives found his new hobby somewhat suspicious: they did not understand anything about painting and saw the young man’s pensiveness as a sign that he had the makings of a shaman.
Vylka gradually became more and more involved with his art. His landscapes became more detailed and realistic: he reproduced every impression in the snow, every crack on the stones, every detail in pieces of clothing. His pencil sketches paved his road to fame.
Visiting the island in 1903, writer and artist Stepan Pisakhov wrote: “Vylka’s art struck me with its roughness: it is a wonderful combination of childish lack of skill and the power, vitality and sophistication of the European masters. I wonder where it is all coming from! His work fascinated me with a profound understanding of the Arctic landscape. They are done in pencil and watercolour, very unevenly. There were the most exquisite watercolours resembling those by the best artists and rough sketches of black rocks and mountains right next to them. They took some getting used to; you could not look at them as you would on a regular landscape familiar to the eye.”
Pisakhov was especially impressed by A Wife Fishing for its direct reflection of reality: the soft lines of the low hills surrounding the gulf, a boat, a line of floats, and a fisherwoman leaning down to her nets. He also loved Summer Night, a depiction of a small island, quiet waters, and airy pink clouds.
At first, the young artist lacked confidence. In his Notes on Novaya Zemlya, he wrote, “In the August of 1904, I was sitting on the shore of the Kara Sea. It was quiet. The sky was cloudy and the sun was setting. The mountains were reflected in the water and chunks of ice floated in the sea. I thought: if only I could paint, I would paint these mountains! I thought that I would try. I went into my tent and picked up some paper and a pencil. And I began to draw. It wasn’t good. I worked for three days. I painted something. I had spent the whole summer drawing and painting a little. Collecting images.”
Of all the advice he had received from Borisov, his first teacher, Vylka rigorously followed one vital tip: never let your hands freeze. He painted most of his works from memory, in a warm environment. As he got older, he began painting from photographs. He had a unique technique and a unique palette – light and bright in his younger years, and darker as he got older.
Pisakhov gave Tyko Vylka a box of paints, which he cherished and used rarely. Some English travellers gave him a compass and a thermometer, and taught him some cartography, which would later come in useful during his travels with explorer Vladimir Rusanov. Vylka’s relationship with the adventurer would be pivotal to his career.
Rusanov brought the young artist to Moscow, where he could study and promote his work among the artistic community. In the depths of the city, artist Vasily Pereplyotchikov taught him the secrets of the pencil, watercolour, and oil technique, while Abram Arkhipov showed him how to make coal sketches and use oil. He said, Yet the Sami saw the world differently to his more European contemporaries: his snow could be golden and his water could be grey. He felt that by following classical conventions, he was losing his individuality. He simply failed to fit into the school of painting dominant at the time.
“The most important thing in painting is an artist’s thought,” he once said. “It is what guides both colour and composition.”
These differences did not prevent him from displaying his work in Archangel in 1910, or in the Moscow Museum of Crafts a year later. The Moscow public found his art controversial. Some failed to understand or accept his style, while others were thrilled. Critics claimed that his paintings were “a breath of fresh air and a new manner of expression among the decadent art, reflecting on itself in comfortable boredom.”
Vylka’s triumph was anything but accidental. It came at a time when Europe was rethinking its approach to art and was looking for new expression through ethnic aesthetic tradition. Artists looked towards folk art for inspiration and neoclassicism was giving way to primitivism. An album of Vylka’s drawing was even acquired by Emperor Nicholas II, who awarded the artist with several rifles, a thousand bullets, sixty roubles, and a medal for persistence.
Success did not cloud Vylka’s mind. He remained a simple and direct man, who could not understand what the public wanted. Vylka looked at the Russian world with a Nenets mindset: something too complicated for the Moscow circles to understand.
The Journey Home
Vylka ended his studies in 1912. He simply went home and got married. With many mouths to feed, he spent all of his time hunting. The rifles he received from the emperor were put to good use, while the medal was exchanged for several kilos of butter.
Yet Vylka never stopped creating art and even sent some of his works to Moscow. He also became keen on taxidermy and herbariums, and shared his knowledge of geography, maths and Russian with other local people.
The artist became chairman of his local deputy council, after the Communist revolution in 1917, eventually becoming the head of a hunting enterprise. Vylka and his family were eventually moved to the city of Archangelsk in the 1950s, when the government turning Novaya Zemlya into nuclear testing grounds. To the end of his days, Tyko Vylka dreamt of returning to his native land. His wish was never fulfilled.