By Walt Schnabel
COPYRIGHT © 2003 BY WALT SCHNABEL
Gouri Ivanov-Rinov entered the Dublin art world through a different door than most of the other artists. He was not from a well-to-do New England family, nor had he access to a private school education or to art study in Europe.
He was born in Turkistan, Russia, in 1902. His family, steeped in military tradition, was descended from a line of Cossack warriors. His father was a general in the Russian army and security guard to the Czar prior to the Russian Revolution. Ivanov-Rinov attended elementary school at the Tashkent Military Academy. At the age of 15, he and all of his fellow cadets were engaged in combat, fighting the Communists.
In 1920, his family fled the Revolution to Tsingtao in China. It was here that Ivanov-Rinov met an American Methodist missionary who helped him get a job as a deck hand on a freighter to earn his passage to the United States. In December of 1922, Ivanov-Rinov arrived in Portland, Oregon, with $7.00 in his pocket and no English in his vocabulary. Between 1923 and 1924 he worked as a laborer on a hydroelectric project in the Sierra Nevada mountains – saving his money in order to realize his dream of attending the Art Institute of Chicago. In Chicago, he began studying sculpture under Polachek, but his range of interests also included theatrical scenic design. This eclectic approach to art – exploring many different styles and media – would continue throughout his artistic career.
During the summers from 1925 to 1932, Ivanov-Rinov was the scenic designer for a theater in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The University Players was founded by a group of students from Princeton and counted among its players such notable actors as Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Margaret Sullivan.
In the early 1930s, Ivanov-Rinov received a scholarship to study painting at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. It was here that he met the noted Dublin artist Alexander James. This encounter with James grew into a lifelong friendship and precipitated Ivanov-Rinov’s eventual arrival in Dublin in 1933. Dublin was to become his home, off and on, for the rest of his life. James enticed Gouri to stay in Dublin by giving him a piece of land on Pierce Road. In the late 1930s, he began construction of a house that had the unique design feature of rammed earth walls. Having a keen eye for design but limited financial resources, Ivanov-Rinov built his house using largely scavenged but interesting materials such as cross arms from telephone poles and rounded glass windows from revolving doors. The house mirrored Ivanov-Rinov’s approach to art and life.
Ivanov-Rinov met Muriel Davenport, an opera singer, in Chicago, and in 1940 they were married. They moved to Dublin full time in 1943 and together, accompanied by their Siberian cat Kuchum (named after a fierce Tartar), completed their house – doing the majority of the work themselves. In the 1950s, Ivanov-Rinov and his wife were accepted into the ranks of the socially elite in Dublin, probably due to his Old World charm more than his credentials as an artist. In other circles, however, he was shunned because of the negative sentiment toward Russia in post-war America.
He conducted summer art schools in Dublin and Keene from 1948 to 1965, offering lessons in landscape painting and still life drawing that featured, according to its write-up in local papers at the time, “nonprofessional models that were adequately clothed.” Dublin resident Margaret Gurney took art classes with Gouri as a young girl and remembers him as “warm, gentle, and very supportive as an instructor. He also fashioned simple wooden benches for us to sit on and work on our paintings.”
Ivanov-Rinov was also an accomplished icon painter and colorist. He was commissioned by the Russian Orthodox Church to create exquisite icons working with gesso and gold leaf. His painting spanned a wide range of styles and subject matter. His early work from the 1930s could be considered part of the so-called Ash Can School where the subject matter is dark and the underbelly of street life often depicted. He also did many paintings that portray deeply felt religious symbolism and reflect his Russian Orthodox roots. His landscapes depict scenes around the Monadnock region; he was also commissioned to paint portraits.
Perhaps his most accessible works can be best described as WPA (Works Projects Administration) style. In these paintings, work and workers are presented in a stylized fashion. A large painting showing this approach hangs in the Dublin Public Library. Apparently, Ivanov-Rinov selected elements from throughout the Monadnock region (for example, a mill building from Harrisville; a covered bridge from Swanzey) and made a composite of them into what can be classified as an idealized New England scene. In the painting, work is being done but it has a lighthearted and non-laborious feel. Perhaps this was a joyous view of New England through the eye of a naturalized American.
The diversity of style that marks Ivanov-Rinov’s artistic career probably hurt him commercially, as he struggled to make ends meet throughout most of his life. There is no one style that can be clearly thought of as typical of Gouri Ivanov-Rinov’s work. Fortunately commercial success is only one measure. Artistically, he stayed true to his instincts – working in the style or medium that moved him at that point in his life. His experimentation may not have always been accepted but his work was never boring. He was described by various people that knew him as complex, articulate, exuding a warmth that was felt at arm’s length, and possessing a gentle exterior that masked an internal toughness forged by the trials of his early life. He was said to softly recite a Russian Orthodox grace for the guests that frequented his dinner table.
Gouri Ivanov-Rinov died suddenly of a heart attack on July 21, 1966. His grave in the Dublin cemetery is marked with a large Russian Orthodox cross – a fitting symbol of the artistic and cultural pilgrimage that was his life and the religion that accompanied him on the journey.
Dublin Historical Society, Dublin NH
Conversations with Bill Bauhan and Paul Tuller