Toma Stenko: How Love Feels



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TOMA STENKO | How Love Feels


An examination of love from the female perspective

Romantic, sexual, maternal, forbidden, self, broken and new – love is a roller-coaster of emotions that we all share. In this stunning exhibition of new works, premiered in London, Toma Stenko shares her exploration of what love means to her – the family, the couple, a mother keeping her baby close and a boy watching his mother are all portrayed in a kaleidoscope of colour.

But it’s not all sweetness, the viewer walks away with a bittersweet feeling – is love really all rainbows? This exhibition exposes the darker side – the censorsed, the oppressive and the betrayed.

These are immensely powerful works. Toma Stenko (b. 1980) is a Georgian-born and Moscow-based artist, film director, and fashion designer whose works in mixed media delve into the complex emotions of love. A graduate of St Martin’s, her work receives praise and a flourishing audience whenever it is exhibited. This is her first London exhibition.

Katrine Levin Galleries at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, 1-5 Flitcroft Street, London, WC2H 8DH

9 – 21 March Open daily 11am-6pm; until 7pm on Thursdays; until 5pm on Saturdays; closed on Sundays


INTRODUCTION Katrine Levin, founder Katrine Levin Galleries

Daring to drown a Murano glass chandelier - taken from the ceiling of a Venice hotel room - just because of its temptations to be ordinary. Daring to tell a person you’ve never met before that you love the sound of their voice - just because you do. Daring to live fully, unreservedly; to be yourself in all your technicolour. All this is Toma Stenko - she does what most of us dare not. Called the Russian Coco Chanel by her teacher at St. Martin’s, the great fashion designer Louise Wilson (whose other students included Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney), Toma was named by Vogue Magazine one of the world’s top twenty emerging fashion designers. Toma is also an award-winning director, whose documentaries and short films have gathered acclaim at international film festivals. She has the ability to see the extraordinary wherever she goes, in one film transforming ordinary fishermen into Apostle-like figures who catch fish falling from the night sky into their small boat. Toma embodies creativity, saying that she likes to see the visible in the invisible. Painting for her had

never been a secondary pursuit. She painted since childhood, using anything that came to hand - paper, walls, sand, silk, cotton, leather, canvas ... Toma’s husband, the renowned Georgian filmmaker and script writer Irakli Kvirikadze, calls her Fire-Girl. When you meet her, you’ll know why. Her great-grandfather was a shaman (in a village above the Polar Circle) and there is something of his great power in Toma’s artistic expression. When Toma likes something, she expresses it in an irresistible, all encompassing way that lifts you up and makes you feel like flying. But as with her artworks, it’s not all rainbows. Raised by her aunt in Georgia, she was taken at age 12 by her mother, a woman she barely knew, to live in Russia. She lost her father early in life. The subjects of the mother- daughter bond and the empty chair where the father figure should be feature often in her paintings which explore love in all its complexities and contradictions. Toma Stenko lives to the full, on her own terms, and knows exactly how love and occasionally the void left in its place, feels.



Laura - f l oa t i ng i n the sky and embrac i ng the f i gures around her - i s the harb i nger of Love. Love i s power fu l yet f rag i l e, exh i l ara t i ng yet exaspera t i ng . I t i s i n cons t ant mot i on . The empt y cha i r evokes the ro l l er coas ter of l ove’s emot i ons –ant i c i pa t i on , pass i on , j ea l ousy, absence. The ra i nbow s i gna l s the beg i nn i ng of a new j ourney …

LAURA IN RAINBOW, 2019 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 200 x 300cm

CHAIR, 2019 acrylic and pastel on wood 150 x 150


JEALOUSY, 2020 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 200 x 300cm A mother i s torn between two l ov i ng but compet i ng forces - her husband and her son .

FLYING CHAIR, 2020 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 150 x 200cm The f l y i ng cha i r evokes the power and chaos of cont rad i c t i ng emot i ons .



Anto i ne’s thought s are a mi xed pa l et te of l ove, fear, tenderness , doubt , the imposs i b i l i t y of be i ng together and the des i re to be …

THOUGHTS OF ANTOINE IN LOVE, 2020 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 110 x 129cm


The comp l ex fee l i ngs between a sur roga te

mother ( cent re ) , her ch i l d , and the ch i l d ’s mother. I n the background , the f a ther i s out s i de the emot i ona l t r i ang l e.

TWO MOTHERS OF ONE DAUGHTER, 2020 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 100 x 110cm



The ka l e i doscope of emot i ons i s captured i n each charac ter ’s d i s t i nc t aura of co l our. DEPTH OF THE WOODS, 2019 acrylic and pastel on wood 100 x 150cm

MADONNA AND CHAIR, 2019 acrylic oil and pastel on canvas 200 x 300cm empt y cha i r nearby s i gna l s the absence of a f a ther. A mother enfo l ds her ch i l d who l ooks out wi th unease, anx i ous of the future. An


The f ami l y. A concent ra ted un i t of comp l ex emot i ons and d i amet r i ca l l y opposed forces . . .

A FAMILY PORTRAIT, 2016 pastel on wood 100 x 100cm


. . .You don ’ t want to l i ve wi thout i t , but somet imes you can ’ t l i ve wi th i t e i ther.

CONVERSATION, 2017 acrylic and pastel on wood 100 x 100cm


A grown daughter yearns to es t ab l i sh her own i dent i t y and f ree her se l f f rom the i nf l uence of a domi neer i ng mother whose man i pu l a t i ons

and gu i l t t r i ps become a t rap.

THE CAPTIVE, 2019 acrylic and pastel on paper 150 x 150cm


NUDE, 2015 acrylic and Indian ink on paper 117 x 75cm


LAURA , 20 1 9, comp r i s ed o f f ou r pane l s , a c r y l i c and pa s t e l on wood and pape r, en t i r e p i ece 240 x 1 50cm


Laura i s the muse of Love. I n cons t ant mot i on , she i s power fu l yet f rag i l e, exh i l ara t i ng yet exaspera t i ng . The f a i nt out l i ne of an empt y cha i r evokes the ro l l er coas ter of l ove’s emot i ons – ant i c i pa t i on , pass i on , j ea l ousy, absence.



Love connec t s , changes , and merges the out l i nes of our l i ves .

THROUGH, 2019 acrylic on wood 150 x 150cm

Red i s a dangerous co l our. Pass i on can burn , i t can consume completely. Yet we yearn to be d i sso l ved i n i t s f l ames .

MY NAME IS RED, 2017 watercolour on paper 119 x 84cm


RED BALL, 2019 acrylic and pastel on wood 130 x 150cm


The ba l l i s symbo l i c of l ove’s ro l l er coas ter. Uns t ab l e and unpred i c t ab l e, i t s up-and-down t ra j ec tor y i s moved by the forces of l ove. The coup l e wi th the Red Ba l l are r i d i ng the cres t . Smi l i ng , Laura reaches for the Bl ue Ba l l – and the young man ’s adventure beg i ns…

BLUE BALL, 2019 acrylic and pastel on wood 150 x 150cm


Taught f rom ch i l dhood to be a wi fe and a mother, the young g i r l contemp l a tes the me l on , a symbo l of motherhood , fear fu l of i t s perce i ved i nev i t ab i l i t y.

A GIRL WITH A WATERMELON, 2017 pastel and indian ink on paper 83 x 106cm


LOVE RINK, 2019, pastel on paper, 109 x 83cm



I t i s sa i d tha t there are four women i n a man ’s l i fe : mother, grandmother,

Enfo l ded wi th i n the warmth of your parent s’ comfor t i ng b i g hands , protec ted aga i ns t mons ter s and fear s . The mag i c of ch i l dhood where a l l your wi shes t rans form i nto the rea l i t y of dreams .

wi fe, and daughter.

MARGARITA’S DREAM, 2018 acrylic and pastel on canvas 150 x 104cm

FOUR WOMEN, 2018 acrylic and pastel on canvas 104 x 150cm


MOTHER’S HUG, 2018 acrylic on canvas 100 x 100cm


Femi n i ne energy. The des i re to t ake f l i ght . How of ten does she forget tha t she has wi ngs !

SHE BIRD, 2018 acrylic on canvas 100 x 100cm


Los t i n memor i es , conf i ned by yet proud of her womanhood , she ho l ds a wh i te ba l l , evok i ng the ups and downs of l ove.

IN A CHAISE LONGUE, 2017 watercolour Indian ink and acrylic on paper 90 x 120cm


Symbo l i c of the f i ck l eness of l ove, the l arge green beach ba l l may bounce up and down or ro l l ent i re l y out of s i ght .

BEACH LOVER. 2017 watercolour, Indian ink and acrylic on paper 92 x 119cm


Ophe l i a . The vas tness of the sea . The l arge ba l l whose unpred i c t ab l e t ra j ec tor y i s moved by the forces of l ove.

SEA, BALL, OPHELIA, 2016 watercolour on paper 90 x 97cm


JACQUELINE, 2016, watercolour, acrylic and Indian ink on paper, 118 x 86cm


Co l our as emot i on . The ka l e i doscope of co l our te l l s . . .

A WALK IN THE GARDEN, 2019 acrylic on wood 150 x 150cm


. . . the s tor y of each charac ter ’s doubt s and pass i ons .

TENDERNESS, 2019 pastel and acrylic on canvas 110 x 120cm



Womanhood . Des i res tempered by expec t a t i ons .

JEANNE, 2017 pastel and Indian ink on paper 65 x 61cm

The b i g hand embod i es

LOVE OF THE BIG HAND, 2018 pastel on paper 111 x 83cm uncond i t i ona l l ove and sa fet y, evok i ng the mag i c of ch i l dhood .


Ophe l i a i s pur i t y. The grapes are

emot i ons borne out of pur i t y, ready to be t rans formed i nto the e l i x i r of l ove.

OPHELIA WITH A BUNCH OF GRAPES, 2019 pastel on paper 70 x 100cm


Vi s i ted by Laura , the muse of Love. Anto i ne i s uncer t a i n .

ANTOINE AND LAURA, 2018 pastel on paper 70 x 100cm


A young g i r l , l os t i n rever i e …

DIANA, 2016 acrylic on canvas 60 x 80cm


VAGINA, 2016 indian ink on paper 60 x 80cm


The s t rugg l e to accept the changes tha t come wi th age.

ON THE SAND, 2019 pastel on paper 84 x 104cm


Her breas t s bound by a

thread evok i ng the conf i nes of womanhood , the sea ted woman has come to terms wi th her ag i ng body, a tes t ament to a l i ved- i n l i fe.

CHAIR, 2019 watercolour on paper 90 x 82cm


The abandon of hav i ng l ove set you on f i re,

consumi ng abso l ute l y

THE BURNING ONE, 2019 pastel on paper 80 x 103cm



Rustam Hamdamov Painer. Academician. Film director.

That summer, as a big group, we travelled to a little Italian town Pennabilli to the international film school run by Tonino Guerra, a well-known Italian film director, poet, dramaturg, co-author of Federico Fellini’s films. During that trip for the first time I met Toma Stenko, a beautiful young girl with a gentle smile. She attracted everyone’s attention, with her extraordinary nature. In one of the master classes Toma sat on the side of a large leather couch while drawing something; she was not fully listening to the Japanese cartoonist Kaneto Natsumi. The hall was filled with young film directors from all across the world; I sat next to Toma, gazed at what she was drawing, and got surprised: A tree with lemons growing from its branches. Next to it a strange animal kissing or smelling a girl who appeared to be either asleep or passed out on the grass. Most probably kissing. The girl’s eyes are half open, you can see a sign of a smile. I asked her, “Beauty and the beast?” She answered, “It’s Picasso. He peeked at how in my childhood I run from the bull”. Toma smiled and continued, “Picasso peeked at the scene, so I drew from his album”. For two straight weeks Toma drew everything around her — deer that runout of the forest into the road and freeze in front of our bus. Fountains in the city where Rafael Santi was born. An oak tree in the garden of Michelangelo’s house.

Toma would show her works in either a shy manner or playfully confident one to Paola Volkova, Georgiy Daneliya, Tonino Guerra and to me. We politely complimented her. I don’t know about others but I felt like behind her calm paintings she was hiding something rebellious, some kind of mystery, some kind of passion. I’d say, ‘mad passion’ which she hides in her academic drawings of pencil, ink, pastel. “Who taught you?” I asked her. “Botticelli, Picasso and school art teacher from Sochi, Alexandr Efimovich Voskresensky,” she answered. I laughed, “I know two out of the three, tell me about Voskresensky.” We continued our conversation after our visit to Tonino Guerra, restaurant owner Lorenzo Bellokkio, who owned a place called Blou Ap, in honour of the movie by the script writer Tonino Guerra. “So who is Voskresensky?” I asked. Bellokkio rosé wine was helping me to listen and the same wine was helping Toma to speak. “Voskresensky taught me to draw in such a way that through art, the soul would show.” I grunted, thinking that this was a rather mannered statement. In the depth of the cliff one could hear a strong river current passing. Guests of the summer film school were getting seated on the bus. “Voskresensky, taught me to be generous, he also taught me that God is everywhere, he is in Michelangelo’s oak tree, and in an acorn... When I


look at the tree I see in the depths of the leaves, the one who is sitting and looking back.” I asked, “Who is it that is staring back at you from the depths of the leaves? God?” Her answer shocked me. “Somewhere I read that the great painter Corot said that one should paint krones of trees in such a way that there is space left for the little birds to fit in.” I continued, “So the birds are the ones that are staring?” And she finished our not so sober conversation, “Little birds, God, and the unattractive boy with a squashed nose named Michelangelo Buonarroti, that will grow up and paint The Sistine Chapel.” It was all said in a tone that I understood not to argue back and just gazed quietly at the dark Italian sky and the yellow stars the size of Uzbek melons. Next morning Toma and Irakli ran off to Venice. In the arms of other great teachers — Tiziano, Tintoretto, Tiepolo... Drowned a chandelier made out of Murano glass in the Grand Canal. Toma said the chandelier was pale pink in colour. She drowned it in secret from Irakli. I hardly believed the story, but Paola Dmitreovna Volkova (a renowned art critic and psychologist) after hearing about it said, “That’s Stenko.” Returning to the village Pennabilli Toma and I struck up a conversation about Voskresensky again. “He would show me Bosch, Schiele, Renoir, Deyneka. He was teaching his students to find soul in their artworks, while drawing portraits of the communist party leaders in his tiny kitchen! Year by year he completed his mandatory target of portrait paintings of Lenin, Brezhnev and Susloveh, acting as if he is happy to receive these orders. He drew in squares: in one square there is an ear, in the other — an eye, a nose and so on... Voskresensky lived in the same

apartment block as me and every evening I could see a ray of his diascope and ears of Brezhnev enlarged, projected on the wall. I was really young when the Soviet Union collapsed. Voskresensky lost all his work. He was practically starving, but he was happy. We went to Sochi together to buy some cheap paint. For three months I was helping him to draw and eventually he got his creative energy back... and suddenly he killed himself.” “What!?” I shockingly asked, “How?” “He shot himself.” On our last day in Pennabilli holding a glass of rosé, Tonino Guerra said, “Two days before Federico Fellini’s death he said ‘It would be great to fall in love again!’” He wanted to say that love is one of the greatest things in life. When you are in love, you stop being just a person, but you become an aroma. You stop walking on land, you soar above it. That’s the state of being in love. And it doesn’t matter what you love, a woman, a painting, a piece of literature, your work, the world. Love isn’t happiness nor is it sadness. It is not an award or a struggle. It’s all a journey to a magical country, a secret path, a mysterious road. And each of us has to make this journey. That night we drank a lot of rosé... A lot of years have passed since that time in Pennabilli. Tonino Guerra isn’t with us anymore, but the memories are... In 10 years Toma Stenko developed into a wonderful artist, found her voice, style, form. Today she is walking along that mysterious road... And I deeply believe in her... P.S. I still have Toma’s drawing of Michelangelo’s Oak tree, and looking right at it I can see someone’s eye observing all of us....




is my wife. One could say we have an unequal marriage. I am 79, Toma is 39. We live in Moscow, on 3rd Samotechniy Lane, on the seventh floor. Our windows face the old Schemilovsky Park. The three-century-old oaks’ foliage whispers to us. The floor of our bedroom is covered by a huge Uzbek rug, three by three metres. It features Generalissimus Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin in full height. The Uzbek female rugmakers personally presented this rug in the Kremlin to the man whose image is woven on it. Stalin kissed all the four women, one of them fainted, so happy was she. When I was a little boy, back in 1949, thirty years before Toma Stenko was born, I watched a documentary depicting this scene at Spartak, our local cinema in Tbilisi. How the rug had found its way to our bedroom is another story. It’s irrelevant here. Once, four or five years ago, when we lived in Malta, my beloved wife ran after me holding a big kitchen knife. She shouted, “Will ya write this novel or not? AST Publisher is waiting for it, Lena Shubina is waiting for it, I am waiting for it...” I ran from her yelling, “I am not Faulkner! Not Marquez! Not Scott Fitzgerald! I can’t write novels!” And indeed, I can’t. At this moment, while Toma Stenko is preparing for her art exhibition, the catalogue is printed for the event. In it, besides her paintings, watercolours, graphics, photographs, book illustrations and posters, should be my story about the artist Toma Stenko — I can’t even write this piece... What can I write? That she has

Irakli Kvirikadze Screenwriter, film director, author

“The dress she wore was translucent. A plain dress, slightly tightened by a thin cord at the waist. The rest was Toma Stenko herself, twenty-two years of age. ‘Her breasts are like pomegranates’, or however it was said, but in fact it’s just a young woman’s breasts”. This way Kurt Vonnegut described his heroine Mona in Cat’s Cradle, and I’ve just replaced Mona for Toma. Let me describe our first encounter in Sochi, back in 2002. It was June. On that night, the guests and participants of the Centaur Film Festival danced in the Zhemchuzhina hotel’s 50-metre-long pool that was drained. Dry especially for the closing ceremony. (Oh, I am sorry, the festival was called not Centaur, but Kinotaur, and the pool was not drained dry, but merely the water was let out of it.) So, the dancing crowd in sandals, sneakers, and patent-leather shoes moved amid the puddles scattered across the pool’s concrete bottom. All of them were merry, they were brothers and sisters, beautiful and handsome, loved and loving ones... Now, I will interrupt myself, but will return again soon to my description of my first encounter with Toma Stenko.

I am Irakli Kvirikadze, my métier is filmmaking, Toma Stenko


a rich ethnic heritage, that aside from the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian bloodlines she has Khanty and Mansy ancestors? That her great-grandfather Avksetny Kholin was a shaman in a village above the Polar Circle, and he healed cows and deer, as well as Khanty women of barrenness! In the 1930s, when shamans were persecuted, a dozen Red Army soldiers and three officers arrived at the deer-breeding village, summoned all the shamans and ordered them to board a plane, saying, “We’re going to Moscow to attend the All-Union Shaman’s conference”. The naïve Northern wizards brought their magic drums, tambourines and fur coats aboard the plane. While in mid-air, the officers opened the door and their commander said laughing “You say you can fly? So, fly!” And some thirty shamans were thrown off the plane, along with their drums, tambourines and fur coats... Then the Red Army soldiers and officers closed the door, having accomplished the supreme directive. All of a sudden, they saw in the clouds a bunch of men pursuing the plane. Among them was Toma Stenko’s great-grandfather Avksenty Kholin. The men knocked on the plane’s windows and laughed. The plane sped up high in the sky. The noisy crowd of shamans was left behind. Toma Stenko’s great-grandfather and the rest safely landed in their villages. Avksenty lived forty more years, and together with Toma’s great-grandmother, raised four sons. But do I have to write about it in the preface to her art catalogue? I have no idea. However, there is something of the great- grandfather, the shaman, in his great-granddaughter.

So, I thought it over and decided that if I am supposed to write a preface to the catalogue, I would make a totally schizophrenic story about how I survived the incident of when my beloved wife pursued me with a knife — and I have even come up with the title (The One Who Invented the Globe, or the Night Serenade, Sung by the Voiceless Lover). In Stephen King’s The Shining, the unsuccessful writer types one and the same phrase on three hundred pages, “I can’t write, I can’t write, I can’t write...” So, I want to type on all of the pages of the Toma Stenko story just one phrase, “Gunsmith, make me thirteen bullets, thirteen times I will shoot myself...” This is the line from the poem by Galaktion Tabidze, the Georgian poet. One day he was standing near the wall of my house in Tbilisi, drunk, and weeping. The old poet with a grey tangled beard, resembling God, wept by my window. I stared curiously at him through the window with my wide-open eyes. “Gunsmith, make me thirteen bullets, thirteen times I will shoot myself...” (Galaktion confessed his love to a thirteen-year-old girl). With these stolen words I want to confess my love to the artist Toma Stenko. You think, I don’t feel how tangled my story is? I do feel it... I am writing this in the city of Alma-Ata, where I borrowed several books from an old oak bookcase in the lobby of Mildom Hotel: the third volume of Kurt Vonnegut’s collected novels, prosaic works of Marina Tsvetayeva, Lermontov in his Contemporaries’ Memoirs,


a volume of Julio Cortazar, a number of old Soviet-era books smelling of cinnamon and dust, and a volume of Nikolai Gogol. Now it is 3 a.m., I have to send the text to the publisher in Moscow, the printing office is ready for the catalogue. And me, I am in Alma-Ata drinking Korean vodka and reading Marina Tsvetayeva. “Before me is a girl — a living fire. Everything is ablaze, all of her is burning — her cheeks, her lips, her eyes on fire, the white teeth fire-proof in the flame of her mouth [...]. And the look, out of that fire – such bliss, such despair, as if to say: ‘I am frightened! I am in love!’” In my hotel room I am surrounded by the books stolen earlier from the oak bookcase. I hear them whispering, “Don’t be scared, Irakli, tomorrow morning you will have the finished text for the catalogue”. And I believed them. Using quotations from my favourite writers, I would tell the world how much I like the artist Toma Stenko. Of course, Tsvetayeva describes Toma... Having finished the Korean vodka, I didn’t feel ashamed of my plagiarism. Look what Tsvetaeyeva writes about Toma: “I haven’t seen pink pearls, but I affirm that her face was even pinker and pearlier.” Then, one of Tsvetaeyva’s heroines says, “Marina, have you ever thought that now, at this very moment, this very same minute, somewhere, in the port city, a sailor or a naval officer — it’s all the same, comes off the ship and wanders around the city looking for you,

the one that is here in Borisoglebsky lane... At school I loved geography — all those latitudes, meridians, loved city names, they are so many, the globe is full of them, they are on every point of the globe — the globe is only seemingly small. (Do you have a globe? I could show you.) And the dot only seems to be a dot, there are thousands of dots, thousands of those whom I could love ... Marina, who invented the globe? You don’t know? Me too, I don’t know anything, neither who invented the globe nor maps, or clocks... I bless whoever invented the globe (possibly, some old man with a long white beard...) — for the fact that I can immediately embrace the whole globe with these two hands — with all my loved ones!!!” This monologue is from The Tale of Sonechka could be spoken by Toma Stenko. Just look at her art pieces. In many of them you will see large arms, unnaturally large arms of lovers who embrace and protect those they love. Suddenly the lights went out at Mildom Hotel, and I observed from my window how the city plunged into utter darkness. Only the bright stars of the Kazakh sky shone oblivious to my need to compose a story about the artist who constantly paints and draws on canvas, paper, walls, wet sands of ocean beaches (in India), on silk, cotton and leather (in London, at Central Saint Martins, where she studied under the great Louise Wilson), on Starbucks paper cups (around the world)... In a house on Samotechniy Lane where we live, there is an empty apartment down below which is advertised


for sale. Her owner went to Madagascar and married a Madagascan prince there. Before leaving, she made a silly mistake giving Toma the keys, and number 12 was turned into an art studio. On many of her paintings you can see number 12. For a whole year, we did not hear from the new Madagascan princess. Toma Stenko’s paintings hung themselves up on the empty concrete walls of the apartment (I am kidding, of course). And then, in February, Olga Yevgenievna Barsukova, our neighbor and owner of the said apartment, unexpectedly returned. She arrived with the prince who boasted of many names, of which I have committed to memory only one: Abamelk. Olga and Abamelk observed the paintings for quite some time, in silence. Paintings were spread across the three rooms. No one asked, “Why are these paintings hanging here?” After a prolonged silence Prince Abamelk posed a question to Toma Stenko, “Are you happy?” “I can’t tell you. But while I am painting, I am”. “What if I’d buy all these paintings? Except for those displaying female sexual characteristics. (He pronounced exactly those words, ‘female sexual characteristics’.) What if we will take them away to Madagascar, and you will get the apartment?” Toma Stenko thought it over and then asked, “What are your objections to female sexual characteristics?” “It is considered highly indecent in Madagascar to depict women this way, even a whore from a soldiers’


brothel would not be portrayed like this!”

made of Murano glass — we did what every second tourist does in Venice. In fact, one should perform crazy things in Venice, not buy chandeliers. Sitting in our small hotel room and inspecting the octopus-looking chandelier, we despised ourselves for being so petty bourgeois. I fell asleep and was unaware that the artist Stenko took the chandelier, that robbed us of all our euros, out of the room and sunk it in the Grand Canal. So, this is the way of Toma Stenko, whom I know a little. Who every so often trespasses the ‘limits of common sense’. This is what I learned about the geography teacher Glafira Mikhailovna Serebryakova and why Toma Stenko portrays her in the nude, or, to use Prince Abalmek’s words, ‘displays the female sexual characteristics’. There will be a lot of her portraits at the London exhibition: Glafira on a Stripy Deckchair, Glafira among the Big-Eyed Fish, Glafira and Her Hubby Vanechka, Whom She Loved but He was Unfaithful to Her. Toma says that the geography teacher was a most decent and pious woman, but why did she utter such an obscene phrase, which is almost incomprehensible: “Even big ships sink in the c@nt”. When she was a little girl, Toma could not imagine how big ships may sink in such a tiny area (she stood in front of the mirror). This phrase took her aback and it was reflected in her paintings — in many nude portraits of her geography teacher. They were the nudes of her young days, of her aged between 30 and 40, and of her period of Rubens’s fleshy curves.

Toma erupted unexpectedly, in her customary exuberant way. She took hold of the big kitchen knife — that one, which she held when she ran after me, yelling, “Why aren’t you a Faulkner or a Marquez!” While pursuing the Madagascan’s guests she yelled, “All these portraits are just nudes! This is my cherished Glafira Mikhailovna Serebryakova, the mother of my mother, the most decent geography teacher, and in no way is she a whore from a soldiers’ brothel!” That night we were transferring the pictures from the fourth floor up to our apartment on the seventh. It was already morning when our children Chanur and Gema went to sleep. Toma fell asleep, too. But I laid awake. I recalled the town of Pennabilli in the mountains of Italy, where we both were invited to visit the school run by Tonino Guerra. Along with us, six people were invited: Rustam Khamdamov, Paola Volkova, Georgi Danelia, Vera Sumenova, Andrei Khrzhanovsky, and Anton Lange. Invited to give master classes, to drink white and red Italian wines, to contemplate landscapes which before us were admired by Raffaello Santi and Michelangelo Buonarroti. These genius’ houses are located in close vicinity to Pennabilli where lived Lora Yablochkina and Tonino Guerra, the writer, poet, playwright, the scriptwriter of Amarcord, And the Ship Sails On and many more masterpieces of the world cinema. After staying two weeks in Pennabilli, Toma and I escaped to Venice. In the city of Casanova, Titian, Goldoni, Bellini and Brodsky we bought a chandelier


A letter came from Madagascar. By the way, it’s time for me to confess that Madagascar is an imagined place of residence of the 4th floor apartment owner, who did indeed marry Prince Abamelk, but the name of the prince’s home country is rather dull and I invented Madagascar (you can consider him a Prince of Bahrain, if you wish). Olga Barsukova informed us that Prince Abamelk keeps admiring Toma Stenko’s paintings, but he was imprisoned, as upon their arrival, a coup d’état took place in Madagascar (Bahrain). Now she delivers food parcels to her loved one. Seventeen meals: dry Spanish omelette with Martini, lobster eggs with ketchup, tomato and seaweed jelly, sweet parmesan... Some chef told Barsukova that those meals were a part of Salvador Dali’s habitual breakfast. “Abamelk holds no hard feelings for your absurd running after him with a knife.” In this way the letter from Princess Olga Barsukova ends. I recalled all this sitting in utter darkness and looking at the stars outside the window of my Mildom Hotel room. I went downstairs to the reception desk and said I needed light, so the desk clerk lit a candle for me and I carried her... no, I carried it to my room. I reread my writing and was horrified: what rubbish I’ve written! What is to be done? Should I run into the dark Kazakh night and vanish? How lucky is Abamelk sitting behind bars, given Salvador Dali breakfasts! Maybe I should start all over again? Starting with what? With that first encounter with Stenko, when at 3 a. m. I climbed out of the empty pool of Zhemchuzhina Hotel,

where the Kinotaur Film Festival had just ended, and I trudged along with Roma Kozak (the wonderful theatre director — alas, passed away). Tomorrow morning we were supposed to board a plane bound for Moscow. I walked holding the Grand Prix for Moon Father, as I, Irakli Kvirikadze, wrote its script. It was June, 2002. A year ago, Osama bin Laden had the Twin Towers blown up in New York. But that night Sochi was fragrant with magnolias. It was only three steps to the pool’s gate when Roma whispered to me, “Irakli, just look to your left, at this wonder” — and I looked and saw the wonder, a 22-year-old girl, about such wonder Marina Tsvetayeva once said: “Before me is a girl — a living fire!” I saw this girl — the living fire, selling flowers by the wall of Limpopo café. Roma Kozak shouldn’t have shown her to me, I should have taken those remaining three steps, passed through the gate and left the next morning for Moscow! God, what am I talking about! Roma Kozak, during your limited residence on this earth you have staged many great productions, played in some of them as an actor, but your best cue was spoken in a thick drunken voice, “Look to your left, at this wonder!” Seventeen years since then, I am still looking. The girl-fire’s father Valery Storozhenko was a hydrologist, who dug artificial lakes and let fish live in them. Sazans, carps, both mirror and non-mirror ones, and sturgeons worshipped him. The girl-fire left the provincial Adler for Moscow and enrolled on the design course at the Textile Institute. While a first-year Brief chronicle:


student, she participated in the world contest of young designers in Tokyo and won. Her fashion collection was called “Queen of the Homeless”. Tokyo’s teenage girls bought all the queen’s clothes after the very first day of the contest. The girl-fire was not left alone in the streets of Tokyo, as if it was not her walking along, but Vivien Westwood. Stenko dropped out of the Institute, dove into the troubled waters of fashion design and surfaced in central London, in the old buildings of Central Saint Martins (the world’s most famous design school), to become a student of the fashion guru Louise Wilson. During her five years in London she learned and perfected her English and won eight fashion show competitions in Tokyo (again), Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires and Beijing. Vogue magazine called her one of the world’s twenty best fashion designers of the next generation. Toma Stenko made stage costumes for the English National Ballet, gave birth to Irakli Kvirikadze, Jr. (my son), was nicknamed ‘The Russian Coco Ch’. (I decided not to mention who Coco Ch. is in order not to overpraise Toma Stenko, although it is certainly clear who Coco Ch. is) by the toughest guru of European fashion Louise Wilson (among her students were Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Stella McCartney). “You are as crazy, exuberant and lonely as Coco was”, Louise Wilson used to tell her. I remember the tears — a very rare thing! — in Toma Stenko’s eyes when she told me how Wilson summoned her to her office a day before the Central Saint Martins’ fashion contest finals, took the bronze


statue from her strongbox and said, “This is yours. But tomorrow I will not give this to you, and not you I will announce the winner!” After these words, Louise Wilson continued with a lot of bad language. She liked to swear, this big, bulky and seemingly very rude woman. “You and your fucking Georgian man do not read the papers, and the relations between Britain and Russia today are so bad, so tense, that I am not in the position to give you what you deserve. Just hold it in your hands for a while and give it back to me!” And she swore again. Those days Toma Stenko dexterously rode a scooter around London while being pregnant. Aside from her big belly with the Georgian baby moving inside, she carried rolls of cloth, rolls of paper, portable mannequins; she was getting ready for her diploma fashion show. Although she did not have any spare time, she spent Sundays in the National Gallery lying down in front of her favourite paintings — she was not strong enough to stand, as her belly got bigger and bigger every day. Matisse, Watteau, Breughel, Bosch, Picasso... “The only man I would cheat on you with, Irakli, is Picasso! Just keep this in mind!” She told me when I came again to London, forgetting about my business obligations at home. Time was on Stenko’s side. That year, while London suburbs were burning, rioting locals and emigrants caused trouble in shops and set cars on fire, Toma continued to ride her scooter. One day, after she rode through to the tunnel under La Manche (she was not riding her scooter, of course, but a train), she found herself in Antibes, where she arranged a meeting with Pablo Picasso in his museum. There

are a lot of odd diseases, Picassomania is among them Paintings by other artists tried to cure her of this illness: Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, as well as the old masters such as Giotto and others, but all in vain. After finishing Central Saint Martins, she had to quickly pack her bags. According to the new British law, a foreign graduate had no right to obtain a working visa. Thus, England pushed foreigners away: “Quick, quick, go home, or God forbid you pick up a brick on the street and throw it into a shop window, or else, upon seeing a parked Bentley, you may wish to burn it down”. This new law coincided with the emigrants’ fire dances in London’s suburbs. Nobody, even the powerful Louise Wilson, could help Toma in getting a working visa. This was a fall at take-off... This was banishment. An Aeroflot plane landed in Sheremetyevo. In Russia, many things changed during Toma’s absence... The artificial lake at the outskirts of Adler, the one that hydrologist Valery Storozhenko had dug and filled with water, letting out sazans, carps and sturgeons, was just beginning to bring profit, and ‘the lake genius’ decided to privatize it. The prodigal daughter Toma returned from London (do you remember Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son? So, replace the son with the daughter). ‘The lake genius’, alas, soon died. The Lord takes the best ones. If sazans, carps and sturgeons could deplore and weep, the lake’s waters (or tears) would overflow its banks. Toma Stenko called me from Adler. She was depressed after her London failure; she hid away on her father’s lake from the world and the people, and she only


painted and drew, painted and drew, painted... She had just one request, “Irakli, when you come, please bring pastels, acrylics, canvases and brushes”. One more quotation from Marina Tsvetayeva. The character in The Tale of Sonechka says: “There are things that a man cannot understand in a woman, not because they are below or above a man’s understanding, that is not the case, but because some things one can understand only from within... I am unable to be a woman. So, this small thing, the male inside me, is unable to understand that little thing, the female in you”. The Kazakh dawn was breaking. The Alatau mountains emerged from the darkness of the night and moved towards Alma-Ata. The snowy peaks were glowing in the rays of the yet unseen sun. Every day, Toma Stenko gets up before dawn, in darkness descends down to the fourth floor, and opens someone else’s apartment with someone else’s keys, steps towards the blank canvass and starts painting, and keeps painting on and on. One day, four years ago, she decided to make films and enrolled at the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors. She has made the following films: Wandering around Berlin, The Goatfish, The Telescope, Scream, The Beauty of Silence. They were screened at international film festivals and won numerous prizes. However, for Stenko, her brushes and colours, her canvases, her solitude, her war with the line, colour and form is far more important than Cannes and other red-carpet events. I want to tell you about just one film, The Goatfish about how it was made. My friend Sergei Sarkisov gave her a

small video camera. Toma roamed with it along Adler’s cold seashore. And she saw a big motorboat and six men trying to start up its motor. They were fishermen bound for night goatfish fishing. Toma asked them to take her along, and they shooed her away as, “a woman at fishing is a disaster”. But Toma is always able to persuade. The fishermen reluctantly assented. Early next morning the boat returned home, carrying the season’s record- breaking catch. Toma was shooting the whole night and day; she edited the footage for a week, and finally there was a documentary born about six hermits spiritually akin to Christ’s apostles, who sail the sea, and it seems that the goatfish fall from the sky into their boat. Amazingly simple film that got a whole bouquet of prizes. The Kazakh day is in full bloom, and I’d like to tell you much more about the artist, but I have to send the preface to the printing office in Moscow. The phone rings. Toma Stenko says, “Irakli, I cheated on Picasso, I fell in love with Modigliani. He was thirty- five when he died... He was impoverished, he did not sell a single painting in his lifetime. Nowadays they are estimated at 180 million euros. But it’s not millions that count, just look at his photo, look into his eyes and you will see everything”. My phone’s screen displayed the face of Modigliani, with stubble, exhausted. I have never seen Modigliani like this before. Toma Stenko was beside him. It was a collage: Modigliani and Stenko holding bunches of grapes.



TOMA STENKO DIRECTOR, ARTIST, DESIGNER Born in Georgia, 1980. Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, BA and MA Fashion graduate. Participated in art exhibitions and fashion weeks in Paris, London, Berlin and Japan. Winner and participant of many international competitions. Worked as an artist for English National Ballet, theatre and film. Internships at Mary Katrantzou and Alexander McQueen studios in London. In 2017, Toma graduated from Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors in Moscow and began a successful career as a script writer and film director winning recent awards at British and International film festivals. Awards 2018 International film festival SIFA, Great Britain, winner in nomination for the director’s courage, short film, for the short film THE GOATFISH 2018 Portobello film festival, Great Britain, winner in the nomination the best short film, for the film TELESCOPE 2018 International Film Festival K. Zanussi, the winner in the nomination for the innovative decision in the film BALL

Filmography Wild Stories I. Kvirikadze (doc., 2019) Scream (feature, 2018) Monologues (doc. Series, 2017) The Beauty of Silence (doc., 2017) The Goatfish (doc., 2017) Silver Street Number 7 (feature, 2017) Ball (doc.,2017) Telescope (feature, 2017) Wandering around Berlin (doc., 2016) Now preparing for the shooting of a full-length feature film.

Education Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors 2017, Moscow MA Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, 2013, London BA Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, 2011, London Fashion Folio Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, 2008, London University of Russian Academy of Education, journalism, 2005, Moscow

2018 Point in the Endless Universe, Cyprus, winner

in the nomination visual innovation for the film TELESCOPE

2010 Second Prix “The Italian Grand Tour”, London

2006 Grand Prix — Art at Fashion Week International “Queen of The Homeless”, Moscow



Katrine Levin Galleries is not a place, it is a destination to experience extraordinary contemporary art from places less explored. Our promise is art and beyond. In our pursuit of unique masters, we immerse ourselves into their cultures, intimate stories, and places that inspired and informed their art. Katrine commits long-term to a small selection of masters of diverse styles. Her focus is on art of enduring value that brings joy through originality, inspiration, and depth. We believe that such artists are rare. It is our privilege to share and let you discover their art and beyond, currently in Southwest China and Georgia.

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Published on the occasion of the London solo exhibition “How Love Feels”, March 2020

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Graphic design: Martina Poiana

Cover image: Thoughts of Antoine in Love, 2020

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