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).


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.


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.


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!


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.


Their faces say it all.


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.


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.


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.

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.   


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.


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.

Prompt to yesterday’s art quiz – and now answer!

My yesterday’s question was about the detail that Pavel Fedotov used to make the interior a living space, and not a theatre set in one of his last paintings, the Widow.

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Here’s a prompt. Fedotov made several copies of the Widow. He changed objects in the room, he changed the pose of the widow, but that detail remained unchanged. Look at the other two versions. The detail I am talking about winks at you from each version. 996d45d9bc9c3a2ae0b8affb8086026c 55378954_fedotov19

And now the answer: it was an amazing woodcuts artists, Abel Dewitz, who saw it first. I urge you to go over and see his work, if you haven’t seen it yet, and if you have, enjoy it once again!

Yes, it is the drawer that is not closed properly.

She’s a lady who cares about proper order and arrangement of things. Look at the pillows on the bed. Look at the draperies. Look at the top of the chest of drawers: in each painting all the items are arranged in the most organized way. But she is too emotionally distracted to properly close the drawer. This small details tells us she actually opened and closed the drawer, and so it is not a prop. Or a very, very clever artist who organised the prop this way to make it real.

Fedotov could spend 6 to 9 months on a painting, going out, searching for the authentic premises, authentic irons, kettles, even cakes! He paid attention to even a slightest detail to make it all…real.

Is your eye as keen as this artist’s? (Art Quiz)

Pavel Fedotov, a painter who was active in the mid 19th century, left only FIVE finished oil paintings (excluding portraits), but is known to each and every Russian. 

His father was a mid-ranking officer, who upon discharge from the army, took on a civil job as a mid-level government clerk. It was a typical “not enough money for more than enough children” kind of family. They couldn’t fund private education for their kids, so Pavel was educated by the street. It was the street he later credited for his gift of acute keenness of observation. And what a unique gift it was…

At 11, he entered a military school and in six years made it from the bottom of his class to the top of the school list, with his name cut in stone on the best graduate plaque in the school’s main hall. His academic success was rivalled by his talent in drawing funny sketches and portraits of striking resemblance.

He then spent about 10 years in the army, but with his unit quartered near St.Petersburg he could sign up for evening drawing classes at the Academy of Arts, gradually becoming a skilled draughtsman and water-colour painter.

One of his water colours earned him a diamond ring from a Grand Duke who was relative of the Czar. The latter was so impressed he offered Fedotov  a chance to quit the army with a modest pension that would support him as an artist, at least initially.

It took Fedotov some years to decide if he wanted to be a full-time artist, but eventually he took up the Czar’s offer.

He had an illustrious but brief career as an artist, with his mental health disintegrating so fast even a huge financial contribution by the Czar meant to put him in the best clinic couldn’t save him. He died at 37.

He left numerous drawings, but – excluding portraits – only 5 finished oils (some of them have a few copies that he did himself).

These five oils have changed the course of Russian art forever.

Before Fedotov, Russian art was as classical and romantic as in the rest of Europe.  A Russian painting was indistinguishable from a French or Italian one. Fedotov introduced so much “Russianness” into it that artists who followed him couldn’t revert back to Venuses, Apollos, and events from Roman history. It would be like praying to gods whose falsehood has just been proven by the physical appearance of new deities.

I can bore you for hours talking about each of his paintings and some of his drawings. Instead, I will ask you one question, which I will leave unanswered for a couple of days.

WHICH SINGLE ELEMENT IN THIS PAINTING of an officer’s widow, readying up her valuables for an auction (as she does not have an income of her own) TELLS THE OBSERVER IT IS A LIVING SPACE AND NOT A DECORATION BUILT BY THE ARTIST?

Which element (or what) tells the observer it is the truth, and not “an invention” with a model posed as a widow and surrounded by studio props?

Click on the painting to see a larger version (you may need it).

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Wednesday, there will be answers. And, perhaps, a few more of his paintings, or rather stories in paint.



The Incomplete Idiot’s Guide to Artists. Batch 2

I have been collecting typical questions about artists and art for some time, and here’s the second batch of my answers: often biased, sometimes rude, and always right. Think of it as an introduction to modern culture.


Picasso Nude

Large Nude in Red Armchair – 1929

Question (typical): I am told this twisted figure represents passionate beauty. I am beginning to doubt my sanity.

Answer (my): Think of passionate sex in a hall of mirrors, and your head’s wobbling side to side in ecstasy. Your eye only gets bits of images that register in your brain as a random sequence of “what an ass”, “fantastic boobs”, “I love these lips”, “she rolled her eyes”, and such…

Q (trying to dial 911 in his pocket): Are you really an art history professor?

A: …Then remove wild sex and mirrors. Pile up your remaining memories together: all those “views” that you saw in front of you and the ones reflected in the mirrors. What you get is this image.

Q: Now this maniac Picasso freaks me out!

A: You’re afraid he speaks to the maniac inside yourself, bro. By the way, there’s an agitated 911 woman talking from inside your pants’ pocket, and I never said I was a professor.

Jeff Koons


Question: Is Jeff Koons a pop or post-pop artist?

Answer: Before he hired a PR consultant he was known as Jeff Kons, a poop-artist. I am not sure he is an artist, but he is definitely a “wizard of “o’s”.

Piet Mondrian


Piet Mondriaan, 1930. Composition II in Red, Blue, and_Yellow

Question: I don’t get what’s so exciting about Mondrian’s squares. They say he was a great artist. Why?

Answer: that’s why:

modern-apartment-9 Modern-comfort-room-designs-2012

Q: Are you saying he was a great interior designer?

A: No, he was a mere prophet.

Sol LeWitt and minimalism

[no title] 1971 by Sol LeWitt 1928-2007

[no title] 1971 by Sol LeWitt

Question: They say he was one of the best minimalist artists. But this drawing is very simple! What is “best” about it?

Answer: E=mc²

Q: ?

A: This very simple formula describes inexplicably complicated processes. For a physicist it is the highest form of physics, and even if you don’t know anything about the special theory of relativity, you still don’t doubt Einstein was a genius. Art doesn’t have to be complicated to send across a complex message. If it seems simple to you chances are there was an artistic Einstein behind it.

Q: But how do you know if a minimalist artwork is an elegant formula, and not a meaningless sequence of symbols?

A: You don’t. That’s the trick of minimalism.

If you missed Batch 1 in this series, click here.
If you missed my interview with Venus, don’t miss it.


Miss Venus, tell me about your modelling career

She modelled for hundreds of artists. Her first-hand experience of art is invaluable. It took me some years to arrange an interview, given her extremely busy schedule, and the fact that her personal assistant behaves like a 9-year-old boy who just got a toy bow for his birthday.

I: Miss Venus, you’ve modelled for most of the greatest artists in these parts of the universe, and my readers would love to know what it was like. Who was your favourite artist?

Venus: Modelling for God was, perhaps, most rewarding and memorable.

I: You mean God that created the real you?

V: Oh, no. I was born out of sea-foam. It was rather an accident than a plan. Sitting for God was my first modelling job. I had a breakdown when I saw the result. He came up with a perfect sphere, and I thought God thought I was fat.

I: Is it a lost sculpture? I have not been aware of it until this very moment.

V: You have always been aware of it. It’s high up in the sky, the second planet from the sun. God has an extraordinary sense of humour, you know. And he’s a better artist than most of your greatest ones, except, perhaps, Matisse. God was the top minimalist before minimalism was invented! I remember Him telling me, “Sweetie, you’re so sexy I’m gonna make ya the hottest planet”. And he did, even though Mercury is closer to the sun than me! Mercury would bitch about this for ages. 

I: God a minimalist? Well, the scale of his work can hardly be classified as minimal. Miss Venus, before we get to Matisse, can we talk about his predecessors? Let’s begin with the Classic epoch. Venus de Milo and her Greek and Roman “sisters”.


Venus de Milo, by Alexandros of Antioch, Between 130 and 100 BC

V: I loved modelling for the Greeks. It was fun to sit for someone who desired you, but was afraid you’d notice he did: the side effect of being a goddess. It helped to control the quality though: sculptors knew if I didn’t like their work, I could do something terrible to them. The problem with them, as I see it now, was they were too afraid to improvise. I guess the god for economy and finance is frustrated with the Greeks for the same reason nowadays.

I: I understand there was a gap in your modelling career for some twelve hundred years, until the Renaissance took hold of Italy. Old gods fell out of favour for quite some time. Was it a difficult time for you?

V: Believe me, old gods, and especially goddesses, can reach a very amicable understanding with any new ones. It was my own decision: I was tired of the Roman Classicism and wanted something new, someone new, unafraid of me as a goddess. I got Sandro at last. I remember Botticelli was very ambitious and stubborn. I kept telling him the shell was totally off, but he insisted a giant spiral one would look like a twisted vagina and “we want a more subtle metaphor here”.


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-1486

I: Did Botticelli have any doubts about showing nudity?

V: Never. He was so full of bullshit ideas about divine intellectual love, that he gave me the head of a different woman. Divine love… People with PhDs call it Neoplatonism, and uneducated masses get to know it as a striptease show.

Making me wear Simonetta’s face! I’d turn a Greek sculptor into stone for that, but I just couldn’t be angry with a blue-eyed man with golden locks. Besides, it was partially my fault. I let Cupid loose once, when I was sitting for Sandro, and he made Ms Vespucci femme fatale for all the men he could reach with his arrows.

I: So, were you dissatisfied with the painting?

V: No, I got full of ideas instead. I thought I’d love to see myself change the pose, for one thing. Sandro wanted me to stand in the same old classical way which I’d grown to hate already. I looked around and thought I could knock on Giorgione’s door. 

Giorgione, Sleeping_Venus, c.1510

Giorgione, Sleeping_Venus, c.1510

I: He put you to sleep, launching the reclining nude tradition that would dominate the male- controlled art world for centuries.

V: It was a very novel idea back then! A sleeping goddess is almost accessible, she can’t turn you into a frog for staring. But she is not sexually available. Very few men think of having sex with a sleeping woman: they want to wake her up first. But they won’t dare to wake up a goddess. It’s a bit circular: you can stare at me as much as you want, but you know you’d never have any physical contact with me. All of your glossy magazine culture is built around the concept. I didn’t even want to cover myself, but he said observers needed one more reminder of the “look but don’t touch” principle. 

I: So this is how you met Titian I guess: he worked on the landscape in Giorgione’s painting, and then, some thirty years later, he asked you to model for him. In his painting, he woke you up. Some people say you stopped being a goddess in  this painting, because you’d opened your eyes. Why did you agree to become an ordinary woman for Titian?

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

V: I guess we both felt platonic love had plateau’ed out. Protestants were marching across Europe making life a self-inflicted misery for most people along the way, and we thought we could take a stand for natural passion. Besides, Titian hated lies. No sane woman would agree to sleep naked in the woods. And if she’s really asleep, she won’t cover herself the way I did for Giorgione. Titian promised he’d take Giorgione’s Venus and make her alive. So he put me to bed, but painted me very much awake. 

I: In Titian’s painting, you are aware of the observer looking at you, and you look playful and welcoming. You are presented to the observer as a sex object, not  a goddess. Did that make you uneasy at the time?

V: Quite the opposite. I and Titian wanted to tell women that the best strategy for a mortal woman was to become a personal goddess to the man she fell in love with. I’ve always believed the death of a feminist is on the tip of a Cupid’s arrow, but instead of the end, it should be a new beginning, a transformation. I met a young artist in Venice some ten years after working for Titian, Paolo Veronese. He understood that concept.  

I: He mostly painted you in a conflict situation with a man, with you subtly having the upper hand in it. at least temporary.

V: Yes, Veronese made a point of living here and now. Titian painted me with Adonis at the moment when Adonis was leaving me to die on his stupid hunt. The lure of the worldly affairs turned out to be more powerful than love. I told Titian I won’t be modelling for the scene and he cut my neck in half. Just look at the painting! He was angry and jealous I was modelling for Paolo.

Venus_and_Adonis_by_Titian - копия

Titian, Venus and Adonis, ca.1553

And Paolo painted me at the moment of happiness. If you can’t change a man, enjoy him unchanged while you can, I say.

Venus_y_Adonis_(Veronese) - копия

Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis, 1580

With all Paolo’s love for theatrical effects, I’d say he empowered women with his art, as much as was possible then.

I: Did you model for Cranach? He made quite a number of Venuses at the time.


V: You could as well ask if I modelled for Balthus. Do I look like a teenage girl about to lose her virginity?

I: No, you certainly don’t. After Venice, what was your next modelling job?

V: It was Rubens, of course, but we didn’t quite manage to pull it off. He was at the other extremity to Cranach: I quit when I realised he was offering me unlimited cakes to make me closer to his ideals. It took me another thirty years to get back to form after sessions with him. 


Rubens, Venus at a Mirror, 1615

I: So, who was the next lucky artist after you’d dieted your way back to slenderness?

V: It was that moustached Spaniard, Velazquez, who mostly had to paint the Spanish Royal family. He had an idea that I thought quite revolutionary at the time. He didn’t want my face to be seen. So he painted me from the back, looking into the mirror, but the observer can’t really see my face clearly. 

RokebyVenus 1647-51_copy

Diego Velazquez, Venus, 1647-51

I: Was it because of poor quality mirrors?

V: You can’t be serious. It is because we wanted to enable the observer to imagine the face they believed to be ideally beautiful. 

I: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I personally put Velazquez’s version of you above Titian’s. I can also see you’ve changed your hair.

V: I hated being blond for Rubens. I pretty much hated everything about myself that was, you know, Rubens’ legacy. Besides, Diego thought dark hair, pale body, and dark sheets would make for a much better image of beauty than my sun-tanned body against the white Titian’s bed. One needs contrast to see beauty. Diego was convinced he needed red, for passion, and grey to make the body look alive against it. He was centuries ahead of his time in terms of using colours.

I: Yes, the French book on simultaneous colours that influenced Impressionists was almost two hundred years away.

So, Velazques was creating ideal beauty not on the canvas, but in the mind of the beholder. This sounds very much like the art of the 20th century. Did you meet any interesting artist between Diego and, if I understood you right, Matisse?

V: It is painful to admit, but for a time, I was infatuated with Cabanel. Until I realised it was going backwards, to Classical Greece, but with a rotten flavour of bourgeois debauchery. It was a dead-end. He turned me into a common whore and I thought to cut off his manhood. Instead, I cut inspiration off him for the rest of his life.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

I: This is why he is now famous for not allowing Manet to exhibit at the official Salon more than for his art. But did you sit for Manet instead? I mean his Olympia?

V: As much as I loved Eduard, I only modelled for works with my name on it. No, it was that famous courtesan, Olympia, exactly as “it says on the tin”.

I: So, who was your next favourite? Picasso?

V: Picasso was a first-class fetishist when it came to a female body. I said I didn’t have enough anuses to model for him. He laughed. And then he used Cranach and Rubens as his inspiration. And that was totally wrong, you know now it was not me. 


Dali tried to approach me, but I just couldn’t stand his wife, Gala. It was all about suppressed desires, Freud, and Gala’s ideas of group sex as if I were indeed the woman that Cabanel had painted. I mean I’d seen it all in the good old Greece and Rome. It was boring two millenia before their crazy family decided it was news. Dali was a vengeful man. I am sure you saw his photograph, the Dream of Venus?

Murray Korman with Salvador Dali, Dream of Venus, 1939

Murray Korman with Salvador Dali, Dream of Venus, 1939

I: And then came the turn of Matisse.

V: Matisse was my 20th-century genius. God sculpted me as a sphere, but that was so conceptual I am still not quite sure I get the idea. Matisse came very close to abstraction. He cut my head off, he cut my arms and legs off, but it is my essence that he showed. It is my 20th century concept.

Matisse, Venus, 1952

Matisse, Venus, 1952

I: I am sure many people would say it may remind the observer of a female body, but ideal beauty?

V: Then you’d have to explain why it is the ideal of beauty. I need to go and see a very promising artist now. 

I: Anyone I know?

V: No, but I hope not yet.