Portrait of a guitarist
Valery Vrady’s studio is in central Moscow right behind the Tretyakov Gallery, the home of Russian art through the ages, from the medieval icons of Rublov through to the avant-garde. All the titans under one roof: Bryullov, Repin, Shishkin, Levitan, Serov, Kandinsky and a host of others.
Vrady’s place is an Aladdin’s Cave of paintings and sometimes weird, sometimes whacky, but always enthralling and diverting installations. You’re surrounded by pictures, nudes and angels, upside-down chairs, postcards from dead Soviets, old telephones and typewriters, phonograms and fashion dummies flamboyantly transformed, signs and stars, paraphernalia, memorabilia, psychedelia… the eccentric world of Russian artist Valery Vrady is piled to the rafters with funky junk. Who would have thought to fix defunct bed springs to the ceiling and festoon them with fairy lights and other bits and pieces? Vrady makes art out of stuff people throw away: the bric-a-brac and detritus of everyday life. Every nook and cranny of his three-floor atelier is full to bursting with startling imagery, including the loo where you’re cautioned not to drop a rat, among other unlikely things, down the pan. The door sports a large intestine! That is to say, an anatomical drawing of the human digestive system. Quite appropriate, really.
Needless to say Vrady’s studio is popular with photographers, filmmakers, art students (mainly female), itinerant poets and other flotsam and jetsam from the bohemian life. Vrady’s parties are legendary. In Soviet times, leading lights such as Vysotsky, actor, songwriter and heart throb of his generation, would carouse the night away here. There were wild times indeed. During the lawless chaos of perestroika in the 1990s, some mafia types burned half the premises down, and when they appeared at the door to claim the other half, they found themselves at the wrong end of Vrady’s gun. Doubtless believing in the better part of valour, they departed. An ex-traindriver, Vrady is a colourful character with a handshake like a vice and a demeanour not to be messed with. When I first met him he nearly crushed my hand to a pulp! As a guitarist, I am rather protective of my mitts, and so on subsequent occasions I took care to greet him with my hands full!
I have played at Vrady’s on a number of occasions and it’s always cool. Often, the unexpected is waiting in the wings. One night a poet (or so he claimed to be) gatecrashed my set like a drunk lurching into a drum kit. We launched off into some rather disjointed adlib, which amused and bemused the audience in equal measure. The ‘poet’ howled for a bit, declaimed some rather unprintable things in Russian, and then lurched off in search of more vodka, leaving me to finish my ramblings.
I have done a number of photoshoots at Vrady’s and even had my portrait with guitar painted by the master. I had never sat for a picture before. It was a fascinating and lengthy process. While Vrady painted I had to play; he insisted he wanted to capture the picture that way. It took over five hours during which time I must have played every tune I know, and then some.
And here is the result. Maybe one day it’ll be in the Tretyakov with a sign saying it was painted next door.