Strangest thing, America gets much better press from its immigrants than from all its over-educated bookworms, its news and entertainment media, or its alleged academics. Often these tired-and-poor newcomers sing our praises louder than even our most privileged native fauna – the billionaires.
Just follow a crowd of Mexican illegals around any Wal-Mart super center. They radiate an aura of Sir Galahad finding the Holy Grail, Orphan Annie regaining Daddy Warbucks, or a thirsty camel falling into the Nile River.
They don’t wander, like our acquisitive native zombies, through the merchandise, eyes fixed on a shopping list, or blinded by desire for that one big bargain. Nope, it’s fiesta time for Latinos. Everything from frozen foods, to new wave clothes to the bakery is a brand new miracle — a treasure to savor and celebrate.
A much different new citizen is Igor V. Babailov, who did not arrive in typical immigrant fashion penniless aboard a tramp steamer while devouring stale burritos. Quite the contrary. A child prodigy, Babailov attended Russia’s Surikov Academy of Fine Arts for gifted children where he was graduated with honors. Later he was graduated from the Surikov Academy of Fine Arts which has produced such international masters as James McNeill Whistler, Ilya Repin, and Valentin Serov.
Igor had already amassed an international reputation as a portrait painter before he ever departed Russia. For reasons unknown he first chose to settle in Canada. Then, perhaps spurred by the Canadian penchant for the quiet blah life, he pulled up stakes and moved his studio to New York City, where he has been making big artistic waves ever since.
In return, Babailov has sent this country a thank-you note in the form of a painting. Titled For God, Gold and Glory, it depicts Columbus and his crew, aboard their flagship, Santa Maria, at the moment they first sighted the New World. The work’s intense spirit of high jubilation, vast relief, and sense of having accomplished a feat whose importance is beyond imagination, is apparent on most every celebratory face. One crewman reaches high as though thanking heaven; another weeps; a third appears stricken dumb.
Oh, there are a few dissenting expressions: a suspicious monk turns aside; beside him a soldier glowers, as though sensing danger in that green shoreline. At the center of this emotional melee stands Christopher Columbus, the admiral who gambled everything and came up one of history’s big winners. His expression is one of quiet assurance: he knew he had been right all along, but it’s nice to have it demonstrated right before one’s own erstwhile doubting and grumbling crew.
None of the later nattering, cheese-paring criticism of the voyage is present. It is true Columbus was aiming for Asia and instead hit the New World. Equally true is the fact he misnamed the natives “Indians,” then made some of them slaves. Nothing unusual about that. It’s what one did with savages in 1492. Some have striven to lessen Columbus’ achievement by asserting Vikings may have landed here first. So what? The Norse visitation — if it did occur — had no more impact on world history than if a flock of sea gulls had dropped in for a weekend visit, then returned home. Columbus’ trip was the only one that counted. And at that supremely effervescent moment caught in Babailov’s painting, the only thing that mattered was the cosmic joy gamblers experience when they hit the biggest of long-shot jackpots.
My first view of For God, Gold and Glory touched a long-forgotten memory of my tour through the nation’s capitol building back in the 1970s. This huge edifice contains many arcane and little-frequented hallways and crannies lined with paintings and statuaries, presumably donated by politicians, because most of the “artwork” deals with members of that tribe. The one memorable piece I encountered was a statue of the late Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo (D-Miss.) standing straight in suit and tie, one hand extended palm up, as though accepting a bribe (or perhaps about to give someone a “low five”). Admittedly, the sculptor had captured the essence of Bilbo, but one wonders if all that stone chiseling was worth the effort.
I couldn’t help speculating whether Babailov’s patriotic creation might not add a figurative explosion of spirit to the capitol building’s dark capillaries, although For God, Gold and Glory deserves to be displayed under the dome.
In the past 20 years Babailov has painted portraits of some of the world’s business, social and political elites. His commissions include U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian President V.V. Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. In 1996, he organized the first official delegation of North American artists to Russia in conjunction with the Russian Duma and the Union of Artists.
Babailov hews strictly to the traditions laid down by famous artists of the Renaissance through the 19th century, classical realism. There are no scrambled Picasso-like portraits here, no paint orgies, no splashes or splotches of non-objectivism. Instead one observes respect for creation, appreciation for the world’s beauty without alterations or disfigurement, plus mastery of anatomy, perspective, composition, and brushwork coupled with a superb drawing skill.
“I love the life that surrounds me,” Babailov says. “I respect its history and I admire its future. To preserve it for our descendants the way it is, in its truth and beauty, is my duty and my goal as an artist.”