The Birds of Vadim Gorbatov


In the U.S., at least until recently, animal painters got little respect. The few exceptions – an Audubon here, a Rungius or Fuertes there – stood out starkly. Exactly why this was so is hard to understand; in Europe and England naturalist- artists have always had a place.
The same has also been true in Russia, which even under the Soviet system was a nation of nature lovers. In Russia, perhaps the best-known “animalier” is Moscow’s Vadim Gorbatov. He appears everywhere – in calendars, in magazines (especially “Hunting and Nature”, the oldest continuously published outdoor magazine in the world), in books, and in galleries.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union he has begun to get more exposure in the west. Part of his new visibility is his participation in the Artists for Nature Foundation. Artists for Nature is an organization based in the Netherlands that brings together well-known artists in every medium from all over the world to what its founder, Ysbrand Brouwers, calls “endangered locations,” so that their artwork can focus attention on the need for conservation. Gorbatov has been working with the organization since its beginning in 1999, and has expanded his palette to include wildlife from Alaska, the Pyrenees, India, and more. But his favorites – birds of prey, large predators, and the fauna of northern Russia, the taiga and the tundra – remain his most evocative.
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Vadim Gorbatov was born in 1940. Like most naturalists, he started young. “I began to draw very early, when I was four years old. It was wartime, and, like all children of that time, I drew pictures of war. At the same time, I started to draw animals. One time in kindergarten, prior to the New Years’ holiday, while children were sleeping, a room for games was decorated with stuffed birds and mammals, dry tree branches, leaves, and cotton. When I entered the room, I was stunned. This picture impressed me so profoundly that I remember it today, sixty years later.”
He learned from books as well. “Books that influenced my childhood were Animal Heroes by Ernest Thomson Seton, Kipling’s Jungle Book, and Arseniev’s Dersu the Hunter.” Models for his early drawing included drawings and paintings by the German artist William Kuhnert: “I was fascinated and endlessly redrew these illustration s and modified them in my own way. I also liked to make small sculptures of animals out of clay and cut them out of chalk.”
In rural Russia after the war, life was still simple. “Another source of my interest in animals was the fact that I spent my childhood in a village where I could interact with them, and the beautiful, still rich and unpolluted natural environment of central Russia. Postwar times were difficult. Therefore, our family as well as our neighbors had chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs. We had dogs and cats. There was a herd of cows, and a stable of horses in the village. All these were themes for my drawings.”
“When other kids were playing soccer or flirting with girls, I wandered in the woods, fields and swamps. I had half a binocular, and I knew all the nests of the birds and dens of the mammals in our forest.”
“The impressions of my childhood and the interest in animals that emerged during that time were probably very strong. After I had been involved with new, fresh ideas of ‘industrial esthetics’ and industrial design, graduated from the Academy, and defended my dissertation, I returned to what was dear to me during my childhood, and resumed drawing animals.”
I asked him if his parents had any interest in nature or animals. “I don’t think they had any particular interest in nature, but they supported my passions and obtained books about animals for me. Most importantly, they did not mind the presence of feathered and furred creatures and other pets in the house. I kept lizards, frogs, salamanders, injured birds, squirrels, and ferrets. I had birds of prey, such as kestrels, buzzards, and sparrowhawks.”

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Raptors, and falconry, are among his favorite subjects. He is especially drawn to the goshawk, native of his beloved northern forests, and the golden eagle used in falconry by the Kazakh nomads. The fierce goshawk, used as the “kitchen hawk” for nomad and peasant alike because it will catch more edible game than the more specialized and impractical ‘noble” falcon, is a totemic bird in Gorbatov’s art. The masters of the goshawk in art were the anonymous painters of the Tokugawa shogunate in 17th Century Japan, who worked with ink on silk, but Gorbatov has matched or even exceeded them. For perfect examples, look at his wild gos swooping into a group of feeding black grouse, or his immature hawk missing a duck (a painting almost Asian in its delicacy.)
For a different kind of portrait, of ferocity in repose, look at his old Kazakh resting with his trained “Berkut” or golden eagle. And notice the contrast of its rich desert colors with the chill grays and dark greens of his Russian paintings.
He remains intrigued by falconry to this day. “Hunting with birds of prey has a special place in my mind. I am fascinated with this kind of hunting; it is simply a part of nature’s process…profit and trophy hunting have no place in it. In falconry, everything is in the process, not in the result.”
Gorbatov does not hunt, but respects ecologically sound hunting. Hunting in Russia remains respectable. “I was not a hunter when I was a child, but I made bows and slingshots like other boys. Later, during my youth, I hunted hazel hens with a gun. I have a positive attitude to hunters, and do not consider them enemies of nature. The true hunters among my friends, with whom I travel to hunt (I do not take a gun, only binoculars and a notebook) are nature lovers who care about the preservation of wild nature. These hunters are excellent pathfinders, knowledgeable in biology and animal behavior. To them, hunting is primarily an interaction with nature and a reason to get away from the big cities. Among Russian artists whose work I value, among writers and actors, there are many true and passionate hunters.”
Gorbatov has traveled and studied widely (one of the consistent features of all of his art is attention to historical and cultural detail), first in the old Soviet Union – to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – and later to India, Alaska, and South America. Of these travels, he speaks warmly: “to the artist-animalist, it is absolutely necessary to work in wild nature, and visit the wild places where the animals which you draw live.”
Recently he has become fascinated with Karelia, the boggy, forested, sub-arctic region on the borders of Russia and Finland. Any northern American can see similarities to Minnesota and parts of Canada. While a few of its creatures, like the Capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse, are unfamiliar, both ecosystems share ducks, corvids, cranes, grouse, moose, shorebirds, and weasels, either identical or similar species. He plans to do a series of books on nature there.
The Karelian paintings have a damp chill to them that makes me nostalgic for my northern youth as I write these words in the midst of a droughty New Mexican summer. He paints changing seasons, mud, and melting snow. Look at his Capercaillie crossing a rutted track amidst puddles and falling leaves, his duck and redshank in newly ice-free ponds, his swallows in the brief window of summer with darkening skies overhead, his woodcock on a mud island.
European Russia, including Karelia, is long-inhabited region despite its wildness. Gorbatov, who has spent his life exploring these edges, loves to paint the subtle interactions between man and nature. He will depict, as Audubon did, human figures going about their business in the background – a horse and sled behind feeding redpolls, a bright window under a great gray owl, or a cabin under that totemic goshawk again, perched on a snowy branch in the winter twilight. The redshank alights on a rotting boat, or a spaniel retrieves a duck in the sunken wreckage of a German tank. While many western artists depict a nature in which people never existed, Gorbatov paints history, dogs, farms, and more. He will depict 19th Century Russian princes and peasants, hunts with spear and borzoi and falcon, and fights with bears. In his landscapes, an abandoned village chapel’s roof lets in the snow while icons and a cross still keep vigil in a corner even as crossbills fly above. A Capercaillie might perch above a laika dog who barks to summon an unseen hunter. His work with AFN continues in this tradition.

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Though Gorbatov has not yet visited the Rocky Mountains and the southwest— he plans to in the fall of 2006 – his work has already started here. First, he was commissioned to do the art for a Korean translation of Ernest Thompson Seaton’s late 19th Century book Lobo, about a cattle- killing wolf and his tragic death. With typical thoroughness he requested that my wife and I send him nearly 200 photographs of New Mexico backgrounds, trees, arroyos, rocks, and other details.
The results were stunning. That he got everything from rock formations (and wolves, another totemic animal) to 19th Century American firearms right was no surprise. But how did he know that in New Mexico there is always a raven in the sky?
And now his first U.S. work is soon to be published by the Raptor Education Fund in Denver: Fidget’s Freedom, a children’s book about peregrine falcon reintroduction and hacking. The young falcon’s first attempts to fly and her narrow escape from a hunting eagle are perfect subjects for Vadim Gorbatov, who manages to teach and amuse even as e creates images of great beauty. I can only hope that his new audience and his forthcoming trip make this the first of many American works for one of the finest depictors of birds and mammals of this and any other century.