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Stars in his eyes

Painter Nikas Safronov has Russian, Hollywood royalty wigged out.

March 31, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Moscow — THERE'S snow on the cupola, sunlight in the brandy and a lot of talk about metaphor, mythical symbolism and how the rich will pay incredible amounts of money for a portrait. With a prolific brush and a deft understanding of ego, Nikas Safronov, who flutters like a designer moth amid canvases in his studio, is Russia's artist to the powerful.

He recasts his country's tycoons and politicians as dukes, earls and other nobility from the past. The reigning figure, naturally, is Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, painted on a steed and resembling Napoleon charging into battle. The Kremlin leader has also been reincarnated as the pope and a shrewd-eyed Francis I, a 16th century French monarch and benefactor of the arts.

The new oligarchs and their wives love Safronov. He gives them the majesty they covet, a sense of hovering above the masses in ruffles and trinkets and gold-flecked clothes. But in their studied regality they seem weighted by something darker, as if they understand the facade too well and know that at any moment it all could shatter. Others, of course, are bored millionaires looking for something new to hang in the dacha.

"Wealth elevates you and suddenly you are alone at the top and it's cold. There's an abyss in front of you and you wonder how to get back," said Safronov, as if passing along a status report on his nation's psyche or a script for "The Sopranos." "In Russia, the rich live with fear. They know that if you kill you can be killed. It's like a volcano and you don't know who will be in charge next."

This is no melodrama from a pessimist in an icy garret. Rich and politically connected, Safronov is like those he paints, gladly talking about himself, his visions, his art; his thoughts on women, dissidents, Chinese businessmen and how one day, perhaps soon, he'd love to paint Al Pacino, after already having portrayed Madonna as a linen-draped virgin and George Clooney as a powder-wigged dauphin from a Voltaire scrapbook. Neither star sat for Safronov. That doesn't matter, though; he'll offer the portraits as gifts when he sees them.

'He knows nothing'

A trim man with shiny, shoulder-length hair and a meticulous beard with specks of gray, Safronov looks a bit like Barry Gibb during the "Saturday Night Fever" era. He's cordial and attentive; speaks just above a whisper and riffles through his canvases as if he's searching for a surprise.

One notices a lot of self-portraits: Safronov as a Renaissance lord, as a Franciscan monk draped in beggar's burlap. He also peers out from the cover of Penthouse and was featured in Casanova magazine wearing a white suit and standing between two naked women.

"There are dozens of gifted and talented artists in modern Russia, but Nikas Safronov is certainly not one of them," said Marat Gelman, a Moscow art critic and gallery owner. "Who told you that he is popular? This is a myth he himself is spreading around Moscow. Safronov certainly knows how to dress, how to present himself at social parties, how to be liked by women, but he knows nothing about painting."

Gelman views Safronov's vivid colors, flattering likenesses and motifs from the past as kitsch churned out by a celebrity artist whose clients are more vain than cultured. Other critics find his paintings refreshing studies in realism from an artist who sees his subjects and his work with a child-like purity. Or is it a coyness by a painter who portrait by portrait is unmasking a Russian elite floating in intrigue, angst and oil and gas wealth?

"Safronov's popularity is not a miracle. He well deserves it," said Vladislav Kozlov, president of the Moscow-based Public Foundation for Support of Culture and Art. "At a time when most artists are looking for some extravagant and bizarre ways to express themselves only to eventually find themselves up a blind alley, Safronov walks the main road drawing his inspiration from the works of the Renaissance and [Soviet] Socialist Realism.... He's a realist in the best sense of the word."

As a young painter, Safronov moved to Italy and was inspired by the Surrealist magic of Salvador Dali. A few of Safronov's self-portraits depict him hovering over Dali as if to suggest an artistic passing of the torch.

By the late 1990s, avant-garde and Western artists saturated the Russian market, but then two dynamics altered the art scene: a fascination for portraits and an increasing wariness in the market after a number of notable collectors of old works were duped by forgers.

"The rich wanted art from current painters so they could ensure it was original," said Safronov, whose portraits sell for up to $200,000. "So, a few of us famous painters became members of an elite club like actors and athletes. Our names were passed along and we were in the circuit. I would go to the World Economic Forum in Davos [Switzerland] and always come back with new orders. I try to create my own image and make money."

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