Misogynist profiling of full-face portraits

In art, just as in life, ability to create a strong first impression is often the only way to secure a second glance. Because, as Robert Hughes famously noted, full contemplation speed is 30 seconds per masterpiece.

On my recent visit to my favourite art dealer, she took out two female portraits by Dynnikov that turned out to be, actually, four. The artist was so destitute during his lifetime that he often used both sides of his canvases. I wrote about Victor Dynnikov before, covering his still lifes, his flowers with women, animals, and even philosophical musings about life and death.

The 2 double-sided paintings represent four very different characters…

4facesI am not a big fan of categorising people into archetypes, but I know nothing of these girls, so, my immediate archetypal take on them is like this:

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In simple, misogynist terms, it can be reduced to a few simple recommendations or commands (men are from the militaristic Mars, so commands are best):

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The reality about these girls can very different, I suppose. The “Run!” girl, having wiped off her blood-red lipstick, can become a most caring wife; the “Marry” girl can turn out to be a ruthless boss, et cetera.

For a moment I thought that the girl at the back of each portrait was an alter ego version of the girl at the front.

As I am a man, my take on the portraits might have been biased by my gender. Is it the same for women? Is it different for other men? Tell me how you see them!

These girls can’t be identified beyond their names now, but what a journey it could be to find out what they have become!

The power of these portraits is that they give the observer an immediate strong impression of the personality of the portrayed woman – and it is this initial punch that makes the observer interested in discovering more.

That power comes from their eyes, the tilt and turn of their heads, their hair, accessories, and clothes, but the background also plays a role.

Here’s a bulleted list of artistic devices for one of the portraits: it’s front and back side.

The Girl to Marry

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  • Absence of strong contrasts makes the painting “tender”
  • Orange reflections on the edges (face, shoulder) imply there’s more to the character than just “tenderness” and “softness”. Orange also adds “warmth” to “tenderness”.
  • She appears as if coming around a corner or opening a door, which makes her “sudden”: she just came out to the observer, and so the observer must react, not just watch her, must engage with her.
  • She tilts her head as if she’s ready to listen, as if she’s in expectation of the observer’s reaction. This, as well as the angle of her entry. is accentuated by the collar of her blouse: it is very tidy and symmetrical. So, the collar also tells you she’s very organised and attentive to detail.

So, my dear observer, don’t make a mistake. She’s watching you as much as you’re watching her, except that she’s watching you without prejudice or judgement. Her gaze may not be piercing, but she’s taking you in, seeing the real you with her huge blue eyes.

Somehow, It is both mesmerising and unnerving.

The GIrl to Bed

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  • Her cold blue eyes nail down the observer, and if that doesn’t happen the observer must see his nearest oculist at once.
  • The red band holding her hair is like a theatre gun that must fire at some point if it’s taken onto the set. Just imagine the passionate moment when she tears the ribbon off, and her hair cascade down on her shoulders.
  • She wears a robe that doesn’t seem to have any zippers or buttons. I don’t have to spell it all out.
  • The background is passionate red, with a dark burgundy area to the left of her that implies it is not going to be all red, passionate, and easy. The observer is given a trade-off: surrender to those blue eyes, and full lips and face some dark consequences or apologise, and run before it’s too late.

Now you can exercise your art appreciation skills and think what makes the other portrait interesting (click on the images below to get a bigger version):

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Cigarette in anus: British art reaches a new high

Art does a lot of things. It follows money, it mirrors pains and ills of society, it highlights insights into issues that people are concerned with, it entertains, it provides an emotional kick, and, ultimately, it makes us happier or smarter, and the latter is often achieved by art that is disturbing or disgusting. Art can be ugly, but if it makes us think about something important, it’s accomplished its mission. Some intellectuals believe art also can make us better but that’s hard to prove because “better” is a tricky notion to define, and history provides too many cases of art lovers who were really bad people.

When art makes us wow in awe, we say it’s great art. When art leaves us indifferent, we are tempted to say it’s not art, or it’s bad art, because we feel it stole our time, the most precious commodity.

Anyway, art is usually connected in some way, whether in its message or benefit, to the living observer.

I don’t know any other country were this connection would be as broken as it is in Britain today.

I can’t explain Britain’s choice of Sarah Lucas as its representative at the Venice Biennale. I am curious to know why she is believed to be the best of Britain today.

This is why I was happy to discover an interview with the British Council’s Richard Riley, who curated the exhibition. I thought, perhaps, he is providing all the answers! Perhaps, I just don’t see some obvious connection between Sarah Lucas and the needs, values, thoughts, or aspirations of the British public.

Having read it, I must admit I enjoyed it, if not as an answer, then as the summit of meaninglessness, climbed by the interviewer so professionally I felt I was asking the questions myself.

See for yourself how the British Council’s Richard Riley justifies splashing out taxpayer’s money on making Sarah Lucas the face of Britain. Try to enjoy it, though it may be a tad difficult if you pay taxes in the UK.

First, he is asked what’s the meaning of the show’s title: “I SCREAM DADDIO”.

Good start. I’d be interested to know that too.

Mr Riley replies, “With this show, the title I SCREAM DADDIO is three words”.

Really?! Why did your parents name you Richard Riley? – That’s because with my name, Richard Riley is two words.

But wait, Mr Riley has more to say. “It’s a play on words: The I SCREAM – as in the desert ice cream – and the DADDIO is just a kind of funny, throwaway piece of beach slang and the I SCREAM DADDIO is kind of a memorable play on words.”

No, that’s not a play on words, that’s a silly combination of letters without, as it appears, any meaning related to the artworks.

These two words are three words.
Earth without art is eh.
S(he) be(lie)v(ed).

This is a play on words.

Anyway, we won’t get any better idea from Mr Riley, who’s just got bored by linguistics and decided to talk about colour instead.

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Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte (© British Council)

Richard, just so that you know, you could say that of almost any artist. Monet used yellow throughout his career.  Yellow so much punctuated Van Gogh’s career that it finally killed him, through the habit of licking his brush with poisonous yellow paint on it. If Sarah Lucas loves this kind of yellow, and does not take it internally, it’s fine. It doesn’t explain why the whole show is yellow. I am sure she likes other colours as well.

Mr Riley goes on to say, “…the wonderful yellow emanating from the building puts you in a good frame of mind”.

Does it? I mean yellow doesn’t always work the same on everyone. A soccer player wandering into this room may get a panic attack. A Sun reporter, as a yellow press representative, would probably feel a compulsive need to share a gossip inside it. This kind of yellow puts me in the mind for Dijon mustard. With grape seeds in it, you know. Why is it “wonderful”? What wonder does it create? Dijon mustard is a small wonder when the steak is bad, but not in itself.

Oh, and why is it “emanating”? Is it radioactive?

Richard, if you stage a show and can’t explain why it has a strange name and is all yellow, you probably didn’t pay much attention to what was going on during all these months of preparation. Admit it. Raise your hands in surrender. It’s OK, one can’t be everywhere.

I guess the reporter felt the same, so he offered another question, “On a more serious level, she deals some quite important themes relating to death, sex, and gender. How will people engage with this more serious side of her practice?”

I’d go for this topic as well. If the curator doesn’t care about the show’s name, perhaps, he knows something about the artworks in it.

Over to Richard: “…the works that she has made … are focusing on the female form. She has made ten body casts of the lower body parts of women… The women are bending over, or seated or, or astride elements of furniture so I think that they are very thoughtful works that hopefully make people think where she is coming from. They are actually only the bottom half of women. “

Richard, we can recognize the bottom half of a woman. We know these are the bottom half of women, and not some giant squid.  Why is she showing us these bottom halves? Why should I care where she came from? She came from decades of drug and alcohol abuse that, coupled with a strange infatuation with toilets, seem to be responsible for those half-torsos astride toilet bowls.

Richard: “She could have made the full body but then she would have to deal with the head and then they would it become something else”

Richard, two oranges and two oranges is four oranges not because 3 apples +3 apples would be something else. You can’t explain why a vase is hollow inside by saying it would be something else if it weren’t hollow inside. A vase is hollow inside to allow the owner to put something inside.

Anyway, did you see her recent self-portrait?

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When Sarah Lucas put this photo of herself online, some people protested. If sharing this photo was dumb, protesting against it was even dumber.

She doesn’t seem like she’s been having any dealings with the head lately. Perhaps, that could explain why she opted for the bottom half.

But really, what was the artist’s intention behind, or the intended meaning of these works?

No… Richard veers off the topic again, “They’re very sculptural but she has enlivened them with the placement of cigarettes, which of course is a classic Sarah Lucas trope from the very beginning.”

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A cigarette in an anus. Or a navel. Humorous. Aha.

Richard, if that gives you titillation, I have news for you that’s a potential life-changer. Go Thailand. Go Bangkok. Go downtown. You will be approached by a Thai man who will take you to a club where women do stuff with vaginas and cigarettes that will blow your mind away and beyond a classic Sarah Lucas “trope”.

Also, if a cigarette in a navel makes the bottom half of the body a sort of face for you, google has much to offer. Just type in “[body part] made into a face” and enjoy. Make sure there’re no kids around though.

Seriously, why did she put a cigarette into that particular female anus?

Perhaps, it is a feminist metaphor for the exploitation of women by men? I’d love to hear more.

Richard: “And I think that the cigarettes provoke people to think further about what the sculpture is and why they’re there”

Richard, the whole set provokes people to wonder why the heck they are there and you haven’t explained any of it, yet. I don’t think that thinking about “what sculpture is or is not” is on top of the agenda of the British society. Perhaps, I am mistaken, and that’s a hot issue right now? Tell me more about it!

Hush! Richard has got something to say now.

“I think that the whole gender issue has never gone away.”

Joking again, Richard?

As long as there are genders, there would be issues. Even in the English language (unlike, say, French or Russian) which is relatively protected against gender inequality, there are still issues with ships being “she” and “her”, and the issues will stay until ships are replaced by teleports. You really shouldn’t bother thinking about that, Richard. It’s like thinking about two parallel lines that never cross in Euclidean geometry. Regardless of how hard you think, the damn lines won’t ever get closer to each other.

Wait, it seems I have interrupted Richard:

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Richard, I don’t know which exclusive private school you attended in your childhood, but the hard truth is that it’s a stale joke. It’s the kind of joke that gets you kicked off stage at comic competitions after you’ve gone half way through your set. But try not to laugh now, because it’s gravely serious further on.

Do you know that men are the only species out of all primates that don’t have bones in their phalluses? It was women’s choice to have men equipped with the most complicated hydraulics imaginable that malfunctions at the drop of a hat. Erection is a biological signal sent by men and received by women that is paramount to human survival. This is why women tend to choose men whose hydraulics is in perfect order even on a cursory visual inspection. And the faster we live, the more cursory this inspection becomes. In a million years, this approach to natural selection of men by women will make men evolve into giant penises with tiny limbs. “Dickhead” or “Prick!” are insults right now, but give it time, and they’d become the highest praise. This is not a joke to laugh at.

You can go through the full version of the interview but you won’t find any sense in it.

Now, I really can’t understand why a former junkie and, as she admits herself, presently a lady who never says no to a drink or two, with a paranoid idea of putting together urinals, toilet bowls and human half-bodies with cigarettes stuck into their butts is the best of Britain.

Any ideas?

A cross between Stalin and Napoleon

Yesterday was the last day of the Victory Show at Moscow’s Central House of Artist, a monstrous box of concrete and steel that makes you wish the 1970s had never existed, at least architecturally.

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On symbolical dates, such as the WWII Victory Day, its bazaar mix of commercial exhibitions of Russian realist painters, fur trade shows, and antique fairs, is ousted by dedicated retrospectives of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Fur trade shows quietly come back when the pomp is over,

The Victory Show was depressing. Not because the WWII or any war as a theme is depressing, but because the quality of art assembled to celebrate it was so low, propagandistic and false.

The best works there, actually, were a few drawings made by real war artists during the war. There was horrible truth in the bored faces of soldiers silently waiting for their train to arrive and take them to the front, and most likely to their deaths; and there was precious life in their unkempt uniforms, pot bellies, and oversized coats. I can’t show it, because it was badly lit, and, of course, no one cared to produce a catalogue, even though I would buy it to get those war-time drawings only.

Most of the exhibition’s hundreds of paintings were showing off athletic Soviet solders with beautifully chiseled faces and burning eyes intent on killing Nazis; desperate women who lost or were about to lose their husbands and sons in the hell pits of war; Germans torturing or killing Russian women and children, or Russian soldiers distributing their bread and porridge to kids in Berlin.

The similarity of these artworks to North Korean war posters was frightening. I could not but wonder if Russia was mentally ready for and welcoming another tyranny. The ubiquity of standard-issue symbolic images of loss, sacrifice and victory was awkward to see. I had a hope that Russian artists could do better than showing eyes full of tears to communicate the horrors of war.

It saddens me that Russian artists seem to be unable to find new ways to express their thinking on war in ways that would be true, sincere, and resonant with modern people. In ways that would make people want peace more than avenging their great-grand fathers who perished 70 years ago.

Yet, there were two works by living artists that I found powerful.

The first one was a lithograph by Albina Akritas, made in 1986, and titled “Coming Home”.

DSC_0482 - копия I am sorry for my reflection in the glass.

I love the pause that the soldier takes before coming home. Imagine what thoughts are rushing through his mind. He’s standing there, watching his house, thinking… what? I can list about a dozen questions that I could ask myself in this situation, and that makes me realise the horrors of war stronger than another hundred of paintings showing maimed bodies. I don’t want the horror of this pause in my life, and that goes under the assumption that I stay alive in a war.

And to make one think about the chances of staying alive and be able to celebrate victory, another female artist painted an almost abstract work titled “Watching the skies”.

The artist’s name is Lidia Skargina, and seeing her work in this exhibition was a surprise as I happen to own her large-scale still life. I assumed she only did pretty pictures. I couldn’t be more wrong.

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The text in the middle says, rather conversationally, “Not a single bloke made it back to the village of Sheldyakovo from that war”.

There are silhouettes of people watching the skies at the bottom: they give the painting its title. Why are they doing that?

Up, and to the left of the centre, there is a shape indicating a star-topped memorial to the fallen men whose bodies have never returned to the village for a proper burial. In the right side, there is a symbol of belief, a belfry with a broken cross on top, that resembles a candle, to make you remember the loss or pray for them. There are a few more recognisable figures, lest you forget this painting is not an exercise in colour and abstraction, but a monument to very real suffering in a very real war.

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Yet, these symbols are subtle, never pushed in your face, often barely discernible.

The main focus is on the colour conflict here.

There are patches of blue sky, patches of peace that the sacrifice of those men, made possible, and which are made all the more precious through their conflict with the burgundy colour of dried blood that fights against mouldy grey shapes.

This is a painting as much about the survivors as about the fallen.

It is a piece that makes you think about that particular war, and wars, in general. Great piece.

But all hopes for revival of non-propaganda art are killed at the exit from the show, by a firing squad of four portraits:

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This is Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, but above all them, there’s a portrait of Putin walking up the aisle made of flags and columns that morph into churches to deliver his inauguration speech. All by the same artist, who – together with the show organisers – is making a rather obvious point.

Is it a warm welcome to North Korea?  You could hear me optimistically saying “no” a month ago. I try to stay optimistic. It is sad, of course, to see the Personality Cult of the good ol’ Stalin’s days so effortlessly coming back, but (I am telling myself) it can hardly repeat itself in a 21st century information society.

Or can it?

Are the cossacks, who paid for and installed this bust of Putin in their village today, just a bunch of freaks with a fetish for military uniforms or kick-starters of a new trend? Is dressing Putin in Roman Emperor’s clothes bad taste or the first page in a new chapter of Russian history?

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On the bright side of it, you can still read my despatches from Moscow. So far, so good.

How do you feel about Russia nowadays? Tell me.

Renoir’s Dance: story of passion

I still remember my first slow dance with a girl I fancied at the time when instead of proper chemistry I was researching the effect of having crystals of Iodine dissolved in Ammonia solution (a bang occurs when the resulting residue dries up, loud enough to make the teacher beat the school’s record in vertical jump). This, and the day I got drunk for the first time are the three things I remember from my school days.

Dancing was erotic then, even more so than making loud bangs. It was all about courting, flirtation, passion, and much jealousy for the less fortunate wall-propping boys.  I am not sure it holds true for contemporary dance, but even a twerking fan can try to imagine what it is to waltz with a partner who is not bobbing up and down like a sledge-hammer.

Dance is a single reason to come to National Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism show twice. I mean the three Dance paintings by Renoir. Rarely shown together since they were sold by Paul Durand-Ruel, a famous dealer who commercialised the Impressionists, they offer an ironic insight into the passions swirling on the dance floor.

Art historians seem to know everything about these paintings: time, location, model names, and brands of clothes they wear, but I feel the painter’s idea has been eluding them or they didn’t feel the general public should be made aware of it. Let’s remedy this, for it is best seen when the three paintings are together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir made two paintings of dance in the country and one ballroom version in 1883.

Look at them and note the major difference between the two types of dance:

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Dance at Bougival, 1883(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Dance in the Country and Dance in the City (Paris, Muse´e d’Orsay, Photographs © Re´union des Muse´es Nationaux / Art Resource, NY) Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919)

Outdoor dancing is much wilder than its ballroom counterpart. In the country, men don’t have to put on gloves, women can wear loosely fitted ones; the movement is dynamic, the plants, trees, and feelings are real. The ballroom type, with its somber white columns, potted plants, controlled steps, and orchestrated music, pales in comparison. That is, at first glance. Because at second glance, we can notice that the two country scenes are very different to each other, and there is a lot of passion in the ballroom scene too.

Let’s get closer to the couple in the middle, who seem to have left their table in a hurry to join the merry-making on the dance floor.

Dance 1 Reduced size

The man has put the hand of his lady in a firm grip, but she holds on to her fan as if it were a symbol of her independence. She didn’t take off her gloves: it is another barrier between her and her partner. The man is obviously quite taken by passion: he dropped his hat, but doesn’t notice it, his lips are almost touching the cheek of the girl, his eyes are cast down towards her face.

While she maintains her barrier at the top half, she’s quite flirtatious at the bottom: look at how her dress is painted against his leg. First, there is no separation between her dress and his suit, it looks like an Yin Yang symbol. Second, it’s the tiny details that you can only see up close and personal.

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The blue reflection on the dress is very weak, implying there is no distance between them. The vertical border of the dress is also slightly shaded, because it is pressed against his leg. And yet, her hand rests on the man’s shoulder without embracing him, and her eyes flick back to the observer (and the artist).

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She’s aware she’s being watched, and she flirts with her partner and the observer.

I can understand Renoir who used his future wife as the model here, and, perhaps, could not show her infatuated with one of his best friends, but I also understand her: she’s obviously playing with the man she’s dancing with, and with the man observing the scene, and enjoying every moment of it.

Now let’s spy on the left couple. Their dance is much more dramatic. When thinking about it, we need to remember that Renoir painted the background of his portraits to express his view of the portrayed person’s character. Here, the background is not just merrymaking and chatting. There are more men than women in it, and girls appear somewhat “hunted” by men.

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Compare the way this man is dressed to the previous gentleman. He is very casual. Of course, dancing at a country cafe didn’t require a formal suit, but a white shirt and black shoes were still a must. Our guy breaks all the rules. And there’s something wild about him that screams he can, or at least he thinks he can behave like a predator.

Look at the way he holds her. In the previous dance, we had “separation” at the top and union at the bottom. Here, the position is different.

At the top, there’s a lot of passion: his neck is craned towards her, and even though she averts her head, perhaps, to avoid his forced kiss, her hand is thrown over his neck.

Dance at Bougival, 1883  Pierre Auguste Renoir, French, 1841 - 1919  Oil on canvas, 71 5/8 x 38 5/8 inches (181.8 x 98.1 cm)  *Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund, 37.375  *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  25missing

At the bottom it is the opposite: they are apart.

We don’t have a thin “blue” line separating the girl from her partner. Instead, we have a blue blur that signals motion, clear lines that mean separation, and blue reflections indicating distance:

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So, what’s going on in this painting? The girl does not seem to offer much resistance, otherwise she wouldn’t be embracing the man, yet she somehow doesn’t what “it” to happen here and now. What is she afraid of?

Perhaps, the clue is in the painting itself. We just need to follow the girl’s line of sight.

Dance-line of sight

She looks at the flower on the floor. A cut, used, and thrown away flower, the colour of the man’s suit. Does the man strike you as an experienced ladies’ man  who had seduced and abandoned a legion of poor souls before his eye fell on this beautiful girl? Even if he does not seem the kind to you, the girl still doubts the prudence of offering him her lips. She wants to, desires to throw herself into his embrace, but… remember the flower, sweetheart, remember the flower, she keeps telling herself.

A friend of mine, having studied the painting, noticed a ring on her ring finger. Is she engaged? If yes, then it is unlikely she is engaged to the man she is dancing with: he doesn’t have a matching ring.

And now, we sail on to the ballroom, that initially seemed so lacking in passion against these country-cafe diversions.download2

How do they feel?

Unlike in the country dance paintings, we don’t see much of the man. But what we can see is quite revealing.

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And what about the girl?

Perhaps, Renoir left us clues about her character too?

The simplest clue is this:

download (2) - копияHave you ever played with making shadows on the wall with your hand?

Look at the space between her thumb and index finger and then look at her slightly parted lips.

She and the man are bound by the rules and norms, but she dreams of a kiss, and that dream makes her blush.

If we look at her dress, which is cut by the frame, so that we don’t know where it ends or originates from, it looks a metaphor for passionate innocence that climbed up the man like a snow avalanche, just going upwards.

Remember, all the three “dances” are life-size: Renoir invites you to become a participant, and build your own plot from the glimpse of a story he painted in each of the them.

Renoir's Dancers, and an admirer
Сlick on the photograph to get to its source

And if you are not satisfied with life-size, there is a US artist who offers you an alternative:

Renoir - Dance at Bougival-L

It’s fun, I agree, but… it’s not good for artists. Artists who can’t make a masterpiece of their own love to exploit masterpieces of the past by turning them into hollow pop-art exhibits. It is an easy path to commercial success, but it is often a one-way road: there’s no turning back to creating your own masterpiece.

I am coming back to the show to see the three of them together, and then back again once more. It’s almost as good as mixing Iodine with Ammonia in the school lab and watching your classmates catapult themselves in the air.

Holy Russia!

Holy Rus, God-blessed land, God-chosen nation. In Moscow, you hear it more and more often now. The words are said in a solemn voice, with a distant look in the eyes as if they would be scanning the future and actually seeing Holy Russia. A contemplative pause usually follows. Even the most ardent supporters of the Holy Russia idea avoid using the phrase when crossing a road: otherwise, an accident is almost guaranteed.

If you steal the pondering pause to ask them what Holy Russia really is, or what their glimpse in the future revealed about it, don’t expect a coherent answer. They don’t have a slightest idea.

Many Russian artists tried to resolve this predicament by offering a picture Holy Russia believers could use as a prop.

The task they set for themselves could best be described by a line from a famous Russian fairytale, when a wicked Czar sends the protagonist on a mission saying, “Bring me I don’t know what from I don’t know where”.

Just as the fairytale hero, Mikhail Nesterov (1862 – 1942) is believed to have succeeded on this impossible mission: his painting comes first when you google “Holy Russia” and it’s not the title (which is, of course, Holy Russia) that has put it on top.

But does it shed light on the whole concept?

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Mikhail Nesterov, Holy Russia

Even a casual glance over this epic painting stumbles upon the frightening absence of a single happy face. I mean, seriously, if you met Christ, wouldn’t you rejoice? You know He loves you, you love Him, what’s the problem with you guys? Where does all this grim gravity come from?

When the literature genius Leo Tolstoy saw this painting, he famously remarked Christ looked like an Italian opera singer, but complimented the artist on the authenticity of the background landscape.

Is this Holy Russia? One pair of mittens for all? People united in their misery?

If not, what is it?

“An idiosyncratic Russian path”, the Holy Russia believers say.
“What is so idiosyncratically Russian about it?”
“Oh, it is definitely not the American highway. Not the German autobahn. Not the English motorway.”
“All right, definition through negation, I can take that. But a path to where?”
“Erm…to the Holy Land”.
“A few dozen regular commercial airlines can take can you there.  Why do you need an idiosyncratic path?!”
“Oh, no”, they say uncertainly, “it is not in Israel, it will be built in Russia” – and then they adopt the forbidding no-more-stupid-questions facial expression that signals they have run out of answers.

Believers in Holy Russia can be otherwise quite normal folks, that is as long as they stay uncertain what is so special about Holy Russia that sets it apart from other countries or nations. It is normal to be unsure if you are racially or nationally superior to others, because this is what it is all about, the Holy vs. the Unholy. The moment someone exclaims, “Viva la God-Chosen Holy Russia!” they proclaim superiority of Russians over other nations. It’s very similar to the “Great Reich” concept, and not surprisingly it boils down to an identical set of sentiments, including genetic differences.

If you read through comments, posts, and public speeches of those who support Putin and his policies, a scathingly scary Holy Russia would emerge:

Holy Russia is the last bastion of spirituality, the last hope of Mankind, the Third Rome. Holy Russia is fighting a spiritual war against the gay oppression of mega-rich Jews who are puppeteers of the US government that controls European nations through the NATO. If Russia loses, the forsaken Humanity crumbles under the weight of gay marriages, consumerism, junk food, and Polish vodka. Oh, and twerking, since recently.

Sometimes, I wonder if Putin really wanted Russians to believe in this bullshit. He can’t be that evil. Anyway, his subjects, overdosing on Russian TV, view the outside world now as a maniac gay Jew with a strap-on nuclear warhead hungry for the riches of Siberian taiga where Putin’s metaphorical bear is peacefully plucking berries and picking mushrooms. The wicked Jew waits for the unsuspecting bear to stoop for another chanterelle, but the Russian bear is no fool. Its bottom is tight, and its claws are at the ready.

I didn’t invent the bear metaphor. It comes straight from Putin’s mouth.

I can’t imagine what life is like when you have that kind of worldview.

If you think this kind of delirium is incapable of seducing anyone but the most insane, you are in for a surprise. One of my neighbours in London, a Royal Prosecutor, is an ardent supporter of all these ideas, except perhaps the anti-Semitic part, which for him is his last remaining reality anchor. Or his get-out-of-jail card, hard to say.

If a Royal Prosecutor is tempted by this version of reality, who can blame the majority of Russians for buying into the myth? I know very intelligent men and women who believe everything the official propaganda feeds them 24/7. At that, they are certain they are the only ones whose eyes are not blinded by the US-controlled media. Wait. No. US Jews-controlled media.

Any dialogue with these people is impossible. It is an atheist-believer kind of argument that leads either nowhere or to “gnashing of teeth” and madness, because the same facts are always interpreted differently, just like in this famous joke:

A little old Christian lady comes out onto her porch every morning and shouts, “Praise the Lord!” And every morning the atheist next door yells back, “There is no God!” This goes on for weeks. “Praise the Lord!” yells the lady. “There’s no God!” responds the neighbour. As time goes by, the lady runs into financial difficulties and has trouble buying food. She goes out onto the porch and asks God for help with groceries, then says, “Praise the Lord!”

The next morning when she goes out onto the porch, there are groceries she asked for. Of course, she shouts, “Praise the Lord!” The atheist jumps out from behind a bush and says, “Ha! I bought these groceries. There is no God!”


The lady looks at him and smiles. She shouts, “Praise the Lord! Not only did you provide for me, Lord, you made Satan pay for the groceries!”

Still, almost as long as Russia exists, debates about Holy Russia keep raging on, leaving in its wake ruined friendships, families, lives, uncountable philosophical treatises, and artworks.

The main Moscow’s gallery of Russian art, the State Tretyakov Gallery, shows two paintings that have been a silent graphic illustration of the two sides of the loud debate on Holy Russia for more than a hundred years.

The first painting comes from the author of “Holy Russia”, Mikhail Nesterov, but I am sure you’ve already guessed as much. He had a very recognisable style.

The painting’s title is “In Russia. Soul of the people” and it shows a religious procession that unites people who embrace God without questioning, like the boy at the front, and those who give it some thought, like Leo Tolstoy at the back. This is the best of Russia heading for Holy Russia.

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Mikhail Nesterov. “In Russia. The soul of the people”. 1914-1916

If this is the soul of Russia, I want to know why there is no joy, no happiness, no smiling eyes, but only sad resolve and grim foreboding. I want to see Russia and Russians happy (not the dead drunk kind of happy, but soberly joyful).

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Fragments from “In Russia. The soul of the people” by Mikhail Nesterov. 1914-1916

Do you believe this painting for a second? Do you believe a nation can hope for progress or at least move somewhere, anywhere from this transfixed state?

As I scan this painting, faces by face, I realise what’s good about it: it’s 100% false. You can breathe out, Russians are not like this collective golem, even though some of them may want this painting (together with the accompanying ideology of a God-chosen nation) to serve as a solemn decoration of a corrupt government.

I won’t surprise you now if I say that its author was a proud member of the Union of Russian People, a far-right party of hardline royalists that took active part in planning and executing Pogroms of Jews in Russia. Some later historians considered the Union as a forerunner of fascist movements in Italy and Germany.

The other painting, completed about 35 years before this one, is Ilya Repin’s “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”.

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Ilya Repin. “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”. 1880-1883

That’s the real thing, the true state of affairs. I am a bit surprised the Tretyakov Gallery hasn’t put it in the storeroom. It basically says, “you can say whatever you want about the god-choosiness and greatness of the spirit of Russia, but all you get is a replacement of true faith by false ecstasy”.

You don’t see any happy faces in this painting either, but what you get is a much broader spectrum of emotions than just Nesterov’s gravity.

Several men carry a platform with holy relics on it. Religion seems to be a burden for them, the kind of cross they have to carry their whole lives, but there’s no joy or promise in it for them.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Right behind them, there’s a group of people of the most devoted kind, it’s a group of petty bourgeois who play an active role in parish life. One of them, perhaps, OD’ed on vodka and did something inappropriate for which he (or she?) is being punished by the mounted gendarme.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

In Russia, stepping out of line, both literally and metaphorically has always been discouraged. And you can see that the line on both sides of the procession is maintained by bearded blokes proudly exhibiting a brass badge of office on their dark cloaks. They seem to be quite attentive.

In this small fragment, I can see rage, tiredness, indifference, boredom, and fake piety, sometimes combined inside a single person. What I can’t see is the joy of belief.

Further on, at a generous distance from the petty bourgeois group, the local rich and powerful walk in safe isolation from the other believers. The guard on the left won’t hesitate to hit you with the stick on the head if you dare to interfere with the golden lady he seems to be protecting.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Can you spot a believer here? Would true believers fence themselves off from other “classes”?

Yet, there is a single believer in this painting.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

The crippled boy who attempts to get closer to the sacred object carried in front of the procession. He is barred and pushed back by one of the guards.

This is Holy Russia without make-up, by a truly Russian artist who just couldn’t lie.

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A modern-day procession in St.Petersburg

The drama of Russia is that whenever it purposely sets off on a journey to the Sacred Russia of Nesterov, it ends up in the sacrilegious Russia of Repin.

P.S. After the Revolution of 1917, Repin emigrated and refused to return, while Nesterov carved out a pretty good living for himself in the new atheist Russia, becoming a laureate of the Stalin’s Prize in 1935. Hypocritical paintings = hypocritical life.

P.P.S. Now is the right time to say “Happy Birthday” to the guy behind this blog )

 

Another interpretation quiz and answer

Interpretation of art often depends on how far in time the interpreter is from the artwork. The young officer choosing stockings (from my previous post) would be interpreted very differently by his contemporaries 160 years ago, and modern observers.

But can there be any doubt on how to interpret this girl, sketched by Pavel Fedotov in 1848-49?

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What do you think is going on in this picture?

Continue reading

Not for idealists!

I love idealists. Their very existence in today’s consumerist world is a wonder (and a godsend for contemporary romance writers and Amazon).

Grown-up idealists are especially rare, because idealism is similar to a space rocket.  As an idealist matures, their idealism drops off as burnt-out ballistic stages, until the tiny manned tip comes into orbit in the cold void of adulthood.

Psychiatrists believe it is suspicious if someone stays an idealist past their teenage prime. No one over 15 can be THAT blissfully ignorant of the sad facts of life, they say. Yet, most agree that a certain (and generally acceptable) lack of education can insulate a mildly disillusioned Twilight fan from progressing to the consummate cynicism of American Psycho.

What is it a mildly disillusioned idealist should not know to keep the last threads of idealism?

They should never learn that their belief about “things being better before” is a lie. Why? Because this belief supports the hope all is not lost and things may get better after. Men were gentlemen, girls were ladies, kings meant more than “kingsize” in tobacco, and princes rode a single, but very real horsepower. If things could be that way before, they could become this way once again, couldn’t they?

If you know art history, you know the answer is no.

Hereditary noble classes have never been nobler than modern rags-to-riches bankers. Sex, power, and money used to be just as big, if not bigger than today, because gentlemen and ladies of the past didn’t have rock-n-roll for balance.

In fact, you don’t even need to know a whole lot of art history to see through the “better-before” lies. If you are English, you just need to be aware of William Hogarth. If you are French, Honore Daumier will be your guide to cynicism. If you are Russian, Pavel Fedotov will prove to you that people don’t change, not really. If you are American, try Grant Wood, and, if accidentally exposed to Norman Rockwell, rinse the exposed parts with Dr.House at once.


Pavel Fedotov is the artist from my last art quiz, here. I promised you to show more of Fedotov’s pictures, so now I am making good on my word.

This is one of his sarcastic drawings, the Fashionable Store (1844), a terrarium cage of the society’s best driven by utmost self-interest towards moral degradation.

Pavel Fedotov, Fahionable Store. 1844.

Pavel Fedotov, The Fashionable Store. 1844

We find ourselves in the midst of an abridged drama of Anna Karenina in the centre of the picture. An old husband reaches into his deep pocket to pay for the load of goods his beautiful young wife has selected. She is buying “half the store”: their liveried footman is loaded down with her purchases.  Her son reaches out to his mum: he probably saw something he wants in the cabinet behind the counter, but his mother cares more about getting a secret love note from the handsome officer to her left than about her importunate child. Her dog is making advances to another visitor’s puppy as a symbol of infidelity that runs in the family.

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The bored and somewhat irritated face of the husband who “knows it all” (but in fact knows nothing) runs in stark contrast to the careless expression of the young lover, who pretends to be busy with a jar of perfume while anticipating the smell of passion only a hungry wife of a senile husband can offer to a capable man.  Maybe tonight!

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In the left corner, we see a couple that seems to be in disagreement about their budget. The lady has picked up some lace that her husband can’t afford: he shows her his pocket-book of expenses, and, quite possibly, gaming debts, This brings his wife to hysterics: in tears, she throws a length of lace she selected to the floor in indignation.

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Their faces say it all.

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Note the way the neck of the husband is drawn in the hunch of outraged innocence. But it won’t fool his wife. All the sorrow of a faithful keeper of the family hearth denied her rightful piece of lace is right there, in the silent twisted line of her mouth.

Behind the broke husband we can see a customer who asked the salesman to pick up something from the farthest shelf only to distract him enough to steal a scarf.

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Further inside the store, in the backroom, we can see a visitor, who must be someone important as a bottle of champagne is not provided to any customer who gets lost looking for a toilet.

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The visitor wears the uniform of a civil servant. A tax inspector, perhaps. He shows the store manager a document and frowns. He doesn’t have to ask for a bribe: the manager will give him money and will be eternally grateful the money’s taken, at that.

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Let’s get on the right side now, to the young officer holding white stockings as a battle trophy.

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Today, he is interpreted differently than a hundred years ago. A modern observer says it is a young man chosing stockings for his paramour.  Fedotov’s contemporaries would say – looking at his insignia – that he was a general’s aide sent either by the general himself or by the general’s wife to buy stockings either for the general’s lover or for the said wife. Look at the left hand of the young man. If he is ashamed of his role as a messenger boy, he doesn’t want it to be seen and adopts the pose that tells everyone around him he’s on top of this particular situation and the whole world, in general. He assumes all eyes are on him, but we know no one cares a bit about him, his looks, or his “situation”.

Behind his back, there’s a lady, somewhat past her prime, desperate to “steal some beauty” but unwilling to openly admit it. She’s using the sign language to tell the salesman she wants some rouge, while clutching a bottle of expensive perfume, a symbol of her female charm that is about to leave her.

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There is one guy I can’t explain though. The man behind the rouge lady who appears to be opening a bottle of perfume. Who is he? He’s got artistic hair and tie, there are papers under his arm (drawings?). Fedotov loved infiltrating himself into his drawings, but never had hair this long… A small mystery.   

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And the last detail is meant for those idealists who believe a salesman is your best friend whose utmost desire is to help you make the right choice.

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I am sorry but while he looks into your eye with the dedication of a German shepherd dog, he can’t wait for you to get lost, so that he can continue reading his book while chewing on his sandwich.

Don’t forget to tell me if you want more of Fedotov’s satire. Or, alternatively, cry out, “show us something inspiringly optimistic!” I need to know, even if I don’t comply with the latter.