Imagine The Imagery Absurdology
Of Michael Cheval
By Robin Jay
From the Cheshire-cat-like grin of John Lennon in Michael Cheval’s ‘Imagine’, to the reminiscing of a youth’s ‘first taste of a young girl’s lips’, it’s easy to understand why this painter is the self-professed Pioneer of Absurdology in the visual arts. Peering into each masterpiece draws one in to search for the mysterious and compelling comparative analogies Cheval weaves into each one.
“Surrealism and Absurdism are different styles, though, at first glance, look alike,” explained Cheval. “The main difference is that surrealism is the subconscious world of the artist, which does not require an explanation, whereas the absurdity is the conscious world, where the artist deliberately turns everything upside down. Absurdism is an invitation to talk.”
The Backstory of Cheval
Cheval was born in 1966 in Kotelnikovo, a small town in southern Russia, where he spent the first 14 years of his life before moving with his family to Altenburg in East Germany. He was the first nephew, grandson and son of his family. “Imagine how much love and attention I was getting,” said Cheval, who now resides in New Jersey and operates Cheval Fine Art with his wife Beatrice. “Now I can say that I was born in the right place, in the right home, at the right time. My family was very artistic. My grandfather was a sculptor and painter. Grandmother wrote poems for children. Everyone knew how to draw. Everyone sang, played musical instruments, and loved music. Therefore, to draw for me was as natural as for today’s children to play with Legos.
“My mother says that I started to consciously draw when I was about 2 years old,” he continued. “The horse drawn by me looked like a horse, not a fire truck. As a child, I loved fairy tales and stories about the war, pirates, knights. These stories have inspired me to draw. I loved to draw battle scenes – cannons are firing, horses are jumping, soldiers above and below, all the smoke and dust. And I came up with my own stories, invented all sorts of things, and then would tell my friends, like it really happened to me.
“My toys were pencils and watercolors, as well as clay, from which I could sculpt any toy for myself and my friends. Real toys from a store were few and they were very primitive. And clay is the ‘sea of happiness,’ to do with what you want.”
Cheval’s father was an officer in the Soviet Army, and in Germany they lived on an air force base. He traveled the country far and wide and his adventures would one day influence his iconic artistic style.
A New World
“It was an indescribable feeling, as if I found myself on a different planet. Everything there was different – roads, forests, fields and cities. Everything breathed history. Museums and urban architecture, old castles and tidy village houses. I soaked up everything around me, like a sponge. It was a culture familiar to me only from books. I saw paintings of the Great Masters in the Dresden Gallery that previously I had seen only on postage stamps and postcards. My world view began to change rapidly. I began to feel and understand more. I learned to ask myself questions and was looking for answers. Another important factor was my passion for music, rock ‘n’ roll. My friends and I created a rock band. We composed songs, played the Beatles.”
From early childhood, Cheval knew he was destined to make a living as an artist.
‘It was my passion, my shelter, my paradise,” he said. “But when I was 15, I became interested in music and poetry. I am completely immersed in creativity, composing poems and music. I read a lot of fiction books, studied philosophy and history. Then, one day, I thought that it is impossible to make a living. I took my paint and brushes out of the closet, stretched a canvas and started painting. I was 22 years old.”
The concept of “Absurd” came later. “My art education was academic – portrait, landscape, still life. But after I saw works of Dali, I realized that this is the style in which I wanted to work. My inner world, my fantasies coincide with the ideas of surrealism,” Cheval explained. “At first, my paintings were very similar to paintings of Dali. Over the years, my style began to develop. And literature helped me, in particular, my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. In fact, already in the USA, I started to call my style ‘absurdity.’ ”
Artists who inspired Cheval: Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. And he was always fascinated by Velázquez, Vermeer, Ter Borch, Brueghel and others.
“When looking at my artwork, I want the viewer to be bold and not afraid to enter into a dialogue with a painting,” Cheval said. “I would like a viewer to tell me about how he or she sees my painting or what he or she feels. That is an act of co-creation! Dialogue – it is very important.”
What does Michael Cheval want art history books to say one day about his legacy?
“It sounds like an epitaph,” the Pioneer of Absurdology said. “I can’t say that I do not care. I would like that I’ll leave a trace in art history and people will remember my name. But, in truth, I think that my children are my greatest achievement. That is my real legacy. And I understand it more and more clearly every year.”
Click on the image to read an explanation of each art piece
“This work is dedicated to John Lennon, the main character of the painting who sits on the mosaic floor of ‘Strawberry Fields’ in Central Park, New York. The woman figure is not Yoko Ono, but a symbol of music, incredible and full of surprises, like the silent violin she plays. Strawberries are all around Lennon’s figure, even in his hat, which is a juicer with a clock mechanism. Perhaps, for Lennon, the Strawberry image was a symbol of love and, I think, juice from these berries fed his creativity as the God’s nectar.”Zoom
From Sadness To Joy
“Our entire life consists of a chain of emotions, where joy is replaced by sadness. Just as in nature, everything is made of opposites - cold and heat, light and shadow. Harlequin in the painting is holding a sad mask of Pierott, which he had just taken off her face. Emotions so easily replace each other only in the theater. Behind Harlequin you can see a lute with a telephone dial disk and hookah with the telephone handset. These two items symbolize joy and sadness, complementing each other’s by the phone parts. Telephone in this case is the link between two emotions. Lute - the joy that seeks out, hookah - leaving sadness inside our soul.”Zoom
Sense of Adolescence
“From my series ‘Playhouse of Quintessence,’ this piece is done in the style of the great Renaissance masters. The starting point was a portrait of the Infanta, by Velázquez. It is about feelings we experienced as teenagers. Do you remember that feeling from your first kiss, the taste of a young girl’s lips? This enigma and mystery we invented and believed are gone forever. But sometimes it’s worth remembering.”Zoom
“Our whole thought process is constructed from chains of comparative analogies that we use to understand everything that surrounds us. Analogies live in our brain like strings of the complex mechanism that change and upgrade continuously. The figure of the juggler on the table is strained like a string, symbolizing this mechanism. He juggles the objects of the same color, of the same texture, and possibly of the same flavor, but different in form. What in the end will allow us to name all these objects oranges, and what will hinder it?”Zoom