SAFE HARBOUR - ABOUT GEORGE SMIRNOFF

António Conceição Júnior
Exhibition Coordinator
research by Isabel Vicente


Despite the city’s benevolent profile, Yuri must have gazed upon the hills and the forts and churches that crowned the main points of Macao with some anxiety. He could now see the ferry crossing the shallow muddy waters, leaving a trace of light spray behind it.

Torn between expectation and great tiredness, Yuri Vitalievitch’s thoughts must have wondered about his next step upon arrival. His mind was full of the memories of many events since he and his Mother Antonina Alexandrovna, left his birthplace in Vladivostok and moved to the Chinese city of Harbin. In Harbin, he managed to become an outstanding student, majoring in Architecture with a gold award and a scholarship to further his studies in the United States. This never happened though, yet there were no regrets in Yuri’s heart. To some extent he had unconsciously grown accustomed to the idea of being in a place for a given time, not determined by him, but by the changing events.
They had fled Russia at the onset of the Bolshevik revolution that by now had strengthened, with the Tsar being nothing but a memory.

While the ferry passed in front of the city’s main harbour, aiming for the inner harbour where it would finally end its voyage, Yuri surveyed the calmness of the city. The lights were beginning to shine as the sun sank below the horizon, while a soft breeze brought the distant sound of people going about their lives. His curiosity was tempered by the worries and concerns he carried with him, as well as the recent painful memories of being imprisoned in a Japanese camp in Hong Kong. Yuri’s life had been that of a man forced to move from place to place.

During his stay in Harbin, between 1933 and 1935, Yuri married Nina Pleshakoff.
As members of the white Russian community, they had their first daughter, Irina, in 1934. As the ferry approached the wharf, Yuri held little Irina even tighter to him; his thoughts went also for his wife Nina, their middle daughter, also Nina, and their young son Alexander. All of who were still in Hong Kong, waiting for Yuri to settle down first.

Yuri and Irina finally set foot on Macao among the coolies carrying all kinds of cargo from the ferry, and the locals that came to greet friends arriving from Hong Kong. At that moment, Yuri had no way of knowing that he would, one day, become an important graphic chronicler of Macao’s life, joining other artists before him who had painted this unique city.

Throughout the 19th century, Macao had been depicted by numerous travelling artists, mostly westerners, who had followed the trend of venturing into the East. Often their destination was China, with Macao serving as a convenient stopover towards their final goal. Among the most notable of the foreigners that depicted the city in the 19th Century was Auguste Borget (1808-1877), George Chinnery (1774-1852), Thomas Watson (1815-1860). To these artists (the last two actually lived in Macao) the Chinese artist Kuan Lou Yuen, commonly known as Lam Qua, and also the Macanese artist Marciano Baptista must be added.

They found first shelter at the Hotel Bela Vista, which was full of refugees. In the days following Yuri’s arrival, he once more had the confirmation that things were hard everywhere. His own life had been one of hardships.
Because of its neutrality, the Japanese had not invaded Macao, however famine had taken its toll. The city was an immense web of people of very many places, a clear evidence of a true haven for all those that demanded it.

On entering Macao, I will change the name Yuri - George in Russian - to that of George Smirnoff, as this is the name with which he would later became known by throughout Macao.
George managed to find accommodation at Rua das Seis Casas, the Street of the Six Houses. The house, though on a first floor of difficult reach through a narrow and dark staircase, was not more than a garage-like division and was in serious need of repair. George Smirnoff managed to find some wood to repair the windows and also to build some basic furniture.

Later they were able to move to No. 2 of Rua da Prata, of which the artist painted at least two watercolours that are in the Museum’s collection, (exhibits 24, 25). There was an open courtyard and upstairs lived a Portuguese family, while a Russian family lived at the other end.

Left: the watercolour of the courtyard.

Times were very hard for everyone, but especially for refugees. His wife Nina and his two younger children finally arrived after facing difficulties buying tickets for the ferry to Macao. It is said that a certain millionaire, named Mr. La Salla, who may have owned the ferry, paid for the tickets in exchange for the promise of receiving paintings by George later on. It took the family time to settle down, but the survival instinct prompted Smirnoff to look for work, anything that would provide for his family.

At the time, Clube de Macau had an almost permanent sale of the most pressing items, from clothing to kitchenware and from shoes to cigarettes. They were also able to buy bread from the Portuguese army bakery at St. Francisco General Headquarters.
However, George’s own urgent requirements were the materials that would allow him to paint. Since his Harbin days, George had been involved in art as well as architecture. He designed the logo for the University as well as the uniforms, and held some art exhibitions in addition to his architectural work. Later on, in life in Tsingtao, he would complete many architecture projects there (mainly summer-houses for rich Shanghai businessmen). As well as being involved in these fields, George Smirnoff was also very keen on other projects such as designing theatre sets.
Smirnoff also worked for the “Hong Kong Engineering and Construction Company Ltd.” in Macao, according to Ricardo Luís Duarte Pages de Noronha who also worked there. However, painting remained George’s main passion.

Artists were not in abundance in the city in those days and to further survive, George taught painting to Macao ladies. It may have been through these ladies that Smirnoff became involved in designing the backdrops for theatrical productions at the Dom Pedro V Theatre.
His first daughter told me that her father loved the theatre, and when auditions were held he was there and if they needed an accompanist for a musical number, he would go to the piano, listen to the singer for a few minutes and then accompany the singer.
Irina does not recall if he was ever on stage but is sure he wanted to be.

George’s involvement in such artistic events must have brought his name to the attention of Dr. Pedro José Lobo, a local millionaire and leader of the Portuguese community as well as a great benefactor of the arts. Pedro Lobo owned a radio station, Radio Vila Verde, and was himself a composer and a sponsor of the Macao Circle of Musical Culture; he was also the proprietor of the Macao Water Supply Company. It was as a result of the intervention of this man, who had been the Mayor of Macao and at the time, Director of the Economic Services, that George Smirnoff was commissioned to paint Macao from various angles and aspects.

It is here that the works now on display start to take shape. Art supplies were not easily available, so Smirnoff had to content himself with a set of child’s watercolours, possibly picked up at the Clube de Macao. Watercolour paper was also not abundant.
Nonetheless, this commission would lead George Smirnoff to further explore the city and make drawings. He was often accompanied by one of his children who were studying at the ‘Santa Rosa de Lima’ school, and almost certainly surrounded by a crowd of bystanders.

It is somehow a mystery why George Smirnoff watercolours mainly depict the European side of the city. There are several possible reasons however.
Firstly, unlike Auguste Borget, George Chinnery and all his predecessors, George Smirnoff had previously lived in Harbin and Tsingtao, consequently the Chinese aspects of life in Macao were not new to him. The second, possibly most important reason was that this was a specific request of the commission. However, it is not known whether Smirnoff spoke personally to Dr. Pedro Lobo or if the commission was by letter or even some other means. Finally, as an architect, George Smirnoff was definitely attracted by the western inspired architecture that gave Macao its uniqueness that the city still bears today.

His drawings were unquestionably accurate, and possibly his training as an architect contributed to this accuracy. However, viewing his watercolours we can see the painter shine through. These superb works clearly reflect the atmosphere of Macao at the time. Many of the works possess a clear and sunny atmosphere. For example, the rich yellow ochre used to depict the façade of St. Dominic church (exhibit number 59), as well as Smirnoff’s two pictures on the Mateo Ricci College (exhibits number 1 and 2).

George Smirnoff’s versatility with watercolours is shown in the different lighting conditions depicted in his works.
For example, his various pictures of the Penha hill show different lighting and detail. Not only is it important for the public to view this collection, but also to appreciate the changing moods of Macao depicted in these paintings. Each watercolour reflects the time of day the view was drafted, and would be finished later at home, yet all the colours of the time of day the sketch was done were all there. His first daughter testimonial on this detail is very significant, as it shows how George Smirnoff worked, and his superb visual memory.

In addition to this important commission by Dr. Pedro José Lobo, George Smirnoff also continued with some paintings of his own. He painted while teaching his students, who he often taught in the open air. One of his most attentive and talented students was a Macanese teenager named Luís Demée, who would later leave Macao to study art in Portugal, becoming the most important Macao-born painter of the 20th.Century. George Smirnoff’s works, along with those of his students, were presented to the public of Macao at an exhibition at St. Luiz College between the 20th and 23rd of December 1944.

Luis Demée would later describe George Smirnoff as a learned man, demanding but kind, bearing strong Russian features, tall and blond haired, who suffered greatly from the hot and humid climate of Macao. He almost always wore shorts and sandals and carried his watercolour box, Chinese brushes and a small folding chair. He often walked around the city looking for spots to paint, be it street or scenery.
(1)

Father Albert Cooney, an Irish Jesuit priest and a good friend to George, ensured that he also taught some art classes and participated in such extra-curricular activities as theatre productions with the students. This is where Smirnoff would have been able to further enjoy his love for the theatre. Father Cooney would also sit and talk with George Smirnoff for hours about the theatre and art in general.
George had a curiosity about everything. His interests ranged from astrology to geology, mathematics, fishing, and of course the theatre and music.
The artist was also friendly with Jack Braga to whom he sent two watercolours and a letter wishing him a Happy New Year.

George’s interaction with the local community was wider. He began collaborating with the Portuguese Catholic newspaper O Clarim for which he designed a wonderful new image for the title, as a letter by the Chief-Editor expressing his appreciation to George testifies.

Smirnoff kept his links to the British consul, Mr. John P. Reeves, who increased the aid from the Foreign Office and Colonial Office given to the more than 9,000 Hong Kong refugees in Macao. It is very possible that George Smirnoff also taught painting to the Consul’s daughter.

With the end of the war, many refugees, including Smirnoff, returned to Hong Kong.
Jack Braga organised a Rehabilitation Board where, in his personal notes, George Smirnoff is referred to as Assistant, Technical Services, Civil Engineer and Architect. The return to Cameron Road, Hong Kong, was once more a new beginning for George and his family. There was no electricity, water was rationed, and bombing had ruined the buildings. In November 1945, George wrote to Jack Braga explaining his situation in detail. This letter is reproduced here because it exemplifies the feelings of the man, his hopes, frustrations and his feelings for Macao.

Ironically, it was amidst war that George Smirnoff found, in the traditionally generous city of Macao, a safe and peaceful harbour. Macao provided him with a suitable working environment in which he depicted the city’s most prominent places as well as others of a more romantic character. These paintings are now part of the Museum’s gallery, in the line of those 19th century artists who depicted the city’s life. George Smirnoff was the first artist in the 20th century to continue this tradition.

Most of the watercolours on show are from the Museum’s original collection, which were delivered, in 1945, to the Ethnographical and Artistic Section of the Macao Commercial and The Ethnographical Museum (which changed its name to the Luís de Camões Museum in 1960).

Some other watercolours as well as oil paintings were kindly offered by the Smirnoff family to the Luís de Camões Museum, in 1985, when the first temporary exhibition of George Smirnoff’s work was presented as part of the Luís de Camões 25th Anniversary commemoration, while the photo biography’s invaluable pictures were all kindly lent by Irene Smirnoff, George’s first daughter.
Now, commemorating the Centennial of the birth of George Smirnoff in Vladivostok, the same kind city of Macao remembers George Smirnoff, who depicted it in his own unique way, just two decades before the city begun to evolve and change.
The entire Smirnoff family has kindly cooperated in the making of this event. I join the Museum Director in thanking the entire family.

Note:

(1) The statement is a quote of a testimonial obtained in research work. It may not reflect the entire truth, such as Smirnoff’s hair being blonde when it was brown, but Luís Demée’s testimonial was kept untouched, as research ethics require.

Ars Cives facit