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Rebekka Modlen, émigré artist and seminal figure of Soviet Nonconformist Art history, passes away at 80
Rebekka Modlen, Portrait of Alessandra.

By: Joel Ney

NEW YORK, NY.- A Russian émigré artist and historically noteworthy figure of the unofficial art community during the Soviet Regime, Rebekka Modlen (1934-2014) passed away this November at her home in Loches, France, her family reported. A multidisciplinary artist who genuinely mastered an impressive variety of mediums including sculpture, gravure, watercolor, and oil painting, Modlen is recognized by art scholars and artists for her quiet but influntial career contributions and groundbreaking 1971 immigration – followed immediately by her husband at the time, Mihail Chemiakin (b. 1943), the renowned figure of the Russian Nonconformist art world – a move that undoubtedly inspired and greatly assisted in paving the way for the mass exodus of unofficial artists and cultural luminaries from the USSR in what became commonly known as the “Third Wave”. The following year, celebrated dissident poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) sought refuge in the West and was later awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature). This was compounded the surprise defection of living legend Mihail Baryshnikov (b. 1948) during an overseas 1974 tour with the Kirov Ballet, in addition to countless important painters and sculptors who fled via France, Israel, and the United States.

Rebecca Borisovna Modlen was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on September 6, 1934. Modlen, commonly known as “Riva” in her circles, graduated the sculpture faculty of the Tavricheskaya Art School in 1958 [the school was later officially dedicated in memory of painter V.A. Serov (1910-1968), following his passing; years later, the school was officially renamed in honor of one of its most famous members, N.K. Roerich (1874-1947)]. Modlen’s first marriage was to fellow Leningrad artist Rikhard Vasmi (1929–1998).

In 1963 she met Mihail Chemiakin; they married shortly thereafter. The couple’s daughter, Dorothee, was born in May of 1964.

Initially Rebekka Modlen-Chemiakin immigrated to France with Dorothee in 1971, settling in Paris. About half a year later the family was joined by her husband. In the late 1970’s they moved to the United States.

Alexander Ney (b. 1939), an influential senior Russian-American artist who independently worked in both Leningrad and Moscow, said he personally was acquainted with Riva Modlin since the very early 1960’s. “She was very kind, and talented artist, as well as a wonderful mother to her daughter," he reminisced, "In her early graphic works, Riva’s pieces notably showed the artist's eye for a delicate choice of color in her compositional display." After Dorothee was born, Ney remembered the artist as an wonderful mother who encouraged her very young daughter’s visible interest in drawing, work which Ney recalls as being “exceptional.”

“Dorothee, albeit a small child, was really, remarkably artistic. Those drawings were very memorable.” He also remembered the mixed-media works [confirmed also in the 2004 book Gazanevshina, noting Rebekka Modlen’s highly creative use of brocade fabrics, furs, and velvet materials sewn together as dresses, clothing, or dolls ]. “Riva also sewed stunningly original, artistically intriguing dolls of very high quality.

“Imagine, even during Soviet Russia's Leningrad, in a crowded communal apartment that housed multiple families, in the Chemiakins’ space Riva was able to concoct a real atmosphere that encouraged open creativity." [Editor’s note: the aforementioned is the reporting writer’s father.]

“Riva was a very important person in her husband's life. She was the first to immigrate and was vital to her husband coming to Paris in the early 1970's. When Misha joined Riva and their daughter, they even briefly resided - as did many other émigré artists - at the Cite Internationale des Artes colony.

“I remember that once in France, Riva, an unquestionable artist in her own right, also made some very interesting small-scale bronze sculptures [produced by the fabled foundry, Blanchet Fondeur]. I hope they are being cherished by collectors because I haven’t seen them in a while."

In March 1982, the pioneering Contemporary Russian art gallery Eduard Nahamkin Fine Arts presented Rebekka Modlen’s first official solo show in their New York City location. The exhibition catalogue that remains from the show, preserved by The Getty Research Institute, is striking. In addition to photographs of Modlen working in the studio, as well as meeting with leading sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) and other interesting images of her artistic family, the publication actually features an original essay by Italian legendary artist and designer Ezio Gribaudo (b. 1929), a contemporary and close colleague of many other fellow leading artists including Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Jean Dubuffet.

The revered Ezio Gribaudo enthusiastically writes of Rebekka Modlen’s work in his introduction: “…the real, the unreal and the surreal are interwoven in a fabric that excites both the emotions and the imagination. Delicately shadowed faces almost abstracted from reality, speak from faraway imaginary worlds, stirring up deep, sweet and unusual sensations.

“The solidity of the bronze, in its well molded consistency, goes far from the real world translating itself into another, more abstract and unusual. The style Rebekka uses is strongly expressive and is rich in simple, [but] sometimes more refined accents. The balanced combination of colour and shadows contributes to a sense of distant anxiety and tenderness…

“Rebekka’s is a visionary world, which changes obsessively between slight quivers and sudden outbursts of colour. Her taste for thematic repetition is an indication of monochord research which tries to exhaust every possibility suggested by an intuition confined to the enigmatic zones of mystery.”

Although Mihail and Rebekka remained lifelong close friends and collaborators, the couple moved their separate ways; with Chemiakin now in the USA, around 1983 Rebekka Modlen moved to Greece and for a while lived on the Hydra Islands, then settled in the capital city of Athens, where she continued to live and work through 2008. She participated in many exhibitions worldwide, most frequently in group shows showcasing work by Mihail Chemiakin and Dorothee Chemiakine (now an adult, also professionally an active contemporary artist).

Last year, two of Modlen’s works appeared during the much-publicized November 2013 auction of property primarily from the estate of the late Honorable Mayor Edward Koch, conducted by Doyle New York.

Isaak Kushnir, the noted art collector who spearheads the “Avant-Garde on the Neva” seminal series of monographs examining the work of artists working in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, wrote via email: “I learned from Misha Chemiakin of the tragic news of Rebekka’s passing. At the present time, we are actually nearing completion of the primary work on the [forthcoming] volume ‘Chemiakin’s Circle,’ in which a large part is devoted to Rebekka’s work.
“She will remain in our memories as not just an exceptional artist, but as a notable woman who was beloved muse at times in the lives of some of the most preeminent artists of Petersburg – including Mihail Chemiakin, Alexander Arefiev (1931–1978), Richard Vasmi.”

Rebekka Modlen is survived by her daughter Dorothee Chemiakine of Loches, France; her first cousin Natalia Tsvetkova of St. Petersburg, Russia; her former husband Mihail Chemiakin, his sister Tatiana and his wife Sarah, all of Villedieu-sur-Indre, France.

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