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Living Color: Moscow’s Faithful Street Artist

Photo: Alena Dergileva (©)

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Living Color: Moscow’s Faithful Street Artist

The work of the Russian painter who has dedicated her life to chronicling the changing face of her country’s capital.

Moscow’s bustling Alekseyevskaya subway station on a wet autumn day

The ornate entrance to a Soviet-era apartment near the Kremlin where theater director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko lived until his death in 1943

Two pensioners pause to chat on Moscow’s famous Arbat Street.

This is the work of Russian artist Alena Dergileva, who has spent the past four decades capturing the streets of her native Moscow in exquisitely detailed watercolors.

Dergileva, 69, began capturing street scenes in Moscow in the 1980s. As the city began developing rapidly in the 2000s, her theme took on historical significance as she watched elegant, time-worn buildings transformed or replaced by generic corporate structures.

But her paintings carry their historic role lightly. Dergileva is capable of a wide range of artistic techniques but has settled on a naive, almost cartoonish style to capture her beloved home city.

A light snow falls on pedestrians near the Moskva River. The Soviet-era Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building is in the background.

Dergileva told RFE/RL she works by finding somewhere discreet on the street to stand, then makes a quick sketch of the scene on an oven-tray-sized sheet of her favorite French art paper.

Heavy snow falls on a pedestrian on Solyanka Street.

With the sketch drawn, the artist then goes back to her central Moscow apartment to begin work in earnest.

Dergileva says using watercolors is “the most difficult technique because you can’t correct mistakes.” With so much at stake in each stroke she works “only a little at a time,” with each painting taking nearly a month to complete.

A woman touches the brass snout of a dog in the Revolution Square subway station. The dog’s snout is highly polished by the countless commuter hands that have dabbed it for good luck as they go to work each morning.

While sketching her scenes, the painter — whose background is in portraiture — says she also makes quick scribbles of people passing by. “I always do my best to capture exactly those people who walked in a certain place,” Dergileva says.

A busy day outside the Smolenskaya subway station. The Russian Foreign Ministry building rises in the background.

Dergileva’s work often includes garish commercial signs that many artists would avoid. But she says “all the ‘ugly’ details of the street make everyday life vivid and uniquely valuable. Bright bags with logos on them mark the period of time we are living through, which is very important to me. I always try to get a living picture.”

A young couple were oblivious to the discreet artist working on Trubnikovsky Lane.

Some of Dergileva’s recent work is marked by the coronavirus pandemic that has transformed street life around the world.

Commuters at the Elektrozavodskaya subway station

This 2020 painting captures the sudden prevalence of food-delivery workers after the pandemic closed restaurant doors. The painter says the delivery people “truly interest” her for the unexpected flashes of color they bring to the street. “They have colored our life so much.”

Masked pedestrians and two-wheel travellers pass in front of the Estonian Embassy.

The painter says she is less enthused about the presence of expression-obscuring face masks. This is one of only two of her works featuring masks.

Businessmen pass a historic building on Prospekt Mira deep in conversation.

On strolls through her city, Dergileva keeps an eye on some of the elegant buildings she has painted through the years. Over time, she says, details and accessories on a house might appear and disappear “like jewelry on a woman.”

Locals enjoy a sunny winter day on Gruzinskaya Square.

Some of the scenes captured in Dergileva’s watercolors are easy to locate and compare on Google Maps.

Stylish young Russians stride in front of an entrance on Kuznetsky Most Street.

The street view of this address shows that the signage and other small details of the scene have changed since it was painted around 2015.

A woman prepares to leash her dogs under a relief of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin on Pechatnikov Lane.

Dergileva says her ongoing quest to chronicle Moscow’s overlooked spaces has its roots partly in her childhood, when the country’s communist authorities demolished her family home.

Dergileva in 1965

In the late 1960s, officials began installing characterless Soviet apartments on the street where Dergileva played and in 1972 the wreckers came for her home. Today an office building stands in its place.

A tsarist-era building in Zaraysk, south of Moscow

This is one of several paintings Dergileva made in the town of Zaraysk, near Moscow, through the 1980s and 1990s, which she is now compiling for a book. The artist says that “the vast majority of buildings I painted in Zaraysk no longer exist. They were demolished, burned, or heavily renovated, therefore the book will be the town’s chronicle.”

Dog walkers pass the entrance to the apartment where Russia’s first Nobel Prize-winning author, Ivan Bunin, once lived.

Meanwhile, Dergileva’s continuous life’s work remains central Moscow, where on literally every walk she finds something new she wants to paint.

A woman wraps up as she leaves the courtyard of a house on Sverchkov Lane.

The artist, who has become a kind of visual historian of her city, says her biggest regret is that “there isn’t enough life to paint everything.”

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