Russian prince Andrew Romanoff paints his storybook life on Shrinky Dinks
at 21:42 on February 26, 2007, EST.
By JULIANA BARBASSA
INVERNESS, Calif. (AP) - If history hadn't gotten in the way, Andrew Romanoff could have been the emperor of Russia.
But, as things turned out, the moustached grandnephew of the ill-fated last czar spends his time painting whimsical, folk-art renderings of his unusual upbringing in a dethroned royal family onto Shrinky Dinks, the plastic children's toy that shrinks in the oven.
His whimsical pieces, which chronicle daily life, are currently being shown at San Francisco's Gallery 16. Along with his recent memoir, "The Boy Who Would be Tsar: The Art of Prince Andrew Romanoff," they tell the story of the 20th century's great wars and political convulsions, from the very intimate perspective of a child at the centre of it all.
"At certain moments I would be called on to play the game, be a prince," said Romanoff, 84, recalling the family reunion in St. Petersburg in 1998, when the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family were reburied 80 years after their execution by Bolshevik revolutionaries. "But it's always the people around me who get excited about it."
His art addresses the public's curiosity about his royal birth. But in the context of Romanoff's life, this attention to his origins seems almost an afterthought, as he has shunned notoriety most of his life.
"The social pages - they collect royals," said Inez Storer, his wife of 32 years and an artist herself. "He never really got involved."
Art covers the walls of their redwood-shingled house in Inverness, a tiny waterfront town on the edge of Point Reyes National Seashore. There is folk art, their own art, pieces by friends and by well-known artists and family photos. The vibrant display makes it clear that Romanoff's royal birth was only the first of many quirky twists in a full, eventful life.
The story begins a few years before Romanoff was born, with the Russian Revolution of 1917 - a turning point in the history of the world, and for the Romanoff family, which had held the Russian throne since 1613. The Bolshevik triumph led to the murder of Nicholas II, his wife and children, and plunged Russia into decades of communist rule.
Nicholas' first cousin, King George V of England, sent a ship to rescue Nicholas' sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia - Andrew Romanoff's grandmother - and settled her family in a 23-room cottage on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
It was into this world that Romanoff was born - the child of royalty, raised to call England's Queen Mary his "Auntie" and taught to stand up straight like a prince, but keenly aware that his family's grasp on this lifestyle was tenuous.
It was a childhood of exceptional privilege, of manicured gardens, nannies and tutors. There were so many gifts at Christmas that each child's had to be heaped on a separate couch, as shown in one of the illustrations in Romanoff's book.
Another piece shows his first encounter with poverty. In it, children scatter on a sidewalk in front of a dingy gray building as Romanoff and his nanny walk by on their way to school. The bitterness of the moment, Romanoff recalled, was sweetened by his nanny buying him penny chocolate.
But even as he played among Windsor Castle's fish ponds and polo fields he was reminded that his access to this world was a favour. Once, riding his bicycle on castle gardens he ran into Princess Elizabeth, who would later be queen. That evening, his family got a phone call reminding them to keep away from the private gardens during the British royal family's stay.
Although his grandmother never stopped hoping they'd rule again, his parents wanted him to prepare for the real world, where his name wouldn't carry weight.
"My mother and father just wanted me to grow up to be a real person," he said.
At 12, after years of home schooling, he joined the military Imperial Service College, where he played sports and got caned when he was caught breaking the rules. But what really ended his insular childhood was the Second World War.
In 1940, when Romanoff was 16, a bomb explosion sent a roof beam crashing onto his mother, who died soon after. Two years later, he joined the British Navy. He was entitled to an officer's posting but instead joined as an enlisted man and remained for four years.
Seeing few opportunities in postwar Europe, Romanoff did what generations of immigrants had done before him, he bought a one-way ticket to the United States. One of his Shrinky Dinks shows him aboard a freight ship carrying horses to the Kentucky Derby, sailing past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbour.
A Greyhound bus ride later, he joined an uncle in California. Over the next five decades, he planted tomatoes on a farm, worked as a carpenter, spent time with an import-export firm, and ran a smoking paraphernalia shop selling jewelry and pipes he made himself to the hippies flooding Northern California.
Soon he discovered Shrinky Dinks, which thicken and intensify in colour when baked. The vibrant colours and small scale - the pieces are no larger than a man's hand - suit Romanoff's guileless approach to life and art.
Some of his work features dinner with royalty, and shows Windsor Castle looming in the background but, in other pieces, the artist shows himself in vulnerable, even silly situations, as if wanting to share a self-deprecating laugh with the viewer.
In one work, the 18-year-old Romanoff struggles to decide which childhood stuffed animal to hide in his duffel bag as he joins the British Navy. In the end, he says goodbye to the stuffed cat and teddy bear, settling on the Winky, the koala.
Another, titled "A Romantic Way to Spend an Evening," shows the now grey-haired artist digging through his garbage can looking for a disappeared bottle of Viagra. A caption below explains the pills were later found in the back of a drawer.
Griff Williams of Gallery 16 says the pieces are fresh and unpretentious, "outsider art" motivated by his personal vision, with little influence from the mainstream art world.
"What Andrew does is completely without ego, without connection to historical imperatives," said Williams, who is currently showing Romanoff's work. "He reaffirms why people make art in the first place."
©The Canadian Press, 2007
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