An Old Friend for the Holidays
Before there was a young, hip Portland art scene, there was an older, darker Portland scene. Mr. Rossolowsky belongs to that dim past. I think of Mr. Rossolowsky often and of the debt I owe him. I started thinking of him most recently in the wake of the horrible events in Newtown, Connecticut. I thought of him because Mr. Rossolowsky was a man who had every reason to be bitter and he wasn’t. Knowing him was a lesson in the resilience of the human spirit.
Serge Rossolowsky (1895-1976) was a Russian born painter who lived and worked in Portland,Maine, in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a colorful downtown character who cut a distinctive European figure pulling his little cart along Congress St.dressed in a black topcoat and beret. His studio was in the Congress Building and I worked at the Portland Public Library next door. That’s where I met him in 1972 and how I came to look after him the last year of his life.
Mr. Rossolowsky and I became friends when I volunteered to help him try to write what he called “my terrible history,” a memoir of a life that ran from the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg through Stalinist concentration camps, World War II on the Western front, forced labor under the Nazis, and emigration to theUnited States in 1951. He lived a brutal life, beaten up by history, losing his freedom every time he turned around, losing his parents to the Bolsheviks and his wife and daughter to Stalin.
The constant in his “terrible history,” which Mr. Rossolowsky imagined becoming a “chronicle roman” or historical novel, was painting. He began taking private painting lessons as a boy at his family dacha and continued to study at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Most of the paintings I have seen are urban landscapes, whether observed or imagined, painted in a loose, brushy style after Utrillo, though I’m sure the primary early influence most have been Isaac Levitan, the greatest of the Russian landscape painters.
Even exile and imprisonment did not stop Mr. Rossolowsky from painting. When he was sent to work on the Belomar-Baltic White Sea project, he painted scenery for plays produced at the remote forest camps for the officers and overseers. He subsequently painted sets for a floating opera company on the Volga River and painted signs at a truck factory in Germany after being captured by the Nazis during World War II. After surviving the Dresden Fire Bombing, he escaped to the American zone, working at the PX in Heidelberg before emigrating to America in 1951. For a decade he lived in New York City and painted lampshades for a living.
While living in New York, Mr. Rossolowsky exhibited his paintings at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition, which played a role in his coming to Maine. When Mr. Rossolowsky won a prize at the Washington Square show, it was reported in the Russian language newspaper New Russian Word. A childhood friend who was living in the Russian colony in Richmond, Maine saw the report and invited Mr. Rossolowsky to Maine in 1963. Mr. Rossolowsky found the Tsarist community in Richmond a little too conservative for his tastes and settled in Portland.
I find it hard to believe that 40 years have now passed since I met Serge Rossolowsky and 36 years since we buried my old friend on a snowy day in October, 1976. What fascinated me about Mr. Rossolowsky was that he was living history, as though a character had stepped out of a Russian novel to wander the streets of Portland. I tape recorded several hours of conversations and took a hundred pages of notes in his hot little apartment on Cumberland Ave. I promised Mr. Rossolowsky on his deathbed that I would write his story and I have yet to do so, though not for lack of trying. I have written his life as fiction, non-fiction and a screenplay. I will get it right if it’s the last thing I do, and the way things are going, it may well be.
Happy New Year!