Prominent Russians: Nikas Safronov
“My only woman is my work. I’m married to my art.”
The wildly famous and scandalous Russian artist, the maestro with a Christ-like face, the Russian Salvador Dali, the genius of kitsch, the Russian Casanova, Russia’s artist to the powerful… all these colorful titles refer to one person - Nikas Safronov, a Moscow-based artist, whose portraits include Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sofia Loren, Elton John, Mike Tyson, Robert De Niro, Tina Turner and many others*. His works can be found in many prestigious museums and private collections – more than 700 have found a home outside Russia. A master of self-promotion, Safronov is also known for his numerous love affairs and active socializing.
His passport says “Nikolay Safronov” but there’s no mystery here – his mother was from Lithuania (from the town of Panevezhis) and “Nikas” is a Lithuanian version of Nikolay. That’s how he got his name.
Childhood and family
Safronov’s parents met on Sakhalin, an island on Russia's eastern edge that was notorious as a place of political exile in Soviet times. His mother Anna and her family were sent into exile at the time of Stalin’s repressions while Safronov’s father was an army officer. From Sakhalin the young family moved to his father’s hometown of Ulyanovsk, situated between Central Russia and the Urals, where Nikas was born on the 8 April 1956. He has six older brothers and a younger sister.
At the age of 16 Safronov dreamt of the sea and ships, so he left home for Odessa, a major port on the Black Sea, to enroll in a naval college. After a year at the Odessa school, he realized the romance of sea piracy was long gone and it was hardly his calling anyway, so he moved to Rostov-on-Don where he studied art at Grekov’s Art College. At the time he earned his living at the Children’s Theater of Rostov-on-Don, taking any job available, from prop-artist to watchman, janitor and mover. Nikas claims it was his complex love life – girls fighting over him, jealousy etc. - that made him want to join the army as soon as possible. Shortly, he was drafted and sent to serve in Estonia. One of his superiors in the army would burn his paintings and say: “Boy, your father was in the military – I’ll do everything to make you a good soldier and then an officer!”
At the start of the career
But he was never to become a military man. His service completed, Nikas moved to his mother’s hometown, Panevezhis, in Lithuania, where for some time he worked as a stage designer at the Donatas Banionis’ Theater. He nearly married the girl of his dreams… she was from Latvia and for a year he traveled back and forth every weekend. A month before the wedding he went to see here again and was happy to think he had met an ideal woman. But when he was on the bus he started thinking that maybe her nose was a bit too long and she wasn’t so ideal after all. Upon his arrival in Riga, Latvia’s capital, Nikas learnt the girl had died in a car crash. He claims those thoughts saved him from being heartbroken. He certainly suffered but her death was easier to take after his ambiguous reflections.
So Nikas was on the go again –from Panevezhis he moved to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, to study at the Art Institute. It was there, Safronov says, that he took up drawing seriously.
Safronov’s first personal exhibition was held in Panevezhis in 1978. During that same year one of his paintings was selected for an international exhibition at Pompidou Center in Paris. But he says he only truly felt he was a real artist in the fourth year of his studies. He had a dream about himself wandering through a big exhibition of his own paintings in his own gallery. Many of those paintings he claims to have remembered and painted later. That morning, Nikas Safronov says, he woke up a new person – an artist. He started working round the clock. In 1980 Safronov organized another personal exhibition in Vilnius, where almost all the paintings were sold. It was then that one of his friends told him that only Moscow could satisfy his ambitions. In 1983 Safronov came to the capital - to win.
Conquering the capital
However the move wasn’t easy, according to Safronov, and his heart stayed in the Baltics. Shortly before he moved to the capital of the Soviet Union, he had fallen in love in Vilnius – with the granddaughter of Rosa Luxemburg (a Polish-German revolutionary). So although he had already officially moved to Moscow – he still lived in Vilnius – at friends’ places, at their workshops, etc. He had painted the girl and gave her many of his works. But they had a quarrel and she stopped seeing him - except for a cup of coffee and another batch of paintings roughly once a month. Nikas painted again and suffered for the rest of the time when she was absent. Once he had to go to Moscow to pay his bills – it was in May. He finished the things that needed doing in the capital and was ready to go back to his sufferings in Vilnius when he opened the window… the evening was warm, the nightingales sang… he tore his return ticket and didn’t return to Vilnius for the following 25 years. He never saw the girl again.
In 1984 he participated in an international exhibition of erotic pantings in Tokyo. Similar exhibitions in Italy, France and Canada followed. In 1990, with thirteen other artists, the paintings of Nikas Safronov were included in a book published in France entitled “Erotic Imagination.” His fascination with the nude body also led to his cooperation with the Russian edition of “Penthouse” magazine for almost a decade – first as its art director and then as its chief artist.
In 1995 he held a successful exhibition in Istanbul. Gradually he began exhibiting across Russia and abroad.
Nowadays most of his works belong to private and museum collections in Russia and Europe. More than 800 of his paintings have been sold to western collectors. Among the present owners are such personalities as Sofia Loren, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Diana Ross, Pierre Cardin, Gerard Depardieu, Diana Ross and Montserrat Kaballe. Many of them never sat for Safronov but he says he doesn’t mind – he paints them in moments of inspiration to later offer the portraits as gifts when he meets the stars. One of his favorite tricks is recasting celebrities as dukes, earls and other nobility from the past in what his official website describes as psychological portraiture. For example, he portrayed Madonna as a linen-draped virgin and George Clooney as a powder-wigged dauphin from a Voltaire scrapbook.
He also recasts Russian politicians and tycoons. Vladimir Putin has been particularly favored by the artist: there are at least three portraits of the Russian prime minister: on a steed and resembling Napoleon charging into battle, reincarnated as the pope and as the 16th century French monarch and benefactor of the arts Francis I. Safronov’s portraits are particularly popular with Russian businessmen who are ready to pay a considerable sum for a piece signed by the artist.
Safronov’s creativity has few borders - it ranges from iconography to cubism and symbolism. As a young painter, Safronov 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. And although Safronov claims his paintings are based on metaphors and his own system of symbols, Nikas has been branded “Russia’s Dali” - a title he actively denounces.
Another title – Russian Casanova – is not favored by Nikas either, despite the many women he has loved and been with throughout his life. Although as a true artist Safronov says he loves all women, he’s had two official wives and has recognized three sons from three different women. And he admits there are other children too… His green-eyed Italian wife gave him his favorite son that he says he is most proud of – Stefano. However by his 50th birthday Nikas Safronov admitted he had come to realize his only woman is his work and he’s married to art.
Recognition at home and worldwide
A recipient of many awards and titles at home, Nikas Safronov has also been internationally recognized. Since 2006 he has been a member of the International Royal Academy of Culture, Education and Arts of the United Nations. He was awarded a Gold Medal by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the International Order of St. Constantine the Great, the Order of St. Stanislaus and the Order of St. Anne II degree. He even has a star in the constellation of Andromeda named after him. The Cambridge International Biography Center awarded him the honorable title of “Living Legend.” The full list of titles and awards takes more than a page. However some in Russia believe that rather than a talented artist, he’s more of a successful businessman who knows how to sell his paintings. But Safronov says he paints with his heart and as long as people like his art and buy it – he’ll stand by his vocation. He also spends a considerable part of his profits on charity.
His website quotes: “I earn just right to support my children, help my brothers and sister, two schools that I curate, build a church in my hometown of Ulyanovsk and a monument to the great Russian artist Arkady Plastov, help orphanages, hospitals, schools for the blind, nature and so on and so forth…”
And whatever the attitude towards his personality, in the end, Safronov says, “I will wait and see what history does. I want to be part of Russia’s history; I want my country to be proud of me. And I also have a small dream… to buy a small quiet island where I can be for 40 days sometimes, like in a desert, and analyze there what happens in our country, in our world.”
Written by Darya Pushkova, RT correspondent