June 28, 1939- June 29, 2013
Valery Kleverov was born in Engels, Russian Federation, Soviet Union June 28, 1939 the son of a fighter test pilot in the Soviet Air Force. He exhibited an independent, rebellious, and highly artistic temperament from a young age. Conscription into the Red Army at the standard age of (18) was first and last straw in the young artist’s battle with the State, he lasted only a few months before making an unauthorized parachute jump over a forest to go permanently AWOL. In his brief stint in service of the Soviet authority he had supplemented his income by selling sexy drawings of nude females to his fellow conscripts.
After 3 weeks hiding in the woods, he eventually made his way to Leningrad, dropped his first name and the “ov” from the end of his name and began his life as the underground artist known as “KLEVER”. He fell in with a close-knit group of young anti-authoritarian rebels who eventually became known to the world as the “Non-Conformists”, a small gang of free thinkers mainly from Leningrad and Moscow who rebelled against State control of artistic expression and of free thought. In the Soviet Union, not only religion was outlawed - art, literature, music and dance were all subject to heavy censorship and state oversight. Among paintings historical, religious, abstract, anti-Soviet and erotic subjects were all against the law.
From 1966 to 1977 Klever made a reputation for himself as one of the non-conformists most overtly critical of the Soviet state. Many of his paintings from this period can be described as nothing less than heroic- they are truly remarkable visual essays on the evils of the national security/surveillance state, propaganda and manipulation of cultural symbols, suppression of artistic and religious freedom, revisionist history, and unfilled promises for the future. All of them were painted stored and exhibited not only at great risk to the artist and his associates, but also to anybody who sought to view them.
The paintings were stashed in make-shift walls, behind shelving units and at trustworthy friends’ houses. In spite of the secrecy, the KGB discovered the existence of these pieces and began to follow Klever’s every move. There were surprise visits to his studio, harassment wherever he went, friends and family being questioned all a direct result of his determination to express himself artistically against Soviet control. From this time forward Klever had an exhibit which was open for viewing at all times inside the apartment of Bob Kashilohov as part of a network which paralleled the Samizdat network for sharing of forbidden literature.
During this period Klever supported himself and his family to private collectors in Leningrad and Moscow. He also attended classes at University of Leningrad and at the Art Academy, a process much complicated by his underground status as a runaway conscript. Due to the sheer volume of his works and collections, over time, Klever gathered a group of artists who studied Klever’s artistic approaches.
Klever was arrested for his participation in the most important non- conformist exhibitions which took place during his time there. These were the Bulldozer Exhibition in Moscow, 1974, (so named because the KGB bulldozed the exhibition and destroyed much of the work) and the Nevski Dom exhibition in Leningrad, 1975. These exhibitions represented some of the early cracks in the foundations of the Soviet state’s control over the population’s basic aspirations for economic, personal and creative freedom that ended with collapse in 1991.
Repercussions of the Bulldozer exhibition were that some of the painters were arrested or even killed. One of the organizers, Yevgenni Rukhin died in a fire in his studio, his wife claimed he was murdered by the KGB. Alexander Arefiev was sentenced to two life terms in prison before being exiled with Klever in 1977. Approximately 70 artists were arrested, including Klever. Media outcry in the west allowed most of the artists to be released within a week. Two weeks later another exhibition was allowed to proceed and became known as “Half Day of Freedom” in the Soviet Union.
The Nevsky exhibition caused a huge sensation and was a watershed moment in the cultural history of the Soviet Union. People lined up for 30 blocks long over the course of the two week exhibition to see the forbidden works. Klever showed a large collection of explicit anti-Soviet paintings and was subsequently harassed and arrested again by the KGB.
Klever was expelled from the Soviet Union with 62 other political “undesirables” in 1977. Artists and other dissidents with their immediate families were packed onto planes making stops in Paris, Vienna, and Jerusalem. Many of his associates chose Paris, Klever and his family disembarked in Vienna, he maintained contacts in both cities for the rest of his life, frequently visiting Europe. Klever and his family eventually made their way to the United States, where they became citizens in 1982.
An attempt to permanently return to the Soviet Union in 1986 with hope inspired by the early stages of “Glasnost” policy failed miserably. Klever and his family found themselves hounded by the KGB and returned to the United States permanently in May 1987. Throughout this time Klever had supported himself and his family through his work as an artist. Klever continued to paint prolifically through the rest of his life and remained successful selling his work privately to clients around the world and with scattered exhibitions throughout the United States. In the world of dissident art, Klever might be described as an “unknown known” - not unacknowledged but overlooked and under-appreciated. In the end his courage and devotion to principle and his family resulted in a successful and comfortable life in the United States, though at the sacrifice of his life in his motherland. Like the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Klever’s expatriate work is a passionate testament to his love of his native country people, and what had become of them under Soviet rule.
After the political, the most predominant theme in Klever’s work is sensual. He painted and drew a large number of nudes - bare female breasts with erect nipples are common motif, sometimes enmeshed with the political themes. Typical political imagery includes (spying) eyes, barbed wire, various restraints, crosses, and the hammer and sickle. Windows carry particular symbolic significance in Klever’s work as indicators both of what is (or was) and what should (or at least might) be.
Klever worked in a wide range of styles in a remarkable career that spanned five decades. He painted impressionist landscapes to completely abstract mixed-media constructions and most everything in between, working in oil, watercolor, ink, charcoal, generally whatever was available to paint on or with. The most obvious modern influences are Chagall, Picasso, Leger, Malevich, and various Russian Futurists.
Klever passed away after a battle with cancer the day after his 74th birthday in 2013.