For every Picasso and Rembrandt, there are many more lesser-known artists; this is the case with Grigoriy Choros-Gurkin (1870-1937). He is one of Altai’s greatest artists and most important cultural figures. The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Choros-Gurkin’s birth and an ideal time to draw attention to the man and his work.
Regarded as the founder of epic Siberian landscape painting, Choros-Gurkin was the first recognized professional artist of Altaian heritage. He worked in a variety of mediums, including oil, watercolor, pencil, charcoal, and pen. Beyond his art, Choros-Gurkin was a teacher, statesman, anthropologist, and folklore collector.
Choros-Gurkin’s Early Life
Choros-Gurkin began his professional studies in St. Petersburg at the age of 27, after first working as a teacher in the Altaian village of Paspaul and then as an icon painter a few hours away in Biysk. In the summer, he traveled to remote corners of Altai, sketching and painting the Altai landscape—the great subject of his work. Themes running through Choros-Gurkin’s paintings include lofty mountain peaks, ravines, waterfalls, and lakes, in addition to the region’s sumptuous vegetation and flowers.
Choros-Gurkin’s most famous work is “Khan Altai” (1907), a larger-than-life, epic landscape that lends human qualities to the snow-capped mountain. Experts point out that the painting is more than a landscape painting, possessing a deep, ethnocultural context. In this sense, the painting is just as much about the internal—Altaians’ personification and reverence of the elements of nature and belief in the spirits that serve as guardians over these elements—as it is about the external, the image of the mountain. The sense of awe experienced by Altai’s inhabitants in the presence of these magnificent peaks has been reflected in their consciousness, lifestyles, and practices from ancient times until the present day.
Researchers estimate the catalogue of Choros-Gurkin’s art to number 5,000 works. The Anokhin Republic National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk houses the largest collection, with some 1500 Choros-Gurkin compositions, including “Khan Altai.” Museums in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and outside of Russia also exhibit his paintings.
Choros-Gurkin used not only his paintbrush, but also his pen to capture and cast light on Altai’s natural world and character. He published feature stories and illustrated notes about his travels, in addition to poetry and other prose in Siberian newspapers. He was dedicated to studying the rich cultural and archaeological heritage of his homeland—rock art, sculptures, decorative and applied arts and oral folk traditions, giving him status as an anthropologist, archaeologist, and literary specialist.
Choros-Gurkin, together with other Altai government officials, was executed on 11 October 1937 during Stalin’s Great Terror (1937-38) and the height of the purges. He was charged with “participating in the counter-revolutionary nationalist center organized by Japanese intelligence to overthrow Soviet power and establish an independent bourgeois and democratic government in Russia’s Far East.” Two decades later, in 1956, the Presidium of the Altai regional court reversed the NKVD secret police order, exonerating him and the other accused.
Today, he is celebrated not only for his artistry and writings, but as a symbol of Altaian culture heritage, indigenous pride, and indigenous identity.
Choros-Gurkin’s exact date and place of birth were unknown to the general public until the 1990s, when permission was granted to open the archived files associated with his arrest. Discovery of the form filled in by Choros-Gurkin himself established that the great artist was born on January 12, 1870 in the village of Ulala. Now at the heart of modern-day capital Gorno-Altaisk, Ulala is the site of a mid-20th century discovery of primitive tools used by homonims tracing back to over 300,000 years ago, possibly much older. It is a serendipitous location to have been born – rooting him firmly in Altaian heritage.