Tag Archives: Pollaiuolo

Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

IMG_20190618_210127 - копия

While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…


I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.


Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.

Gay Propaganda?

‘Mom, is this my brain?’ asks a sweet li’l boy, pointing at his willie.
‘No… Not yet‘.

A recent study correlated IQ with religious attitudes and found the two were negatively related. The higher is the intellect, the less religious its owner is likely to be. Well, of course there are exceptions. Examples of quantum physics geniuses being religious, and atheists with their IQ at room temperature are well-known.

What I find most interesting about this study is not directly related to its rather obvious conclusions. I am fascinated by exceptions, and their polar attitudes to each other. Religious intellectuals tend to respect atheists while atheists who could offer their brain space for rent are likely to be very aggressive towards believers in anything classified as a higher being.

This mostly happens because a dumb atheist is likely to be very afraid to be proven wrong at the point of no return.

When Russia decided religion was the right road to national unity, and its KGB colonel for president got himself a personal spiritual father, the issue of homosexuality stood up and refused to sit down.

The Russian Orthodox Church believes homosexuality is a disease or a deviation that can be passed on to normal people by TALKING TO THEM. The inevitable conclusions is that it is also possible to talk people out of being homosexuals, sort of convince them they are not.


I know very religious and smart people who don’t hate gay men because they know more about human biology than the Church they’ve signed up to.

Yet, major TV channels in Russia are happy to give you a daily dose of oyster-minded Christians who believe the hearts of gay people should be burned.

Those anti-gay people often sport Dolce/Gabbana suits and t-shirts, and D-Squared jeans and belts. Guys, it is like wearing a pentagram pendant next to the cross on your neck.

This simple drawing pops up in my mind each time I read news on the LGBT debate:

When the chemical reaction of fear melting ignorance into hate filled the test tube to the brim, the Russian parliament had it crystallised into a law against the propaganda of homosexuality. Now, you can’t say (publicly) that being gay is not an illness, or that gay people are equal to heterosexual god’s creations. You can say though that homosexuals are inferior, should be burned, are responsible for spreading AIDS, which was no doubt God’s punishment for the increasing number of openly gay people.

It took a week for Russia to negotiate the Olympic Truce, because Russia didn’t want the line about the equality of LGBT people to stay in the document.

It took a minute for the Russian Embassy in Italy to refuse support to an exhibition of a Russian artist who painted this picture, seen today as “gay propaganda” by Russian officials:

Seeing this as gay propaganda is twisted logic at its best. If God created Man and Woman naked and heterosexual, then how looking at them naked can make one homosexual? I mean, if looking at nude men is not OK, then creating Man in the Nude was an evil design.

Blasphemous, innit?

Never underestimate the stupidity of ignorance. Or the quantity of hate that can be distilled from it. 

The painter is, actually, a woman of heterosexual persuasion. Olga Tobreluts. She defines herself as a neo-classical painter focusing on the issue of people idolising celebrities.

People idolise celebrities because mass media brainwashes the masses into it, because mass media earns money through it, for becoming a celebrity is the new testament of our age. It is a new religion, which beliefs are fuelled by the miracles of Susan Boyle and the like. It gives people the sense of a theoretically achievable objective, like having your soul accepted to Paradise, and in doing so drives people to work and buy Prada shoes with the money they earn. And, of course, this is an utterly false promise based on a bullshit premise. Period. What can be artistically studied there?

I would sponsor an artist who can be strikingly convincing in saying, ‘Guys, the life of Katy Perry is much less interesting than the life of your husband, wife, children, even distant relatives. Throw out the Daily Mail, the gossip pages of your local newspaper, unsubscribe from celebs on twitter and ask your “significant others” about their day!”.

There’s nothing to be “studied” there, but there’s a lot to be exploited. Collage celeb faces with old masters’ paintings and, bang, you’ve got a sellable artwork.

This makes Olga Tobreluts quite commercially successful, at least among those audiences that can be easily impressed by the juxtaposition of Brad Pitt vs. the attire of a Roman legionary. Gallery curators fall in love with this type of art, just as stock brokers worship junk bonds. It might be garbage, but it is not unprofitable refuse.

I know this is Elvis in Gothic armour.

When I saw Tobreluts painting, I thought of a masterpiece by Antonio Del Pollaiolo, who, actually, was gay.

His “Battle of the Nudes” featuring ten naked men fighting each other was an artistic study of movement and a philosophical treatise on the state of Man. It was engraved in 1470, in the age when men from neighbouring town states were fighting each other with the persistency of an angry hotel guest at the reception desk with a bell-button but without a receptionist. Pollaiolo didn’t believe men could co-exist peacefully, but he tried to promote harmony among his friends and pupils (Sandro Botticelli was one of them) with his art and love for all things fashionable and beautiful.

The Battle of the Nudes by Pollaiolo

Pollaiolo was not doodling out an erotic picture of ten naked men for other gay men to look at. Some of the fighters were shown with their genitals exposed simply because they were not angels and naturally had them, but it was not the penis symbolism that occupied the artist’s mind. All the penises are the same, not individualised, unlike everything else about these men. It was the extreme tension that human desire to kill (and to live) produced in the body that interested Pollaiolo.

Olga Tobreluts sent those men on a fight against dogs. Male dogs. She also made the penises somewhat bigger. Well, if you paint a man with a small willie nowadays, there’ll be questions. Are you trying to belittle men? Why are you trying to belittle men? Why are you so hateful of men that you try to belittle men? It is safer to paint big penises.

I don’t want to even approach the question of why the artist put men against dogs. I am afraid if I think too hard about it, I would learn something I’d like to remain safely unknown.

I’d just say that branding Tobreluts work as gay propaganda highlights one simple truth about the Russian Cultural Attaché in Italy. She is ignorant of art history. Like, totally. And the fear of her superiors earmarking her as a gay-rights supporter distilled a drop of hate in her that made her reject the exhibition. The Attaché is a woman, but I feel the joke that opened this post can be applied to her flat out.

If you haven’t been to one of my early posts about Pollaiolo and Matisse who borrowed some images from the Italian artist to make a totally different point, go ahead.

Matisse versus Pollaiuolo, or Dream versus Mirror

Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Teacher of Sandro Boticelli. Lived through the 15th century in the best place to live at the time, in Florence. Spent his later years in Rome, where – despite it was known he was gay, he was commissioned to sculpture the pope’s tomb. Those were relatively tolerant times. Only 10 of his paintings survive. And just one graphic work. Each of his works had dramatically influenced those who followed him immediately, and often those who lived centuries after.

This is his engraving of a fight of ten naked men, titled the Battle of the Nudes.

Art historians would talk at length about Pollaiuolo’s ambition to render the human body at the moment of its highest strain, or about the composition of this work making your eye roam in circles. Yet, the role of its work in the art history is different and much bigger.

Can men live in peace? Can men avoid war? Can men stay away from the battle of everyone vs. everyone else? Can different “personalities” live as peaceful and mutually respectful neighbours, and not try to dominate and subjugate each other? As soon as the Renaissance began putting forward the value of an individual human life, these questions popped up and keep popping up ever since. Pollaiuolo answers with the peremptory “Nay” to all these questions. No, the Man can’t.

Well, there was not much of peace in Italy at the time, nor there was much of Italy itself. It was a motley crew of small principalities loosely arrayed in unions that were constantly changing shape and allegiances. The cruelty of rulers and rulers themselves were paranoid by today’s standards. The fragility and uncertainty of human life was a constant. So, Pollaiuolo’s answer is not at all surprising. The fight between men is and would be as eternal as the endless circles your eye is bound to move in when looking at this engraving. There is no prize for which the men are fighting, but do men actually need a cause to fight for? It is fighting itself and winning over the closest opponent that become the top priorities with the cause soon forgotten even if there had been one at the start.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Man had moved a long way along the path of self-understanding.
Henry Matisse – who rarely reflected on specific artists of the past, but often on the importance of learning and appreciating the art of the past – seemed to be doing a bit of copypasting. Look at his Nymph and Satyr, and then at the Pollaiuolo’s lower right corner. The similarity of two figures is obvious, and I find it really strange I have not encountered this “parallel” in art literature before (Pollaiuolo is only mentioned in relation to Matisse in 1935-38, long past the works I am showing were painted).

Matisse obviously knew of Pollaiuolo’s engraving (there is a copy of it at the Louvre), and it seems that he gave a different answer to Pollaiuolo’s “Nay” in the work that immediately followed Nymph and Satir, in his Dance of 1909.

Look at Pollaiuolo’s engraving. Then look at Dance. You will notice that some of the figures are mirrored from the Battle to become Dancers.

This “mirroring” of figures makes me think Matisse wanted to say that men and women could live in harmony. They do not have to fight, they can join hands and enjoy the harmony. Alas, this humanistic review of Pollaiuolo’s answer got smashed to pieces by bloody blasts of the WWI just five years later. Pollaiuolo’s engraving could become a dark preface to the bright humanistic future of human society, but no, it has been and still is the perfect mirror of the Man’s world. And Matisse’s Dance is the perfect and unattainable dream of this world.

I can’t say I am fully behind either of them in this dialogue across five centuries. But I do enjoy their arguments.