London — Ilya Glazunov is an enigma surrounded by rumors. On the one hand, he is labeled the Soviet Union's most popular contemporary artist. More than 2 million Muscovites, 2 million Leningraders, and several hundred thousand Siberians attended three recent exhibitions of his works.
On the other hand, his style has been severely criticized and rejected by Moscow's artistic establishment, because he prefers to paint Russian mysticism rather than socialist realism.
For his independence he has been denied membership in the USSR's Academy of Arts.
Yet he is allowed to travel to the West to work and exhibit, fueling speculation that he must have connections with the KGB. He was in England recently - his first visit here - setting up an exhibition of 200 of his paintings at the Barbican Concourse Gallery in London. He came with the full support of the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
Glazunov is controversial because of his obvious love of things Russian and his distaste for things Soviet. He fears what is happening to the Russian heritage under today's system of government. He sees his work as an instrument to remind the Russian people of their rich national culture and traditions.
``After all,'' he said here, ``our history did not begin in 1917 at the time of the Revolution. It goes far back. Without a knowledge of the past, we cannot know the future.'' He claims that he constantly has to struggle and fight to hold his position as an artist. ``I try to paint the truth as I see it.''
While eulogizing Russia in his historical paintings, Glazunov uses pictures of life today in the USSR as criticisms of what the system has done to the traditions.
He worries especially about the loss of religious fervor, and he feels the disappearance of the very soul or spirit of Mother Russia. He crams his contemporary paintings with the materialism of today's living.
In a 1986 work titled ``Farewell,'' mourners surrounding the coffin of a grandmother wear symbols of today's culture - a T-shirt with ``Abba'' emblazoned on the chest, blue jeans, a Young Pioneer (youth group) scarf.
Through the autumnal trees of the graveyard can be seen, as ironic counterpoint, the symbols of communist achievement: electrical pylons, a massive wall of high-rise cement apartments, a speeding train, and a political sign praising the glories of Soviet space achievements.
Many paintings have allegorical themes, such as ``The Return of the Prodigal Son,'' which Glazunov painted in 1978. A young blue-jeaned Soviet youth is returning on bended knee to his ``master,'' who symbolizes Russian traditions and behind whom stands a pantheon of those who have contributed to Russian culture - Peter the Great, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, etc.
The youth has turned his back on the cruelty of war, the striving for supremacy in space, immorality, and cold impersonal living. At the forefront of the painting are three hideous, huge pigs with tusks and human eyes; they may represent either the swine from the Biblical parable or the state. The painting caused great controversy when it was first exhibited.
For me, Glazunov's work carries an undercurrent of sadness. The eyes of his subjects are deep-set, moon-shaped, and staring; they look past you and back into memories. Faces are usually set and unsmiling.
Glazunov captures the feel of ancient Russia with a bold central figure and detailed background in such pictures as ``Prince Oleg and Prince Igor.'' Both males are typical Slavs - blond and blue-eyed. Oleg, the defender of the realm, lovingly protects a tiny child, the future of the race. His cape is a brilliant red against the deep blue water. Both of the subjects' eyes command attention. The picture is a strong reminder of past glory, and in the USSR it fires pride in hearts of many viewers.
Some of the historical works emphasize the grotesque tragedies of Glazunov's country, mutilated by desire for power. The artist's love of Russian classical literature has led him to illustrate many books, especially works of his favorite author, Dostoyevsky, whose writings are set in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), where Glazunov was born.
As a boy, Glazunov watched his whole family die during the 900-day German blockade of the city in World War II before he escaped across frozen Lake Ladoga to an aunt in the countryside. The tragedy helps explain his somber view of life.
He is a tense, driven man of prodigious output. Like so many aspects of Russia today, he remains something of a mystery, arousing controversy and emotions wherever his works are exhibited.