A Special Ink Spill “Kovarsky Wednesday”: Anatol Kovarsky’s Russia

 Since this past Fall, Wednesdays here at the Spill have been referred to as “Kovarsky Wednesdays” as we’ve posted some of the late great artist’s unpublished cartoons and cover art (Mr. Kovarsky’s daughter, Gina refers to them as “sketches and preliminary forms of ideas for covers”).  All of this work is in celebration of Kovarsky’s World: Covers and Cartoons From The New Yorker, an exhibit opening tomorrow at the Society of Illustrators, with a special reception on January 12th.

Though long an admirer of Mr. Kovarsky’s work for The New Yorker, seeing these unpublished pieces over the past few months has deepened my respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which he lived his art. From what I’ve learned of him, from meeting him, reading about him, speaking about him with his family, he was always working.  And what work! The show is a must-see. 

In celebration of tomorrow’s opening, the Kovarsky family has generously provided us with three proposed cover pieces specifically related to Mr. Kovarsky’s Russian heritage. In addition, we are indeed fortunate and thankful that Gina has contributed the following piece, expanding our understanding and appreciation of her father and his beautiful work.

Since 2017 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I thought I would share a few details about how it affected my father Anatol Kovarsky’s life.  He was born into a prosperous and assimilated Russian-Jewish household in Moscow in 1919.  But the social and political unrest that came in the wake of the Revolution put his family at risk.  His father was arrested by the Soviet secret police and jailed in 1923 or 1924.  When he was released three months later, Anatol’s parents understood that they had to leave home and took him south to Crimea, then onward to Warsaw. They remained in Poland until WWII, when they were once again forced to leave everything behind. (His parents and sister survived the war in France; Anatol was able to leave Europe for the U.S., later joining the army and returning to Europe as a U.S. serviceman.)

My father was about 4 or 5 when he and his parents left the Soviet Union, but he remained fluent in Russian until the end of his life and never lost his identification with the Russian part of his heritage.  In the early 1960s, at a time when the Soviet regime had inaugurated a policy of greater openness to the West, my father made several sketches for a proposed New Yorker cover depicting American tourists on Red Square.  The presence of Western tourists in the heart of Moscow would have seemed positively incongruous to him, given how unimaginable that type of travel had been for decades.  History, a supreme ironist, was offering a corrective to misplaced certainties. 

Anatol took heart at the gradual resumption of ordinary tourism after Stalin’s death, regarding this as a positive sign that a new era of peaceful coexistence was at hand.  It meant a great deal to him that he was able to travel to the USSR in 1979, and that on subsequent visits in 1989 and 1990, he could observe first-hand the remarkable changes that led to the regime’s collapse in 1991.  He aptly noted that we were witnessing a “revolving revolution,” but the new banners were advertising Pepsi and McDonald’s instead of calling upon the proletariat to unite. 

In these cover ideas, my father manages to poke fun simultaneously at both the Soviet and the Western (capitalist) ideological orientations.  The sketches comment ironically on the waning relevance of Communist ideals, by minimizing the presence of Communist emblems: in the first sketch, the star above the modern hotel in the background is rendered not in red, but in grey wash to fade into the background.   But the humor also derives from Anatol’s portrayal of the consumption-oriented perspective of the “bourgeois” visitors with their cameras and, in the second sketch, also of the home movie audience.  There are two focal points in the movie: St. Basil’s with its colorful onion domes, and also the woman in the colorful hat.   By providing the woman with her own bright “dome,” my father creates a visual parallel, cueing us to realize that in the husband’s eyes both objects in the viewfinder are of equal importance.  Or is it the American woman’s presence on Red Square that’s the key element, to mark the spot, as if to state, “we were here” and also perhaps, “look at us!”   (What would Dad have made of the ubiquitous selfie?)

  

Anatol’s earliest memory was of the circus in the resort town of Yalta in Crimea, when he was around the age of 3 or 4.  He remained forever enamored of the circus, to the point where he even had a special pass to sketch the performers and animals up close at the old Madison Square Garden (he remembered once getting too close to a lion and being chased away by the personnel).  During the 1960s, the Moscow Circus was a special favorite of New York audiences, and I remember going with my parents several times. Among my favorite paintings by my father are ones he did of the Russian circus horses and their daredevil riders. 

 

–Gina Kovarsky

Dec. 30, 2017

(Please note that all work by Mr. Kovarsky posted here on Ink Spill is copyright the Estate of Anatol Kovarsky)  

 

 

 

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